Actor, playwright and Private in the East Surrey Regiment
Despite his adopted persona as the quintessential, upper-class English gent, Noël Pierce Coward was born in Teddington in 1899, the son of a piano salesman. He was homosexual but as with the majority at that time never publicly admitted it and he remained ‘the congenital bachelor’. In the last stages of the First World War he served in the East Surrey Regiment.
He was conscripted on 23 March 1918. The regimental recruitment register (SHC ref 2496/28) records the recruiting area as Camberwell and gives his address as 111 Ebury Street, Eaton Square, SW [London]. It states that he transferred to the 28th Battalion (Artists Rifles), London Regiment. The Army Medical Officer declared Coward ‘B1’, classified as ‘fit for employment in labour, forestry, and railway units, base units of the medical service, garrison, or regimental outdoor duty, capable of sedentary work as clerks, skilled workmen at their trades’. However due to a tubercular weakness causing ‘30 per cent degree of disablement’ he was later found to be unfit for military service and discharged in August that year.
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Noël Coward’s military service papers are held at The National Archives and are among more than two million soldiers’ service records that have been digitised and are now available on Ancestry.co.uk. They can be searched for free at Surrey History Centre. His papers show that he never saw active service and that soon after transferring out of the East Surreys, he reported sick with a neurological condition.
The medical notes read:
“At 9 years old he was knocked down by a bicycle & concussed. Since then he has been suffering from headaches & vertigo & general nervous debility. He was called up to join the army in June but soon after he reported sick with Neuroasthenia. Admitted to GMH Colchester on 25/6/18”.
Coward’s condition was recorded as ‘hereditary” rather than “constitutional” or “aggravated by service”. The medical assessor noted that while his character might have been “sturdy”, Coward “looks pale, shaky” and that he had an “emotionally unstable family history”. Neuroasthenia, with symptoms including fatigue and headaches, was a popular diagnosis in Edwardian times but less so after the First World War.
Noël Coward went on to become an acclaimed actor, playwright and society darling, and one of the world’s highest-earning writers. He achieved enduring success as a playwright and composer, producing dozens of musical shows and publishing more than 50 plays, including Blithe Spirit and This Happy Breed. He also penned over a hundred songs, including Mad Dogs and Englishmen, London Pride and Don’t Let’s be Beastly to the Germans.
Noël Coward died in Jamaica in 1973. His papers are held at the University of Birmingham Special Collections.
- Recruitment register of the East Surrey Regiment, March 1918 (SHC ref 2496/28)
- For the press release from Ancestry regarding Noël Coward’s service record and those of other famous soldiers, see http://www.census-archives.com/military-records/46-ww1-medal-records.html and the report in The Telegraph online at http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/6500819/Sir-Noel-Coward-the-sturdy-WWI-soldier.html
- Birmingham Special Collections website http://www.birmingham.ac.uk/facilities/cadbury/archives/index.aspx
Text by Di Stiff, Surrey History Centre