Charles Gerald Cook – Gerald to his family – was born on 28 November 1880 in Billingsley, Shropshire, the son of a coal miner. His parents ran the sub-post office in Billingsley, and at the age of 14 he started work as an Auxiliary Postman. His elder brother John, my mother’s grandfather, was in the Shropshire Rifle Volunteers and fought in the Boer War, but Gerald was only 18 in 1899 and would probably have been considered too young to go. He was certified as a qualified Postman by the Civil Service Commission in 1901. He married Annie Mason in 1905 in Bridgnorth and they had three children, Hector Charles, Winnifred Annie and Doris May. Tragically, Annie died in March 1915, leaving their three children without a mother, the youngest of them only two years old. They were looked after by family members in Billingsley while Gerald was away in the war.
He attested for the army on 11 December 1915 and enlisted on 9 June 1916, joining the Royal Garrison Artillery (R.G.A.) at No 2 Depot, Fort Brockhurst, Gosport, Hampshire, with the service number 92293. His service papers have survived, allowing his war record to be reconstructed in some detail. On 23 June 1916 he was allocated to the 183rd Siege Battery, one of ten new Siege Batteries of the R.G.A. authorised by Army Council Instruction 1307. He would have undergone preliminary training at Sheerness, further training at Weymouth and firing practice at Lydd. At Weymouth his training company, 30 Company, was based at Fort Nothe, overlooking Portland Harbour. One of the other recruits to the Battery was the writer Wyndham Lewis, who wrote in his letters about training with the 183rd Siege Battery before leaving to take up a commission. On 26 September the Battery sailed for France, with Cook’s record showing that he departed from Folkstone and arrived at Boulogne. Once there, they travelled immediately to the Somme battlefield, arriving on 28 September and joining the 27th Heavy Artillery Group (H.A.G.) the following day.
The Siege Batteries to which he was allocated during his war service operated howitzers, weapons with shorter barrels and higher elevation than guns, designed to send large-calibre high-explosive shells at high trajectories; the plunging fire that resulted was especially suited to penetrating trenches and to counter-battery work, and howitzers became a mainstay of warfare on the Western Front. The 183rd Siege Battery operated four 9.2 inch howitzers, the most common calibre along with 8 inch and 6 inch howitzers. Much of the work for the Battery involved hauling these weapons into place and between positions, and bringing up the 290 lb shells and propellant charges. The War Establishment of a 9.2 inch howitzer Battery was 7 officers and 176 Other Ranks, excluding transport personnel. A remarkable eight-minute film taken in January 1916 showing the loading and firing of a 9.2 inch howitzer in the destruction of a German blockhouse can be seen here.
In France in 1917 the Siege Batteries were organised into Heavy Artillery Groups (H.A.G.s), which were re-designated as Artillery Brigades R.G.A. from December 1917. The Batteries in H.A.G.s were not fixed, and joined and left with frequency; those in the Brigades were fixed components until the Armistice. Before the change War Diaries were kept both by H.A.G. and by individual Batteries, whereas after that date they were the responsibility of the Brigade alone. If the Battery to which a gunner was allocated is known - as in the case of Cook - then his movements and participation in actions can be reconstructed, from the diary of the Battery or the H.A.G before December 1917 or the Brigade after that. An allocation list in the National Archives shows the H.A.G.s and Brigades to which particular Batteries belonged, and their dates. A number of the diaries are missing or only partly preserved and those that survive vary greatly in their detail, with some of the H.A.G. and Brigade diaries giving a Battery-by-Battery account of each shoot and others only giving a broad summary.
The diary of the 27th H.A.G. shows that it was based near Mametz at the time of the arrival of the 183rd Siege Battery, with the Group HQ having moved forward to the south-west corner of Mametz Wood on the previous day. The Group had been extensively engaged in support of the Somme offensive from its outset in early July 1916, and continued to be so throughout the nearly six weeks that the 183rd Siege Battery was with the Group. The diary contains only three brief lines of entry for this entire period so it is not possible to reconstruct any detail.
The allocation list shows that the Battery transferred to the 66th H.A.G. on 21 October, the 30th on 30 November, the 3rd on 28 January 1917, the 66th on 10 February and the 59th on 8 May. Of these, only the diary of the 59th H.A.G. survives. However, some reconstruction of the Battery’s deployment with 66th H.A.G. is possible through the casualty records of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, which shows that seven men of the Battery were killed on 4 April and one on 5 April near Arras, in the days immediately preceding the opening of the offensive there on 9 April. Clusters of deaths like this among gunners in the same Battery might have come about through German counter-battery fire or as a result of a premature detonation and burst barrel, a hazard for all artillerymen and the cause of frequent casualties.
The likelihood that the Battery was near Arras at the outset of the battle is strengthened by the diary of their next Group, 59th H.A.G., which shows that the 183rd was opposite Wancourt only 4 miles south-east of Arras during their 40 days with this Group. From 8 May to 15 June 1917 the battery fired 1,050 rounds on the Hindenburg Line, targeting trench junctions, dugouts and strongpoints and machine gun emplacements. The location of the Battery from June to December is unknown as the diary of its next Group, 54th H.A.G., is missing. On 12 August Cook was ‘slightly wounded’, but ‘remained at duty.’ He went on leave to the UK from 2 to 11 November, and after the Battery had a period of rest it was broken up on 16 December with one of its sections (i.e. two guns) going to the 91st Siege Battery and the other to the 93rd, with Cook joining the latter.
