I STUMBLED across a World War I Medal Index card for Richard Arthur Sacheverell Coke, while routinely adding to my Lancashire Fusilier database. This unpretentious record encapsulates a remarkable story. What immediately takes the eye are the entries in the "Rank" column: the first entry is scratched out, next comes Second Lieutenant and then a jump to Captain. What follows as the last entry is the rank of Private!
Other entries reveal Coke was an Officer in the Lancashire Fusiliers. He served with distinction on the Somme in the summer of 1916 with the rank of Captain. He was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. Later, as a Private with the Royal Army Service Corps (still under his own name), he would be awarded the Meritorious Service Medal. It should be noted the same sets of initials are shared by R. A. S. Coke and the RASC. Perhaps evidence of Coke's quirky sense of humour? So what bizarre sense of circumstances had produced these startling events? Fortunately Coke's Officer's papers at the National Archives shed light on the mystery.
Enter Sir Montague Barlow, the MP for Salford (and later Richard Coke's powerful champion against the wrath of the Army). Barlow was the Chairman and driving force behind a committee formed in September 1914 to raise new Lancashire Fusilier battalions for the Army. The Salford Brigade Committee undertook a huge multiplicity of tasks with staggering success. In response to Kitchener's clarion call, four new Army "Pals" Battalions were raised, uniformed and kitted out. Camps were constructed with all manner of necessary facilities, including a cinematograph and field kitchens. Although the War Office provided appropriate grants, the extras were raised by public subscription and private benefactors. By 1915, the 15th, 16th, 19th and 20th Battalions of the Lancashire Fusiliers were created and in training.
Barlow would later in 1920 write a letter in defence of Richard Coke to the Deputy Adjutant General at the War Office. Barlow was by then Private Secretary to the Minister of Labour so his was a voice to be heeded. In the letter he details Coke's early days in the Regiment: "I recommended Coke for a Commission in the 20th Lancashire Fusiliers. He was a successful business man although still young (Coke was born in 1892). He had been in the motor trade and was also connected with the stage and cinema business in America. On the onset of war he advised the British Consul in New York that he wished to volunteer for service. He came home at once and was exceedingly useful in the early days of raising and training the Battalion. I found him most energetic, excellent with the men, a good organiser and disciplinarian. His men were all devoted to him."
Coke had enlisted on October 26, 1914 as a Private in the Cheshire Regiment. He was discharged on March 29, 1915 on being appointed to a Commission. He became a 2nd Lieutenant in the Lancashire Fusiliers on April 15, 1915. The 20th Lancashire Fusiliers were a Bantam Battalion. It was raised on March 23, 1915 and did not cross to France until late January 1916. By late July the Bantams were plunged into the on-going Somme offensive near Trones Wood. This area had been the scene of a fanatical defence by the German army. Captain Coke's company was ordered up at 4.30am on July 24 to advance into the wood.
Coke has left us with a vivid account in his autobiographical memoir, Youth before the flood. He describes what remained of Trones Wood: "Charred tree stumps with their foliage and branches burnt as with fi re, looking like the ghosts of trees in some demented forest. Shells burst frequently. A damp unpleasant smell obtruded itself. Sweet, nauseating, clinging as the dust along the road. The smell of burnt powder, tear gas and dead men lying in hundreds. Human flesh and blood blown to bits, scattered, trodden under foot, leaving no memory but a sickly pungent protest."
Once Coke's men left the dubious shelter of the wood, they were pounded by shell fire as they raced for the shallow trenches and ordered to extend and protect. Coke was wounded by a shell splinter. However, this did not prevent him for carrying out his orders. The so-called trenches were nothing more than a series of shell holes. Coke organised their connection into a viable trench line. He tended the wounded and helped dig out men buried alive by the continuous German shelling. Dead men were routinely incorporated into the parapet. "They picked up the body and laid it on top of the bank. Then quickly covered it with earth. In a little while it had disappeared and the parapet was taking shape. Every little helps!"
Coke keenly observed the German lines in moonlight, when the shelling had mercifully ceased. "The entire landscape was a mass of churned-up earth formed into waves of monstrous, fantastic shapes, full of little holes like a gigantic cheese. It reminded one of a pithead. Or the countryside around active volcanoes. Or the moon seen through telescopes. In such an uneven maze of mounds and hollows it was impossible to distinguish the enemy trench line, or even guess where it was."
