Reginald Maurice COLE
Eyes hazel, Hair dark brown, Complexion sallow
Reginald Maurice COLE – an Englishman in Alberton Shire, Victoria
Can you help to identify Reg?
Reg’s body was never found after the battle. There is a chance he might be identified, but we need help. We are still searching for suitable family DNA donors.
In 2008 a mass grave was found at Fromelles, a grave that the Germans dug for 250 (Australian) bodies they recovered after the battle. 166 of these soldiers have been identified and given proper burials and recognition through finding family DNA donors. 84 soldiers remain unknown and some identifications are highly likely. We just need to find DNA donors.
If you know anything of Reg’s contacts here in Australia or his relatives from around St Ives, Huntingdonshire in England we would like to hear from you.
See the DNA box at the end of Reg’s story for what we do know about his family. Although some DNA was done, more could help.
Reginald Maurice Cole was a young man born in England but living and working in the Shire of Alberton, in south Gippsland, Victoria, at the outbreak of WW1. He was born in St Ives, Huntingdonshire and both parents were still living there.
Reg had his medical in Yarram and completed the enlistment in Melbourne on 13 July 1915. At the time he was 21 years old and was working as a farm labourer at Jack River, about 10 kilometres west from Yarram. He gave his religion as Church of England.
His attestation papers indicate that he had served more than 3 years in the 5th Bedfordshire Territorial Force in England before he migrated to Australia, suggesting that he could only have been in Australia for a short period of time. At the same time, he was sufficiently well-known in the district to be included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. He also received the Shire Medallion at a farewell in Yarram in October 1915.
Extracts from the local news report of the farewell at the shire hall described it as follows:
“Farewells are frequent. On Wednesday morning—the third for the week—good wishes were expressed to acting-corporal Fred. Collis (Yarram) and Privates T. M. Murphy (Port Albert) and R. M. Cole (an Englishman who enlisted in Yarram).
The President of the shire, Cr. Bland, paid a high tribute to the stamp of men enlisting. If conscription came there would not be the honor in enlisting, besides, the rate of pay would be small. These men were going to join those other Australians who had earned the name of being the best soldiers in the war. (Applause.)
……Cr. Bland then presented the medallions and cards, and in wishing them all honor and a safe return, …………….
……The soldiers suitably replied. Acting-Corporal Collis thanked the people of the shire for the medallions and trusted they would prove worthy of their confidence. Private Murphy briefly returned thanks; and Private Cole, while expressing his thanks, remarked that he was an Englishman, but was proud of the Australians, and proud to be with them. “
Leaving Australia for Egypt
Private Reg Cole left with the 8th Brigade from Melbourne for overseas service on 10 November 1915 and soon after arrival in Egypt was transferred to the 29th Battalion. His records appear under two different service numbers; most records are under the 417 number with only his embarkation roll entry under the service number 9.
During his six months in Egypt, Reg would have been involved in guarding the Suez, training, exercises and route marches with the 29th to prepare troops for the front line. Reg had one run-in with military authority whilst in Egypt being found guilty of neglect of duty at the Ferry Post camp on 20 April 1916. His offence amounted to “reclining on a heap of bags whilst on sentry duty” – for which, he received 2 days field punishment.
In Egypt, there was a brief hospital admission in May 1916 but there is no indication of what the illness or injury was.
And then off to France and Western Front
On 16 June 1916, Reg left Alexandria with the 29th Battalion for the Western Front. They travelled by train across France to take up billets in the area around Fromelles.
Then on 13 July, there is a reference to Reg being ‘wounded in action’ with the explanation merely stated as ‘shrapnel’. But there is no indication of any treatment or hospitalisation so it is presumed the wound was minor. In any case, he was still obviously on active duty when he was listed, one week later, as missing on 19 July 1916. The war diary of the 29th Battalion indicates that he was one of 66 men missing.
The court of enquiry that determined he had been killed in action on 20 July 1916 was held more than one year later in August 1917 and the official Report of Death of a Soldier was issued on 12 September 1917.
There is no family correspondence on his AIF file and therefore no way of determining with any certainty when Reg’s parents learned of his fate; and, with next of kin residing in England, it is likely communications were managed and recorded by authorities in England rather than by those in Australia. There is a record of pension applications by his parents being rejected in January 1918 as they already sufficient means of support, so is it clear that information was being passed on to the Cole family. There are also records that, after the war, Reg’s father as next of kin received his military medals (1914-15 Star, Victory and British War medals), memorial plaque and scroll.
