Not so quiet on the Western Front

X marks the spot where Grandpa Cookson lost his right eye but escaped with his life (© Cookson family archive)
X marks the spot where Grandpa Cookson lost his right eye but escaped with his life
(© Cookson family archive)

This story begins with a map which used to hang in our hallway when I was a small boy. To be honest, I don’t remember it at all but it made a big impression on my elder brother Felix who recalls it vividly, particularly the red-brown smears and the X.

The smears, so the story went, was our grandfather’s blood or perhaps that of his brave, unfortunate batman, Bain, the X marking the place where they were shot by the Germans during an attack on the Butte de Warlencourt in the Battle of the Somme in October 1916.

When the family moved house in 1976, the map went to live with our uncle Ned in Cumbria and was largely forgotten. When he recently sent us a PDF of it, though, along with a brief account of his father’s – our grandfather’s – record in the First World War, Felix and I decided to find out more.

So, here is the tale of how Grandpa Cookson lost his eye on the Somme.

EARLY DAYS

For many years the Cooksons were known as a military family. The most celebrated of them was Major-General George Cookson who served in the Napoleonic Wars. His diaries, which also remain within the family, speak of adventures against Napoleon, dinners with the Duke of York and a fondness for beautiful young ladies.

By the time Reginald was born in 1895, the family had taken a step down the social ladder. His father had made a career in the railways, starting off in the 1870s working at Peckham station which still exists in slightly modernised form in Rye Lane.

This, of course, was an exciting time for the railways; the kernel at the centre of the industrial revolution which promoted and helped expand the supremacy of the British Empire across the globe and which, in due course, contributed to the outbreak of the Great War.

st-mary-cray-station
St Mary Cray station, circa 1905 when James Thomas Cookson was the station master

When Reginald appeared, an unexpected younger brother perhaps for Archibald who was 11 years his senior, his father James Thomas Cookson was the stationmaster at St Mary Cray in Kent, some 14 miles to the south-east of London.

It was good middle-class stock, a family which had to work for a living. Reginald went to the City of London School from 1904 to 1908 before heading to The Skinners’ School in Royal Tonbridge Wells.

The first verse of the school song – The Leopards’ Song – written by Percy Shaw Jeffrey in 1894 hints at the shadow that was to fall across Europe 20 years later.

Now hands about, good Leopards all,
And sing a rousing chorus,
In praise of all our comrades here

And those who went before us;
For to this day all hearts beat true,
The gallant hearts that love us,
So fortune ‘fend each absent friend
While there’s a sun above us.

It may well have been that a life in the railways or in government service stretched out ahead of young Reginald until, on June 28, 1914, in the faraway city of Sarajevo, Gavrilo Princip wrote his name into the history books by gunning down the Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire.

Britain declared war on Germany on August 4 and four days later Reginald joined the London University OTC (Officer Training Corps).

PRIVATE COOKSON

I have a photograph of my grandfather on my bookcase. It is a picture typical of the era, a studio work just after he was commissioned. Looking every inch the officer, with the trademark clipped moustache, he appears to stare out across No Man’s Land, into the teeth of the German guns.

This was to come later, though. To begin with he was plain old Private Cookson, five foot eight inches in his socks, who joined up on November 18, 1914.

The South Down Battalion at Cooden Camp, Bexhill in February. Lance Corporal Cookson fourth from the left. (c Cookson family archive)
The South Down Battalion at Cooden Camp, Bexhill in February. Lance Corporal Cookson fourth from the left.
(© Cookson family archive)

Sadly, the records for privates are never as complete as those for officers – and there appear to be no diaries or letters – so we don’t know much about his early war. My mother, who was the second eldest of the six children that followed after the war, insists he never talked much about the war so there is also little in the way of anecdotal reference.

What we do know, and apologies if this is a bit dry, is that he was posted to the 2nd South Down Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment with whom he trained at Cooden Camp in Bexhill.

For two months, he held the rank of Lance Corporal before voluntarily reverting to Private on February 19, 1915, three days before leaving to join his new regiment, the 19th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (2nd Public Schools).

Again, there appears to have been more training than anything else, first at Woodcote Park, Epsom and then when they had joined 98th Brigade, 33rd Division at Clipstone camp near Mansfield in Nottinghamshire.

The website clipstonecamp.co.uk writes:

The first troops arrived in 1915 in driving rain following a march from Edwinstowe. What the men of the University and Public School Regiment made of this is unknown. However their first impression of the camp must have been poor due to the lack of constantly working electricity and adequate food.

