Lawrence Comments

John Lawrence Cohen Comments

John Lawrence Cohen left a short remembrance of his service during the Great War. This is my commentary on that document. His legal name was John Lawrence Cohen, he started using Coyne, as did the whole family, after WW I, and he never became a US citizen. He preferred to be called Lawrence while alive and in this commentary I will use that name. Lawrence was my grandfather's, Thomas Coyne's, brother. Wartime letters he wrote to his mother and news items about him appeared in the Utica newspapers. A research project was commissioned on his military record and we have his remembrance of the war. These are all available at my website, Coynegen. Follow the link to my tree for more notes about John Lawrence Coyne. This tree is also available on as Coyne 2010 or Oneida County 2011. An on line map of East Africa is available on wikipedia.

The commissioned report was paid for by myself, Bruce Coyne, my uncle, John Lawrence Coyne, and my cousin, Allie Kipers Leach Silsby. The team of “Bernard's Home Movies” fame. It was done in 2005 by Great War Family Research, 8 Overell Grove, Leamington Spa, Warwickshire CV32 6HP, United Kingdom, www. This company was able to find my grandfathers, Thomas Coyne, war records in an earlier project. These records can now be searched for on if you have an international membership. Sadly they were not able to find anything on Lawrence, which is not surprising as only 30% or so of the records survive to this day. All of the veterans names are found on the Medal Rolls, a list of all medals earned during the war. There were many possibles but we were unable to discern which was our Lawrence.

One stood out as having served in the Army Service Corps which was responsible for transportation, including trucks. He then transferred to the Royal Engineer's Inland Waterways and Railways or WR. This special unit would have made it more likely he served in a wide range of theaters. Waterways were especially important in Mesopotamia and the railways were vital in East Africa. We could not confirm the medal record was our Lawrence.

The following wikipedia entry on the Royal Engineers sheds some light on his possible duties;

The Royal Engineers, Ports Section, operated harbours and ports for the army and used mainly specialised vessels such as tugs and dredgers. Although the former Submarine Mining Service badge had been incorporated into their Ensign, which was been designated 'Royal Engineers' after Submarine Mining was transferred to the Admiralty in 1904, the badge was made obsolete in 1909. However at the beginning of the 1914-1918 War, Inland Water Transport (IWT), previously part of the War Department Fleet, was transferred to the Royal Engineers and in 1915 the old Submarine Mining/Royal Engineers badge was reintroduced with pattern again sealed (L of C 17226).

IWT ran barges on rivers and canals up to the front line in France. Later their responsibilities were extended, and by 1916 they were also operating ships and train ferries across the Channel from a purpose built port at Richborough. IWT vessels were also in East Africa, and Mesopotamia (Iraq) where they moved supplies on the Tigris and Euphrates from Basra to Baghdad; by 1918 over 1600 vessels were there, mainly chartered or requisitioned. IWT was disbanded in 1924, but revived in 1939. During the 1939-1945 War IWT was active in North Africa, India, British Malaya, Burma, Iraq, Normandy, Belgium, and the Netherlands.

In a letter published September 1, 1918, Lawrence writes that he doesn't know “if I am a soldier or sailor, but upon either horseback or ship, I am certainly seeing and learning.” His confusion may stem from the recent transfer of the IWT from the Navy to the Army and his presence on board a ship. It doesn't seem that a regular soldier on a troopship would be chosen to row officers ashore. Much more likely to be a member of the ships crew or someone assigned to a unit specializing in water transport. The date of publication is almost at the end of the war but it sounds as if Lawrence is on his way to Basra via Cape Town and Bombay which I would place in early 1917. The fact that the IWT ran barges in France may mean that Lawrence was in the IWT when he was wounded although his brother Thomas thinks he was in a mounted unit.

His letters home during the war are more interesting and follow the narrative of his remembrance. His brothers letters also appeared and, where events of known date are mentioned, we are able to form an idea of the time between writing and publication. If this could be established, it might be possible to date events by the dates of publication. Some letters took 2 months, others much longer, so that no consistent dating appears possible. The Cohen/Coyne family saga became a staple for the Utica Observer-Dispatch, Utica, NY, and they published a letter every few months. Their mother, Ellen Craig Coyne, probably saved them all and the paper picked what they thought was the best of the lot when one was needed. Some of Lawrence's seem to be 6 months to a year behind actual events.


The heart of this project must be the remembrance. It was written February 17, 1929 by Lawrence J Coyne, 175 Maple Ave., Clark Mills, NY, and titled “The Hunter Hunted”. His military record serves as a short introduction to the story of his misadventure hunting wild boar with a spear. The whole story can be found on my website. Allie's collection has the original but she sent me copies. The handwriting is beautiful and it was proof read and corrected. He was, after all, a professional writer. Here is the introduction.