The diaries of the two Brigades - as they were now called - to which he was attached for the remainder of the war both survive, and give detailed accounts. From 21-26 March the 93rd Siege Battery took part in defensive bombardments during the German Spring Offensive, on several occasions having to move at short notice to prevent the Germans from overruning their positions. ‘The usual form of firing was to concentrate on an area for 10 minutes and then search back along likely lines of approach.’ The Battery was at Guivry at the start of the offensive and moved from there to Maucourt, Porquericourt and Estrée St Denis, after which they went into rest until rejoining the Brigade on 14 May.
On 4 July 1918 the 93rd Siege Battery took part in the Battle of Hamel, in which British artillery and tanks supported Australian and U.S. infantry in their assault on the town of Le Hamel, part of the attempt to push the Germans back again in the western Somme area following the Spring Offensive. The Siege Batteries were positioned as far forward as possible at Zero hour for the infantry assault, and at some point during the day Cook was wounded the left shoulder and face. The wound was reported as ‘G.S.W.’ (gunshot wound), but this was a blanket term for wounds in the artillery, and with the Battery probably being too far back for German bullets still to have sufficient velocity and in a concealed position the wound is more likely to have been caused by shrapnel or shell fragments. He was evacuated to No 9 General Hospital at Rouen, where was treated by the Lakeside Unit, the American medical unit which was the first contingent of the U.S. expeditionary force to arrive in France and had been attached to No 9 hospital since 6 May 1917. The Unit treated many British casualties during its time in France regardless of the involvement of American troops, but in this instance he ended up there probably because he was among U.S. casualties from Hamel, where some 318 U.S. soldiers were killed or wounded. On 6 July he was in No 74 General Hospital at Frouville and on 24 July in a hospital in Dover, but he had recovered enough to be back in France at the Base Depot on 30 July.
Five days later he was back in the Somme area allocated to another battery, 224th Siege Battery, part of 62nd Heavy Artillery Brigade - this time operating 6 inch Howitzers (28 cwt). On the day that he joined, the Brigade HQ was at Forceville some six miles north-west of Albert on the old Somme battlefield. After being devastated in 1916, the battlefield had again seen extensive action during the March 1918 German offensive and was about to be fought over yet again in the follow-up to the Battle of Amiens on 8 August, with the Brigade shelling the retreating Germans and also carried out counter-battery work. Cook was granted 14 days leave to the UK via Boulogne on 21 August, so missed their move forward on the 26th to the old battleground at Courcelette, ‘from which position good execution was done on the retreating enemy’, after the Brigade had bombarded Miraumont, High Wood and Flers.
By the time he rejoined on 4 September 1918 the Battery had moved beyond the Somme towards Cambrai. From then until the Armistice on 11 November they supported the infantry in the ‘Hundred Days Offensive’, crossing the Canal du Nord on 29 September and reaching their final position at Le Plat de Bois, St Waast, some 13 miles south-west of Mons, on 7 November. Cook was in hospital in Frouville for part of this time, from 26 September to 4 October, but he was with the Battery continuously after that. Over this period they carried out many bombardments in support of infantry attacks as well as destructive shoots on hostile batteries, often with aeroplane liaison - useful for long-range shoots in which forward observation from the ground might be difficult. From 1 November the Battery fired 1180 rounds on hostile Batteries and in harrassing fire on roads and approaches, with their final 76 rounds of the war being fired on the morning of 7 November. One of the howitzers had been with the Battery since January 1917 and had fired a total of 16,905 rounds. The final two months of the war had cost the Battery one officer and seven men killed, 12 men wounded and one gassed, their final casualties having been on 17 September.
Gerald Cook was demobilised at Dover on 2 March 1919 and returned to his civilian life as a rural postman in Bridgnorth, where he remarried that year. He received the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, and in 1940 was awarded the Imperial Service Medal for completing 45 years of service with the Post Office. He died in 1946.
His surname is variously spelled Cooke and Cook in his service papers, but the family had adopted the spelling Cook so that is used here.
I’m grateful to my mother Ann for her comments, and especially to my cousin Jeanette Preece for having the foresight to photocopy the picture of Gerald - subsequently destroyed with other family photos in a house clearance - and for her interest in the Cook family history. I’m very grateful as well to Paul O’Rorke for his expertise and comments on this text.
(All WO references are to the UK National Archives. Note that none of the war diaries here are included in the collection on Ancestry.co.uk.)
Service Papers, 92293 Charles Gerald Cooke (National Archives, available on Ancestry.co.uk)
Medal Card of Cooke, Charles G. (WO 372/4/245878)
Service Medal and Award Rolls, Royal Garrison Artillery (award of British War Medal and Victory Medal to 92293 Gunner Cooke, Charles Gerald, certified 21 December 1919)
London Gazette, 27 August 1901: 5677 (notice of qualification as Postman)
London Gazette, 20 December 1940: 7110 (award of Imperial Service Medal)
War Diary, 27th Heavy Artillery Group (WO95/471/1)
War Diary, 59th Heavy Artillery Group (WO95/322/1)
War Diary, 62nd Heavy Artillery Group (WO95/394/3)
War Diary, 69th Heavy Artillery Group (WO95/474/8)
List of Royal Artillery, Royal Medical Corps and other units, including allocation lists to Groups and Brigades for Royal Garrison Artillery Batteries (WO95/5494)
Rose, W.K., 1963, The letters of Wyndham Lewis. London: Methuen
Ruffell, E., 1919, Roll of service of those who have served with the 93rd Siege Battery, R.G.A. Abingdon: Burgess and Sons (in the Imperial War Museu