Reg Carter's postcard take on life at Clipstone Camp
Reg Carter’s postcard take on life at Clipstone Camp

Questions were even raised in parliament about the poor food quality. The MP for mid-Derbyshire enquired with the Secretary of State for War about “the scarcity and inferiority of the food and the conduct of some of the officers.”  Presumably, men had complained about the food and been robustly dealt with by their superiors. No further action was taken and the arrangements were deemed to be of an acceptable standard.

Rifles were still in short supply in the ealry part of 1915 which meant that much of the men’s training centred on physical fitness. Reginald may not have been tall but he was solidly built with a chest expansion of three inches and he enjoyed his sport – he later became a matchday doctor for the two Bristol football teams and Gloucestershire CCC. So perhaps he relished the eagerness with which Kitchener’s Army embraced the ethic of physical fitness.

In early August they moved to Salisbury Plain for final training and firing practice before crossing for France in November

Once across the Channel they were again held in reserve, the 33rd Division concentrated near Morbecque.

The 19 Royal Fusiliers served in a quiet area of Flanders from December 1915 to April 1916.

They were greeted on their first night in the lines by the Germans who detonated a mineunder part of their trench. During that time they incurred a steady flow of casualties from artillery attacks but took no part in offensive action.

Administrative restructuring, though, and the chronic losses of officers in the trenches meant that the battalion was then disbanded in April 1916. The soldiers, public schoolboys, were seen as a natural source of officer material and hence the various parts were distributed across the army.

For Reginald, who had been bounced back up to Lance Corporal in May while they were at Clipstone, it meant a commission. Having just turned 21 in February, he was posted to the Officer Cadet Battalion on March 25, 1916.

NOT SO QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant RG Cookson in May 1916, preparing to face the German guns
Newly commissioned Second Lieutenant RG Cookson in May 1916, preparing to face the German guns
(© Cookson family archive)

As a Second Lieutenant, Reginald Cookson joined his county regiment the Royal West Kents and arriving on the big stage on September 4. His arrival at Brucamps, some way behind the front line, is noted in the war diary for the 11th battalion.

04/9/16    Battalion took part in tactical exercises (medical). 2nd Lieuts. Lindsay, Kerr, and Cookson, arrived.

There was already a Second Lieutenant Cooksey in the battalion so perhaps there were a few jokes along the lines of “too many Cooks…”

The next day was spent training before the battalion moved out on the sixth, taking the train to Méricourt where they arrived just after midday. Now on foot, they marched to Dernancourt, a little to the south-west of Albert.

More training as the RWKs prepared to take part in their first major offensive of the war, the attack on Flers which was to land major significance to historians as the first occasion on which tanks were employed in battle.

In fact the tanks did not make a terribly good first impression on the men around them but the message that “a tank is walking up the High Street of Flers with the British Army cheering behind” caused outbreaks of cheering in London.

Perhaps still too recently arrived, Reginald was not one of the officers selected to go into a battle that saw the RWK smash through the German defences only to find that the the strong German artillery fire was preventing reserves from getting  forward to consolidate the success – par for the course on the Western Front.

RWK losses were catastrophic. The bold statement is that 343 of 610 all ranks became casualties. The more important fact was that of these the highest proportion of casualties was amongst the leaders, officers, warrant officers and NCOs.

Among the fallen, their commanding officer, Lt Col AF Townshend and four other officers wounded or missing. A number of others, including Cooksey, were wounded and evacuated to field hospitals. Cooksey would return to action but was killed on April 8, 1917 at Souchez. He was  21.

Rwk badge 2Instead Cookson was in reserve in Carlton Trench where he would have witnessed a large number of stretcher cases, both dead and wounded. Perhaps this was where he had the first inkling that he wanted to become a doctor so he could help to mend these broken bodies.

Back to the regimental diary:

16/9/16    Battalion in reserve in Carlton Trench. Reinforcements of all available fighting strength, except draft, together with remaining officers i.e. Capts. Stone & Richardson, Lieuts. Puttick, Fraser, & Purver, 2 Lieuts. Prior, Knott, Yorke, Russell, Edmunds, Kerr & Cookson, were called up to the Battalion. 2/Lieuts Knott, Yorke, Russell and Edmonds, were attached temporarily to the K.R.R.C (18th), while Lt. Fraser, 2/Lieuts Morley, Cookson & Kerr were returned to Transport Lines.   

