Henry (Harry) COOMBES MM



Service Number: 1254
Enlisted: 22 March 1916
Last Rank: Corporal
Last Unit: 39th Infantry Battalion
Born: London, Ontario, Canada, May 1970
Home Town: Ingham, Hinchinbrook, Queensland
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Seaman
Died: Killed in action, Messines, Belgium, 3 August 1917
Cemetery: Kandahar Farm Cemetery, Ypres, Flanders, Belgium
Plot II, Row F, Grave 22)
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
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World War 1 Service

22 Mar 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 1254, 39th Infantry Battalion
27 May 1916: Involvement Private, SN 1254, 39th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres
27 May 1916: Embarked Private, SN 1254, 39th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Ascanius, Melbourne
30 Mar 1917: Promoted AIF WW1, Corporal, 39th Infantry Battalion
3 Aug 1917: Involvement Corporal, SN 1254, 39th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres
20 Dec 1917: Honoured Military Medal, Messines, On 7th/8th and 9th June, 1917, during operations south of MESSINES for his untiring energy, and his coolness. When the stretcher bearers of his Battalion became casualties this N.C.O. organised and conducted parties to the advanced front line, and supervised the evacuation of wounded to the Regimental Aid Post. From the commencement of the action in the early morning of the 7th until the morning of the 9th he worked almost ceaselessly under fire and exhibited great coolness and courage.' Source: 'Commonwealth Gazette' No. 219 Date: 20 December 1917
Date unknown: Wounded SN 1254, 10th Infantry Battalion

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Biography contributed by Evan Evans

From Ballarat & District in the Great War

Cpl John Henry Coombes MM

One of the most interesting aspects of the 1st AIF was its ethnicity. In writing these posts I have touched on the origins of every person featured – it is such an important aspect of discovering exactly who they were as people. And I admit to being fascinated by that uniqueness, it is, after all, what makes each of us an individual, unreplicated anywhere. Irreplaceable. So many young men and women from Ballarat and district travelled not only to other areas of Australia, but overseas to join the military forces of other countries. There were also those, immigrants from almost every conceivable background, who came to Ballarat to live, work or enlist, all who sought to “do their bit.” One of those was the irrepressible Canadian, Harry Coombes.

Born in London, Ontario, Canada around May 1870, John Henry Coombes was the second son of Somerset-born George Henry Coombes’ first marriage to Alice Annett. The couple were to welcome a third child, Fanny Annette, on 21 January 1876, but it was to cost the life of Alice Coombes, who died two days later.

On 15 April 1878, George Coombes married for a second time. His new wife, Flora Vary, gave birth to five children before her own untimely death on 8 November 1888. For young John, who through these years had been receiving the rudimentary education provided by a government-run Common School, the loss of his stepmother must have been a sad time. For ten years she had been the maternal backbone of his family.

By standards of the day, the Coombes family was reasonably well off. George Coombes worked as a coachman, but earned enough to be able to afford the relative luxury of a live-in domestic servant. They lived in the Ste-Antoine district of Montreal.

When he was about 16, John joined the Canadian Militia. The country had a long, rich history of military units responsible for protecting the various districts, however, the North West Rebellion of 1885 had raised tensions between French and English Canadians. There is no doubt that, as a young recruit in this heightened environment, John gained an unparalleled level of experience in frontier soldiering.

John had still not reached his 19th birthday when, on 28 February 1889, he married Emily Booth at Montreal. The marriage was to be cut tragically short by Emily’s death on 7 January 1890. It seems that this third tragedy in his young life was enough to propel John into a search for emotional release. And what better way to lose yourself than in hard, physical labour – and where better than going to sea?

There is some conjecture as to when John Coombes arrived in Australia. One source believed he was 21 years-old when he first came to Australia. His sister, Fanny, believed that he didn’t settle in Australia until 1904. Certainly, it became apparent that he soon found his new home, settling in Ingham in North Queensland, where he worked as a plumber. It was during this time that he became friends with local couple, Edwin and Hannah Clay.

When war was declared in August 1914, John was had no chance of being accepted into the AIF – he would have failed on every level of the strict recruitment criteria that was set at that time. By December 1915, those expectations of physicality had been lowered considerably and he was able to enlist. Even though his postal address was given as Winton (inland from Ingham), John travelled all the way to Sydney to go through the enlistment process.

