James COATES 1884 – 1918

197785, Sapper James Coates, 255th Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers died of wounds 31 May 1918.  He was 34 years old and is buried at Lijssenhoek Military Cemetery, Belgium[1] and is commemorated on the Howden-le-Wear War Memorial.

Family Details

James was born 15 August 1884 [2] at Witton-le-Wear, County Durham, the son of William and Mary Coates.  There were at least 5 children:

  • Thomas bc.1871 born at Crackpot, Yorkshire
  • Mary bc.1876 born at Crackpot, Yorkshire
  • Leonard bc.1879 born at Crackpot, Yorkshire
  • Jane Ann bc.1882 born at Crackpot, Yorkshire
  • James born 1884 born at Witton-le-Wear, County Durham
Back: unknown; possibly Francis Taylor; Thomas
Middle: Mary; William with James and Mary
Front: Jane Ann & Leonard

The Coates family originated from Crackpot, in Swaledale and Mary from nearby Arkingarthdale, Yorkshire, a lead mining area to the south.  By 1891, the family lived at High Grange where 48 years old William worked as a coal miner as did his 20 years old oldest son Thomas.  The 3 youngest children were still at school.  A boarder, 32 years old Francis Taylor, also from Swaledale lived with them.[3] By 1901, William was a widower.  He and Thomas worked as coal miners [hewers] and 16 years old James was a coal miner [putter].[4]

1906:  31 July, aged 21, James married Hannah Mills.  They had 4 children:[5]

  • Mary born 6 February 1907 at North Bitchburn
  • Doris born 23 October 1908 at North Bitchburn
  • William born 24 June 1911 at North Bitchburn
  • Ralph born 24 October 1913 at Howden-le-Wear

In 1911, James and Hannah lived at Constantine Road, North Bitchburn with their 2 children, Mary and Doris.  James, 26 years old, worked as a coal miner [hewer].[6] In 1915, the family lived at Valley Terrace, Howden-le-Wear.[7] Later, Hannah lived at 8 Low Row, North Bitchburn.[8]

Service Details

James Coates enlisted into the 8th Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment [Princess Alexandra’s Own], joined “B” Company and was given the regimental number 19537.[9] At a later date he was transferred to the Royal Engineers, 255th Tunnelling Company and given a new regimental number, 197785 .[10] Since, the details of Private J. Coates service record is unknown, for the purpose of this work, it is assumed that being a miner, he volunteered for a transfer when the new tunnelling companies were being established.  An incentive was higher pay.

197785 Sapper James Coates RE, formerly 19457 Yorkshire Regiment

22 September 1914: The 8th [Service] Battalion, the Yorkshire Regiment [Alexandra Princess of Wales’ Own] was formed at Richmond, Yorkshire as part of K3 and in October it was attached to 69th Brigade, 23rd Division.[11]  Battalions of the 69th Brigade were:[12]

  • 11th [Service] Bm., the West Yorkshire Regiment
  • 8th [Service] Bn., the Yorkshire Regiment
  • 9th [Service]Bn., the Yorkshire Regiment
  • 10th [Service] Bn., the Duke of Wellington’s
  • 69th Machine Gun Company 4 March 1916 to April 1918
  • 69th Trench Mortar Battery formed 23 June 1916

27 August 1915: Private J. Coates entered France [13] with his Division.  It landed at Boulogne and proceeded to concentrate near Tilques.

5 September:  The 23rd Division was attached to III Corps and moved to the Merris-Vieux Berquin area, where trench familiarisation began under the tutelage of the 20th (Light) and 27th Divisions.

14 September:  The Division took responsibility for a front line sector for the first time, taking over between Ferme Grande Flamengrie to the Armentieres-Wez Macquart road, holding the front at Bois Grenier. It remained in this area for a considerable time. [14]

I have assumed that Private J. Coates was transferred to the Royal Engineers about January 1916 when the 255th Tunnelling Company was formed.

255th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers [15]

January 1916: the 255th Tunnelling Company RE was formed, taking some officers and men from the 173rd.  It moved into the Red Lamp-Neuve Chapelle sector.[16]  In the Spring 1916, it was relieved by the 3rd Australian Tunnelling Company at Leventie-Fauquissart. [17]

In early 1917, it was posted to the Calonne-Souchez sector and was engaged in digging subways named Marble Arch, Bully Subway, Gum Boot and Rotten Row to the Vimy front.[18]  At this time, the 255th also constructed two 50,000-gallon underground water reservoirs for the supply of forward troops in the Vimy attack of April 1917.[19]  Later in the year, part of the company worked in tunnels near the Sunken Road, Givinchy.[20]

The German Offensive, Spring 1918: an overview

3 March 1918:  Soviet Russia made peace with Germany by virtue of the Treaty of Brest-Litovsk.  As a result, Germany could now transfer troops from the Eastern Front to the Western Front.  More importantly, these Divisions included the original elite of the German Army – the Guards, Jagers, Prussians, Swabians and the best of the Bavarians. In all, 192 Divisions could be deployed to the Western Front.  The Allies could field 178 Divisions. [21]  A single division numbered about 19,000 men. [22]  Ludendorff could call upon about 3,650,000 men as opposed to the Allies 3,380,000.  Thus, the Germans now held superiority in numbers.  

