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Battle of Loos 100th anniversary: Newbury Park man tells of father’s war service

PUBLISHED: 15:00 26 September 2015

John Coombes' father George (third from left) with his First World War comrades

John Coombes' father George (third from left) with his First World War comrades

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Rubble and ash coat cobbled streets, the ghosts of war all too present in a grey landscape where life as it was known has died.

John Coombes with his father's First World War medalsJohn Coombes with his father's First World War medals

This scene tells the fate of the French village Loos-en-Gohelle, which, as so many others, finished the First World War as a charred skeleton, each tree and building destroyed beyond recognition.

Painfully rebuilt as the years pushed on, the village became a town, but the scars of the past remain, including a battle which has taken its name.

The Battle of Loos began on September 25, 1915, with the loss of thousands of lives and Britain’s first use of poison gas in the war.

Now Europe is remembering the campaign 100 years on, including John Coombes, whose father fought in it.

George Coombes as a 21-year-old soldier in Cairo, Egypt, in 1917, during the First World WarGeorge Coombes as a 21-year-old soldier in Cairo, Egypt, in 1917, during the First World War

For George Alfred Coombes, born in Camberwell, south London, in 1896, the battle was his first major campaign.

An engraver of printing plates at the Daily Mail and a keen artist, he had only enlisted with the Royal Field Artillery in January 1915, aged 19, completing his training at St Albans, Hertfordshire.

The recruit was soon to experience the stalemate on the Western Front and the horrors of chlorine gas, which Britain had decided to use against its enemy for the first time.

John, 75, of Oaks Lane, Newbury Park, said: “It smells almost of desperation. A lot of these officers didn’t have a clue what was going on – they hadn’t fought a battle.

John Coombes' father George marrying his wife Winifred on September 10 1921John Coombes' father George marrying his wife Winifred on September 10 1921

“My dad did say that where they were behind the frontlines, they wouldn’t even hear the guns being fired.

“There was also no proper back-up.”

George’s experiences at Loos, and indeed those of some of his later battles, are a mystery.

Not only did he almost never speak about the Great War, but his records were destroyed along with thousands of others during the Blitz, when the War Office repository in Arnside Street, London, was bombed.

But John does know that his father travelled to France in early 1915, thanks to a photograph of him with some of his comrades.

The Barkingside Royal British Legion chairman said: “You wonder how many of those guys survived. But they were in the artillery – in the infantry they really didn’t stand a chance.

“It’s good he wasn’t there at the Somme, or I wouldn’t be here.”

George survived the war, having fought in places such as Doiran, on the Macedonian Front, Egypt and Jerusalem.

But like so many soldiers, the veteran, who died in 1956, saw the war deeply affect his psyche.

“He never spoke about it,” said John. “I was only 16 when he died and he probably thought I was a bit too young to take to the pub and talk to – it wasn’t done in those days.

“His wounds were all mental. I didn’t see that many veterans limping around or in wheelchairs – it was mental problems they had these guys.

“But they didn’t say anything and they didn’t have counsellors. Post-traumatic stress disorder wasn’t even dreamt of.”

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