"The Hunter Hunted"

On August 8th 1914 I happened to be home with the folks. An unusual thing for me. I am subject to fits of roaming. England had joined the war and my feet were itching to go.

That night I took a train for Boston. Three days later I sailed from the Water street docks on the Leyland-line steamer Colonian as a cattle-hand bound for Havenmouth, and the Prince Albert docks-after unloading-for a return cargo. I never returned to her. Ten days I spent in London, five getting drunk-to forget the trip-and five sobering up, then-I joined the army. It took those hard-boiled limy Sergeants two weeks to learn me how to carry a rifle, then they bid me Cheerio and sent me-one dark and stormy night-to join that thin red line of Anglo-Saxons; somewhere in Belgium.

I mud-dled through that little affair in Belgium and France until the second battle of the Ancre in November 1916,-at St-pere-Divion (St. Pierre Divion 13 November 1916) and Sere-Whee-ee-uw wham! Jerry dropped an old G.I. Can (Galvanized Iron Garbage Can, a reference to a large caliber artillery round) in the midst of me and others. I joined the hospital-singing; take me back to dear old blighty. I came out of Warncliffe war hospital in Sheffield only to find that someone-had blundered-and started an argument in Mesopotamia. I've heard of worse places than the country of Mess. but they say they are covered up. I've heard of worse experiences than sailing up and down- the Persian gulf from Bombay to Basra in a lighter. BUT, not so much. They sent the worst of us back to Durban, South Africa. Seven weeks in the Hospital and rest camp on Marine parade and I got rid of a little case of Black-water [malaria] and a slight touch of Dysentery.

Then they found me again. Soon I was on my way to German East Africa attached to the 10th S. African Horse under an old Boer War veteran, we landed at Dir-a-Salaam [Dar-es-Salaam]. After two days and nights of an airy train ride-on flat cars drawn by a wood burning engine (probably showered by cinders the whole way), we made camp at Dodoma. The following morning we were on the track of General Nieuman [Lieutenant Heinrich Naumann] and his black Askarre's [Askaris - African soldiers]. We landed him at last 72 miles from Dodoma, in the hills at a place called Moragora [2 October 1917].

We shipped a few days later from Dira-Salaam and took up the chase from Kilwa-Kiswarni of General Von-Letow [Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck], the chief of all German activities in that country. Kilwa is the real heart of one year and 201 days I will never forget. We never caught Von Letow but drove him over the border [Mozambique or Portuguese East Africa] at the Revuma [Rovuma river ] and the fighting was over [25 November 1917]. What was left of our outfit went into camp on the banks of the river to rest, wait for rations and medical aid. A week later they reached us, and we soon began to feel better.

Getting to France

We start by noting that this remembrance was written 11 years after the war. There is some evidence he romanticized his story, as do we all. In 1914, the Colonian was the White Star Line, Bovic. It wasn't transferred to the Leyland Line and renamed Colonian until 1922. It was, however, a cattle carrier. It appears that if you joined the British Army in the States , they paid your way to the war and home again, if necessary.

If his time line is correct, he enlisted in England around September 1914. Thomas Cohen, my grandfather and Lawrence's older brother, came to the US in 1907 and returned to 4 Clive St., New Bank, Halifax, Yorkshire in 1909 where he lived with his wife and four children. Thomas enlisted July 20, 1915, joining the West Riding Regiment. It might be thought that Lawrence would stay with his brother and that they might join the same unit. I wonder if, when he enlisted, he used Clark Mills or Halifax as his address. He probably visited his brother and may have used Halifax as an address where he could be reached.

A letter from Thomas to his mother, published September 1, 1918, stated;

I expected to see Lawrence at Halifax on my return from the hospital, but I was ordered back two days before he arrived. He is not in the trenches but is with the mounted division of the Royal Engineers.

So Lawrence did visit his brother and was not in the same unit but in a mounted unit of the Royal Engineers. My uncle John told me that he was a truck driver and this may be the meaning of mounted. In 1918, Lawrence was in East Africa, not Yorkshire. Thomas was wounded on July 3, 1916 and sent to hospital in England, returning to France in March 1917. Lawrence was wounded November 1916 and also sent to an English hospital. This may have been the missed meeting, assuming Thomas had to report to a depot, not France If so, it shows the difficulty of using publishing dates to establish event dates.


