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Desmond Coke, as he was known, was born in London on 5th July 1879. He was the youngest son of Major-General John Talbot Coke and Charlotte Fitzgerald.
The family is included in the ‘The Plantagenet Roll of Blood Royal of Britain’.

jtcoke
Desmond’s father, Major-General John Talbot Coke  

A sister, Charlotte Geraldine Coke, later married Lieutenant general Thomas D’Oyly Snow KCB, KCMG. Lt-Gen Snow was in command VII Corps when Desmond arrived in France.

Desmond studied at Oxford, and whilst there was active in the Oxford University Volunteer Battalion (3rd Oxfordshire) between 1899 and 1902. He reached the rank of Lance Corporal.
Prior to, and post war Desmond was a notable novelist and writer of stories for boys. He wrote under his own name and the pseudonym Belinda Blinders. His mother Charlotte was a journalist for women’s magazines. She also published a number of advice books.

On the night of the 1911 Census, Desmond was staying with the Liverpool-born dramatist, Arthur Eckersley in Bournemouth.

descoke card

A cabinet card of, and signed by Desmond Coke. Published with kind permission of Robert M Jones of moresilhouettes.blogspot.co.uk

In 1913 he wrote “The Art of Silhouette”. Coke is described in silhouette collecting circles as being one of fore-founders of the hobby which really took off in the 1920s and is still popular today.
There was little doubt that Desmond would have been granted his commission when War broke out. Aside from who his father was, Desmond was provided character references by his past schoolmasters and a former Under Secretary of State for the War Office.

Desmond Coke was appointed to a temporary commission as a Lieutenant into the 10th (Service) Battalion of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment on 25th October 1914. At the time of his commission he was residing at 16 Dryden Chambers, Oxford Street, London. His permanent address was given as that of his family home at Trusley Manor in Derbyshire.

SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 13 FEBRUARY, 1915.
The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
10th Battalion—
Temporary Lieutenant and Adjutant F. D. T. Coke, to be temporary Captain dated 23rd January 1915.

SUPPLEMENT TO THE LONDON GAZETTE, 17 MARCH, 1915.
The Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.
10th Battalion—
The promotion to the rank of temporary Captain of temporary Lieutenant and Adjutant Francis D. T. Coke, which appeared in
the Gazette of 13th February, 1915, is antedated to the 27th November, 1914.

He sailed to Boulogne with the Battalion on 31st July 1915. One his jobs whilst in France was to complete the Battalion War Diary.

On 1st May 1916 Desmond contracted trench fever. Two days later he received orders to return to England for instruction in Staff Officer duties. Whilst enroute between Boulogne and Folkestone he writes that he “became ill.. so took a cabin”. When he arrived back home he was admitted to 3rd London General Hospital where he remained for the rest of that month. He was discharged to the Royal Bath Hotel in Bournemouth, being ordered to ‘report when fit to the War Office’.

On 30th June 1916 a medical officer at Bournemouth wrote that Captain Coke needed “absolute rest for at least a(nother) month”. He added that he had “a loud systolic murmur.. his tongue is very furred, and he is in a highly nervous condition”.

On 11th August 1916, Desmond had his eyes examined at Boscome, the report concluded;

“he is suffering from eye strain the result of uncorrected astigmatism and of his general condition is at present unfit for duty. I should advise his having another three or four weeks before using his eyes much. Apart from the astigmatism and a certain amount of short sight his eyes are sound”.

On 14th August 1916 the following memorandum was received by the War Office from a doctor in Bournemouth;

“I hereby certify that Captain Desmond Coke’s systolic heart murmur reported six weeks ago has disappeared, and that his general health is better, but he is still suffering from loss of memory, and giddiness, and nervous debility, and is in my opinion it is desirable that he should have an extension of leave for one month”.

Desmond followed this his own letter four days later;

“.. I did not know the seemingly slight trench fever could leave such big after effects – but I am now assured that my heart is normal again and that this further month will complete my convalescence. I therefore beg to express the hope that my orders to report to the War Office when fit may be allowed to stand.

With reference to my suitability for training and employment as a staff officer, I hope that I am breaking no regualtions or convertions by attaching a letter recently received from Col. W. Dennys, my Commanding Officer, 1914-15”.

let1

let2

The letter written by Colonel W Dennys. Commanding Officer Loyal North Lancashire Regiment.

Unfortunately his fever was persistent. Each time further medical boards were held throughout the latter months of 1916, the examining officers would conclude that Desmond was still unfit for duty.

