Family of battlefield bible owner found

05:27, Jun 18 2010
Jim Matheson
LAST LETTERS: Jim Matheson, Private Richard Cook's nephew, with two letters sent from a hospital in France in 1917. One is from his uncle, saying he is "progressing favourably". The other notifies the family of Private Cook's death.

After being wounded in a World War I battle, Private Richard Cook was lying injured in hospital, upset that he had lost his bible.

The New Zealander wrote a letter to his parents from his sick bed, telling them he had been injured during the skirmish but was recovering. A few hours later he was dead.

The details have been revealed in two letters, after the bible, found in the trench by another soldier, was traced back to him thanks to a story in The Dominion Post.

Private Richard Cook
SOUTHLAND SOLDIER: Private Richard Cook fought with the Otago Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and died after the battle of Passchendaele in 1917.

British soldier Herbert Hodgson found the bible while fighting at Messines Ridge in Belgium.

He fell into a shell hole during an attack on the German lines. "I spread my arms and my hand grasped something in the mud. It was a book. I shoved it in my pocket, got up and carried on."

Mr Hodgson, who died in 1974, refers to the 1918 find in memoirs to be published this year. There was no name inside the bible, but an army service number had been written across the outside of the pages.

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Ninety-two years later, using the internet and the army service number, the Mr Hodgson's family traced the bible back to Private Cook.

Private Cook's nephew, Jim Matheson, from Paraparaumu, "fell over backwards" when he read the story. "I was dumbfounded. Something like this appearing out of the past is unusual."

The 84-year-old said his mother, Private Cook's sister, had told him his uncle would have been upset when he lost his bible.

Mr Matheson has two letters from his uncle that detail the last few hours before he died.

Lying injured in a hospital bed in Etaples, France, on October 7, 1917, he wrote to his parents, telling them he was injured but "progressing favourably".

"A few lines to let you know I am in this hospital wounded. We went over the top at six o'clock on Thursday morning Oct 4th and it looks about an hour afterwards I got two smacks, one in my left hip and the other in my right shoulder. I am in this hospital until I am well enough to go to England."

The letter was signed "Your loving son". He died a few hours later.

In a letter to his parents informing them of the death, the hospital's chaplain wrote that Private Cook had been very ill and his condition got worse throughout the night.

"We did all we could for him and his last hours were painless and peaceful."

Private Cook's parents received both letters on the same day.

Mr Matheson never met his uncle, but his mother, Ruby Cook, had told him he was a "lovely, compassionate man".

"When Richard went to war she felt a great loss and was devastated when word came through that he had died, as she was only 12 or 13."

Private Cook, part of the Otago Regiment of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, died aged 26. He is buried in Etaples Military Cemetery in France.

The Dominion Post