Lawrence was wounded at the battle of St. Pierre Divion, which was taken November 13, 1916. This was a continuation, or forth phase, of the Somme offensive. He was hit by artillery fire and got, like Thomas, a “blighty” or wound that, while not that serious, was sufficient to get him back to England. Thomas was sent to Southern General Hospital at Plymouth. Lawrence mentions Wharncliffe War Hospital but we have no description of his wound. Wharncliffe was in Sheffield. I emailed the Sheffield Archives and received an informative and prompt reply, part of which follows;

In January 1915 the central government Board of Control for Lunacy and Mental Deficiency set aside 15,000 asylum beds to be used for sick and wounded soldiers. The West Riding Asylum at Wadsley on the outskirts of Sheffield, was one of the locations thus selected as a war hospital. Wadsley Asylum, as it was then known, was adapted for military use under the name of the 'Wharncliffe War Hospital' with, at its largest, 2039 beds including 112 'shake-downs'. It was placed under the general supervision of the Officer in Command of the 3rd Northern General Hospital in Sheffield, with the asylum's medical superintendent, with the rank of lieutenant colonel, appointed by the War Office in local command. Wharncliffe War Hospital closed on 31st July 1920, having treated nearly 37,000 patients since opening on 1st April 1915.
Sheffield Archives holds patient and administrative records for Wadsley Asylum, including admission registers, but there is a break in these records as no admissions were recorded between 14th March 1915 and 28th January 1921. As such, if the records left to you indicate your Great Uncle spent some time in Wharncliffe Hospital, I am afraid we aren't going to be able to help you. My suggestion in this case would be that you might like to contact the National Archives in London, to see if they can help.
Sheffield Archives does hold records for two other military hospitals, namely admission and discharge books (Field Service), 1916-1919, Winter Street Military Hospital (3rd Northern General Hospital) (our ref. NHS37/7/1/1-6); and an admission and discharge book (infectious diseases), 1914-1920, Lodge Moor Hospital (our ref. NHS37/8/1/1). I only mention these, just in case you think John might ever have been admitted to a hospital other than Wharncliffe.

The National Archives referred me back to Sheffield Archives.


Wounded in October 1916 and sent to hospital in England, he might have been discharged and found himself in Iraq in early 1917. The letter published September 1, 1918 may have been written on his way to Mesopotamia. The harbor he mentions could have been Douala, Cameroons, captured from the Germans in 1914. They sank several ships in an attempt to block the harbor.

The most memorable event in Mesopotamia seems to be the cruise from Bombay to Basra. There was some fighting in 1917, as follows; (From

The Battle of Mohammed Abdul Hassan (9 January 1917)
The Battles of the Hai salient, Dahra Bend and the Shumran Peninsula
(11 January - 24 February 1917)
The Capture of Baghdad (11 March 1917)
The Battle of Istabulat (21 April 1917)
The Battle of 'The Boot' at Band-i-Adhaim (30 April 1917)
The Battle of Tikrit (5 November 1917)

He might have seen some action but never mentions it. Malaria and dysentery sent him to Durban and he could have gotten them anywhere. If my assumptions about his being in the IWT and the time line are correct, he could have been engaged barging supplies between Basra and Baghdad. He does say “sailing up and down from Bombay to Basra” so perhaps his duties were more on salt water then fresh.


Few records from the military hospital seem to exist but at the time it was a huge affair. The following was taken from the “Facts About Durban” site.

Durban became a considerable hospital centre during the First World War. In May 1918, it contained No. 3 General Hospital, seven other hospitals and two convalescent camps, to which sick and wounded were brought from East Africa and other theatres of war. I was recently reading a journal on the history of Metropolitan Durban by Peter Johnston, and it seemed that many normal activities and the development of Durban, came to a virtual standstill during the first world war, due to the towns response in support for the war effort.

There were frequent fund raising activities to finance the effort as well as massive recruiting drives. Local papers, daily covered the progress of the war, including photographs of some local Durban men serving in the armed forces. There was also a roll of honour section, which carried the names of the wounded and dead. It's interesting to note that a young woman by the name of Ethel Campbell used to stand on north pier waving flags, greeting and bidding farewell to ships coming and going from Durban. She became known as the "girl with the flags".

During this time, the Y.M.C.A erected a hut in the centre of town and provided refreshments for the troops as well as organized parties to welcome returning troops. Many houses on the Berea were used as military convalescent homes. Entertainment also included concerts at Albert and Mitchell Park.

In 1915, after the sinking of the Lusitania by a German submarine, tensions ran high in Durban and many German owned businesses were gutted by fire by anti-German elements. Buildings that fell prey to these acts of arson included the Alexander hotel, Muller & Company and Baumann's Bakery. It was ironic to note that Muller & Company was actually a Dutch owned and the owner of Baumann's Bakery had sons serving in the South African Army. The First World War had firmly established Durban as a port.

