Ptes. Collins Alexander Cooke and David Greer Cooke
Collins Alexander Cooke was born on January 22nd, 1887, while his brother David was born on December 28th of the same year. They were among twelve children born to Robert and Mary Anne Cook, who lived at 11 Court Street, Newtownards, County Down, although by 1911 only eight of these children were still living. In April of that year, Collins was 22 years old, single, and working as a Mill Manager.
Robert Cooke had been a Sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, and the family's census return for 1911 shows that Collins and his brother John were born in County Tyrone, while their sisters Margaret, Mary and Madeline were all born in County Down. This suggests that the family had moved several times, which would not be unusual for a man with a career in the RIC.
Soon after 1911 - although we do not know exactly when - Collins emigrated to Canada, settling in the Toronto area where he found a job as a Jute Mill Overlooker. He was soon followed to Toronto by his brothers David and John.
On 9th September, 1915, he enlisted into the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. After several months training, Collins was allocated to the 81st Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, where he later joined by both his younger brothers. All three sailed for England in April 1916, and was transferred to the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles in late June, as part of a draft or 498 men brought in as reinforcements after the large losses in the "Battle of Mount Sorrel".
In August 1916 the battalion were near Steenvorde in Belgium, working behind the lines. The battalion history records that "This was an exceptionally interesting tour, partly because of the enemy's artillery but chiefly because of the industry of the men in wiring craters, building dugouts and digging trenches. The warm mid-summer sun cheered the men in their task of burrowing."
The battalion's War Diary notes that on 16th August, the battalion moved forward to relieve the 5th Mounted Rifles, and that the relief was completed at 11.55 pm. It records that the German artillery was quiet, but also that one other rank was killed and another wounded during the relief. The man killed was David Cooke.
As David was serving alongside his brothers Collins and John, we can only assume that they then had to write home to tell the other members of the Cooke family what had happened. It is even possible that one of both of them witnessed his death.
In early September the men of the 4th Mounted Rifles were at rest billets near North Steenvorde in Belgium, where they practiced bombing, musketry, bayonet fighting and attacks. On 7th September they moved by train to the Somme area. The battalion history records how "the men saw for the first time the devastation of the Somme battlefields. Not a tree was standing, la Boisselle was a heap of rubble and the remains of its buildings had been used to fill the shell holes in the road. Tangled wire and mutilated trenches covered the barren waste as far as one could see."
The battalion entered front line trenches between Mouquet Farm and Pozieres in the dark during the evening of 11th September. They were to take part in the British attack planned for the 15th, which would see the debut of a new weapon which the British commanders hoped would win them the war: the tank. The Canadians actually saw several tanks moving into position: "They were spinning out white direction tapes under the command of an officer who walked ahead semaphoring with his arms to the operator inside."
Collins' battalion was not amongst those to attack first, but when Canadian soldiers further to the east successfully advanced in the morning, the Corps commander decided to order a number of units, including the 4th Mounted Rifles, to move forward to press home the advantage.
The battalion went over the top in two waves at 5.30 pm on 15th September, attacking German trenches around 300 yards away. They were protected by an artillery barrage and took the allotted trench, known to the Germans as Fabeck Graben. Many of the trench's German defenders were killed or wounded by parties of Canadian bombers. The Canadians also took 50 Germans prisoner, along with two machine guns and a quantity of ammunition. They remained in the captured trench overnight, and were relieved the following night.
The battalion's casualties as a result of this action were two officers and thirty-two men killed. One of these men was Collins Cooke. One month before, Collins and John Cooke had lost their brother David; now John was the only one left of the three brothers who had travelled from Canada to fight in the war. He survived the rest of the war, and was demobilised on 5 June 1919.
Collins Cooke is buried in Serre Road cemetery No. 1, in the Somme area of France. David Greer Cooke is buried in Railway Dugouts cemetery, two kilometres south-east of Ieper in Belgium. Both brothers are also commemorated on the Newtownards War Memorial, and in St Mark's Parish church in the town.
Their parents also erected a second memorial in St Mark's, in memory of their two sons who had died during the war. The memorial is headed by the badge of the 4th Canadian Mounted Rifles, surrounded by shamrocks, symbolising these two Irish men who died in the Canadian armed forces. The plaque reads' "To the glory of God and in proud and loving memory of our dear sons David Greer Cooke and Collins Alexander Cooke. They loved honour and glory more than they feared death." '
Sincere thanks and full credit for this extensive and exemplary double biography goes to Catherine Switzer.