Desmond wrote again to the War Office on 5th January 1917 with some suggestions as to his further employment;

“.. I am advised by my doctor that work early in the day and duty in hot rooms would be two of the worst things for my heart trouble and would soon end in ‘a certain breakdown’, and as I am not anxious for reemployment, I beg most respectfully to offer the following suggestions;

In view of the fact that for 11 years prior to the war I made my living as a journalist and author, might I perhaps be usefully employed in propaganda work, or some light duty in a minor branch of the intelligence department, not demanding attendance early at an office?

As my two most successful novels concerned life at a public school, and as I have also written four school stories especially for boys and was constantly called in by the ‘Daily Mail’ to write an article on any public school topic of the moment, is there any variety of propaganda work along these narrower lines on which I could be usefully employed? (e.g. a tour of lectures to the leading schools; a series of articles on the school OTC etc?)”.

On 28th March 1917 Captain Coke wrote, from his residence at “Craven Lodge, Horsham, Sussex, to the War Office stating that;

…. this morning (I) reported at the Depot, Royal Sussex Regiment in Chichester.. since the last medical board found me (on Jan, 6. 1917) fit for light duty in an office, at my own request, the recurrent fever has unfortunately been back in a more violent form (mid-February) and has made my valvular (sic) trouble of the heart more troublesome, as well as causing me acute insomnia. Having, in accordance with orders from the OC Depot, reported to the MO i/c Depot, he listened to my heart and expressed the opinion, held by my civil doctor, that I was not at present fit for any military duty. I have therefore returned to my home address as above, and await further instruction. I respectfully suggest that as the ‘light duty in an office’ (which I was in any case unable to attain) expires in April another medical board should be allowed to investigate my state of health”.

A medical board was held at Brighton on 16th April 1917, and regretfully concluded that;

“there is no alternative that he should relinquish his commission on the grounds of ill-health contracted on Active Service… he will be granted the honorary rank of Captain, which does not however confer the right to wear uniform unless employed on military duty”.

For his service in the Great War, Captain Desmond Francis Talbot Coke was awarded the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal (with the mentioned in despatches oakleaf).
Having been invalided out of the Army he was invited to become school master of Clayesmore School. Here he tutored future well-known book illustrator Edward Ardizzone, who sought approval of his work from his esteemed teacher.

Throughout his life he was a great collector of books, antiques and paintings. He wrote about his collecting in 1927 in his book ‘Confessions of an Incurable Collector’.

Desmond Coke passed away on 27th April 1931. His probate was handled by the publisher Ralph Sidney Albert Straus and Edward Howell a retired Major. His effects amounted to £87952 8s 10d.  Through his last Will and Testament he donated numerous items to the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

Books written by Desmond Coke

The bending of a twig (1906)
cokebookThe call (1907)
The comedy of age (1906)
The cure (1912)
Helena Brett’s career (1913)
The pedestal (1908)
Beauty for ashes (1910)
The chaps of Harton (1913)
The golden key (1909)
Half-way (1927)
The house prefect (1907)
The monkey tree (1929)
The nouveau poor (1921)
Pamela herself (1922)
The school across the road (1909)
Sandford of Merton (1903)
Stanton (1931)
Wilson’s (1911)
The worm (1927)
The worst house at Sherborough (1913)
Youth, youth . . . ! (1919)
One hour of life (1918)
The art of silhouette (1913)
Confessions of an incurable collector (1928)

Paul McCormick
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Paul McCormick

Paul McCormick is the creator and administrator for the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment website. Since 2010 he has been researching the soldiers that served during the First World War and sharing their stories on his website. You can contact Paul through the website 'Contact Me' page or on Twitter and Facebook.
Paul McCormick
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11 Responses to Captain Francis Desmond Talbot Coke

  1. Dr Robert Muir says:

    Dear Paul,I was very interested in reading your updated article on Desmond. He was my great uncle. My mother’s grandfather was Talbot Coke. My mother’s father D’Ewes Coke, served the whole of the first world war on the front line with the KOSB’s. ( the Mons table cloth in the KOSB museum in Berwick upon Tweed,has his signature embroided twice by the ladies of the village in Mons)… As you point out in your article on Desmond,his sister Geraldine was married to a Snow who was in charge of the retreat from Mons (grandfather of Jon Snow of Channel 4 News)..So there were three members of the Coke/Snow family involved in the war… I am sure that there must have been many families who had numerous members involved in that war…
    I would like to write a biography of Desmond Coke as I think he was a fascinating man with many interesting connections in the art world..Whether I ever do,is another matter!

