A charmed life: Sergeant-major, one of five brothers, cut down by German sniper after two years

Richmond and Twickenham Times: The brothers Cole, from the Surrey Comet in 1915 The brothers Cole, from the Surrey Comet in 1915
  • The Surrey Comet looks back
  • The centenary of the outbreak of World War I
  • Exhibition at the Rose Theatre

This one in a series of features looking back at our area’s involvement in the First World War.

The stories, including of mobilisation, stranded holidaymakers, and the tale of a lonely prisoner of war, were uncovered in the Surrey Comet archives by researcher Sarah Hayward.

  • The brothers Cole

A young soldier, one of five brothers all serving in the same regiment, led a “charmed life” during the war, until he was cut down by a German sniper.

Company Sergeant-major William Cole, of G Company, 1st/8th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment, died in April 1917.

He was the son of Charles Cole, who died in 1914, and who had been foreman plumber at Hampton Court Palace and superintendent of the palace fire brigade.

The family lived in apartment No.62, in Fish Court.

William’s commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Ingpen, wrote to his mother after his death.

He wrote: “Your son has always done his duty well and was one of my best company sergeant-majors.

“His loss will be deeply felt by all ranks of the battalion, amongst whom he was very popular.

“He was killed by a bullet fired by an enemy sniper while gallantly directing some digging operations.”

Mr and Mrs Cole had seven sons, the Surrey Comet reported, of whom five served in the Middlesex Regiment.

Fred and William were sergeants, Samuel was a corporal, and Robert and Alfred were privates.

The Comet said at the time: “It is an uncommon circumstance to find five brothers all serving with the same regiment.”

William had left for annual training in Gibraltar in 1914, before returning home and shipping out to France in March, 1915, just weeks after the above photograph was published.

Palace warder Stephen Flower, in his book Palace at War, said: “For the next two years CMS Cole seemed to bear a charmed life, despite taking part in every one of the battalion’s actions, but his luck ran out on April 29 1917.

“By now, German snipers had built up a reputation for cunning and accuracy.

“Being unlikely to get more than one shot at a time, they singled out anyone in authority.”

Richmond and Twickenham Times:

  • “Dash from Switzerland”

From the Surrey Comet dated September 5, 1914

A Surbiton family was holed up for a month in Switzerland after the outbreak of war, and made an arduous journey home through France.

Mr and Mrs HJ Sanderson and their daughter were staying in a hotel in Engelberg in when news of the conflict reached them.

They were three of just six people left in their 150-room hotel.

The last Swiss government train left Lucerne on Saturday, August 29, and the family dashed to get on board.

Mrs Sanderson told the Surrey Comet: “It was an extraordinary sight to see the hundreds of passengers carrying bags and portmanteaux of various descriptions.

“The journey was not accomplished without mishap, for, ere Geneva was reached, the front carriage ran off the lines. Fortunately this involved nothing more serious than delay.

“The railway all along was guarded by soldiers.”

The family saw men shaving and women washing their hair on the platforms during the journey, and traded enthusiastic cheers with French soldiers and civilians who gathered to watch the trains pass.

Mrs Sanderson, whose husband was chairman of the Surbiton and District Conservative and Unionist Association, said a crowd at Lyon sang ‘God Save the King’, which “struck deeply into the hearts of the Britishers”.

After they, along with 1,300 others, boarded a 600-berth liner at Dieppe, the family eventually made it back to Folkstone.

Mrs Sanderson had picked up a souvenir along the way – a button from the tunic of a French soldier, like the one pictured, who had traded it for a small Union Jack at Lyon.

  • What is this all about?

These features tie in with an audio-visual exhibit at the Rose Theatre, to open in September, based on the campaign by Edwardian author John Galsworthy for better conditions for injured servicemen.

Galsworthy was born in Kingston Hill and worked as a hospital orderly. Eventually he set up the first magazine for disabled servicemen.

Organisers are also asking readers with a connection to the Great War to get in touch.

If you have any memorabilia, family stories or family memories from the First World War visit digitaldrama.org, contact Kate Valentine on 07786 142330 or kate@digitaldrama.org. The deadline for contributions is Friday, March 28.

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