11 Nov 2010


I have never been a great fan of commemorations. But there is no escaping the fact that we owe a lot (and perhaps everything, in a sense) to those that came before us and who gave us life. So, on this 11th of November, here is a word about a couple of those who are my direct ancestors and who fought in two world wars.

My paternal grandfather, Ralph Patteson Cobbold, was a case! He was a small and often mischevous man, who always wore a beret (unusual in the England of the 1950's, when I remember him). He was as tough as nails and led an adventurous life, having served in India in the Rifle Brigade, as well as in several other places, including the first World War in the Somme, which he survived. During his time in India he went on a year-long "walkabout", ostensibly on a hunting expedition, in and around the Pamirs, in that shady area where Afghanistan, India, Pakistan, China and Russia come together and vie with one other (and, in those days, with the British Empire) through rival tribes for power and influence. In 1900 he wrote a book (called "Innermost Asia") about the year he spent wandering around this very remote area, officially hunting mountain sheep and tigers, but in fact almost certainly acting as a spy for the British government. At one point the Russians must have tumbled to what he was up to and put him under house-arrest, but he manged to get away. He was given a DSO for his exploits. Here he is at that time (nice coat!):

This was in 1899, and at one point they slept in yurts at minus 27 degrees (the coat must have come in handy). Towards the end of the book he says "it is time to return home as I have no leather left on the soles of my boots".

When, as a child, I asked my father why my grandfather never spoke about the First World War, my father placed me in front of a photograph of my grandfathers' regiment of the Green Jackets (as the Rifle Brigade were known), posing for a group photograph before leaving for the Somme and told me to count the men in the picture. I think I got to about 70. He then told me that just 7 of them returned to England, and that was why my grandfather would never talk about that.

My maternal grandfather was also a professional soldier, although of a far more regular kind. The Hon. Everard Humphrey Wyndham served for a long time in the Life Guards, and won the Military Cross. He also survived the First World War, having started as a captain and finishing as a major. He bacame a Lieutenant-Colonel in 1933 when he also became commanding officer of the Life Guards. He was aide-de-camp to King George VI during the second world war. He was always known as "the colonel". I don't have a photograph of him, but here is a picture of some Life Guards (they are Britain's oldest surviving regiment).

His eldest son, David Wyndham (my uncle), served in the 2nd battalion of the King's Royal Rifle Corps (aka the 60th Rifles) and, having previously fought in Egypt, was killed after the Normandy invasion during the Second World War, in the battle for the Falaise Gap, which succeeded in cutting off a large chunk of the German army in Normandy. My father, Ralph Hamilton Cobbold, survived (luckily for me!) the Normandy invasion, during which he served with the Coldstream Guards in the Guards Armoured Division, finishing with the rank of Major.

Today I think of these people, and so many others.