Based on the CWGC record, John Cooper was born in about 1889 in St Phillip’s, Sheffield, the son of Alfred and Mary Ann Cooper, latterly of 33, Essex Street, Rugby. He served with the 8th Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment, with the rank of Lance-Sergeant, and the number 9178.
His Military Records survive, although not fully legible. He joined up as a professional soldier before WWI, as his attestation was on 6 May 1908. He was then 5ft 35/8in tall; weighed 129lbs; had a fresh complexion; brown eyes and dark brown hair. He was a ‘bricklayer labourer’, then aged 19 years and 3 months.
He enlisted at Rotherham and was also in Pontefract and York for a short while. He was in hospital at Aldershot for over a month with measles in May and June 1909.
He was then posted to British India, with the 1st Battalion, being in Karachi by January 1911. On 25 April 1911 he was promoted to Lance-Sargeant. He was also posted to Jullanpoore [possibly Jalalpur, Pakistan] in 1913; Poona in 1914 and whilst in India he was hospitalised on six occasions: with psoriasis (in Quetta), with ringworm (in Karachi), with malaria (twice in Karachi and once in Jullanpoore), and then tonsillitis (again in Jullanpoore).
On their return from service in British India, the regular 1st Battalion was formed up as part of the 83rd Brigade in the 28th Division. John was back at Alnwick Castle by 16 November 1914, his ‘Home Service’ being recorded from 19 November 1914 to 14 January 1915.
The 28th Division comprised regular battalions returning from overseas service and went to France in January 1915. John’s Medal Card and Military Records suggest that he went to France on 15 or 17 January 1915. The 1st Battalion saw action in the Second Battle of Ypres [22 April – 25 May 1915] and later that year in the Battle of Loos.
On 5 [or 7] May 1915, during 2nd Ypres, John received a gunshot wound to his right hand, possibly during the actions on the Frezenberg Ridge. He was returned to England on 10 May 1915, and was thus not himself involved with the 1st Battalion in the Battle of Loos and was thus not shipped with the Battalion to the Balkans as part of the British Salonika Army.
After time in hospital and at the depot, he was posted as L/Sergeant to the 3rd Battalion, in UK, on 16 July 1915. When war broke out in August 1914, the 3rd Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment had been at Pontefract, as a depot and training unit. They moved on mobilisation to Cleadon and in January 1915 moved to Sunderland. In August 1915 they moved to Durham and later returned to Sunderland in February 1916 as part of the Tyne Garrison.
During this period, and probably before the move to Durham, John was posted as L/Sergeant to the 8th Battalion on 5 August 1915. This would be his final posting and agrees with his CWGC record.
The 8th Battalion was formed in Pontefract in September 1914 and in October 1914 joined the 23rd Division as part of 70th Brigade. The same year it was at Frensham, Hants, in October, and at Aldershot in December. In 1915 it was at Shorncliffe, Kent in February, and back to Hampshire at Bordon at the end of May.
During this time John joined the Battalion and they landed at Boulogne by the 27 August 1915, and in October 1915 transferred with the 70th Brigade to the 8th Division. After the Battalion landed in Boulogne they went on to Western Front, concentrating as a Division at Tilques (a few kms north-west of St Omer). The other units in 70th Brigade were: 11th Sherwood Foresters; 8th KOYLI; 9th York and Lancaster; 1/8th Middlesex (until Feb 1916); 70th MGC and 70th Trench Mortar Battery.
The account below of the final days of John’s service is based upon the regimental diaries and other sources:
4th Apr 1916 – 70th Infantry Brigade prepare for battle On the 4th April 1916, in preparation for the coming battle, the 8th Division moved up to the Le Boisselle-Thiepval sector, the 8th Battalion York & Lancaster occupying trenches to the left of the sector in front of Authuile Wood, periodically withdrawing to reserve at Albert. The ground occupied by the 8th Division was the most difficult of the whole front, no-man’s land being exceptionally wide and the attack of the 70th Brigade would have to be made beneath the southern spur of the Thiepval salient which was commanded in enfilade by the Germans.
1st July 1916 – 8th Yorks and Lancs at the Battle of The Somme. Plans had long been in place for the great offensive along the line of the River Somme to draw the Germans away from Verdun to the East and so relieve the beleaguered French forces there. Despite what many people have been told about the Somme battle, it was never intended to be a war-winning campaign. It had clearly defined strategic aims, and in many respects was successful, it’s failures are extremely complex and outside the scope of this article. That it has become a by-word for failure and incompetence is, in my opinion, unfair. The huge and terrible loss of life has blinded us to any other interpretation but it is pertinent to remember that a German Staff Officer described the Somme as ‘the muddy grave of the German Field Army’.
After the artillery barrage lifted, the battalions began their assault near the village of Ovillers at 7.30am, 1st July 1916. Immediately after leaving their trenches the battalion came under heavy machine gun fire and most of the men were killed or wounded. The remainder carried on and took the enemy front line trenches and about 70 men eventually reached as far as the third line of German trenches, but only one man returned from there! What was left of the battalion remained fighting in the first line of trenches until overwhelmed. Such was the ferocity of the fighting that the Germans were forced to move extra troops in to face the 70th Brigade and this enabled other British units to make significant advances.
The 8th York and Lancaster Regiment took 680 men and 23 Officers over the parapet, all the Officers were either killed or wounded and of the battalion only 68 returned. The battalion had effectively ceased to exist as a fighting unit and was withdrawn that evening. The 8th K.O.Y.L.I.’s losses were only marginally less.
John was ‘Killed in Action’ sometime during that horrific advance on 1 July 1916, on the first day of the Battle of the Somme. His body was found and he is buried in Grave Reference: V.C. 24, in the Blighty Valley Cemetery, Authuille Wood, close to where he was in action.
Authuile (now Authuille) is a village 4 kilometres north-east of the town of Albert. Blighty Valley was the name given by the Army to the lower part of the deep valley running down South-Westward through Authuile Wood to join the river between Authuile and Aveluy. Blighty Valley Cemetery is almost at the mouth of the valley, a little way up its northern bank. Blighty Valley Cemetery was begun early in July 1916, at the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, and used until the following November. At the Armistice it contained 212 graves but was then greatly enlarged when 784 graves were brought in from the battlefields and small cemeteries to the east. Most of these concentrated graves were of men who died on 1 July 1916.
John was awarded the 1915 Star; the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
In the absence of any matching census information, it seems likely that his widowed mother moved to Rugby after her son John’s death.
In later 1916, his mother was still living at 109 Woodside Lane, Pitsmoor, Sheffield, and was receiving a separation allowance of 1/11d and an allotment of pay of 5/3d. By 17 May 1919, she had moved to Rugby, and was living at 33 Essex Street, with her 28 year old son, Henry Cooper. It seems likely that Henry had moved south to work in Rugby, and that his widowed mother had accompanied her son; he had signed for his mother on official documents, and she had ‘made her mark’. The location of 18 year old Eliza Cooper, a sister ‘of the half-blood’, was not known.
Whilst John Cooper is also remembered on the Rugby Memorial Gates, it seems that he was probably never in Rugby, but it was his mother’s home by the time that records for the memorial were being collated.
RUGBY REMEMBERS HIM
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This article on John Cooper was researched and written for a Rugby Family History Group [RFHG] project, by John P H Frearson and is © John P H Frearson and the Rugby Family History Group, June 2016.