The German High Command needed victory before the American Forces arrived in Europe in huge numbers.  America entered the war 6 April 1917 and in the July, Pershing [General of the Armies of the United States] asked for an army of 3 million men.  The first troops arrived in France 26 June 1917.[23] The training and build-up obviously took time but eventually by June 1918, the Americans were receiving about 250,000 men a month in France.  This amounted to 25 divisions in or behind the battle zone and another 55 in the United States ready to join the action.[24]

Elsewhere, the French were able to draw on a new annual class of conscripts after a year of inactivity but the British were worn down by continuous fighting during the summer of 1917 with major offensives at Arras, Messines, Passchendaele and Cambrai.[25]  The strength of the British infantry had fallen from 754,000 in July 1917 to 543,000 in June 1918 producing a manpower crisis.[26]

21 March 1918:  the German Offensive was launched.  There were 5 phases: [27]

  • 21 March – 5 April: Operation Michael, against the British, the Battle of Picardy (otherwise known as the First Battle of the Somme 1918)
  • 9 – 11 April: Operation Georgette, against the British, the Battle of Lys, centred on Armentieres
  • 27 April: Operation Blucher-Yorck, against the French sector along Chemin des Dames, the Third Battle of Aisne
  • 9 June: Operation Gneisenau, against the French sector between Noyan and Montdider, the Battle of the Matz
  • 15 – 17 July: Operation Marne-Rheims, the final phase known as the Second Battle of the Marne.

The Germans enjoyed spectacular territorial gains particularly during the initial phases of the offensive but the cost in manpower was enormous:

  • Between 21 March and 10 April, the 3 main assaulting armies had lost 303,450 men – 1/5th of their original strength.
  • The April offensive against the British in Flanders was eventually computed to have cost 120,000 men out of a total of 800,000.[28]

April 1918:  The 255th Tunnelling Company was in the Ypres sector when the great German attack [Operation Georgette] commenced.  Known as the Battle of the Lys to the British, the battle front of about 25 miles, centred on Armentieres, and stretched to the north to the River Yser and to the south to La Bassee. [29] There were 8 phases: [30]

  • 9 – 11 April:  The Battle of Estaires when the line held by the Portuguese crumbled and is noteworthy for the defence of Givenchy.
  • 10 – 11 April: The Battle of Messines.
  • 12 – 15 April: The Battle of Hazebrouck including the defence of Hinges Ridge and the Nieppe Forest.
  • 13 – 15 April: The Battle of Bailleul including the defence of Neuve Eglise.
  • 17 – 19 April: The First Battle of Kemmel.
  • 18 April: The Battle of Bethune including the second defence of Givenchy.
  • 25 – 26 April: The Second Battle of Kemmel.
  • 29 April:  The Battle of the Scherpenberg.

It was during this offensive, that 11 April 1918, Field Marshall Sir Douglas Haig, Commander-in-Chief of the British Armies in France issued his, “Special Order of the Day” in which he ordered: [31]

“…There is no other option open to us but to fight it out.  Every position must be held to the last man: there must be no retirement.  With our backs to the wall and believing in the justice of our cause each one of us must fight on to the end…” 

The British forces, including the 255th Tunnelling Company, withdrew from indefensible positions on the Passchendaele Ridge east of Ypres.  When the Germans broke through, the 255 Tunnelling Company together with 171, 184 and the 3rd Canadian Tunnelling Companies rendezvoused at Boeschepe.  The German advance soon put Boeschepe in range of its guns.  173, 183 and 258 TC arrived from the south and they were all put to work on digging trenches over the 20 miles from Reninghelst to positions near St. Omer.  Trenches were dug and wired, work on rear communications, bridges, roads, tracks, causeways, scrub cutting, machine gun pill boxes, shelters, command posts, in addition to supervising labour was carried out – much was under machine gun and light trench mortar fire.[32] 

British troops held out.  German advances made by the Georgette offensive did not meet up with those positions to the south, previously gained by Operation Michael.  Military historians point to Givinchy as the key to the Battle of the Lys.  Defensive positions at Givenchy were probably the most strongly fortified on the British front.

“More than one of their commanders has paid tribute to the work of the Tunnellers in the creation of this vital and impregnable position.” [33]

The sappers of 255th Tunnelling Company had done their work well. 

