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 Walter and Jack Coombs

Coombs, Herbert John (Jack), Private, 42275, Hampshire regiment, 1st Btn, 16th May 1918, Age 19, Le Vertannoy British cemetery Hinges, France

Coombs, Walter Harry, Private, 5557, Australian Imperial Force, 19th regiment, 5th Aus. M.Gun company, 22nd Nov 1917, Age 21, Cabaret-rouge British cemetery Souchez, France.

Walter Harry Coombs and Herbert John Coombs (known as Jack) were brothers born 3 years apart in 1896 and 1899 respectively, to father Harry and mother Ethelind (maiden name Bessant, from the same Gordano family as Lionel Sulley)

Walter and Jack were born in Portishead, but grew up in Weston in Gordano, in 1911 living in Pump View Cottage. At some point the family moved to Boxwood cottage and then to Rose Wood cottage. Their father Harry was a railway worker. After leaving school Walter worked as a factory hand, living with his grandmother Mary Bessant in Clevedon while Jack schooled in Weston in Gordano.

In 1911 Jack was awarded a prize for Prayer Book and Catechism, awarded by the Chew Decanal School Union.

On 21st March 1914, at the age of 17, Walter embarked from Liverpool on the White Star liner Irishman, bound for Sydney, via Adelaide and Melbourne, along with 849 other passengers, many of them teenage boys, travelling alone.


Between 1901 and 1914 thousands of boys were sent to Australia to fill the need for unskilled labour, many ending up in remote rural areas working on farms. The journey would take 2 months.


Exactly 2 years to the day since embarking at Liverpool, Walter would be coming back, having joined the Australian Imperial Force, leaving Sydney on 9th September 1916 on the troop ship Euripides, arriving in Plymouth on 26th October. By 18th December Walter was in France with the 19th Battalion. 


In 1917 the Germans retreated from their front-line positions on the Somme, to preprepared fortifications on the Hindenburg Line, a fortress of concrete bunkers, deep trenches and thousands of yards of barbed wire, which had been constructed in relative secrecy in the run up to the retreat. The 19th battalion played its part in the British attack on the retreating enemy. Walter was part of a machine gun team by now, belonging to the 5th Machine Gun Company.


At 455am on 15th April contact was made with the enemy, the battalion standing-to just after 5am. Just after 6am 200-300 enemy were observed advancing. The Australians prepared their defence and waiting for the enemy to close to 150 yards, unleashed a terrible fire from rifle and machine guns. An artillery barrage was called to further complicate the German efforts. The fighting was done by 11am, leaving 13 killed and 56 wounded, the Germans suffering approx. 200 casualties, with 4 officers and 200 men captured. In the reckoning of the day, it was discovered Walter was missing.


Walter had been captured by the Germans during the action of 15th April and was now a Prisoner of War. Evidence suggests Walter sent a post card, via the red cross, stating he was a POW and safe and sound in Germany. However, its now known the Germans illegally used POWs near the frontline in France as slave labour, declaring the prisoners were in Germany and out of harms way, complying with international law. 


Walter’s brother Jack joined the Hampshire regiment around August of 1917, at a time when volunteers had much less choice over the regiment they would march with, you went where you were needed. 
Walter’s family would have been in contact with the Australian red cross, relaying any updates to Jack in France. On 15th March 1918 the Australian Red Cross received word from Berlin, that Walter had died in November of 1917 from pneumonia, while a prisoner of war. He had been buried by the Germans in Bouchain, only 30 km from where he was captured. He was 21 years old.


On 16th May 1918 Jack and the Hampshire regiment were in the trenches, 6 miles northwest of Bethune, France. At 10am a house was seen to catch fire and 14 Germans ran from the blaze. Some Hampshires ran forward and opened fire on the fleeing Germans, the act of which was perceived as a full-scale assault by the Germans, who counter attacked with rifle, machine gun and artillery fire throughout the entire day.  Jack was killed on this day, he was 19 year old.


The Coombs family received news of the death of both sons within a month of each other. They refused to take custody of Jack’s medals, asking for them to be disposed of in 1922.


Cabaret-Rouge British Cemetery, Souchez, France, where Walter Coombs is buried.

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