His medical, which was conducted on 6 December 1915, gave a good indication of John’s diminutive stature. At just 5-feet 3¼-inches in height, weighing a very low 118-pounds and have a chest measurement of only 33-inches when fully expanded, John was a physically very small. He also needed to lie about his age – he claimed to be only 39-years and 5-months old, when he was in fact 45. His sallow complexion, poor eyesight and scanty grey hair should have been enough to alert the medical officer. However, small doesn’t necessarily mean weak. It was obvious that John was what we would recognise as wiry and strong. He also had three years training in the Canadian Militia, which would have held some romantic level of import to the recruiting officer.

The following day at Casula, John completed his paperwork. He nominated his sister, Fanny Trenouth (who was living in Boston, Massachusetts) as his legal next-of-kin with his father having died several years earlier. Before the end of the day John was in camp at Casula near Liverpool, southwest of Sydney.

Casula Camp had been established years before the war, but the influx of recruits led to overcrowding and uncomfortable conditions. It was also perceived by many of the troops that the “enemy aliens” in the nearby German internment camp at Holsworthy were receiving better treatment. It was a powder-keg environment and one that John Coombes eventually became caught up in.

At the end of January 1916, John was posted to the 10th reinforcements for the 19th Infantry Battalion. He also completed an allotment of 4-shillings to his account with the Commonwealth Bank of Australia, which was to commence after he embarked. Ted and Hannah Clay were also given charge of his financial affairs.

Unfortunately, before John could make it to the point of embarkation, that fomenting powder keg of issues at Casula finally exploded. On 14 February it was announced at 9am that the current training session was to be extended well into the evening. This meant that some men would have been working for 27-hours without a break. In defiance of this extra duty, 5000 volunteers went on strike over the treatment and the general poor conditions in the camp. The troops left the camp and marched on the centre of Liverpool. The situation quickly devolved with the numbers swelling to nearly 15,000 men, with alcohol further fuelling riotous behaviour.

‘…The soldiers then gained control of Liverpool train station, overpowered the engineers and commandeered trains heading towards Sydney, where they began rampaging drunkenly through Sydney streets, smashing windows and targeting anyone with a foreign sounding name, including Italian restaurants, even though Italy was an ally. Shops and hotels were looted and people were forced to take refuge in churches to avoid the soldiers. Police reinforcements were called in and began battling the soldiers in the streets of Sydney.

At Sydney's Central Railway Station, armed military guards found a group of over 100 drunken soldiers destroying a toilet block and demanded they surrender. A shot was fired by a rioting soldier over the guards' heads and in response the guards returned fire, killing one soldier and seriously injuring eight others. This incident had a sobering effect on the soldiers and many began surrendering to police and military guards, although small bands of soldiers continued to cause damage throughout the night…’

Whilst the episode was regarded as a shameful event and around 1,000 men were court-martialled, it was largely hushed up to avoid negative publicity.

John Coombes, who had refused to take part, remained in camp, but when he spoke out against continued inhumane treatment, he was found guilty by association. After being warned by another soldier that he was about to be arrested, John absconded from the camp and made his way to Victoria with the intention of re-enlisting there.

Meanwhile, a warrant was issued for his arrest on a charge of desertion.

John arrived in Ballarat a few weeks later and immediately presented himself at the recruiting depot at the Town Hall where he enlisted on 22 March. The only major change he made to his declaration was his name – he dropped “John” and was henceforth to be known officially as Henry and Harry by those who got to know him. He made no effort to disguise his origins and again named his sister as his next-of-kin.

However, he did state that he was a seaman by profession and he doubled his years of experience in the military claiming six years with the Canadian Permanent Forces. Once again, he understated his age by nearly six years.

On this occasion the medical officer was a little more thorough in his examination and description of Harry Coombes. His height was marginally taller by half an inch, and his weight had increased by 14-pounds. He could now expand his chest to 34-inches, too. The grey hair and blue eyes had not changed, but his complexion was now described as fair. The doctor also noted five vaccination marks on his left arm, an appendix scar and a tattoo on his left forearm. His poor eyesight was also noticed.

Later that day, Harry marched into the Ballarat Showgrounds Camp, where he was assigned to the newly raised 39th Infantry Battalion and posted to D Company.

