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The First Photograph of the First Tank Men, taken at Bisley


August 23, 2016

Cyril Coles went in to action at the Battle of Flers and was one of the first men tank crewman to be killed. His story is one of the eight featured in The Tank Museum’s Tank Men Exhibition. 

Cyril Coles

Cyril Coles

Cyril William Coles was born at Canford, Dorset in 1893, the son of a corn miller. After conscription was introduced, Cyril enlisted in the Army in February 1916 and went on to join the secret organisation that were to take the first tanks to war. He is pictured in the front row of the one of the earliest photographs the Museum holds of the first tank men (above).

Coles undertook just five months of training before trav­elling to France in August 1916 where he formed one of the eight man crew of tank D15. Coles’ tank went into action on 15th September 1916 at the Battle of Flers– the first ever tank attack. D15 was struck and disabled by enemy artillery, the crew bailed out of the burning tank but enemy machine guns were already di­rected at them.  Coles was shot along with his fellow gunner and both were buried beside the wrecked tank. It is likely that Cyril Coles was one of the very first tank crewman to be killed in action.

After the Armistice, Cyril’s remains were relocated to the Bull Road cemetery to the east of Flers. His memory was kept alive by his brother Donald Coles who, in 1925, named his only son after Cyril.

We have not been able to trace the family further, but would love for any descendants to get in touch. We’re in contact with relatives of several of the first tank men and it would be wonderful to find Cyril’s, especially as he was local.

First World War Memorial featuring Cyril Coles

First World War Memorial featuring Cyril Coles

The story behind Cyril Coles’ inclusion in the Tank Men Exhibition is almost as fascinating as the story itself. A photo of Cyril Coles came to light at Skinner Street United Reformed Church in Poole labelled ‘Killed in the first tank attack at Flers Sept 15th 1916’. This led Melissa Lambert, who discovered the photo, to draw the image to the attention of her sister Sarah Lambert – Exhibitions Manager at the Tank Museum.

Subsequent research identified Cyril Coles in one of the first group photographs of tank crewman which, together with information from the Census and War Diaries, enabled the Museum team to identify which tank he served in at Flers and what happened to Coles and the crew.

In a way ‘finding’ Coles was symbolic of many such men – a name on the memorial at the Church that was passed by on many Sundays by the congregation. Only by a bit more delving does the name become a person.

If you are a relative of Cyril Cole, or know a relative of his, please get in touch by contacting info@tankmuseum.org.

For more on the first tank crews, have a look at our products below.

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  1. A G Stokes tank was D24 not 15

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