John Alexander Dobson Cooper
John Alexander Dobson Cooper was born in St Marychurch, Torquay on 6th July 1889. He was the eldest son (and sixth child) of Francis Cooper and his wife Margaret Kinnaird Dobson.
Francis and Margaret both came from Scotland and four of John's five elder sisters - Mary, Margaret, Christina, and Frances - were born in Edinburgh. The family moved to Torquay some time before the birth of John's sister Janet in 1886. In the 1891 Census, they were recorded living at Bronshill Terrace, Chester row, in Ellacombe, a working class part of Torquay. Francis, or Frank as he was known, worked as a "Printer's Machine Man", as he had done in Edinburgh.
Sadly, Frank died aged only 34, in 1893, when John was only three, and his younger brother, George, only a few months old. Records show that John first attended Upton National School, moving on to St John's Mixed School, also in Upton, on 12th September 1898; his younger brother George followed him there. When the children were registered, they and Margaret lived at 5, Braddon Street, near the centre of Torquay, but other school records for George show that the family moved frequently within the town during this period.
At the time of the 1901 Census, only the two youngest, John and his brother George, were still living with at home with their mother. Margaret worked in, or for, a laundry, as an "ironer". The family now lived in Victoria Park Road. John's sister Margaret also worked as an "Ironer", lodging not far away in Lower Wellesley Road, in the house of Elizabeth Pook, who took in laundry at home.
Mary, Christina and Janet were working in domestic service far from home, in London, Kent and Hertfordshire respectively (we have been unable to trace Frances).
Margaret (senior) died aged only 57, and was buried at Torquay Cemetery on 27th February 1907. She died in the Workhouse in Newton Abbot. It is not known where the rest of the family were at this time - we have been unable to trace John's brothers and sisters beyond 1901 - but it appears that John himself remained in Torquay. In 1909 he married Mary Rowe of Dartmouth, daughter of William Luke Rowe and his wife, Anna Maria Pedlar.
William Luke Rowe came from Cornwall. He was one of five sons born to Mary Rowe, "single woman", and was born and brought up in Camelford Workhouse. Despite this perhaps unpromising beginning he was able to acquire a good trade - he became a boot and shoe maker. By the time he was 21, he was working for Edward Hicks, a master "Boot, Shoe and Legging Maker", in Launceston High Street, and lodging with the Hicks family.
In 1883, William married Anna Maria Osborne, from Lanivet, Cornwall, the daughter of John Pedlar, a miner, and his wife Hannah. Anna Maria's first husband, John James Osborne, a carpenter, had died in 1879, leaving her with three daughters, Lavinia, Caroline and Henrietta. The 1881 Census recorded her and the three girls living in St Tudy, near Bodmin, where Anna Maria worked as a seamstress.
William and Anna Maria moved very soon after their marriage to Dartmouth, where William continued to work as a boot and shoemaker. He and Anna Maria soon had several children of their own:
- Ernest John, born on 13th August 1883
- Wallace Pedlar, born on 5th September 1885
- Mary, born on 31st August 1887
- Arthur Herbert, born on 6th May 1889
- Lucy, one month old at the time of the 1891 Census.
At the time of the Census, William and Anna Maria were living in the Newcomen Road. As well as their own children, Anna Maria's two daughters Lavinia (known by her second name Maud) and Caroline Osborne lived with them, along with two of William's brothers, Ernest and Frederick Rowe. Ernest was a gardener and Fred worked as a Post Office Clerk. Lavinia and Caroline both worked in domestic service, though living at home. Sadly, their younger sister Henrietta had very sadly died aged 10, in 1887. Lucy, the baby in the 1891 Census, died the following year; and another daughter, born soon after, and also called Lucy, died too, again aged only one, in 1894.
William perhaps was encouraged to join the Post Office by his younger brother Fred. By the time of the 1901 Census, he had given up the boot and shoe trade and found employment in Dartmouth as a "Rural Postman". He and Anna Maria had moved by this time to Prospect Lodge, Clarence Hill.
Anna Maria's daughters Lavinia and Caroline had left home; but, on the night of the Census at least, William and Anna Maria's household now included their granddaughter, Louisa Pound. Louisa was Caroline's daughter - Caroline lived with her husband and other children just down the hill. Sadly, William's younger brother Herbert had died on 28th April 1896, aged only 25; Fred joined the Army later in 1901 to serve in the Boer War.
When Mary Rowe married John Cooper in 1909, they settled in Torquay, where John worked. Their son Alexander William Frank Dobson Cooper, named for both his grandfathers, was born on 28th December 1909 and baptized at Christ Church, Ellacombe, in Torquay. At that time John and Mary were living at 17 Megla Terrace, in Pennsylvania Road. John worked as a Printer.