In a letter to his friend, Edwin Clay, that was written from camp in Ballarat and dated 8 May 1916, Harry later gave a first-hand account of his experiences and what led to his supposed desertion…

'…My Friend, Just a few lines to explain a very puzzling point to you as you know the riots at Casula & L-pool Camp occurred on the Monday after I was at your house and although I did not take part in them still I fell in which compelled me to take the course I did I was advised to do so by a Lieutenant who was a friend of mine so now I will explain the whole procedure to you.

When the trouble started on the Monday morning, I tried to advise the men in the Company with me not to take any part, but they would not listen to me and I refused to leave the Camp. After they returned at midday, we were refused any dinner and I made a personal appeal to the Officer in Command and he told me there was nothing for us to eat in camp and to use his words we could go to hell where we liked and get it. I told him he was only adding fuel to flame already kindled for which he might be sorry. He then asked me my name and I told him what it was and further that I was not ashamed of it either.

The next day one of the Officers, who happened to be a personal friend of mine, called me to one side and advised me not to remain, as the Major had picked me out for Court Martial. I thanked him for his advice and left that night and took the train for Melbourne and re-enlisted here. I just dropped the first of my names and got through all right.

I am now on the point of leaving with the 39th Battalion. I am making over four shillings of my pay to you, which you should receive twice a month till I either get snuffed out or return. I want you to use your own discretion with it. Should anything happen to me whatever money may be in your possession and my deferred pay as well, which you will also receive if I get killed I want you to equally divide half to go to Mervyn Clay [Ted Clay’s son] and the other half to Violet Anne Cosgrove, that is Jack's youngest girl [apparently another friend from Ingham]. I do not need to say anything further about the money as I know Ted Clay too well.

I am very glad that I have made the change to this as I have got in with an extra fine lot of men, not the wasters I was with at Casula. I will write to you again if I can before I leave, but in case I do not get the chance keep this code. If I get to Egypt, I will sign my name as below in Egypt J. Henry Coombes, France, John H. Coombes, Salonica, J. H. Coombes. In writing I will not be able to tell you where I am, but by the above method of signing my name you will know.

We have been told that we are to go aboard the transport on the 16th May, so our time is now getting very short. We are to make our final allotment tomorrow, Tuesday, and I am going to allot four shillings a day to you as next of kin, so you will understand that I will try and write another letter to follow this one. I remain yours Truelly (sic) Pte H. Coombes, D Co 39th Battalion Ballarat Victoria.

PS - Do not make a mistake and address me as J or John, make it H or Henry, as I might get into trouble. H.C…'

In the weeks leading up to the 39th departing for Melbourne, Harry saw first-hand how Ballarat feted its adopted battalion. Socials, church services and a grand concert at the Coliseum, before finally a parade along the city streets to the Ballarat Railway Station. The men travelled straight through to Melbourne, where early on the 27 May they boarded the troopship Ascanius and sailed later the same day.

HMAT Ascanius was still at sea when Harry found himself at odds with the much younger Lance-Corporal Alan Brooksbank. The 18-year-old reported him for insolence to a non-commissioned officer. What was said and how the insolence was framed unfortunately was not recorded, but it was witnessed by two other men – Corporal Harold Ware and Private James Coulson. The offence was bad enough that the commanding officer of the 39th, Lieutenant-Colonel Robert Rankine, felt compelled to award Harry 168-hours detention.

After seven and a half weeks at sea, the Ascanius arrived at Plymouth. The men disembarked at Devonport dock and immediately began the cross-country journey to the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire. They marched into No7 Camp at Larkhill, which was to be their home for the next four months as they underwent an extensive training programme.

Shortly after arriving at Larkhill, Harry was appointed to the rank of lance-corporal. Despite his age, he was more than capable of keeping up with his younger counterparts. Even an admission to the Fargo Military Hospital on 14 August with a ‘disordered action of the heart’ was apparently not an ongoing concern and he was soon back with his unit.

As I have mentioned previously when discussing the 39th Battalion, the extended period of training in England for the entire 3rd Australian Division, led to the new troops being targeted by other units who felt they were being almost molly-coddled. Unkind epithets – the “neutrals,” Larkhill Lancers and “Eggs-a-Cook” – quickly rankled with the men.

