Walter Tull and the
WAR MEMORIAL SURPRISE" by Marilyn Stephenson-Knight
The War Memorial Project holds many
surprises. Initially the biggest was discovering the Dover
heritage of Walter Tull. He's celebrated for being the first
black outfield professional football player. As if that wasn't
enough, in May 1917 the orphanage lad overturned all the
regulations and momentously became the first black combat
officer in the British army. Belgian experts in Ypres are now
investigating this breakthrough.
Bigger astonishment awaited! Following my
article in the "Dover Express" of 17th August, a Mr
Coombe contacted me. His grandfather, Ernest Boucher Coombe, is
commemorated on our Town War Memorial.
Born in Devon in 1877, Ernest enlisted in
Poplar, London. He eventually settled in Dover with his wife
Emma, where three of their four sons were born. The marriage
seemingly foundered, for the lads were sent to the workhouse
after their mother disappeared.
She was last heard of in Erith in the
1950s. But that was some forty years after her husband's death.
Ernest fell three years to the day before the Great War ended.
That winter Ernest's battalion of the Devonshires had been
toiling to keep the trenches clear at Givenchy, France. Under
unremitting rain the sodden walls were collapsing behind the
hastily thrown up sandbags. For three days the men struggled and
shovelled, in knee-deep mud.
Eventually the Yorkshire Regiment took over
and the Devonshires marched to their billets. It took two days
to clean and dry their clothing and equipment. But this was war,
and they had to be ready for action. Three days' rest were
interspersed with drills in marching, bombing, and attack.
Practice became reality when they were ordered back to the
trenches. Even before completing handover, one man was killed
and three wounded by shell fire.
The next day, 11th November,
1915, was worse, with continuous shelling, a mine attack, and
more torrential rain. The battalion was again relieved - but it
was too late for Ernest. His sons were luckier. The three
oldest fought in the war and all survived. One was awarded the
Mr Coombe has soldiers' bravery in his
blood. He's related to others on the War Memorial too. G T
Palmer, a private in the Buffs, was Mr Coombe's Uncle George.
Aged 24, he died from wounds in August 1916, having fought since
the beginning of the war. But his body was never found. There is
no corner of a foreign field for him; just his name inscribed on
the Thiepval memorial in France.
George's grieving mother Harriett announced
the death of her "dearly beloved son". Worse was to come. Less
than a year later, in July 1917, Harriett's mourning was deeper.
George's younger brother
Stephen, a 22-year-old Lance Sergeant
in the Queen's Royal West Surrey Regiment, fell at Passchendaele.
Like George he had served since war broke out. His
broken-hearted mother tried to console herself by picturing him
in a British hero's grave.
She couldn't know that Stephen too has no
final resting place.
He is one of the 54,000 men whose shattered
bodies were lost forever in the cloying mud of Flanders Fields.
But though they have no grave, they have a lasting memorial.
Their names are on the Menin Gate, Ypres, and every evening
buglers there sound the Last Post in respect.
The loss of his sons overwhelmed their
father. Aged 66, he killed himself.
Harriett and her remaining
children were left to mourn another Great War victim. For over
thirty years, until she died at the age of 91, Harriett kept her
sons close to her heart. She made a small brooch from a uniform
button. In the hollow centre she placed their photographs. Later
her daughter Clara further honoured their memory by naming one
of her sons after them both. Mr Coombe's first two names are
Mr Coombe had more to reveal. His mother
was born at Elms Farm, Hougham, just like Walter Tull's mother
half a century before. Both mothers shared the maiden surname of
Palmer. Could there be a connection between his family and
Stephen and Clara are names in Walter
Tull's family too. A connection looked excitingly possible.
Unfortunately, it was late evening when I first spoke to Mr Coombe. All the archives were closed,
and I had no internet
access. There was no way of following the trail. I spent a
sleepless night wishing the hours away.
But it was worth it. The next morning, even
before the staff arrived, I was outside the archives, nose
eagerly pressed against the glass doors. After long morning's
investigation, the clues yielded an amazing answer.
Mr Coombe is Walter Tull's cousin. Walter's
mother and Mr Coombe's grandfather were brother and sister. Mr
Coombe lives just two miles from where they were born. Walter
Tull's relatives are still in their ancestral area.
Stunned by the discovery, I met Mr and Mrs
Coombe the next day. They have the dog tag belonging to George
Palmer, a keepsake of a lost son. Movingly, they have too the
beautiful little uniform button, a mother's grief hidden
I have now shaken hands with Walter Tull's
cousin. Thanks to him we've learnt the stories of three further
Dover casualties - and discovered that two were Walter Tull's
first cousins. The War Memorial Project is full of surprises,
and those people named on our War Memorial are special, every single
one of them.
This article first appeared in the Dover Express for 12th
Note. John Alexander Palmer was the father of
casualties Stephen and George. John's first wife, Annie, died in
childbirth in 1887. The child, also Annie, was fostered by
William and Sarah Palmer, the parents of Clara, Daniel Tull's
Thiepval Memorial, France
Menin Gate Memorial, Ypres, Belgium
Stephen Palmer's name on the Menin Gate
2 Young's Cottages, West Hougham -
home of Stephen and Sarah Palmer (grandparents)
Elms Farm, Hougham (mother's
(left) 1 Redvers Cottages, Dover, where
Walter's sister Elsie and half-sister Miriam lived with
their stepfather William Beer, and Miriam's mother,
Walter's stepmother, Clara. They had previously lived at
Little Singledge, by Coldred (below), next to Clara's
brother Henry Palmer
On 5 August 1949, Mr and Mrs Beer,
still at Redvers,
celebrated their Golden Wedding anniversary. They had
been married at Whitfield church, by Rev William Holt
35 Buckland Avenue, Dover, where
Elsie and her husband lived in 1930/2
2 The Paddock, Dover, where Elsie and
her husband lived in 1938
36 Oswald Road, Dover, where William
lodged in 1901
Miriam also lived in Dover with her
husband, Leslie. In 1949 they were living at 3 Queen's
Avenue, and were perhaps at 22 Winchelsea Street before.
all pictures Simon John Chambers