By the time of the 1911 Census, John and Mary had moved to 6 Laburnum Cottages, in Torre. John described himself on the census form as a "newsagent" working in a "news office". Mary was at home with John, but their baby son Alexander was not in Torquay - he was staying with his grandparents in Dartmouth. William and Anna Maria were still living in Prospect Lodge, and William continued to work as a Postman.
Mary's brothers Ernest, Wallace and Arthur had all left home. Ernest had married and lived in Brixham where he worked as a Boatman. Wallace lived in Dartmouth and worked as a merchant seaman. He married Thirza Webber, sister of William Charles and John Samuel Webber. Arthur joined the Royal Navy as a Stoker in 1907.
John's individual service record has not survived so his service must be pieced together from various sources. At the time of his death he was serving in the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (DCLI) and the Regiment's Medal Roll shows that he first joined 1st/5th Battalion DCLI, with the number 3022; later transferred to the 6th Battalion DCLI, having been renumbered 240684; and then transferred back to 1st/5th Battalion.
Comparison of John's service number with those of men whose records have survived indicates that he probably enlisted in late October or early November 1915; according to Soldiers Died in the Great War, he enlisted in Plymouth.
The 1st/5th Battalion of the DCLI was a Territorial Force Battalion which remained in the UK on the outbreak of war. It was then converted to a Pioneer Battalion. These were "fighting infantry but with specific skills in road making, entrenching and demolition". Their role was to provide "organized and intelligent labour" for the Royal Engineers, while also retaining their fighting skills. It was decided in December 1914 that each of the divisions of Kitchener's New Army would have a Pioneer Battalion and 1/5th DCLI was put under the orders of 61st (2nd South Midland) Division. The Battalion went to France in 1916, landing at Le Havre on 22nd May, which is where their war diary begins. This is most probably when John first arrived in France.
The Battalion began working in the area of Laventie, midway between Bethune and Armentieres. When the division was holding the line, the Pioneers were used to improve the trenches and develop fortifications - so, their war diary records, for example, that during their first spell of work they "carried out pioneer work including tunneling, clearing of drains, repairing parapets, sandbagging, working at machine gun emplacements … constructing shell proof shelters and Battery Pit for R[oyal] A[rtillery] … wiring hurdles, putting down, cleaning and relaying duckboards… constructing bomb stores". Working close to, or in, the front line, was not without its dangers - the Battalion suffered its first casualties on 22nd June, when two men were hit by gunfire and one died later that day. Injuries from the work also occurred sometimes.
When the division was taken out of the line, the Pioneers were used for a wide variety of tasks, especially road and rail repairs, but also improving billets and sometimes helping with local harvests. They also continued with their infantry training.
The Battalion remained in the Laventie area until late October 1916, when they began a move to the Somme, arriving on 17th November 1916. They were billeted in "dugouts between Contalmaison and Pozieres" and were attached to the 4th Canadian Division to "carry out Pioneer work". Although the battle had come to an end, several men were killed and wounded over the next few days while working on the trenches. On Christmas Day 1916 the routine did not change: "the Battalion did Pioneer Work as usual".
In early 1917 they were attached to the 18th Division, for whom they built huts and shelters; by February they were south of the Somme at Herleville clearing and draining trenches; levelling, packing and ballasting railways; and repairing roads. In March 1917 they were attached to 35th Division, for work on road construction.
The withdrawal of German forces to the Hindenburg Line in March took the 1/5th back north-east across the Somme to Matigny, where they cleared and repaired more roads, and worked on a large crater at the cross-roads in the town. They remained in Matigny until May, combining road repairs with keeping their infantry skills up to date, though they must have wondered if these would ever be used.
On 26th May 1917, they arrived in Arras, and rejoined the 61st Division, which had relieved 37th Division in the front line. Once again the Pioneers were put to work digging and repairing trenches, south of Monchy le Preux. The front line was still very active and they sustained several casualties over the next few days.
Finally, after what appears to be a year's continuous digging, they were allowed a rest during July. This included some infantry training but the War Diary describes several Divisional Sports events, in a variety of competitions. While planning went on for the next great offensive at Ypres (the War Diary records that the Battalion's Commanding Officer attended a 61st Divisional conference where "various matters of importance were discussed at length") they continued training and also helping with the harvest.
By 9th August, they had been brought up to work on trenches and roads around Wieltje, north east of Ypres. Half the Battalion was in billets at Warrington Camp and the other half in Ypres itself. The conditions on the battlefield were extremely difficult, although the Battalion's War Diary makes no reference to them (see for example, the stories of William Burnell and Reginald Bawden, both involved in the attack on Langemarck, further to the north). Working to improve the trenches, close up to the front line, they once again sustained several casualties.
