b. 13/12/1883 Tranmere, Merseyside. d. 28/09/1915 Mesopotamia.
Edgar Christopher Cookson (1883-1915) was born at Rock Ferry, Cheshire on the 13th December 1883, the youngest son of Captain W.E.C. Cookson R.N., and his wife Louise. He began his education at Hazelhurst School in Kent and at the age of 14 entered the Royal Navy as a naval cadet on the training ship H.M.S. Britannia on the 15th September, 1897. His conduct there was very good and he became a midshipman in February 1899. Appointed to H.M.S. Dido, a light cruiser built in 1897 he saw active service on the China station as a member of the Naval Brigade during the Boxer uprising and received the China Medal 1900.
He was promoted to Acting Sub-Lieutenant in September 1902 and with some of his colleagues he incurred their Lordships ‘extreme displeasure’. They had caused a disturbance at the Empire Music Hall, Portsmouth. Cookson was also in arrears of payment of mess his bills and had ‘broken’ out of college without permission of leave from the commanding officer. He was deprived of three months’ time, fined 35/- and warned that further misconduct would be dealt with severely. Between November 1902 and June 1903 he returned to his studies gaining certificates in Seamanship, Navigation, Pilotage and Torpedoes. He twice failed his gunnery course before gaining a successful pass in October 1903. Becoming a sub-Lieutenant the following month and Lieutenant two years later in September 1905 he spent the next few years serving on Torpedo Boat Destroyers and gained his first command in March 1907.
Whilst in command of TB41 he was blamed for a collision with TB50 for not keeping a proper lookout and directed by the C-in-C Portsmouth to be more careful in future. The following year in June 1908 he was again admonished for granting his crew to sleep ashore without the authorisation of his senior officer. In view of this and previous reports he was not to be given a further command in Torpedo Boats, relieved of his duties and appointed to a ‘large ship.’
In July 1908 he was appointed to H.M.S. Venerable, a battleship completed in 1902 where subsequently his ability was recorded as being zealous, energetic, of sound judgement, a very capable and promising officer. ‘Large’ vessels it would appear helped to bring to the fore his undoubted qualities. He had applied in December 1910 to again serve on Torpedo Boats, but his request was refused. Appointed in October 1912 to H.M.S. Clio, a 1000-ton sloop he served on her on the China station where he was promoted to Lieutenant-Commander in September 1913 and became second-in-command of the H.M.S. Clio.
Shortly after the outbreak of the First World War, H.M.S. Clio was transferred from China to the Middle East. During January the vessel was engaged on defensive duties along the Suez Canal and exchanged gun fire with the Turks at the end of the month and beginning of February. A few weeks later H.M.S. Clio with other vessels, were ordered to Basra to reinforce the Naval Flotilla operating on the Euphrates and Tigris rivers. On the 9th May, Cookson was in command of the river steam-boat Shushan, captained by a civilian to undertake a reconnaissance for the army of El Huir creek on the Euphrates near Qurna. The vessel had been fitted with two 3-pounder and three Maxim guns. In addition to her crew she carried 30 men of the Oxford and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. As the Shushan moved along the creek she was ambushed by Arab riflemen hidden among the reed beds. Under accurate and close range fire Cookson and three soldiers were wounded. The Shushan had been accompanied by H.M.S. Clio which had anchored at the entrance to the creek and used her 4-inch gun to subdue the enemy. After having his chest wound dressed Cookson resumed his command and both vessels safely withdrew. The Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf reported the gallant conduct of Cookson and ‘although severely wounded in the right side of the chest early in the action resumed command after his wound had been temporarily dressed and succeeded in most ably extracting his vessel from a particularly perilous position under a heavy fire.’ The London Gazette of the 13th September, 1915 announced the award of the D.S.O. to Cookson. After recovering from his wound Cookson resumed his duties in H.M.S. Clio and in June grounded the vessel in the Shatt-el-Arab. He was duly informed that he had again incurred their Lordships displeasure!
The initial priority for Britain at the beginning of the war had been to secure the Persian oil fields and assert British authority throughout the area. By mid-1915 the Shatt-el-Arab where the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flow towards the open sea, together with the oil fields and areas around Basra had been secured and occupied. A much more substantial prize began to germinate in the minds of the British authorities – the capture of Baghdad 600 miles along the Tigris from Basra.
Army operations, supported by a naval flotilla of river boats and various small steamers had assisted the army’s progress up the Tigris and in the capture of Amara in June. A further 120 miles up the river was Kut-el-Amara – Kut. The Turks had established a strong defensive position at Kut and this was a major obstacle for the British to capture if progress towards Baghdad could continue.
At Es Sinn, approximately 8 miles from Kut, the Turks had dug trenches across marshy land, erected barbed wire, drove sharpened stakes into the ground and sown minefields on either side of the river stretching for some two miles inland. The river itself was blocked in mid-stream by two iron barges moored either side of a dhow and connected by steel hawsers to each other and the river bank. The defensive positions at Es Sinn were manned by 10,000 Turkish soldiers, plus artillery and further reserves were available for reinforcement. The British force had available three infantry brigades, cavalry and artillery and a small naval flotilla which were to advance towards Es Sinn, overcome the Turks and move onwards to Kut. The infantry force was to be divided with one column on the left and the other column along the right bank.