    Robert Muir

  2. Hugh Thompson says:

    I am writing a profile of Desomond Coke for this year’s Old Clayesmorian managazine. As well as being a benefactor of the school and a House master, he was at one time, before ill health intervened being considered as Head Master. As you have mentioned he had a considerable influence over one of our most famous old boys, Edward Ardizzone. It was Coke the collector,author and creative man who advised the artist to go into book illustration. In which Srdizzonne excelled.

  3. Helena Scott says:

    Desmond Coke’s sister Isabel was my great-grandmother. At the same time as Desmond was suffering from trench fever, his nephew, Isabel’s only son Vere Talbot Bayly, was killed – on the night of 7-8 May 1916, near Authuille, just short of his 20th birthday. So a further member of the family in the war. (Vere’s sister Joan was my mother’s mother.) Thank you very much for all this information about Desmond – I’ve read several of his books with great interest, because of the family connection.

    • Dr Robert Muir says:

      Dear Helena,
      Desmond was my great uncle..so it is great to hear about you!I have been trying to research Isabel Bayly’s story for a longtime.along with my research on Desmond(whose biography I dream of writing).earlier in the year I inherited ( from my sister) four albums of postcards of Charlotte Coke (Isabel and Desmond’s mother)..which are amazing… I was looking at them and scanning them onto my computer at the time of Brexit..which was very distressing,,as so many people ( including Cokes) lost their lives over europe as the Uk were about to leave and,as a result ,lead to the break up of europe…
      I don’t know where you live.. We are in Wiltshire,I am a retired GP..
      Do get in touch .
      best wishes ,
      Robert Muir
      07774 680598

  4. Andy Barnett says:

    Hello. One small point of interest – looking at a book in my collection, I found the name Desmond Coke and the date 1919 inscribed in the front page. Judging by the writing on the photograph on this page, this book once belonged to the very man. How it ended up in a second-hand bookshop in Perth, who knows? Thank you.

  5. Lucy London says:

    Does anyone know if Desmond Coke wrote any poetry? I am researching ‘forgotten poets of the First World War’ for a series of commemorative exhibitions (see weblog http://www.forgottenpoetsofww1.blogspot.co.uk) Thank you for a most interesting website.

    • Not that I am aware of Lucy. He did write the forward to ‘There is no death’ which was a collection of poems by fellow 10th Bn officer Richard Molesworth Dennys and published after he was killed in action.

  6. Rob Cochrane says:

    Hi Paul, I am researching a First World War Poet called Tom Sefton 1889-1935, whose Company Commander was Captain Desmond Coke. Sefton was published in the Manchester Guardian, but after his death in 1935 a small collection, simply entitled ‘Poems’ was published in his native Stockport by the Cloister Press the following year. Almost impossible to find, it was a tiny edition. It details that he destroyed many of his war poems, and that ‘He had three years of war and the spirit of the boy who travelled out of the racket of the mill into the poet’s realms of gold made him restless and unhappy when circumstances changed him from a front-line soldier into a clerk at Rouen Headquarters. By his own efforts and those of his company commander, Captain Desmond COKE ‘himself the author of the school classic ‘The Bending Of A Twig’, he escaped within a few weeks to trench life again. He was blown up at Messines, and came back to England lacking a hand.’ I was wondering if you had encountered Sefton in your research? I am editing a selection of poetry by 12 lesser known WW1 poets ‘As Ash Follows Fire’, and he is the only contributor I have no photo of, and know precious little about. Thought it might be opportune to ask. Hope you can point me in some fresh direction. Thanks & Best Wishes, Rob Cochrane

  7. Dr Robert Muir says:

    Hi Rob, I am fascinated by your interest in Tom Sefton and his connection with Desmond Coke. Desmond was my great uncle and I am continuing to research his life( recently visiting the Fales Library in New York to review the material they have on him)..I have a photograph of Desmond Coke in the 10th Battalion Loyal Lancashire regiment which also shows Richard Dennys (DD..to Desmond who was his friend_)Perhaps Tom Sefton is in the photograph?I will happily send you a copy..
    I would be very interested to hear of anything more you have about Desmond.

    • rob cochrane says:

      Hi Robert, Sadly the small amount of information, gleaned from the introduction to Tom Sefton’s book, and posted in my initial request, is all I have about Desmond. The photo sounds fascinating, and I’d love to see it, although as far as Tom Sefton is concerned I’ve no idea who I’m looking for , but with a little more research I may manage to locate him. Hopefully, he is there, which would be wonderful All the best for now & good luck with your work. Best Wishes & Thanks, Rob

  8. Dr Robert Muir says:

    Hi Rob,
    my phone :07774680598..i’ll happily send you a couple of photos I have of Desmond.text me your email address,or phone!..
    Best wishes,
    Robert

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