Coke's company stuck it out for an astonishing 30 hours until relief finally arrived. For his leadership, bravery and endurance he was awarded a well-deserved Military Cross.
We can only guess how this intensely traumatic episode affected Richard Coke, but affect him it certainly did. On August 26, 1916 he was again wounded, this time severely in the right leg and invalided home. Again in his letter of 1920 Barlow explains: "His leg was badly shattered, but I managed to persuade him to let the Surgeons try and save it." This speaks volumes for Coke's depressed state of mind. Eventually the leg was saved, but it remained very weak.
Coke left hospital after ten months on May 27, 1917 and was posted to the Lancashire Fusilier 3rd [Reserve] Battalion on Humberside. He was earmarked for light duties. However, his problems were only just beginning as Barlow's letter explains: "He wrote me on several occasions, for he was very restless. He could only walk on level ground, for his leg was still very weak. He was anxious to get to the front again, or else be discharged. Being an active clever fellow, he hated hanging about doing nothing."
On June 12, 1917, Coke applied for and was granted two months leave in order to proceed to the USA. Leave was granted from August 1 to October 1, 1917. Subsequently he was granted 14 days extension. This strikes me as an odd request to make and have accepted. Coke was obsessively anxious to be more gainfully employed, even though (to quote a report in his file) he was "permanently lame and has to use a heavy stick to assist him in walking". Now seemingly surplus to requirements he was swanning off across the U-Boat infested Atlantic. He must have felt very depressed and unwanted.
A search of the www.ancestry.co.uk database reveals his name on the passenger manifest of the SS New York en-route from Liverpool to New York City sailing on August 15, 1917. The passenger list is a revealing one. There were only 11 names on it. Four were accorded diplomatic status. The rest were Master Mariners, Engineers and Merchants. Coke unsurprisingly was the youngest of the bunch. Curiously he was listed not as the serving officer he still was but as an actor. Why the deception? His travelling companion, 52-year-old Edward Lyall was also noted as an actor.
Intriguingly both Coke and Lyall are noted as "in transit". Therefore New York City was not their final destination. It should be remembered that Coke had a pre-war connection with the American stage and burgeoning cinema industry. While serving with 3rd Battalion Lancashire Fusiliers, he had written a pantomime for the entertainment of the troops. At this point conjecture enters the arena. Coke and Lyall's only logical destination, if not the New York theatre world, must surely have been Hollywood and the movie industry.
Mention must be made of a fellow passenger, whose difficulties drew attention away from Richard Coke. This was a 34-year-old Swiss national named Emile Muller. Muller seems to have immediately attracted the suspicion of the other passengers and was reported to the American authorities upon landing. For his nationality was crossed out on the ship's manifest and German substituted. As the USA was now at war with Germany, Herr Muller was suspected of being a spy!
As for Coke? It seems he must have come to his senses, because he returned home at the end of his bizarre leave. Still desperately unhappy, he resumed his light duties with 3rd Lancashire Fusiliers. Barlow poignantly comments that Coke was "eating his heart out and doing nothing". In December 1917 the Ministry of National Service applied for his release for work with the YMCA. Unaccountably this request was refused by the War Office. At the end of January 1918 Coke was graded fit for light military work, but permanently unfit for general service abroad. The Army would neither discharge him or return him to active service. As far as Richard Coke was concerned, he was in limbo.
By February 1918 he was attached to the 52nd Training Battalion KOYLI. Coke had reached the end of his tether. His alienation was complete. He absented himself without leave, stating it was not his intention to re-join. To all intents and purposes he had disappeared. His letter to his CO explaining his action survives. It sheds a vivid light on his tortured state of mind: "As you are aware I am absent without leave and it is only fair to warn you that I intend to remain so. From the readiness with which you endorsed my application to return to 3rd Reserve Battn., Lancashire Fusiliers, it is evident you think me unsuitable for employment in your Battalion. At the same time 3L.F. cannot have much use for me, otherwise they would have never let me come away. So why should I remain? I cannot go abroad and barred from civilian work. A man owes a good deal to his country, but he also owes something to himself. I see nothing ahead but an indefinite weary period, which prospect I honestly cannot stand."
