Private Joseph Copeman

Private Joseph Copeman was not an important historical figure, though no doubt he was important to his wife and family. As far as I can tell, his wound did not even merit a mention in the local newspaper, though as he was awarded a 75% disability pension it must have been serious enough.

He will be the first in my series of ‘life stories’, based on service records, census data, and anything else I can find about ordinary men and women of the First World War. Because of my research focus, most of them will be from Cambridgeshire – there were far too many lives affected by the First World War for one person to cover even a fraction of them.

Joseph Copeman was born in March in 1874. He moved to Whittlesey sometime later, where he worked first as a brickyard labourer, and then became a horsekeeper on a farm. This was one of the most prestigious – and most highly paid – agricultural jobs. While in Whittlesey, he met Eliza Fitzjohn. Their first son was born on 29 May 1908, a few months before their marriage at the parish church on 7 October 1908. Their second son was born in December 1909.

In August 1914, war with Germany broke out, and, a few months later, a local battalion was formed in Cambridge, for men from Cambridgeshire and the Isle of Ely. This would become the 11th Suffolk Regiment, but for a while it was known variously as the Cambs Kitcheners or the Cambs Suffolks.

It was in May 1915, the day before his oldest son’s seventh birthday, that Joseph Copeman enlisted in this battalion. He was then transferred to the 13th Suffolks, which was a reserve battalion for the 11th Suffolks. It’s unclear why he chose to enlist at that time, perhaps in response to stories of the German’s use of poison gas and Kitchener’s call, published in the local papers on 21 May, for more men.

In April 1916, Joseph Copeman joined the 11th Suffolks at the Front, nearly four months after the rest of the battalion had arrived. He would have been part of a draft sent to relieve some of the early casualties the battalion suffered.

He was in the battalion on 1 July when they went ‘over the top’ as part of the Battle of the Somme, and was wounded in the neck. Returning to England, he found himself in the Cambridge Military Hospital at Aldershot. This was the hospital at which plastic surgery was first performed, and it may be that he was operated on by one of the pioneers of reconstructive surgery.

He returned to civilian life, a third son being born in December 1916, and seems to have resumed some sort of work on a farm. In any case, that was what he applied for on his leaving certificate from the army, and as the farms were desperate for hands during the latter part of the First World War it’s likely that he was taken on in some capacity. He died in 1940 in Whittlesey, the village where he had spent most of his life.