You wait thirty years for more information and then – like those apocryphal double-deck buses – three things come along at once. Readers who read my thrice–yearly ramblings, rather than skipping straight to the far more interesting items in the journal, will be familiar with my Great Uncle Albert, killed in action north of Passchendaele with 2/King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on 2 December 1917. Apart from knowing he was killed, and therefore being able to trace the details of the action, census information and owning his snuff box and cigarette case (bearing the old flags and the legend 'Long Live Taiwan'), I had no other information on Albert. Another relative – also a John (with an 'h') Cooksey – has his medals, there is no service record, no recently released soldier's will, no letters, and there was no photograph.
The downside of working on other projects is that my own military genealogy often takes a back seat, often staying there for years! I was always puzzled, for example, by the fact that Albert was a regular but hadn't arrived in France until 11 November 1914 and I always seemed too busy to dig and find out. So I was delighted to find, in early April this year, that Albert's pension record survived in the more than 6 million which the WFA saved from destruction and which can now be searched manually for a fee – see www.westernfrontassociation.com/about–the–wfa/175–pension–records/2961–pension–record–cards–manual–lookup–request.html .
From this I learned that my Great Grandmother Amelia – Albert being single – received thirteen 'bob' a week from 27 July 1918 until she died on 8 November 1932. I was resigned to that being the sum total of my knowledge when, on St. George's Day I got an email out of the blue via the WFA website – from a gentleman called Patrick Dolan. It read:
I have a photo of a KOYLI soldier with 'A Cooksey' written on the back. It was amongst my Grandfather's effects. You probably have a copy. He is standing with a bicycle. It's obviously taken on the Western Front. He is wearing a signals unit brassard on his left arm. My Grandad, 3/1197 Pvt Benjamin Smith MM, 2 KOYLI, served with 97 Brigade Signals for much of the war. It would look like Albert did the same. I'm putting together an account of my Grandad's service and have tried to research the people in the various photos he left. I had thought I'd found quite a bit about Albert–census, date of death etc., considering his full military record seems lost. I was astounded to find your account of the attack of 2 December 1917. If you don't have the photo I can send you a scan.
You can perhaps imagine my excitement! In an exchange of emails Patrick Dolan revealed that his grandfather, 3/1137 Benjamin Smith of Walkley, Sheffield, had enlisted in the 3rd Special Reserve Battalion, KOYLI on 27 January 1913. When war began he was mobilised and posted to the 2nd Battalion, arriving in France on 11 November 1914, the same day as Albert. A letter found by Patrick, written by a subaltern and dated 1 January 1915, states that 2/KOYLI then consisted of '18 officers with us now and about 900 NCOs and men of whom 90% are Special Reserve'. Was Albert Special Reserve? But he had no '3' prefix to his number.
Patrick also sent 'the' photograph showing a man who was the spitting image of my father at age 21, with a KOYLI cap badge, a pushbike and a bi–coloured brassard on his upper left arm. On the reverse was written 'A Cooksey'. Patrick's grandfather served with 2/KOYLI until his demobilisation and transfer to the reserve on 11 April 1919. He was awarded the Military Medal in 1916. The recommendation, signed by 2/KOYLI OC, Lieutenant Colonel Rigg, was dated 22 November: 'Recommended by OC Signals 97th Brigade for gallantry and devotion to duty from 16th to 19th Nov 1916. He had many messages to carry both by day and night and never lost his way or failed to deliver the message. The ground over which he had to pass was continually shelled and was in a terrible state owing to the mud'. Another document describes Benjamin Smith as a dispatch rider. Patrick Dolan told me, 'There was never a mention of a motorbike in the family. It's the kind of thing that would be mentioned. So presumably if it's accurate it must refer to a bicycle, like the one Albert is pictured with'.
So was Albert a DR too? Had he been a good pal of Benjamin's? Why else would Benjamin have had a photograph?
Talking this over with ex–Chairman Chris Baker at a WFA meeting days afterwards I was very grateful when he got back to me almost immediately with the information that Albert's regimental number –9280 – related to enlistment in the regulars in July or early August 1907, on standard twelve year terms (seven years colour service then five on the reserve). 'This is intriguing timing' he said, 'for it means that Albert's colour service was expiring just at the very time war was breaking out. It may explain his move to France on 11 November 1914.
As you know neither 1st nor 2nd Battalion sailed at that time. It will either be because he went to join 2nd Battalion as part of a draft (perhaps he had just about left and gone onto reserve in July/August 1914) or for some other reason. There is a possibility that he was serving overseas with 1st Battalion in July/August, came back to the UK with it (landed 9 November) and went straight out to France, but I think that is improbable'. I agree with Chris; it would indeed have been an almost impossibly quick turnaround – but who knows, after all 1/KOYLI was stationed at Gun Club Hill Barracks in Hong Kong in 1910?
So within the space of just a few weeks my knowledge of Albert and his service had increased to my great joy due to the kindly sharing of knowledge amongst members and the possibilities of disseminating information via the WFA's website.
So if you will indulge me dear reader I proudly present my great uncle, old KOYLI sweat and possible DR Private Albert Cooksey in all his muddy–booted, creased and crumpled glory, for no other reason than the photograph proves there is always hope of turning something up and because, due to a vigilant Patrick Dolan, I can. Call it editor's prerogative.
Article and images contributed by Jon Cooksey, WFA Stand To! Editor.
This article first appeared as the editorial in Stand To! No 98, published in September 2013.