Dr Vincent Coates MC: hero in an England rugby shirt and on the Somme battlefield


One hundred years ago today, 20 October 1916, word reached The Recreation Ground in Bath that their own Vincent Coates, a prolific try-scorer in England’s Grand Slam rugby team of 1913, had been decorated for bravery as a medic on the Western Front.

Image Credit - World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

Image Credit – World Rugby Museum, Twickenham

Coates, a speedy left wing with a steam-hammer hand-off, enjoyed a short but dazzling career with both club and country before, firstly, the Great War intervened and then a distinguished career as a surgeon took priority.

The award of the Military Cross to Lieutenant Vincent Coates concerned events on 23 September 1916, in the area of Delville Wood on The Somme.

The citation read: “During an attack he tended the wounded under very difficult circumstances, working without assistance after his orderly was hit. He was under heavy shell fire.”

Less than three months earlier, the area had been thickly forested, but by the time Coates arrived on 20 August, attached to 100 Field Ambulance, the battle ground was already a desolate place, littered with shell holes, broken trees and remains of trenches.

Coates was immediately decorated ‘in the field’ at Delville Wood – dubbed Devil’s Wood by the Tommies and their South African allies – but congratulations and plaudits at home had to wait for the official ‘Gazetting’.

So, as was the custom, the London Gazette published on 20 October the official notice from the War Office announcing: ‘His Majesty the King has been graciously pleased to confer the Military Cross to Temporary Lieutenant Vincent Middleton Coates … for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in action’.

Educated at Monkton Combe School in Bath, Haileybury School, Hertfordshire, and Caius College Cambridge, Coates had waited until qualifying as a surgeon before he applied for a temporary commission with the Royal Army Medical Corps. He crossed to France in November 1915, transferring to The Royal Fusiliers as a regimental medical officer.

After being awarded the MC, he was temporarily with the Royal Berkshire Regiment before being posted to Salonika as a bacteriologist and served as Medical Officer 2nd Infantry Brigade, 49th Division, until the end of the war.

Coates was the eldest of four sons and a daughter born to Combe Down doctor Charles Coates and his wife Janet. Vincent and his brother Norman, a top-class centre himself, joined Bath after the family moved from Bridgwater.

Having won a Cambridge Blue at 19, Vincent was made his debut for Bath against London Welsh on 27 December 1910 and was an automatic choice when available.

Coates also captained Somerset on 3 October 1911 as Bath hosted the opening game of the 1912-13 Springboks tour. The tourists won 24-3 and three months later confronted Coates again as he became the first Bath player in 18 years to be capped by England.

The South Africans won 9-3 but rated Coates, who stood 5ft 10in and weighed a hefty 13st 7lb at the height of his powers, as the best winger they faced on tour. The Bath club celebrated his call-up with a celebration dinner at the Assembly Rooms.

Four days later Coates scored a try as England won in Wales for the first time. He followed up with a hat-trick against France and two more against Ireland in Dublin but was not the sole try scorer as England wrapped up the title against Scotland at Twickenham.

The following season, 1913-14, he scored 15 tries from 19 games for Bath but had no further involvement with England, mainly because of his blossoming medical career. He made one guest appearance after the war, against Glasgow University on Boxing Day 1919.

His interest in rheumatic disease, spa treatment, and hydrology saw him become a Member of the Royal College of Physicians, promoting the study of arthritis.

When Coates died in a fall from a train at Maidenhead in 1934, aged 45, he had risen to Senior Physician to the Royal Mineral Water Hospital in Bath, president of the Bath Clinical Society and Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, a man of international renown.

His rugby exploits had not been forgotten either. In his History of the Rugby Football Union (1955), O L Owen wrote: “Coates made his great name as a powerful runner carrying a hand-off comparable with Maclear’s in the course of five matches in one season. A more formidable meteor never shot through the Rugby sky into that strange never-never land known as memory.”

Kevin Coughlan is author of the two-volume history of the Bath club, Before The Lemons and After The Lemons. www.afterthelemons.co.uk

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