Remembrance Day: Tale of First World War survivor highlights ‘tragedy’ of the lost generation

George Coombes with a Field Artillery horse

George Coombes with a Field Artillery horse - Credit: Archant

A young man stands proudly in his soldier uniform in an old photograph, posing with a Field Artillery horse at a training camp.

George Coombes with a Field Artillery horse

George Coombes with a Field Artillery horse - Credit: Archant

The 1915 scene is worlds away from the reality of the First World War, with its bloody stalemates, gas attacks and dehumanising trench warfare.

John Coombes’ father George enlisted during the wave of patriotism which greeted the conflict, leading him to the camp and beyond – to the horrors of the Western Front.

George Alfred Coombes was born in Camberwell, south London, in 1896. An engraver of printing plates at the Daily Mail and a keen artist, the young man signed up with the Royal Field Artillery in January 1915, aged 19.

After completing his training at a site in St Albans, Hertfordshire, George was sent to the Western Front and fought in the Battle of Loos in autumn 1915.

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfo

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in 1915. [Picture: John Coombes] - Credit: Archant


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This was the first time the British Army used poison gas as a weapon in the conflict.

George’s son John, 74, the chairman of the Barkingside Royal British Legion, said: “He was shipped out from there. There was so much loss of life in that battle that a lot of the regiments were no longer at full strength.”

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George was sent to Bulgaria, which had joined the side of the Central Powers – Germany, Austria-Hungary and the Ottoman Empire.

The soldier fought in places such as Doiran, on the Macedonian Front.

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfo

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in 1915. [Picture: John Coombes] - Credit: Archant

John said: “The conditions for the British Army up there were appalling. I remember my father saying they were living on rats; killing and eating them.

“They had anything they could get.”

George went on to serve in Egypt and then Jerusalem, which Britain successfully captured in December 1917.

He returned to Europe late that year and fought in France and Belgium before the war ended in 1918.

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfo

George Coombes (back row, second right) with fellow soldiers at a training camp in St Albans, Hertfordshire, in 1915. [Picture: John Coombes] - Credit: Archant

The soldier emerged from the war physically unscathed, but his family was to suffer a loss during the next World War.

John’s older brother Don completed his training in America in 1942 and joined the Royal Air Force as a navigator.

But the 21-year-old was shot down over Berlin the next year. John was just three at the time.

He said: “I didn’t know him. I know what he looked like, but that’s about it.”

The boys’ father left the Army in 1919, taking a job with the City of London Police. But he realised it was not his “cup of tea” and returned to his Daily Mail job, also getting married to wife Winifred Ada.

As well as John and Don, the couple, who later lived in Gidea Park, had Ken, Betty, Brian and Kathleen. Kathleen, 76, is John’s only surviving sibling.

George, a member of the Royal British Legion himself, died in 1956.

John, who received a campaign medal while serving in South Arabia in the 1960s, said: “It was mental [the war’s impact] more than anything else, although he had rheumatoid arthritis in his hands.

“He didn’t talk about it, but he wasn’t the happy, jolly man you would expect your dad to be.

“In the First World War this was misunderstood – it was put down as cowardice. The soldiers who came out of the war didn’t live as long as they could have, they just didn’t survive.”

For John, the centenary of the conflict is a significant and poignant occasion.

“It was terrible. History did repeat itself and it could again. The young men were just kids and there were none of them left after – they were the lost generation.

“It was a tragedy for Europe and the world.”

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