Private Robert Coombes was born in Poltimore, Devon in 1856 and enlisted in the Royal Marines in 1874. Posted to the Plymouth Division, he went on to serve with the Royal Marine Battalion in the Egypt operations of 1884, and in the Witu operations of 1893, as part of Captain Lindley's Detachment drawn from H.M.S. Blanche. In this latter affair, Coombes was recommended for his gallantry in action at Pumwani, during which his left upper arm was fractured by a bullet. Admitted to a French Hospital in Zanzibar, he was ultimately invalided home and discharged.