A medal recently came into my hands with an intensely human story behind it that I feel compelled to share. It is just one of the 6.5 million British War Medals that were produced at the end of the Great War of 1914-19, and is therefore nothing special in itself. As with so many of these, it’s true value can only be found by discovering the story that lies behind it.
As always, my start point came from the meagre details that the mint had punched into its rim, telling me that the medal was issued to recognise the service of “950. PTE. A. COOK. NOTTS & DERBY”. The actual Medal Rolls proved to be much more informative, revealing to me that he had in fact served with their 1st/8th battalion. Alfred Cook was therefore a member of the newly formed Territorial Force which had emerged from the reorganisation of the old volunteers units that came about with the implementation of the Haldane Reforms in 1907.
Born at Sutton-in-Ashfield (near Mansfield), in November of 1891, he was the fifth surviving child in a family of six. His older siblings were Annie Elizabeth, Hannah, John William and Harold, whilst Robert, the final addition to the family, had been born when Alfred was two. It is however the special relationship which seems to have existed between Alfred and Harold that will occupy much of our story. He was just a year older than Alfred, and they seem to have been very close.
So far as is known, Harold was the first member of the family to join the Territorial Force, which he must have done around the year 1909. In those days Sutton-in-Ashfield had its own Company of what was then simply known as the 8th Battalion. Still organised on the old “8 Company system” until after war was declared, their unit had several bases scattered around north Nottinghamshire. There was “A” Company at Retford, “B” at Newark, “C” at Sutton-in-Ashfield, “D” at Mansfield, “E” at Carlton, “F” at Arnold, “G” at Worksop and “H” at Southwell. It would seem that Harold enjoyed the experience enough for some of his enthusiasm to rub off onto Alfred, who followed in his footsteps and joined in his own right on 22nd August 1910. The battalion had actually returned from their annual summer camp earlier in that same month, and perhaps the tales of Harold’s 2 week adventure had been a major factor in influencing Alfred to sign up himself.
The boys were however growing up in other ways too, and it was not long before Harold had both found himself a bride and started a family of his own. This young couple would go on to have 3 children before the war, who they named as Lilian, Alice and, perhaps significantly, Alfred. It is easy to see that, with a young wife and growing family, Harold may have begun to find his commitment to the Territorial Force a little irksome and, despite their training being part-time, it would certainly have eaten into the time that couple had for each other. Whatever the reasons that lay behind it, we do know that Harold did not extend his contract with the unit, and handed back his uniform when his 4 years were up.
The two brothers would still have had lots of time together with “C” Company before then, and doubtless went on several annual camps in each others company. If Alfred at all missed his brothers’ presence in the unit, perhaps he consoled himself with the thought that his own contract would terminate at the end of August in 1914. Unfortunately however, by that date the Kaiser already had other plans for both of them.
The 4th August 1914 actually found Alfred at summer camp with the entire Territorial Brigade of the Sherwood Foresters, where the outbreak of the European war apparently took very few of their number by surprise. In fact, it is recorded that the men were so gripped by “war fever” that it rendered any prospect of them following their planned training schedule completely impossible. Once the formal declaration of war became known to them, their summer camp at Hunmanby near the Yorkshire coast was broken up and the men were sent home. Alfred would doubtless have been exceptionally eager to talk things over with Harold as soon as he arrived back at the family home in Park Street.
Things then began to move very quickly, and as early as Friday 7th August, the entire battalion had been mobilised and concentrated at Newark, where their men were briefly billeted in the local schools. With their strength recorded at 29 officers and 852 other ranks, a Church Parade and official send-off was held for them in the market square on Monday 10th before they marched off to their designated war station.
Harold also acted quickly, and signed a new attestation document with his old unit on August 9th. It would appear that, despite his family commitments, he may have been determined to take part in what he perhaps thought promised to be a great adventure. It is also possible however that he was equally motivated by wanting to try to look after his younger brother.