On 23 November 1916, the 39th finally sailed from Southampton bound for France. They landed at Le Havre early the next day, and were soon on their way to the French town of Bailleul and billets at nearby Merris.

Harry received a second promotion to the temporary rank of corporal just after Christmas. The promotion was confirmed on 30 March 1917, when Sergeant Herbert Warland was promoted. It was known within the AIF as “completing the establishment.”

The 39th Battalion saw its first major action during the Battle of Messines. For three straight days, on 7-9 June, Harry worked with ‘untiring energy’. When the battalion stretcher-bearers became casualties, he organised and conducted parties to the advanced front line south of Messines. From the beginning of the battle early on the 7 June through to the morning of the 9 June, Harry worked ‘almost ceaselessly’ under constant fire, supervising the evacuation of the wounded to the Regimental Aid Post. His coolness and courage were recognised by his commanding officer with a recommendation for the Military Medal. The decoration was processed very quickly and it was awarded on 24 June.

It was fortuitous timing for Harry Coombes. He was then able to secure a leave pass (something that was often an extra bonus when a soldier was decorated) to London, to meet up with his younger brother Forbes, who was serving with the Canadian Foresters. Through constant correspondence with their brother, George, who was living in the Boston neighbourhood of Dorchester, America, Harry and Forbes were able to organise a Fourth of July reunion – their first in 14 years! Fortunately, the pair decided to mark their meeting by having a photograph taken to be sent back to George. It is a unique shot of two soldiers from the Great War – two brothers born in the same place, wearing the uniforms of two different colonies of the then British Empire. And the only known photograph of John Henry Coombes.

For the brothers, the time together was all too brief, and Harry was soon on his way back to the Front. When he rejoined his unit, the 39th was still in the Messines sector, holding the support lines.

By this time, Harry was well-known throughout the battalion – not least because of his age, which the younger troops were very aware of, but also because of his attention to detail. He had also been given the role of the sanitary corporal with the battalion pioneers, and his slight figure would often be seen moving through the trenches doing his rounds.

The 3 August 1917, was a very wet day. Harry was in the process of conducting his usual inspection, when a stray shell landed near his dugout. Several men rushed to his side, by according to the witnesses, Harry was beyond aid. As was common, the witnesses varied on their details – one said he was ‘most severely wounded about the chest and thigh,’ another said that a piece of shell had hit Harry in the head, killing him instantly.

Sergeant Victor Roy Haines stated at the time that a ‘Western District padre’ officiated at the burial in a cemetery near the Catacombs. The cemetery would later be named Kandahar Farm.

Due to the complicated nature of his background and enlistment, Base Records were forced to make extensive investigations into locating the legitimate legatee of John Henry Coombes. Despite his having named his sister, Fanny, as his legal next-of-kin, extensive correspondence was undertaken to make sure there was no one in Australia or Canada who had a primogeniture claim – the order followed for an unmarried man without children was, with only a few exceptions, father, mother, eldest surviving brother, eldest surviving sister.

In November 1918, Base Records received a letter from Miss Beth Wallace, of Goolwa, South Australia, who obviously had some emotional connection to the late soldier.

'…I had a soldier friend killed in action August 3rd 1917. I only heard the news a month or so ago. Some little time before he met his death he won the Military Medal. Would it be possible for me to have it? He has no relatives in Australia, being a Canadian by birth. He enlisted at Ballarat. If you would kindly let me know you would greatly oblige…'

Miss Wallace provided them with the correct On Active Service address for Corporal Henry Coombes. With no legal claim, puzzlingly she was told she should make enquiries through the Curator of Estates, who were handling Harry’s affairs.

It took some considerable time for the matter to be properly dealt with, and it was not until March 1920 that Base Records finally forwarded the Military Medal to Fanny Trenouth, plus the congratulations and sympathy of King George V and his adopted country.

'…It is with feelings of admiration at the gallantry of a brave Australian soldier who nobly laid down his life in the service of our King and country, that I am directed by the Honourable, The Minister to forward to you as the NOK of the late…the MM, which His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to award to that gallant soldier for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty while serving with the Australian Imperial Expeditionary Force. I am also to ask you to accept his deep personal sympathy in the loss, which, not only you, but the Australian Army has sustained by the death of Corporal Coombes, whose magnificent conduct on the field of battle has helped to earn for our Australian soldiers a fame which will endure as long as memory lasts…'