The naval flotilla was composed of the gunboat Comet and Shaitan, the steam launch Sumana, four naval 4.7-inch guns in horse boats, two heavy batteries of the RGA mounted in barges and two small steam launches for towing purposes. Due to leave and sickness Lieutenant-Commander Cookson was the Senior Naval Officer of the flotilla aboard the Comet. Throughout July and August the British force steadily advanced along the Tigris capturing villages and forcing the Turks to withdraw before them towards Kut. By mid-September the village of Sannaiyat 15 miles from Kut had been captured. Here the British forces rested for ten days to allow further reconnaissance and for reinforcement drafts to join to make up for losses sustained.
On the 26th September the British resumed their advance and halted 3 miles from Es Sinn on the right bank. The attack along the left back of the Tigris began with a demonstration on the right. At mid-night a large force crossed over to the left via a pontoon bridge to envelope the Turks. Heavy fighting ensued throughout the day by the end of which the Turks withdrew. Unfortunately the exhausted and tired British troops could not pursue them. At 1900 hours an RNAS seaplane landed alongside the Comet with a message from Major General Townshend, commander of the 6th Division for Cookson. He was informed that the Turks were fleeing the battlefield towards Kut and that, ‘if possible destroy the obstruction across the river at Es Sinn which would allow the British troops and naval flotilla to advance on Kut itself.’
When darkness fell, the Comet with all lights switched off moved slowly up river towards the boom. Closing upon the obstruction the Turks suddenly opened fire from both banks subjecting the Comet to an intense fire of bullets and shell. The curtain of bullets struck the temporary protective steel plating along the Comet’s gunwhale some penetrating and others, flying off in all directions. Cookson ordered full speed ahead and rammed the Comet into the dhow to try and break through. Although the dhow was damaged the steel hawsers held firm. The Comet moved astern and Cookson ordered her 4-inch guns to fire at the boom to try and blast their way through, without success. Despite the intensity of the Turkish fire the crew remained steadfast at their posts and Cookson decided to lay the Comet alongside the dhow and to try to cut through the hawsers using an axe. With axe in hand he leaned over the bow and with difficulty hacked at the cable. He then stepped over the gunwhale and on to the dhow and was immediately shot down. Some members of his crew dragged him back on to the Comet. Struck by several bullets but still alive he murmured: “I am done. It is a failure. Return at full speed.” Ten minutes later he died. The small flotilla then withdrew and anchored downstream. Next morning a reconnaissance revealed that the Turks had abandoned the boom and the way to Kut was open. Surprisingly, Cookson was the only fatality although most of his crew were wounded.
In a special despatch written by Major-General Townshend he said of Cookson: ‘He found that he could not send a man over the ship’s side to cut away the obstruction because it meant certain death, so he took an axe and went himself.’ For his conspicuous bravery Cookson was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross which was announced in the London Gazette of the 21st January, 1916: “The King has been graciously pleased to approve of the grant of the Victoria Cross to Lieutenant-Commander Edgar Christopher Cookson D.S.O., R.N., in recognition of the following act of most conspicuous gallantry during the advance on Kut-el-Amara. On the 28th September 1915, the river gunboat Comet had been ordered with other gunboats to examine and if possible destroy an obstruction placed across the river by the Turks. When the gunboats were approaching the obstruction a very heavy rifle and machine-gun fire was opened on them from both banks. An attempt to sink the centre dhow of the obstruction by gun-fire having failed, Lieutenant-Commander Cookson ordered the Comet to be placed alongside and himself jumped on to the dhow with an axe and tried to cut the wire hawsers connecting it with the two other craft forming the obstruction.
He was immediately shot in several places and died within a very few minutes.” Other members of his crew also received gallantry awards for their bravery.
Lieutenant-Commander Cookson was 31 years of age when he died and was buried by his crew. After the Armistice his body was recovered and re-interred in Amara War Cemetery. Grave Location: Section IV, Row A, Grave No.5. The CWGC state that in 1933 all headstones were removed when it was found that the salts in the soil were causing deterioration. A screen wall was erected with the names of those buried in the cemetery engraved upon it.
On the 29th November, 1916 King George V presented Cookson’s mother with her sons Victoria Cross. His Distinguished Service Order had been forwarded to her by post on the 30th September, 1915. In May 1918 the memorial tablet in the Parish Church at Whitchurch Canonicorum was unveiled in the presence of his mother and family members. Lieutenant-Commander Cookson’s medal group comprising of the Victoria Cross, Distinguished Service Order, China Medal 1900, 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20 and Victory Medal 1914-19 were sold at Sotheby’s on the 26th January, 1977. They were in private ownership but are now up for auction at Noonans on 13th March 2024 with an estimate of £180-£220,000.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: AT AUCTION AT NOONANS ON 13/03/2024.
BURIAL PLACE: AMARA WAR CEMETERY, AMARA, IRAQ.
(NAMED ON THE MEMORIAL). PLOT IV, ROW A GRAVE 15
Noonans – Images of the Cookson Medals when up for auction March 2024.