Edward Cooper was an ordinary young man who went on to do extraordinary things. Here is his story...
Ned was born in Stockton on the 4th May 1896. He was the son of a millwright who worked at the Malleable Iron works in Stockton. He was part of large family, having six sisters and two brothers. Educated at Bailey Street School, he left at the age of 13 to work with his uncle who was in charge of a butchers shop. Here Ned became an errand boy working long hours particularly on a Saturday when he often finished work at midnight. For all these long hours Ned earned 3/6d a week. Not surprisingly he was on the look out for a job that paid a little bit more. Ned got his wish a year later when, at the age of 14, he began working for the Co-Op earning 6/- (shillings) for a 44 hour week . Here he worked as an assistant to a fruit hawker selling produce from a horse drawn cart. At the age of 16 Ned was put in charge of his own fruit cart with a boy working for him. At 18 he was earning 18/- (shillings) a week with a bonus for selling extra fruit, a good wage for someone his age in 1914. It looked as though Ned’s life was set fair.
War Comes to Stockton
The following statement was issued from the Foreign Office on the evening of August the 4th 1914: Owing to the summary rejection by the German Government of the request made by His Majesty’s Government for assurances that the neutrality of Belgium would be respected, His Majesty’s Ambassador in Berlin has received his passport, and His Majesty’s Government has declared to the German Government that a state of war exists between Great Britain and Germany as from 11pm on August 4.
Ned had paid little attention to world affairs but the outbreak of war was to have an immediate effect on his life. The horse which pulled his fruit cart was commandeered by the army and put to more important war work. This meant that Ned was unable to work and his employers put him on an early holiday. It was while on this enforced holiday that Ned decided, along with thousands of others, to respond to his nations call to arms and join the army.
Have another birthday!
When war broke out there was an upsurge of patriotic fervour. This 'rush to the colours' led to more people coming forward than could be absorbed by the army or navy. As a way of limiting the number of volunteers, the minimum age for recruits was raised to 19.
This was a problem for Ned Cooper. When he got to the recruiting office which was in Stockton Town Hall the army recruiter asked for his date of birth. Ned replied that he was born in 1896 and was promptly told that he was too young and was turned away. On his way out he bumped into a soldier he knew who asked Ned if he had just joined up. Ned explained that he had tried to but was a year to young. The old soldier thought for a moment and then said ‘Well I’m going for a cup of tea now maybe you will have another birthday while I’m away.’ At first Ned was puzzled but soon realised the soldier was suggesting that Ned should lie about his date of birth and this is exactly what he did. He returned to the recruiting office and told them he was born in 1895 not 1896. This worked and Ned was now in the army. He had enlisted in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps because he liked the smart green uniform and black buttons!
Background to the Battle
Ned won his V.C. on the 16th of August 1917 at the battle of Langemark one of a series of battles called the Third Battle of Ypres more commonly known today as Passchendaele. The British army were on the attack in what was to be the last truly attritional offensive of the Great War. The British commander General Haig planned the offensive to relieve pressure on the French army which had become mutinous having suffered devastating losses during the Nivelle Offensive of April 1917. At the same time success around the Ypres salient could lead to the capture of the Belgian port of Ostend from which the Germans were mounting crippling U boat attacks on allied shipping. The U-boats posed such a threat that the Admiralty feared that the losses to allied shipping were unsustainable and that Germany would even win the war. It was against these enormous strategic backdrops that one young man from Stockton, Ned Cooper risked his life.
Cooper wins his Victoria Cross
The best description on how Ned won his V.C. comes in the official citation:
For Most Conspicuous Bravery & Initiative in the Attack Enemy machine guns from a concrete blockhouse, 250 yards away, were holding up the advance of the battalion on his left, and were also causing heavy causalities to his own battalion. Sergeant Cooper, with four men immediately rushed towards the blockhouse, though heavily fired on. About a 100 yards distant he ordered his men to lie down and fire at the blockhouse. Finding this did not silence the machine guns, he immediately rushed forward straight at them and fired his revolver into an opening in the blockhouse. The machine guns ceased firing and the garrison surrendered. Seven machine guns and 45 men were captured in this blockhouse. By this magnificent act of courage he undoubtedly saved what might have been a serious check to the whole advance, at the same time saving a great number of lives. London Gazette 14th September 1917.
Getting ticked off by the General!