Alfred’s destiny actually became sealed on 3rd September, when he signed Army Form E624 and volunteered for overseas service. As with many other battalions of the Territorial Force, the issue of overseas service had not been given much emphasis in the 8th before the war, though 80% of their men readily accepted the commitment shortly after they had been mobilised. The brothers would almost certainly have discussed this issue, and we know that Harold also stepped forward to join the majority.
Part of the first full Division of the Territorial Force to be sent to France, the brothers landed at Le Harvre in early March of 1915. After moving up country towards the front line they engaged in an intensive training programme that culminated in them being sent into the trenches near Messines at the end of that month under the watchful eye of seasoned regulars. Despite the deep seated and widespread suspicions held about the Territorial Force amongst many of the full time professionals of the regular army, who frequently disparaged them as “Saturday night soldiers”, the 8th were judged to have performed well. So well in fact that, from the beginning of April, the battalion were detailed to take over a stretch of the front at Kemmel in there own right.
Up to this point the 8th had been lucky. Whilst 3 of their number had been wounded, their familiarisation had taken place in a quiet sector where they had not yet been exposed to the full grim reality of the war. All this began to change with the death of 18 year old Jack Hyde on Tuesday 6th April. Originating from Arnold but serving in “A” Company, he was shot through the head by a sniper and buried at the nearby Kemmel Chateau Military Cemetery. In fact, as the days passed, and their casualties grew in number, Rows D and E in this cemetery began to assume the appearance of a plot reserved purely for the men of the 8th battalion. By Monday the 14th June, and after several tours in the trenches, it had already become the final resting place for no fewer than 43 of them.
Tuesday the 15th should have brought relief for the battalion, who were due to be replaced by anther unit thereby affording the 8th an opportunity to spend some time in one of the safer rear areas. It was reported as a quiet day until 21:00 hrs when, quite suddenly, with the unexpected detonation of three huge German mines, all hell broke loose. These acted as a signal that started a hail of artillery shells, trench mortars, rifle grenades and machine gun fire that then swept across the British trenches for over an hour. The enemy infantry proceeded to use this covering fire to advance into one of the mine craters that had been created within feet of where Alfred Cook had been standing, though they were swiftly driven out of this new position at the point of the bayonet. Major John Becher (a native of Southwell) was then able to supervise the reconstruction and reorganisation of the British defences, the coolness and efficiency with which he completed the task contributing towards him becoming the first man of the battalion to receive the DSO. By 23:00 hrs the situation had stabilised enough for the battalion to carry on with its planned relief but, by that time, both Alfred and another man from “C” Company, Oliver Bryan, were missing.
When greeted by this news, it would appear that Harold became beside himself. Joining forces with two of Oliver Bryan’s brothers, who were also serving with the battalion at that time, the three of them together swiftly sought and received permission from one of their officers to go back and search for their missing kinsmen.
In the darkness however they soon found that they were unable to conduct a proper search and, being in close proximity to the enemy, were at last reluctantly forced to abandon the enterprise. A court of enquiry later came to the conclusion that both Alfred and Oliver must have been buried under the front wall of their trench at the very start of the attack, when the German mines had been detonated. Neither of them were ever seen again and, having no known graves, they later became the first 2 soldiers from the 8th battalion to be remembered on the Menin Gate Memorial to the missing.
The story however does not end on that particular date, there being an equally sad postscript. Harold would lose his own life just 4 months later, during the same action which also saw Major Becher become fatally wounded. In a cruel twist of fate for the Becher family, two of his brothers-in-law, who were also serving as officers with the 8th battalion, were also killed on that same date. Becher eventually lost his own struggle for life at one of the base hospitals on the 1st January 1916, eleven weeks after he had been injured. The remaining Bryan brothers fared better, Charles went on to both win the MM and be promoted to the rank of Corporal, before being invalided out due to sickness in August of 1917. Stanley Bryan however was perhaps the most fortunate of them all, he was the only one of the 5 brothers that went on to serve until the end of the war, and was finally demobilised from the Labour Corps at the end of February in 1919.