There was no grave identified for Pte Reg Cole and his name is listed on the memorial in VC Corner, Fromelles.
What happened to Reg at Fromelles?
There is a detailed Red Cross report which highlights the confusion that so often surrounded the painstaking process of tracking missing soldiers. In battles such as that at Fromelles where the casualties were so great, the potential for confusion and error was correspondingly higher, precisely because there were so few men left to provide witness statements for the many missing or dead.
In the specific case of Private Cole there was a case of mistaken identity set in train when one informant – Sgt. Frederick H. SIMPSON 633 – suggested that the Cole in question was a sergeant who had been taken prisoner. He wrote to the Red Cross on 16 September 1916:
“This man is a Sergt and I think in D. Coy. I happened to see the letter he wrote to Lt. Stanton from Germany and have a list of men who were in the same camp with him……but. I feel certain you will find Sergt. Cole is a prisoner.”
There was a Sergeant Cole – Oliver Stanley Cole 1321 – who had been captured at Fromelles and who was a prisoner of war in Germany. It took several months to clear up the confusion with Private R. M. Cole 417.
At the same time, there were other witness statements that did have the right man but there was still confusion. Private Frederick B. NASH 303 wrote on 1 December 1916 from his hospital in Boulogne, where he had been admitted with ‘chilled feet’ [trench foot]:
“Cole was in A.II and was wounded in the attack at Fromelles on July 19-20. We attacked at 6 p.m. and took three lines of trenches, but had to go back to our own line at 4 a.m. Cpl R. C. Adams of the same platoon, was with him, and told me that he saw him wounded in Fritz’ first line. He was left behind, and if alive must be a prisoner.”
There was also another second-hand account that must have been closer to the truth. It was written a couple of months later by Pte Richard BLAKE 173 – also recovering in hospital, from trench fever and neuritis in England – on 15 February 1917. It certainly has the right Cole, whom the informant described as … a little dark fellow, Englishman from St Ives, Huntingdonshire. According to his medical papers, Cole was about 5 foot 3 inches tall and of ‘sallow’ complexion. Like the previous statement this one again relies on the memory of Corporal Reginald C. ADAMS 151:
Cpl Adams (29th A.I.F. A. Coy, VI Plat) told me R.M. Cole was killed on 19th July while they were retiring. He was in the first line, and I was in the 3rd (supporting line) and R.M Cole was killed as they came back.
While both statements rely on the testimony of Corporal Adams – one had Cole wounded, left behind and taken prisoner and the other had him killed – there was, unfortunately, no first-hand account by Corporal Reg Adams himself. At the time the Red Cross was gathering evidence, it seems that Cpl Adams was undergoing treatment in England for severe wounds. His file indicates that he survived the Battle of Fromelles but was badly wounded (hands, knee and hip) in October 1916. On discharge from hospital in mid-1917, he transferred to the Army Medical Corps.
Presumably, when Private Cole did not appear on the list of the dead provided by the Germans and it was equally clear that he was not a prisoner of war he was effectively ‘signed-off’ as killed in action. This protracted process took just over one year.
Not Forgotten – Faithful unto Death
In addition to the VC Corner memorial in France, Reg Cole’s name is commemorated on the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and also on the Yarram War Memorial in Victoria.
Family in the United Kingdom also remember Pte Reg Cole and his service. Family member, Anthea Webber, recalls with fondness attending the 2016 centenary memorial at Fromelles:
“We went to Fromelles for the Centenary Memorial. I was so lucky to be there. My husband and I drove to Lille and met up with my sister and her husband who had travelled from Australia and spent some time on a river cruise through Northern Europe. We had been lucky enough to obtain tickets for the Memorial Service and met up with everyone from Australia including Royce and Geoff.
It was such a beautiful and moving ceremony in such an idyllic place - so hard to imagine how horrendous it would have been during the fighting. Something we will never ever forget. I just wish that Reginald's DNA could have been matched and a grave made for him. However hopefully this will happen eventually, and we can easily travel over to see this.
We have many happy memories of such an amazing and moving ceremony and meeting wonderful like-minded people.”
DNA is still being sought for family connections to
|Soldier||Reginald M. COLE 1894-1916|
|Parents||Henry John COLE 1864-1924 and Catherine Laurenzia PAULEY 1863-1955 Both of St Ives, Huntingdonshire, England|
|Paternal||James Cuttress COLE 1822-1905, Ely Cambridgeshire and Rhoda ALLEN 1822-1899.|
|Maternal||Mary Anne EASY 1825-1904, Milton, Cambridgeshire and James PAULEY|
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