On 5th September 1917, the Battalion was still located around Ypres. "C" Company was on detachment with the Canadian Railway Battalion: the War Diary described the work of the remaining three companies:
The War Diary notes that, on that day, thirteen other ranks became gas casualties, including John. It appears that he was sufficiently severely affected to be "struck off strength", but the War Diary does not record that he was transferred to England for treatment (as it does for some others), suggesting that he was treated in France. His name appeared in the official casualty list of 4th October 1917 as "wounded".
6th Battalion DCLI
When John recovered is not known - but he was not sent back to the 1st/5th Battalion, being transferred instead to the 6th Battalion DCLI, an infantry unit. They too had been at Third Ypres but by the middle of November were out of the line, billeted in the village of Acquin. In December they spent a short period holding the line near Mosselmark, on the Passchendaele ridge, from 9th-13th and 15th-19th December. As they left the line for their camp, their route took them by way of Spree Farm, where (most likely) John had been gassed. On 27th December, they were in billets at Boisdinghem. It seems likely that John celebrated his second Christmas here, on 31st December, which was "observed as a Holiday".
On 2nd January 1918 the 6th Battalion DCLI travelled by train from St Omer to Bray-sur-Somme. The British Army was taking over the southern part of the Somme sector from the French and the Battalion relieved the French in the line near Remigny on 27th January 1918. The Battalion Orders were:
Company Commanders will impress on their men that they are now in an area which has never been occupied by English troops before, and that the Commanding Officer orders all ranks to ensure that the inhabitants have no cause to complain of British Army Troops, so far as the DCLI are concerned anyhow.
But this was the last spell of front-line duty for the 6th Battalion, which was now a victim not of enemy action but, more devastating by far, of British Army reorganization. In response to restrictions imposed by the Government on front line manpower, Divisions were reduced from twelve to nine Battalions and some Battalions were disbanded altogether. The 6th Battalion was one such. The final two pages of their War Diary recorded, briefly, the successive departures of various groups of officers, NCOs and men in various directions to their new units. Most appear to have gone to other DCLI Battalions - the party posted to 1/5th DCLI left on 6th February, and on 7th February John re-joined his old unit, where he was posted to "B" Company. He was once again a Pioneer.
The German Spring Offensive
The 1st/5th DCLI was based near Holnon Wood, north-west of St Quentin. All along the British line a new system of defence was being implemented (for more on this see the story of Reginald Drake). Assuming John was at once put to work, he will have spent the next few weeks building these new defences and repairing old French trenches in the 61st Division area. The work continued up to the moment the Germans launched their great offensive on 21st March 1918.
Suddenly the Pioneers had to remember their infantry skills, even though they were in the rear areas. The War Diary records:
At about 5am owing to violent hostile shelling Battalion HQ moved into the dugouts at the Railway Cutting.
At 5.30am orders were received to "man Battle Stations".
A and C Coys paraded in battle order and took up positions along the line of redoubts, but were ordered to withdraw after a few hours. A Coy sustained several casualties from shell fire.
B Coy owing to hostile shelling were ordered to withdraw to shelters between Marteville and Villeveque.
These were shelters that they themselves had been building only a few days earlier. As the German attack overwhelmed the forward areas, B Company found themselves in action:
At about 8.30pm B Coy moved to forward positions with the 183rd Brigade, and went into action … ten casualties were sustained …
However, the following morning, they were ordered back to the Transport Lines. The next day the CO, Lt Col Carus-Wilson, at 1pm took "B" Coy forward into position along the bank of the Somme Canal in front of Moyencourt, but on 25th March was forced to withdraw in the face of enemy attack. The CO himself was severely wounded and died on his way to hospital. Over the next few days they were part of the retreat of Fifth Army:
- on 26th the Battalion moved back to Mezieres-en-Santerre, and overnight was ordered to attempt to establish a defence line at Le Quesnel.
- on 27th, they moved by bus overnight to billets in Marcelcave, but had to evacuate the village the following day (28th) due to very heavy enemy shelling. They then took a position in trenches about 2000 yards south of the village.
- on 29th, at 3pm "heavy shell fire was opened on all tracks, roads, etc around our positions". They were attacked at about 7.30am the following morning and had to withdraw further
- finally at midnight on 30th/31st March they were relieved "by the Australians" and fell back to the village of Gentelles, to the south-east of Longueau.
During this period overall, the cumulative casualties had been heavy:
- Killed: officers 4, ORs 30
- Wounded: officers 11, ORs 139
- Missing: ORs 30
But it appears that John survived the first phase of the onslaught.
The next two days were spent digging "a line of posts" in defence of Gentelles, until they were withdrawn from the fighting. On the night of 2nd April the Battalion went by bus overnight to the village of Briquemesnil, well to the west of Amiens, and then marched to the village of Laleu. They spent the next six days resting, reorganizing and re-equipping, not least with baths and clean underclothes. A draft of reinforcements arrived from the 4th Bn DCLI in England, and also a new CO, Major Ward.