18/9/16    (Dernancourt) Weather very wet. Battalion was relieved by the 2/5th Lancs. Fusilliers at 8.30 a.m., and marched to bivouacs at E.15,a. Draft of 75 N.C.O’s and men arrived.

19/9/16    (Dernancourt) Strength:- amended to Officers 30, Other Ranks 639

20/9/16 (Dernancourt) Reorganisation of Battalion commenced.

Following the battle of Flers and the subsequent losses it was necessary to reshuffle the pack. Officers and men were drafted in from other battalions which had likely suffered equally bad losses. Major Arthur Corfe had taken over from Townshend, being given the temporary rank of Lieutenant Colonel, new company commanders were appointed and training continued.

The Queensland team that beat the 1899 British Isles tourists. Arthur Corfe (standing, second from right) was then picked to play for Australia.
The Queensland team that beat the 1899 British Isles tourists. Arthur Corfe (standing, second from right) was then picked to play for Australia.

Corfe, incidentally, was one of the many rugby players to fight in the First World War. Born in Christchurch, New Zealand, he scored two tries in Queensland’s 11-3 win over the 1899 British Isles team, earning himself a place in the line-up for the second Test in Brisbane. This time the British side won 11-0. It was his only Test.

At the front, he went on to win the DSO with two bars and the Croix de Guerre. He was wounded in Ypres in 1917 and taken prisoner in March 1918. But he survived the war, dying in 1949 at the age of 72.

For more on rugby players who fought and died in the First World War, click here.

Sunday October 1 was a rest day for the 11th but the next day they were on the move again, heading back towards the fire of the front line, their strength now showing 38 officers and 738 men from other ranks.

2/10/16 (Mametz)    Battalion moved by Route March to bivouacs 8.10d, south of MAMETZ WOOD; via DERNANCOURT,  MEAULTE, FRICOURT road.

3/10/16 (Eaucourt L’Abbaye)    Battalion, less Transport and Details, relieved 1st New Zealand Rifle Brigade in the Line. The following officers went into action:- Lt.Col. A.C.Corfe, Capts. LV.Stone, P.Clarke-Richardson, & S.L.Simmonds., Lieuts. A.W.Puttick (Adjt), B.A..Purver, A.J.Heath, F.G.Fraser, & W.S.Lacey (M.O.)., 2nd Lieuts. H.G.Redmond-Prior, G.D.Henderson, A.V.D.Morley, R.Watson, R.J.Gibbons, R.G.Cookson, S.A.Wheeler, H.C.Edmunds, O.Radclyffe, & F.J.Argent.

7/10/16    Battalion strength:- Officers 41, Other Ranks 737. Battalion attacked the German trenches, on the right the 15th Hampshire Rgt., on the left the 1 40th Infantry Brigade, ona two Company front. The Battalion was only able to advance 100/150 yards from our front line, being held up by intense machine gun fire, coming both from flanks and direct front. Heavy casualties were incurred in this advance. The following Officers became Casualties. Killed:- Lieuts. Purver,, 2nd Lieuts Prior, Gibbons & Watson. Died of wounds:- Lieut.Lacey (M.O.). Wounded:- Capts. Clarke-Richardson, Stone, Simmonds., Lieuts Fraser, 2nd Lieuts. Cookson, Edmunds, Argent, Morley & Radclyffe. Missing:- Lt. Heath. Casualties in Other Ranks 323.

And that is the last we hear of RG Cookson in the Battalion diary although that day, October 7, is etched in family folklore. His story, as passed down, and perhaps embellished goes like this.

The whistle blows and the officer leads his men into the teeth of the German machine guns
The whistle blows and the officer leads his men into the teeth of the German machine guns.
A still from the film of the Battle of the Somme: Sequence 31 ‘The Attack’

The whistles signalled the start of the attack, the officers and men climbing up the ladder and out of their trench to begin the slow and cumbersome trudge across No Man’s Land.

Many of the men were hit as they poked their noses over the parapet, the Germans, roused by the bombardment and given a helpful cue by the whistles, let rip with their machine guns.

Others stumbled on some yards before they too collapsed in a heap in the mud. At some point, this was the fate of 2nd Lieutenant Reginald Cookson.

Out in No Man’s Land he was hit by machine gun fire in his right leg and crumpled to the ground. His orderly, or batman – we believe his name was Private David Bain who coincidentally also had his roots in Peckham – initially dragged him into a foxhole.

