Posts Tagged ‘Festubert’

Name recorded on Board of Trade Memorial: F. G. Coker
Born: 12 March 1893
Date of Death: 7 June 1917
Age at death: 23
Service, Regiment, Corps, etc: London Regiment
Unit, Ship, etc: 1/15th Battalion (Civil Service Rifles)
Enlisted: Haggerston, 5 August 1914
Rank: Private (Service no. 1295 and 530039)
Decorations: Campaign medals –
War (and theatre): WW1 (France and Flanders)
Manner of Death: Killed in action
Family Details: Son of Elizabeth Coker of Leyton. Husband of Maude A Coker, 2 Montrose Villa, Shrubland Road, Leyton, London
Home Department: Board of Trade – Labour Statistics Department
Civilian Rank: Personal Clerk
Cemetery or Memorial: Menin Gate (Panel 54); Civil Service Rifles Memorial, Somerset House, London; Memorial to Staff of the Ministry of Labour (located at Caxton House, Tothill Street, London); Board of Trade War Memorial (now located at 3 Whitehall Place, London)


When we research at the WW1 generation, we step back into a world that is both different and also mirrors our own. It is moving to think that many of the places which existed then are still around today but also many have disappeared. The lifestory of Frederick George Coker is one of both loss and survival.

Frederick George Coker was one of seven children born to Frederick George Coker (1864 – 1931) and his wife Elizabeth Sarah Morgan (1866 – 1941) from the East End of London. Frederick junior was the eldest son, born on 12 March 1893 and it was natural that he was named in honour of his father.

His siblings included an older sister – Florence Elizabeth Coker (1883 – 1972) and a much younger sister – Winifred Georgina Coker (1910 – 1963). He also had two surviving younger brothers – William Horace Augustus Coker (1897 – 1976) and Leslie Roderick John Coker (1898 – 1972). Two other siblings died in infancy – Winifred Georgina Coker (born/died in 1890) and Arthur Henry Edward Coker (born/died in about 1900).

Frederick’s father worked as a tailor and french polisher.

The family lived in the Haggerston area of London, which is both an area that is the same but also very different today. Many of the places which Frederick and his family would have known no longer exist. For instance his former school (Pritchard Road School) and the church where he got married and probably worshipped at (St Stephen’s, Goldsmith Row, Haggerston) – both no longer exist. The school closed in WW2 and the church was demolished in the 1950s.

According to school admission records, Frederick joined Pritchard Road School, aged 8, on 26 August 1901. In the same year, he appears in the 1901 census records living with his parents nearby at 106 Goldsmith Row and then again at the same address in the 1911 census.

By 1911, Frederick is recorded aged 17 to be “studying for the Civil Service” which we know he achieved. He later joined the Labour Statistics Department of the Board of Trade.

FG_COKER_(on right)_Photo

Frederick George Coker (on right) – Copyright: Keith Marshall

Frederick’s world was thrown upside down when war with Germany was declared on 4 August 1914. We know from surviving records that Frederick enlisted into the army only a day later on 5 August 1914. He was one of thousands of patriotic young men who heeded the call to arms alongside their friends, with over 30,000 men signing up each day by the end of August 1914. Many of the men enlisted into “pals” battalions alongside their friends and colleagues and the Prince of Wales’s Own Civil Service Rifles was one of these types of volunteer battalions.

Upon enlisting we know from military records that the Civil Service Rifles was mobilised and moved to Bedmond and then in November to billet in Watford. The battalion which formed part of the 4th London Brigade, 2nd London Division first landed in Le Havre on 18 March 1915. The unit was then reformed on 11 May 1915 into the 140th Brigade in the 47th (2nd London) Division.

As part of the battalion, Frederick would have seen service at several key WW1 battles including Festubert (1915), Loos (25 September – 8 October 1918), the Somme (1 July – 18 November 1916), Flers-Courcelette (15 – 22 September 1916), Le Transloy (1 – 18 October 1916) and Messines (7 – 14 June 1917).

In the middle of the war and destruction, love still found a way and during one of his leave periods, on 1 June 1916, he married his sweetheart, Maud Annie Knopff at St Stephen’s Church in Haggerston. The young couple were married only just over a year before Frederick died on 7 June 1917 in France.

This date is the first day of the Battle of Messines attack, whose objective was to re-capture the strategically important Wytschaete-Messines Ridge, south of Ypres which had previously been captured by the German army in November 1914. The ridge was a crucial vantage point and therefore the Battle was hugely important for the Allies overall wartime objective. The battle is hugely important in terms of the overall context of WW1. Ultimately the Battle was a success, but this came at a huge price, with 17,000 British casualties and 26,000 German casualties.