Black Water Fever is a serious complication of malaria that can lead to kidney failure. Diseases and the insects that spread them were the real enemies in Africa. In 1916 the ratio of non-combat casualties to combat was about 30 to 1.

The locals did indeed seem supportive of the troops in hospital. In his letter published February 22, 1918, Lawrence mentionsPretonia, a local woman. I wonder if they talked about Clark Mills and upstate New York. Lawrence had seen a lot of the world and led many adventures and so could probably spin a cracking yarn.

East Africa

Lawrence mentions a period of 1 year, 201 days. If the last day is the end of the war then the dates are 24 April 1917 to November 11, 1918. The first date might mark his arrival in Durban. Seven weeks in hospital must have been very welcome as his letter published February 22, 1918 shows. He would have been discharged from hospital around the end of June 1917.

A good book about this war is “The Great War in Africa” by Byron Farwell. It gives an excellent account of the fighting in Africa throughout the whole war. Chapter 24, “New Leaders and a New Phase” concerns the portion that Lawrence might have seen. I will rely heavily on it in this section. Wikipedia also gives an excellent account of the fighting in East Africa.

After May 1917, the forces in East Africa were commanded by Major General Louis Jacob Van Deventer, as Lawrence says, an old Boer War veteran. The army was in poor shape and short on supplies. His first job was to get it back into fighting shape and there was fighting to do. Captain Max Wintgens took off on his own and lead a German column north in an apparent attempt to cut British held rail lines. After he was captured, Lieutenant Heinrich Naumann took command and continued north.

Shortly after he assumed command, Deventer asked for mounted reinforcements and the 10th South African Horse was raised and sent to East Africa. Nigerian, Belgian and British troops were also sent and all were soon in the hunt for Naumann. By the end of the war, 90% of the troops were black and only 4% of the British forces were from England. Apparently Lawrence was part of this 4000 man strong force. It is rather puzzling to attach a IWT unit to a Calvary unit. Perhaps Lawrence's connection was the two day train ride to Dodoma. After reaching Dodoma by rail they struck north. Near Kilimanjaro, and the border with British East Africa, Neumann was surround by the Kings African Rifles, South African Horse and the Cape Corps, surrendering on October 2, 1917.
In September 1917 Gen. Deventer moved his headquarters to Kilwa in preparation of running down the last German unit still fighting. This was lead by the top German military man, and heart of the resistance, Major General Paul Emil von Lettow-Vorbeck. The Germans had been too weak to oppose the British directly and so had fought a guerrilla war, at which Lettow-Vorbeck proved a master. He forced them to tie down much larger forces in their pursuit of him while he traveled light and lived off the land. Apparently Lawrence now joined this chase.

A bloody fight that ended , pretty much, in a draw took place at Mahiwa on October 17 1917. Lettow-Vorbeck couldn't afford the loss of men as well as the British. He left his sick and wounded, along with his prisoners, for the British to find at Chiwata. Meanwhile he escaped over the nearby Rovuma river into Portuguese Mozambique on November 25, 1917.

According to Lawrence this was the end of the fighting. It may have been for him but for others it went on to 1918. Lettow-Vorbeck's route took him all through Mozambique and into and out of Rhodesia, the British at his heels. He never was caught and returned to Germany a hero.


The commissioned report on Lawrence suggested that he might have been part of a Royal engineer unit specializing in railways and waterways. Everything I have found so far seems consistent with that view and I am taking it as a working hypothesis. It seems doubtful he would have seem front line action although he clearly faced danger from artillery and disease.

Naumann was captured at the northern edge of German East Africa, at Kilimanjaro, almost into British East Africa on October 2. On November 25, Lettow-Vorbeck crossed the Rovuma, the southern border of German East Africa. That gives two months for Lawrence to have been moved from one end of the country to the other. It's about 250 miles from Kilimanjaro to Dodoma through the brush and two days by rail to Dar-es-Salaam. He may have been left behind to service the railroad at Dodoma while the other units went north after Neumann. This would explain how he shipped from Dar-es-Salaam a few days after Neumann was caught.

Kilwa-Kiswarni, a historic island seaport, was the heart of his African service and I would suggest that after leaving Dodoma, Lawrence spent most of his remaining service there. His duties may have included moving supplies from Kilwa to troops on the mainland or upriver by barge or small boat.

His letters home and his remembrance follow the historic record of events. He may have enhanced his role but he was in theater and, if not present at historic events, he was serving in a role that helped make them possible. Wounded by artillery fire and contracting black water fever, he was sent to hospital twice. Either event could have killed him so even if he did serve in the rear, he was far from safe. If he had written a more detailed account of his service, what a tale it could have been. I would love to read more but we were unbelievably lucky to get his remembrance and it would be too much to expect another such find.