His CO and the Brigadier commanding the Training Reserve Brigade duly reported his absence, yet both made sympathetic representations on his behalf. The CO of 52nd Battn. KOYLI called the case a particularly hard one. While the Brigadier detailed Coke's distinguished service and the young man's worries about his future after the war finishing with the apt comment: "Now he has foolishly taken the law into his own hands and set a very bad example".
So where was Richard Coke? As a result of enquiries made by the Provost Marshall, he was found on March 20, 1918 serving as number 371903 Private R. Coke, Royal Army Service Corps, Mechanical Transport Department, Sydenham. The fact that he didn't bother to change his name, must have made him comparatively easy to trace. Did he want to be found? Richard Coke was soldiering on. What on earth was to be done with him? The authorities were in a quandary. A memo to the Adjutant General sums up their dilemma: "This is a peculiar case. The best course of action would be to formally remove him from the service for absence and hold him to serve on his present attestation. He is a good soldier, but as he has deliberately absented himself with his eyes wide open, he should be removed under article 525".
Accordingly an entry in the London Gazette dated April 25, 1918 states Captain R. A. S. Coke has been "Removed from the army. His Majesty having no further use for his services as an officer."
What was to be done about his
gallantry decoration? The stripping of his Military Cross was seriously
considered. Forfeiture was not recommended since Coke had re-enlisted
"and the continuity of his Army service was not broken".
He was discharged on January 23, 1919 as (ironically) no longer fit for war service. In July 1919 he enlisted for one year's service in North Russia. He sailed for Murmansk with the rank of Private. He was demobilised on December 24, 1919 and promptly volunteered again for the "small war" in Mesopotamia (Iraq), serving with the YMCA.
In recognition of his consistently valuable services His Majesty King George V was pleased to reinstate Coke to commissioned service for one day, as an "act of grace". He was appointed to a temporary commission as Captain on June 11, 1921, then relinquished his commission on the same day, yet was permitted to retain the rank of Captain (London Gazette, June 10, 1921 refers).
Coke was also allowed to retain his British War Medal and Allied Victory Medal. The Army was lenient with him. The powerful and persuasive advocacy exercised on his behalf by Sir Montague Barlow, undoubtedly helped. Barlow pulling every string he could think of, had used privileged information by quoting a compelling precedent. A Captain Hugh S. Smart of the 53rd Sikhs had failed to return to India, when his leave expired on December 28, 1914. He had enlisted under a false name as a Private in the 2nd Battalion West Surrey Regiment. Smart's name was duly emoved from the service by Gazette on June 4, 1915. He was killed in action at Festubert on May 17, 1915. Lord Rawlinson had recommended him for a posthumous Victoria Cross. The gallant Smart was later reinstated to Officer rank. As Barlow persuasively puts it: "Since gallantry was made the ground for the restoration of Smart's commission, I strongly urge the same course be adopted in Coke's case and for the same reason." The War Office Mandarins pondered the matter and decided to be merciful. For Coke's undoubted and repeated gallantry could not be denied. It was to say the least, unfortunate that his wayward sense of personal honour had made life difficult for himself. In later years Richard Coke became the respected middle-east correspondent for the Manchester Guardian. He was possibly the only man to be awarded the Military Cross as a Captain, followed by a Meritorious Service Medal when a Private. A unique sequence of awards?
I have a photo and postcard from
Captain Richard Coke that was mailed to a family member in Salford in
January of 1918. I see on your Lancashire fusiliers site that you have
an excellent article about him and his service record written by Ken Marsh.
Can I send photograph of this postcard? It has Captain Coke (I assume!)
on the photo side and a handwritten message on the other side showing
he was at the Midland Hotel, Manchester on January 23 1918.
I realised after I sent the email
that both Henry Langley and Coke were in the 20th Lancashire Fusiliers.
I will have to find my info on Henry and compare it with Coke's information.
Perhaps Coke was Henry's officer and the card actually was sent to Henry's
mother? I will never know for sure but it is a possible reason for the
card being kept so safe.