Further details of Frederick’s death can be gleaned from letters that survive addressed to his wife, Maud, sent by the Chaplain and Sergeant in his unit. From these letters, we know the precise circumstances of his death, which occurred whilst “he formed part of an ammunition carrying party, a duty which is the usual lot of the pioneers in an attack. The party was compelled to halt and take refuge in a shell hole, while crossing ground only recently won from the enemy. Whilst in the hole, a heavy shrapnel shell burst immediately over it, and a piece struck Fred on the head, penetrating his helmet and killing him instantaneously“.

WW1 was the first war in which the steel helmet was put into widespread use. Prior to this time, military headwear was not standardised and initially military headwear was only made of cloth which obviously was inadequate in face of barrage of gunfire and explosive devices. Frederick, like all British soldiers regardless of rank, would undoubtedly have been wearing a standard issue steel Brodie Helmet which had been designed and patented in 1915 by Leonard John Brodie (1873–1945). According to Wikipedia, over 7.5 million helmets were produced during WW1. After an initial batch of helmets, the design was modified to narrow the brim and make a more domed crown. It was also altered to comprise steel with 12% manganese content (known as “Hadfield steel” after the suggestion by Sir Robert Hadfield. This type of steel increased protection for soldiers by 10% since it could better withstand the impact of shrapnel. The helmet was also designed to withstand a .45 caliber pistol bullet travelling at 600 feet (180 m) per second fired at a distance of 10 feet (3.0 m). The Brodie is now considered to be an iconic design but during WW1 it was essential in the face of the increased risks of head injuries which was one of most common forms of injury.


Frederick George Coker – Memorial Card (Copyright: Keith Marshall) 

Frederick’s death was deeply felt by his fellow soldiers writing to Maud who describe him warmly as follows:

Lieutenant O E Burden wrote “talking from a military point of view, he was always a thorough good solider, willing and reliable and trustworthy. He was loved and respected by all who came in contact with him, and we all have quite a tender spot for him now, I can assure you”.

The Sergeant of his battalion, Stanley Frank Haycock, describes him as “a loyal friend and a brave man right through. I have never known him shirk a task, however dangerous or distasteful it may have been. His example and encouragement to the younger members of the squad did a lot towards maintaining the high standing and good name of the pioneers in the battalion.”

The Chaplain of the 140th Brigade, wrote “to tell you that I have lost a personal friend in your good husband. I buried him on the battlefield near the place he fell right up at the front of the attack where he was doing his duty as always. May he rest in peace. He was a gallant soldier and a good Christian Churchman. He served for me at one celebration and helped me by giving out books at the last celebration before the attack on Trinity Sunday. There were over 200 Communicants and he himself received the Blessed Sacrament and went into Battle with the grace of Christ in his heart.”

Three of the letters addressed to Maud are sent by the Brigade Chaplain, Ernest Haldane Beattie. The role of army chaplain is one that is not widely known in our general knowledge of WW1. At the start of the war there were only some 100 chaplains in France but the end of the war there were 3000. Britain in 1914 was more overtly religious then today with almost 25% of the population attending church regularly and 90% of children attending Sunday School. Having a chaplain on or close to the battlefield has happened since the early days of warfare and continues to this day through the work of the Royal Army Chaplains Department. You can read more about the role of army chaplains in WW1 in blog by Sarah Reay and in the blog ‘They gave their today’

The letters also make reference to Frederick being buried on the battlefield, although the exact location was not allowed to be shared and “the exact position of his grave will be notified you by the Graves Registration Committee“. This committee was the fore runner of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. We know, with hindsight that Frederick is one of 3,570 men who died in June 1917 and whose names are commemorated on the Menin Gate memorial for those with no known grave.

After the passage of over 100 years it is fitting that we continue to remember Frederick George Coker.  Whilst the physical places associated with Frederick’s life might have largely disappeared as London has developed, his spirit survives and memory of him survive.

In the words of his Sergeant, Stanley Frank Haycock, “The memory of his fine personality will remain with us long after this conflict has ceased”.



Pioneer Sergeant Stanley Frank Haycock (1891 – ) survived the war and ultimately moved to New Zealand. He was awarded a CBE in 1952 Birthday Honours and worked for the National Assistance Board – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/1952_Birthday_Honours. He served in the Civil Service Rifles under Service No. 530220.

The 140th Infantry Brigade Chaplain was Reverend Prebendary Ernest Haldane Beattie (born 27 September 1876 in Edinburgh, Midlothian, Scotland and died 17 October 1960 in Hereford). He was awarded the Military Cross whilst serving in the Civil Service Rifles. He had three children including his eldest son Stephen Haldane Beattie who was awarded the Victoria Cross in WW2 (http://vconline.org.uk/stephen-h-beattie-vc/4585965512).

Lieutenant Oscar Edward Burden served in the Civil Service Rifles, London Regiment as Service No 3558.

With deepest thanks to Keith Marshall for kindly sharing the photos and further information including letters relating to Frederick George Coker. 


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