More than a century has passed since 23-year-old Jack Cockhill led his men on a 45-minute raid into German positions, killing many enemy soldiers, destroying machine gun positions and earning him the Military Cross for his efforts.
Now the grime, guts and glory of those far-off days of the Great War are being remembered after the family of the Huddersfield ‘Tommy’ presented his medals to archivists of the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (DWR) at the town’s Drill Hall.
A grocer’s son, John Bates Cockhill was born in Netherton in 1893. Known as Jack, he died, aged 87, in Honley in 1980.
Almost 40 years later, thanks to the Trustees of Huddersfield Drill Hall, his medals – including Military Cross and Bar and the Distinguished Service Order – will hang alongside others given to DWR soldiers.
Among those present at the hand-over were his surviving daughter, a grandson and his wife, great-grandchildren and a great-great granddaughter as well as Colonel Tim Isles, a former commanding officer of the Dukes.
In 1916 Captain Jack Cockhill was just one of thousands of troops serving on the Western Front. On the night of November 20 he was in command of a mixed group of six officers and 77 other ranks plus three sappers from the Royal Engineers. Their task was to attack and destroy German trenches and machine gun positions.
Jack wrote a vivid yet sober account of the raid for the battalion’s official War Diary. After quite literally missing the bus to the front line he and his party had to march for more than an hour to their attack position at Foncquevillers. On arrival the men ate hot soup. Then it was time to advance via positions known as Thorpe Trench and New Street.
This is how Jack recalled the events that were to come. An edited extract from the War Diary, it makes for thrilling – and chilling – reading:
“At the entrance to Thorpe Trench Second Lt Browning’s party took the lead and all were in position at the junction to New Street and the front line at 7.20pm. I ordered the Left Flanking Party to proceed from our trench at 7.33pm and the other parties followed in quick succession. We were closed up, clear of our (barbed) wire at 7.45pm when the whole party moved forward along the tape. Many Very lights (flares) were sent up from the Boche lines on our right which caused our progress to be slow. Our barrage opened at 7.56pm just as the tail of the raiding party was crossing the sunken road. I then urged the men on.
“At 8pm the head of our party collided with the tape party who were just setting fire to the torpedoes (Bangalore Torpedoes were explosive charges in tubes used by combat engineers to clear obstacles such as barbed wire defences). Second Lt Browning told the party to get back and the torpedoes exploded at 8.01pm causing considerable confusion because of its force. Half the men ran back about 50 yards but we rallied them, explaining the cause of the explosion, when the men came on again. There was no machine gun fire at the time. We all went forward and entered the trench.
“Much fighting took place there. The bombers (soldiers armed with grenades) then came up. A sentry post of four Germans was accounted for, all the Boche being killed. The enemy dropped a bomb and killed one man.
“Lt Fisher got about 50 yards along the trench with his men. On his way he came across three dugout entrances. At the entrance to the first three Boche were crouching where he and Sgt Ellis shot them. They rolled down the dugout steps. Bombs were thrown down all the entrances and he continued working along the trench. About 30 yards from the point of entry the communications trench was found, which Sgt Ellis and his men entered. This trench was in bad condition, evidently disused.
“Men were posted at the entrances to the dugouts and threw in P Bombs (phosphorous grenades). I could see thick smoke coming out of two entrances and groans were heard below.
“At 8.15pm Sgt Goldsborough came back for more bombs which were collected from the Parapet Party and passed on. I then thought it time to give the signal for the men to come out. The retirement was carried out in good order and each officer reported ‘all clear’ to me. Second Lt Browning and I brought up the rear. Going through the Boche wire a machine gun on our right opened fire but the shots were very high and erratic. The majority of the party made straight for the top of Gooche St (trench). About 50 yards in front of our own wire the enemy sent across some well-directed HEs (high explosive shells) which did no damage.
“I was well satisfied with the show put up by the raiding party and am firmly convinced that all Germans in the trench raided were killed, also that any of the enemy in the two dugouts on the left were put out. Considerable damage was done. A machine gun emplacement was damaged by our bombs. The Bangalore Torpedo explosion caused considerable confusion, owing to the fact that our men had not seen one before.”
In the aftermath of the raid Jack said “all my officers did jolly well”, recommending his comrade 2nd Lieutenant Browning “for his good work throughout the operation” and two stretcher bearers “for their good work and coolness.”
Jack Cockhill was returned to the UK on light duties in October 1917 and was awarded another Military Cross (as a Bar to the original) the following month.
In his account of Jack Cockhill’s experiences DWR historian Scott Flaving writes: “In 1918 the 5th Battalion was sent to assist the French in the Ardre Valley during the German ‘Operation Blucher’ offensive against the French 6th Army. This campaign only lasted for 10 days before the British units returned to their own sector but in that time they had covered themselves in glory and, moreover, Jack had been awarded the Distinguished Service Order (DSO), although he had been wounded on July 22, 1918 (remaining at duty), during this phase.”
After the war Jack Cockhill served with the Territorial Army and, during World War II, in the Home Guard. As a civilian he entered the family grocery and confectionery business.
Daughter Heather, 90, unveiled her father’s decorations, which now join others on the wall of the Drill Hall Mess. It was an emotional moment. Previously the medals had been in storage at the DWR Regimental Museum in Halifax for almost 20 years.
Heather, who led four generations of Jack’s family – including 10-month-old great-great-granddaughter Bobbie – at the ceremony, said the moment was one to treasure.
She said: “It’s a very proud day for us all. My father was a quiet, sociable man. He could be very amusing but he never talked about the war even though he was in the army from the beginning to the end.”