Battle of the Lys
However, the respite was short as the next phase of the German attack was underway. On 9th April, as 1st/5th DCLI were still resting, seventeen divisions attacked between Armentieres and La Bassee; on 10th April, the German Fourth Army attacked along the Messines Ridge near Ypres.
In response the 61st Division was transferred from the Somme and brought into the new battle area. That day, the Battalion was moved from Laleu, at the rear of the Somme sector, to Steenbecque, close to Hazebrouck, from where they marched to Thiennes. The Pioneers were the first to be engaged; on 11th April A and B Companies were taken forward to join 153rd Brigade of 51st Division, where they took up a line east of Merville and close to the Lys river, part of the forces attempting to hold off the German attack towards Hazebrouck.
Though the Battalion's numbers had been replenished by the arrival of reinforcements, the Regimental History observes that:
the whole of the draft were youths without any experience of real warfare and the change practically from the barrack-square to the firing-line against a well-trained, war-bitten enemy was a terrible experience.
The Battalion suffered heavy casualties from shelling and machine gun fire during 11th April and the left of the line was forced to withdraw; but then C Company came up as reinforcements and the line was held overnight. But at 7.30am on 12th April: "the whole line was attacked and the enemy worked round both flanks", subjecting the Battalion to machine-gun fire from both sides. Successive withdrawals were then made to "a position along the south side of the village of Le Sart" (now a western suburb of the town of Merville) on the banks of the Lys Canal. The Battalion then sustained further very heavy casualties when troops in the 51st Division on their left were forced to withdraw, and they had to fall back across the Canal under heavy rifle and machine gun fire. A line was then taken up west of Le Sart and held up to midnight, when they were ordered to withdraw to rejoin 61st Division.
Oddly, the Battalion War Diary does not give any figures for casualties over these two days, but the History of the DCLI states that:
The Pioneers had put up a splendid fight, but their losses were again very heavy. No less than sixteen officers, and 467 ORs, had been killed, wounded or were missing.
During 13th April and the next four days thereafter, the Battalion reverted to the Pioneer role, digging posts and trenches in the same area. There is no record of their involvement in "operations", nor are any casualties recorded on 17th April, the date given by the CWGC for John's death. So this presents something of a puzzle.
The Soldiers Effects Register also records John's death as "killed in action" on 17th April 1918. But John's Medal Index Card states that his date of death was 11th April; and the information provided to the family at the time was that he had died on 12th April. The Dartmouth Chronicle of 3rd May 1918 reported:
For the World's Freedom
Mr and Mrs W Luke Rowe, Prospect Lodge, Dartmouth, received news on Sunday morning that their son-in-law, Pte J A Cooper, DCLI, was killed in action in France on 12th April. He was 29 years old. The chaplain, in writing, said: "Burial by us was impossible. The Battalion was called upon to meet the second great attack of the enemy, and brought it to a standstill. Your son's life is part of the price of the world's freedom. How great is that price none of us knew until now."
The circumstances described by the chaplain would appear to be more appropriate to the action undertaken by the Battalion near Merville on 11th/12th April than to their activities on 17th April. We have therefore recorded John's death on 12th April, following the contemporary account above.
It seems that John's body was never found, or never identified, for he is commemorated on a panel of the Loos Memorial, one of 20,000 officers and men with no known grave, who fell "in the area from the River Lys to the old southern boundary of the First Army, east and west of Grenay, from the first day of the Battle of Loos to the end of the war" (CWGC).
John is commemorated in Dartmouth on the Town War Memorial and the St Saviours Memorial Board.
War Diary of the 1st/5th Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry (Pioneers) May 1916 - December 1919, available from the National Archives, fee payable for download, reference WO 95/3050
War Diary of the 6th Battalion Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry May 1915 - February 1918, available from the National Archives, fee payable for download, reference WO 95/1908/2
The History of the Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 1914-1919, by Everard Wyrall, publ Methuen, 1932.
No Labour, No Battle: Military Labour during the First World War, by John Starling and Ivor Lee, publ. 2014, The History Press.
Information Held on Database
|Forenames:||John Alexander Dobson|
|Military Unit:||1/5th Bn Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry|
|Date of Death:||12 Apr 1918|
|Age at Death:||28|
|Cause of Death:||Killed in action|
|Action Resulting in Death:||Battle of the Lys|
|Place of Death:||Near Merville, France|
|Place of Burial:||Commemorated Loos Memorial, France|
|Born or Lived in Dartmouth?||Not Known|
|On Dartmouth War Memorial?||Yes|
|On St Saviour's Memorials?||Yes|
|On St Petrox Memorials?||No|
|On Flavel Church Memorials?||No|
|In Longcross Cemetery?||No|
|In St Clement's Churchyard?||No|
|On a Private Memorial?||No|
|On Another Memorial?||No|