Following the action at Langemark the brigade in which Ned served was called together to meet the divisional commander, General Grant, who proceeded to give out awards and decorations that had been won during the Battle of Langemark. Ned was a little surprised that his bravery in capturing the block house was not mentioned. However at the end of the parade Ned was called to meet General Grant who congratulated Ned on his conduct but told Ned that he had a serious complaint! Ned was surprised by this and wondered what complaint the general might have. General Grant went onto explain that one of the German officers who Ned had captured had complained that Ned had kicked him up the pants and that this was not the way a British sergeant should treat an officer of the Kaiser’s army! Ned had forgotten about this incident and he explained to the general that he had just kicked the officer in the pants as he came out the blockhouse. Ned went on to say that he had accidentally shot the first man who had come out of the blockhouse. General Grant smiled and said the only mistake that Ned had made was that the German officer had not been the first one out of the blockhouse.
Read all about it!
One of the last people to learn about Ned winning the Victoria Cross was Ned Cooper himself. Following the battle Ned was sent on leave and left for England before he was told about his award. The news had arrived in camp the day before his departure but as Ned was asleep at the time it was decided to tell him the following morning but Ned was up at 5:00 am and on his way back to England for a much needed break from the trenches. When he got to England he sent a telegram to his family saying he was on leave and would be catching the 5 o’clock train from Kings Cross and would be back in Stockton that night. While waiting for the train Ned passed his time at a YMCA hut that provided free food and entertainment for the troops. It was whilst in this hut that he happened to see a paper with the headline ‘ Ten New V.C.’s’. Reading the article he saw his name there in the paper he was the winner of a Victoria Cross.
A Heroes Return
For some reason it never occurred to Ned that other people knew that he had been given the Victoria Cross. He was surprised that people on the train were talking about him and some even claiming to know him. When he got to Stockton, accompanied by his father and brother who had met him at Darlington, he was met by the Superintendent of Police and the Mayor. On leaving the station it appeared as if the whole town had turned out to welcome him home. At the mayor’s suggestion the crowd carried him to his home in Portrack, along the way his cap and buttons were taken as well as his rifle which thankfully was returned the next day!
During his leave he received many presentations and invitations for he had become a celebrity. He even had his photograph taken, prints of which were then sold to the public in aid of the Prisoners War Fund.
The Unfailing Hero
Sometimes people become accidental heroes, acting on instinct or impulse and without thought they carry out individual acts of bravery. Ned Cooper was different, his act of bravery in winning the Victoria Cross was not his first or last act of extreme courage during the war. Ned appears to have always acted selflessly and bravely. This is demonstrated in a letter written by a former comrade, rifleman 3368 J Lyons, who had served with Ned in the Kings Royal Rifle Corps.
He wrote in 1917 the following: ‘Dear Sir, Having read in this evenings local newspaper of a presentation to Sergt. Edward Cooper K.R.R.C I would be much obliged if you would convey my congratulations to him, for I don’t know his address but I anticipate it is my one time Comrade Trooper Cooper L/c. C Coy. 12th K.R.R.C (one of the K L’s) though it does not state what battalion he belongs. In the event of this being the same Cooper I might assure you it comes as no surprise to those who were in the trenches with him to learn what he has got, for he previously won it, the V.C. it was the same manly qualities that caused him to volunteer to bring me in when I had a broken leg, and other wounds, and was of course helpless at Gondecourt on the “Somme”. Thanking you in anticipation of an answer, if I am correct in my surmise or not, I remain, Yours sincerely Late 3368. Rfm. Jno Lyons, K.R.R.C.
Ned’s heroism continued
Now an officer, in June 1918 Lieutenant Ned Cooper was awarded the Medaille Militaire, the highest award given by France to non nationals for ‘gallantry beyond the call of duty’. Ned’s award of the V.C was not a one off act of courage but one that epitomised his constant bravery.
After the war
At the end the war in 1919 Ned returned to Stockton and married his sweetheart Iris. He returned to the Co-Op and became a manager at Stockton in 1938. When the Second World War came in 1939 he again answered his Country’s call and was commissioned as a major taking command of the Home Guard Unit at Thornaby. In peacetime Ned was keen to contribute to civic life and served as President of Thornaby British Legion, was active in the United Reformed church where he filled the positions of Sunday School teacher, Superintendent, Deacon and Elder. He also served his community as a Justice of the Peace and President of Citizens Advice Bureau at Thornaby. The sights he had seen and his actions in the first World War resonated throughout his life.
In his 68 years of life after winning the Victoria Cross he only missed one Remembrance Day service and that was due to ill health. He met up every two years with fellow V.C. winners. This led him to meet every member of the Royal Family. He was feted by his home town and in 1977 a plaque was raised to his honour in Stockton Library. In 1985 Ned was made an honorary freeman of Stockton. Ned sadly passed away a few weeks after this honour on 19th of August 1985.
Stockton is still proud of this particular Stockton man.