Regiment: 7th Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment.
Service No: L/9035
Date & place of birth: January 1891 in Cocking, Sussex
Date & place of death: 18 September 1918 (aged 27) near Épehy, France
Ernest Coles was a regular soldier and a married man with children who was killed near the end of the war during the assault on the Hindenburg Line.
Walter Ernest Coles (known as Ernest) was born in Cocking in January 1891, the sixth child of seven. His parents were Richard Coles (1850-1921) and his wife Emily Jane née Pullen (1851-1899). Richard came originally from Fernhurst and Emily from London; they had married in 1871 and moved to Cocking in the late 1880s. At the time of Ernest’s birth, the family were living at Station Road (now Bell Lane), Cocking and his father was described in the 1891 census as a woodman. Emily died in 1899, when Ernest was aged 8.
Ernest married Alice Ellen Harrison in Canterbury on 3 October 1914. Alice was born on 31 May 1888 at Topcroft in Norfolk. The couple had two sons, Walter James, who was born at Loddon on 6 February 1916, and Richard Ernest, who was born at Topcroft on 17 March 1917.
Ernest enlisted in the Royal Sussex Regiment at Chichester on 2 March 1908. On his enlistment attestation, he gave his occupation as a stone digger and his age as 18 yrs. 1 month, although he was actually a year younger. At the time of his enlistment, he was 5 ft. 6¾ in. and weighed 112 lb. (8 st.) with a chest measurement of 34 in. He had grey eyes and brown hair and gave his religion as Church of England.
Following his basic training, he joined the Second Battalion in September 1908. In 1913, he was described as a “smart, clean soldier” who was “willing, hard-working and reliable”. By this time, he had spent two months as an officer’s groom and had earned the 3rd class Certificate of Education.
He remained in England for most of the war and in August 1917, he was transferred to the Third Battalion, with the rank of Lance Corporal. In December 1917, he transferred to the Seventh Battalion and was sent to northern France on 11 December, as part of the British Expeditionary Force. The battalion saw service at Bapaume, Arras and Acre in March and April 1918.
On 31 May 1918, Ernest was demoted back to the rank of private for “using insubordinate language to a superior officer”. On 2 August, he was sentenced to eight days Field Punishment No. 2 for “Drunkenness in the Field”. (Field Punishment No. 2 consisted of the convicted man being shackled in irons.).
After a respite in the summer, the battalion returned to the front in August at Amiens and Albert. Ernest was wounded in action on 22 August during the Battle of Albert. He recovered from his wounds but was killed in action less than a month later during the Battle of Épehy on 18 September 1918. The Battle of Épehy was launched to clear German outpost positions on the high ground in front of the Hindenburg Line. The battle achieved its main objective, putting the Fourth Army in place in preparation for the upcoming attack on the Hindenburg Line, although The Royal Sussex Regiment suffered heavy losses, with 8 officers and 66 soldiers being killed and nearly 200 wounded.
Death & commemoration
Private Walter Ernest Coles was killed during the battle and was buried in Épehy Wood Farm Cemetery. The grave bears the epitaph: “As years pass by we miss you more. Loving wife and children”.
He is also commemorated on the Cocking War Memorial.
Subsequent family history
Ernest’s brothers William died in 1901 aged 5 and James died in 1911 aged 35. His other brothers, Charles and Albert, and his sisters, Emily and Kate, all survived him.
Ernest’s sons, Walter and Richard, married and had children, some of whom are now living in Norwich.
Following the war, Alice was sent Ernest’s personal effects, which included a 9 ct. gold ring (“damaged”), a metal match box cover, his photos and letters and his 3rd class Certificate of Education. She was also awarded a widow’s pension of 25 shillings 5 pence per week. Alice died in December 1969.