Edward Harry Holcombe was born in 1877 in Reigate, the son of Frank and Abigail Holcombe. As a teenager he enlisted with the Queen’s Royal West Surrey Regiment, serving for over 11 years mainly in India, before settling down to civilian life once again in his home town. He married Elizabeth Ann Ware on 11th July 1908 at the church of St Mark with St Phillip in Reigate and in the 1911 Census Edward and Elizabeth are living at 80 Nutley Lane. At the time Edward was making a living as a gardener – in October of that year he gave evidence before the Reigate Bench against a man accused of stealing apples from the garden of Miss Nash of “Gladwin”, Reigate Hill for whom he worked. He wasted no time in enlisting when war was declared, returning to the Queen’s on 10th August 1914, where he joined the hand grenade company.
Holcombe was always willing to take part in the most dangerous missions throughout his military career. On 15th December 1914 he and 23 other volunteers attacked a German patrol ahead of their advance trench. They took a prisoner who was able to provide information enabling a successful attack on the German positions on the 18th. He was promoted to Lance Corporal in April 1915.
Edward was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal “For conspicuous gallantry on May 16th, 1915 at Festubert, when he volunteered to go with a company sergeant major to bomb down a German trench, 500 yards of which they captured, together with 102 prisoners, including three officers”.
The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser of 14th August 1915 contains an account of these events, based upon an interview conducted whilst Holcombe was home on leave.
“The gallant non-commissioned officer has been invalided home suffering from concussion caused by being knocked over by a shell and also rheumatism, and has been spending a few days at his home. He is a fine specimen of manhood, standing some six feet high, and one can readily understand that to him fear never enters into his thinking or estimation. A few minutes conversation convinces one that he is a born fighting man…. Lce. Corpl. Holcombe is keen and anxious to return to the Front, and says he now feels fit to resume his place in the fighting line”.
The article quotes a remarkable letter Edward Holcombe wrote to his wife at the time:-
“The last attack we were in, it was a terrible sight to see the slaughter on the battlefield. How I escaped with only a slight graze I don’t know, but my poor chum got hit three times, one of them being in the shoulder. Then he got one through the leg. I told him to lie still till we could get back to bandage him up, as we had our work cut out to face the Germans. He did not take my tip to lie still. He wanted to still help, and he raised himself up to throw another bomb. Then he got hit straight through the head, which finished him. This raised my blood I can tell you. We went for the Germans left and right, chased them to a communication trench. We were told not to go any further, as it was believed to be too strongly held. Then we asked the officer in charge if we could volunteer to go, and he let us go at our own risk. We captured 99 prisoners, and took altogether a mile and a quarter of trench. There were only seven bomb throwers…”
The “poor chum” referred to in the letter was Capt. Hugh Sale Smart, who had deserted from his post in the 53rd Sikh Regiment to enlist in the 2nd Battalion of the Queen’s as a private under the name of “Thomas Hardy” in order to get into action more quickly.
In 1916 Edward Holcombe was admitted to Fort Pitt Garrison Hospital in Chatham, suffering from Bronchitis. He died there on 21st February from Ulcerative Endocarditis, an inflammation of the heart and heart valves. Newspapers at the time attributed the cause of death to a septic heart caused by shrapnel wounds received in the previous year. He was buried at St Mary’s Church Reigate.
The Dorking and Leatherhead Advertiser of 4th March 1916 describes the funeral and gives a further account of his bravery –
“Another Reigate man has made the great sacrifice for his country. Corpl. E. H. Holcombe, D.C.M., died last week at Chatham from a septic heart, as the result of a shrapnel wound he received last year, and was given a military funeral on Tuesday. It was very impressive, and round the grave at Reigate Cemetery were not only a large number of civilians, but men in khaki, who paid the last tribute of respect and honour to one who distinguished himself more than once in the field of battle. Those who were closely acquainted with Corpl. Holcombe assert that he knew no fear. He was a lion hearted son of the soil, and his name will go down to posterity as one of Reigate’s heroes…
Mr. C. A. Atkins, of Lesbourne Road, who had been invalided out of the Army and with Holcombe at the time, spoke at the graveside to our representative of the dead man’s gallantry. (In March 1915) He swam a river, rescued a man under machine gun fire from the enemy, and returned. They took refuge in an empty house, and while seated, drenched to the skin, a bomb dropped amongst them. Fortunately no one was hurt and they beat a hasty retreat to another house, where they took shelter in the cellar and round a big fire dried their clothes, the Germans all the time shelling the place”.
St. Mary’s was the first church in the borough of Reigate to erect a Calvary in honour of its war dead – while the war was still raging and with an uncertain outcome. The Surrey Mirror of 27th November 1917 reports on the service of dedication. There were already 50 names carved on the memorial, including that of Edward Holcombe, with the inscription “To the glory of God and in loving and grateful memory of those who for our county, our home and for us gave their lives in the Great War 1914 – 19-”.
Edward Harry Holcombe is also remembered on the War Memorial at Reigate and Banstead Town Hall.
Various newspaper clippings about “Private Thomas Hardy” are in the Surrey History Centre Collections of the Surrey Regiments.