Percy Robert Coles (1887-1916)

Percy Robert Coles was born on the 11th October 1887 to Charles and Charlotte Coles. Charles father came from a dairy farming background, however Charles took a different path, joining the Royal Marine Light Infantry, which is where we see him in 1871 listed as Private, based in Kent at Sheerness Harbour, aboard “Valorous”. At this time H.M.S Valorous was operating as part of the British Arctic Expedition, carrying extra stores, she would be sold in 1891 and subsequently broken up in Plymouth. Charles progressed to the role of Sergeant with in the R.M.L.I and would live in Topsham, Devon, before moving to Mortehoe. Charles married, Percy’s mother, Charlotte Ann Williams in 1876, she was the daughter of a farmer. Charlotte’s family would also run a local public house, The Welcome Inn, Topsham, where in 1871 Charlotte would be working as an Innkeepers assistant. The Welcome Inn would regularly be in the press for breaching alcohol laws or fighting in the pub. The Welcome Inn was also the scene of a number of inquests, due to its location alongside a canal, many deaths from drowning or suicide were recorded from people who frequented the public house. As a young child, Percy lived with his family in Barnstaple, his father was an innkeeper at The Nags Head, they would eventually move to 1 Ada’s Terrace, Mortehoe. The move was made when the family took over the running of The Chichester Arms. “The license of The Chichester Arms, Mortehoe, was transferred to Mr Charles Coles of Barnstaple. Mr F Chugg, the former holder of the license, had married a lady of means and had gone to New Zealand”.

Percy like his father joined the Royal Marine Light Infantry, enlisting on the 11th September 1902, aged just 15. On his enlistment documents he is described as being 5ft, 5 inches tall with a fair complexion, fair hair and hazel eyes. His records show him being regarded of “very good character and ability”, serving with the Plymouth and Duke of Edinburgh Divisions.

On Easter Monday 1907 Percy would return home for the wedding of his brother, Ernest Edmund, who married a local girl, Miss Alice Harriet Yeo. Percy was best man; this pretty village wedding was reported in the local press.

Only a few years later, Percy’s father, Charles would die. His mother continued to run The Chichester Arms, and lived at Ada’s terrace. Percy returned to his naval duties, and on the 15th May 1912 where he would be attached to the ill-fated H.M.S Lion. Percy would serve at varying periods aboard this ship as a Private, however on the 31st May 1916 he would be reported as: “Killed in Action, Buried at Sea”. The H.M.S Lion was the flagship gunner of its time, the Western Gazette wrote a long article on the 12th August 1910 prior to its launch. “With the launching of at Devonport on Saturday of H.M.S Lion, the new Dreadnought cruiser, the most wonderful engine of warfare that has ever taken to the water is added to the British Navy. She is officially described as an armoured cruiser, yet in gun power she is superior to every battleship in the world’s fleet’. The Battle of Jutland took place between the British Grand Fleet and the German High Seas Fleet on the 31st May 1916 in the North Sea. It was the only major naval battle of World War I, and it became the largest sea battle in naval warfare history.

The events that took place on the H.M.S Lion were recalled by two men who survived the incident: “It appears that all the occupants of the gun-house proper, most of the silent-cabinet’s crew, and most of the working chamber’s crew situated directly below the gun-house, were killed or severely wounded by the detonation of this shell in the gun-house. The officer of the Turret, though himself severely wound, realised that his turret was out of action and on fire, and also that the fire might reach the magazine. He accordingly passed his orders by the direct-voice pipe down to the handing room below, to close the magazine doors and open the magazine flood valves, This order was promptly carried out, and did in fact prevent the flash from the cordite charges reaching the magazines, and so the ship from being blown up. The damage and loss of life caused by the actual explosion of the German shell did not extend to the magazine handing-room and shell-room crews, none of whom were wounded, but unfortunately all of them lost their lives through the cordite fire which followed a few minutes afterwards. All these men, together with the magazine and shell-room crews, were killed by the cordite fire. It is to be remarked that the clothes and bodies of these men were not burnt, and in cases where the hands had been raised involuntarily, palms forward, to protect the eyes, the backs of the hands and that part of the face actually screened by the hands were not even discoloured. “Death to these men must have been instantaneous.” The Lion returned home and on Wednesday 26th June 1916, it was reported “H.M.S Lion, after her exploits in the Jutland Battle, received a remarkable ovation on touching a home port. The Lion bore no marks of battle and appeared in first class condition”.

The following year a service was given at Mortehoe Parish Church in memory of Pte Percy Robert Coles. The following was reported in the local newspaper “It is with heartfelt regret that Morte-Hoe residents heard of the deaths of two brave sons of old and respected families in the parish. Pte. Thomas Randall and Pte. Percy Coles have laid down their lives for their Country. Pte Percy Coles was the youngest son of the late ex-Sergt, Coles, R.M.L.I. and Mrs. Coles, of the Chichester Arms Hotel and formally of the “Nags Head” Barnstaple. He enlisted in the R.M.L.I at an early age and now at the age of 26 he has made the great sacrifice.

He was killed on May 31st in the naval action off Jutland. He served in H.M.S “Lion” flagship of Admiral Beatty. He was of fine physique, a pleasant companion and a good comrade.” Percy’s widowed mother, Charlotte would continue to live in Mortehoe, actively involved in village life despite her husband and son all being gone. Charlotte would die, on the 4th April 1929, aged 79. The newspaper obituary read “The deceased had been in failing health for several years and lived in retirement in the village, much respected and esteemed by a wide circle of friends”

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