William Giles Woolway Cole was born at Molland, South Molton in September 1876. He lived with his parents John and Emily and four sisters at Middle Lee Farm, Molland. On leaving school William worked on the farm until enlisting for the Boer War as Trooper 6566 in the North Devon Yeomanry at Barnstaple on 4 January 1900. He was one of fifty locals who joined up that month. He was described as being 5’ 10” tall, weighing 168lbs with dark brown hair, grey eyes and having a fresh complexion. The North Devons joined the Royal First Devon Yeomanry and became the 27th Company of the Imperial Yeomanry and on 1 March they sailed for South Africa. At first they were based at Maitland Camp near Capetown but were soon sent to counteract General De Wet in the Orange Free State. On 5 June they entered the recently fallen Pretoria as part of Lord Robert’s force. Six days later they were involved in the battle of Diamond Hill where the Boers were defeated.
On December 13 1900 Major General Clements’ camp in the gorge at Nooitgedacht west of Pretoria suffered a surprise Boer attack which killed 637 men which was a third of its strength. The survivors retreated with their guns and the Boers regrouped to pursue them but were held at bay by nine Devon Yeomen under the command of Sgt T J Bright from the early morning until late in the afternoon by firing their guns across the valley preventing the Boers from leaving it. At one point ammunition ran low and Trooper Cole volunteered to break cover and run to the ammunition wagon to fetch more. For their bravery Sgt Bright and Trooper Cole were awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal and the others in the group were mentioned in Lord Kitchener’s despatches.
The 27th Company returned from South Africa on 24 June 1901 and William was discharged a few days later. His father John had died whilst William had been away and he took over the farm. William’s DCM and Queens South Africa Medal were presented to him at Barnstaple on 20 September 1901 by Viscount Ebrington, Commander of the Royal North Devon Imperial Yeomanry. The following August he was awarded the bronze Medal for Edward V11’s Coronation.
William married Minnie May Case in 1903 and they moved to Lodge Hill Farm, Tiverton where they had six children: Donald (b.1905), Clifford (1906), Kathleen (1909), Lionel (1911), Geoffrey (1915) and Basil (1917).
In 1914, although in a reserved occupation and also at 38 being at the maximum age for enlistment he rejoined the army as Lance Sergeant 1025 in the Royal North Devon Hussars.
The North Devons spent the winter of 1914 guarding the East Coast in case of invasion. In September 1915 they arrived at Sulva Bay, Gallipoli. Here they endured three months of disease and bad weather conditions. On 27 December they were sent to Egypt. By then they had lost half their number many of them suffering from frostbite in hospitals in Malta and Alexandria. For the next year they guarded oases in the Western Desert.
On 4 January 1917 the North Devon Hussars became the 16 (Devon Yeomanry) Battalion in the Devonshire Regiment and William was promoted to Sergeant 345627. The Battalion then moved to fight the Turks along the Palestine border.
Following the German 1918 spring offensive, the Battalion was sent to France, landing in Marseilles on May 7. On Sunday 1 September they arrived at Bouchavesnes to relieve the 2/2nd London Regt. In front of them was a village called Moislains which was reported to have been evacuated by the Germans. At 5am the next day ‘A’ & ‘B’ Companies of the 16th Battalion were sent in to the village in advance and encountered heavy German resistance and 40 of the Devons, including William Cole were killed. He was 42 years old.
William is commemorated on the Vis-en- Artois Memorial near Arras.