Then, during a lull in the battle, perhaps even that evening, Bain picked Cookson up and began to piggyback him towards  the British trenches.

No Man's Land
No Man’s Land

Sadly, the machine gun fire started up again. A round hit Bain in the head, killing him instantly, a shard of his skull piercing Reginald’s right eye. Quite how he ended up back behind British lines we never knew. Presumably, amid the chaos and confusion of battle, he himself had little recollection of what exactly happened.

But he was recovered by the British and woke to find himself in a field hospital.

It was a Blighty wound, the end of his Western Front experience. Four days later, he was on the ship Western Australia heading from Rouen to Southampton and en route to convalescence at Watermouth. His knee would be fine but his right eye would never see again.

He wasn’t to know that on the same day as he was wounded, a few miles down the road at Bapaume, a young German lance-corporal, who was to play the key role in the next global conflict, was also nursing a wounded leg after being hit by shrapnel from a British shell – a certain Adolf Hitler.

WHERE X MARKS THE SPOT

The brick red grandeur of the Thiepval Memorial where the names of 72,191 soldiers with no known grafve are remembered
The brick red grandeur of the Thiepval Memorial where the names of 72,191 soldiers with no known grave are remembered
(© Felix Spender)

Felix and I made the trip to the Somme in December 2012. We visited a number of the battlefields; we stopped for the setting of the sun at Schwaben Redoubt, where the Ulsters fought so bravely before being let down by the rest of the line, and walked the calm lines of new-sprung trees in what was once the infernal wasteland of Mametz Wood.

We ran our hands along the grass on the softly sloping curves of the trenches at Beaumont Hamel where the Newfoundlanders were all but wiped out and we parked beside a row of frozen turnips on the edge of High Wood where the young cricketer Percy Jeeves fell, later to find posthumous immortality through the pen of PG Wodehouse.

We threaded our along the windy road up to Thiepval – the awe-inspiring memorial to the British soldiers for whom there is no known grave – and there carved high into the white Portland stone walls we found the name of Jeeves and, more important to our story, that of Bain. We paused to offer a silent prayer of thanks for his courage and his sacrifice.

And finally, after brushing the first snow of winter of our car and stowing a flask of hot coffee and a bottle of Bushmills on the back seat, we took the map and went to find where Grandpa Cookson lost his eye.

We passed through the village of Flers and inspected the monument at Butte de Warlencourt, the objective that fateful day in October 1916.

This fortiifed feature which dominated the point of Cookson’s attack with multiple machine guns was never captured and only occupied when the Germans withdrew to the Hindenburg Line.

As the bright winter sun broke through, we found the D11 and turned off on to an even smaller road, coming to a stop in a raised lay-by beside a massive pile of horse manure.

“This is it,” said Felix.

We climbed out, watching our feet carefuly as we slid down the bank, crossed the road and then climbed the frozen ground opposite. We stood by the side of a field of turnips. Row upon row.

Less than a kilometre away to the west the village of Le Sars, to the north-east the same distance away La Barque; silence hanging in the air apart from the occasional car flying past oblivious to the personal significance of the place, probably wondering why two middle-aged men were standing on the edge of a field with binoculars and a map, a copy of the blood-smeared map that used to hang in our hall. And a bottle of Bush.

Halfway up the gently rising hill, a farmer.

“I reckon about 100 yards along here,” said Felix, a man used to reading military maps, as he marched off along the verge of the road.

We walked. We stopped. We stamped our feet against the cold and squinted into the low December sun.

Felix checked the map again and raised a finger, pointing up the hill.

Felix points the way to where X marks the spot on RG Cookson's wartime map  (©Felix Spender)
Felix points the way to where X marks the spot on RG Cookson’s wartime map
(©Felix Spender)

“About 200 metres up this hill. As near as dammit. That’s where he was hit. That’s where X marks the spot.”

We stood silent for what seemed like an age but was probably just a few seconds. Just looking at the rows of turnips and trying to imagine the noise and chaos of October 7, 1916. Neither of us wanted to upset the quiet, nor the farmer.

I retrieved a couple of plastic cups from my coat pocket and passed them to Felix. I unscrewed the cap of the Bushmills and poured two solid slugs. I replaced the cap and took one of the cups.

“To Grandpa Cookson,” I offered.

We sipped.

“And Private Bain,” said Felix.

We emptied our cups.

© Barney Spender 2013

You can follow me on Twitter on @bspender

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