27 May – 6 June:  The next German onslaught took place to the south of the Somme, around Soissons which was known to the British as, the Battle of the Aisne.[34]

Having survived the Battle of the Lys, Sapper J. Coates was killed in action 31 May 1918.[35]  It is recorded that 255th Tunnelling Company lost 15 men on this date, either killed in action or died of wounds.[36] Clearly, there was some local action which brought about these casualties and only research of the battalion war diary would provide details.  It is assumed that they were killed as a result of the usual hate of warfare, most likely by artillery shellfire.  

James’ wife Hannah was informed by letter dated 8 June 1918 that he’d been killed in action.[37]

Hannah also received a letter dated 2 June 1918 from the Battalion Chaplain, Sergeant A.G. Marriott.  It reads:[38]

“It is with the deepest sympathy that I write to you at this sad time that you are experiencing in the death of your dear husband.  He was a good, trustworthy man whom everybody who knew him esteemed and respected.  Under the painful circumstances please accept all the consolations his comrades and myself send you.  I know you will be brave, also you know where to look for comfort and consolation, unto the one who gave his life for us.  Whose words are – greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.  We went to a service together the night he was called away, Jim always paid great attention to the things that matters most [the spiritual part] His good influence will live on as he always tried to let his light shine before his fellow men.  I cannot write and tell you any particulars except that he did not suffer but was called suddenly away to his maker.  It may be of some slight comfort to know, he was buried quite decently and the last rights performed by a Chaplain, Sgt. A.G. Marriott, 197791 No.1 Section, 255 Coy. RE BEF.  If there is anything that you think I could do please let me know.  Give my love to Mary and the other children and my best wishes and prayers to yourself.  May God bless you and help you to bear your burden.

Yours Respect

A.G. Marriott”

Sapper J. Coates received the 1914-15 Star, the British War and Victory medals.[39]


Sapper James Coates is buried at grave reference 28.F.10, Lijssenhoek Military Cemetery, Belgium.  The following epitaph is inscribed on his headstone: [40]

Until We Meet Again

Ever Remembered

His Loving Wife and Children


Sapper James Coates is commemorated on the Howden-le-Wear war memorial.  The memorial was unveiled 11 November 1924 by Capt. R.A. Howe of Willington and dedicated by Rev. R. Spencer, vicar of Howden-le-Wear.  It commemorates 33 men who fell in the 1914-1918 war.  Pte J. Coates is recorded as serving with the E.Y. [East Yorkshire Regiment].[41]

There was also a Roll of Honour in St. Mary the Virgin, Church Street, Howden-le-Wear which closed 27 January 2008.  The Roll of Honour is in the possession of the Local History Society.  It commemorates 38 men including “Coates J.”[42]

Bronze Commemorative Plaque


[1] Commonwealth War Graves Commission

[2] Family details

[3] 1891 census Note: recorded as “son-in-law” on the 1881 census.  Daughter Mary was not recorded on the 1891 census.

[4] 1901 census

[5] Soldiers Book p.9

[6] 1911 census

[7] Soldiers Book p.7

[8] CWGC

[9] Soldiers Book p.28 Army Form B243

[10] CWGC

[11] https://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-british-infantry-regiments-of-1914-1918/alexandra-princess-of-waless-own-yorkshire-regiment-green-howards/

[12] http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/order-of-battle-of-divisions/23rd-division/

[13] Medal Roll Card Index

[14] http://www.longlongtrail.co.uk/army/order-of-battle-of-divisions/23rd-division/

[15]longlongtrail.co.uk/army/regiments-and-corps/the-corps-of-royal-engineers-in-the-first-world-war/tunnelling-companies-of-the-royal-engineers-underground-warfare/ and “Tunnellers: The Story of the Tunnelling Companies, Royal Engineers, during the World War” 1936 Capt. W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman

[16] Grant Grieve p.88

[17] Gant Grieve p.109

[18] Grant Grieve p.150

[19] Grant Grieve p.154

[20] Grant Grieve p.164

[21] “The Somme” Hart p.421

[22] CWGC

[23] http://www.firstworldwar.net/timeline

[24] Hart p.437

[25] http://www.1914-1918.net/batt22.htm

[26] Hart p.437

[27] Hart p.426 & timeline

[28] Hart p.435

[29] “A Military Atlas of the First World War” 1989 A. Banks p.180

[30] http://www.warpath.orbat.com/battles_ff/1918_pt1.htm

[31] https://www.firstworldwar.com/source/backstothewall.htm

[32] Grant Grieve p.288-290

[33] Grant Grieve p.291

[34] http://www.warpath.orbat.com/battles_ff/1918_pt1.htm

[35] Army Form B.104-82 dated 8 June 1918

[36] Soldiers Died in the Great War

[37] Army Form B.104-82

[38] Family records

[39] Medal Roll Card Index

[40] CWGC

[41] http://www.newmp.org.uk/detail.php?contentId=7538#listlink

[42] http://www.newmp.org.uk/detail.php?contentId=7539#listlink