Courage among the carnage

Allan Richmond Cockerell
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Allan Richmond Cockerell

The attack on Bellvue Spur, Passchendaele, commemorated today around the New Zealand, failed so wretchedly it became the worst day for violent death that this country has endured in its recorded history.

In a single, dismal morning some 950 Kiwis were either killed outright or mortally wounded, 1900 were injured, and the Otago battalion's ranks were particularly savaged. 

Among the Otagos, Second Lieutenant, Allan Cockerell's luck was in. He wasn't mown down by the bunker-protected German machine guns.

Passchendaele 1917. Not pretty.
LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA

Passchendaele 1917. Not pretty.

The 26-year-old from Middlemarch, a railwayman, had been a regular soldier promoted in the field.

In the midst of this battle he assumed command of his company when Captain R H Nicholson was killed almost as soon as they moved forward in the marshes on the right flanks. Weighed down by heavy kit, in deep mud, the Kiwis struggled through nests of uncut wire while Germans fired at them through driving rain, notably from two machine-gun blockhouses, about 100m apart.

The two platoons that had struck out with Cockerell had "withered away to almost nothing" with scant ground covered, wrote John H Gray in From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth.

950 New Zealanders killed, or mortally wounded, during a single morning.
ALEXANDER TUNRBULL LIBRARY

950 New Zealanders killed, or mortally wounded, during a single morning.

"He found himself alone in a wilderness of shell-holes with no support; all behind him being dead or dying."

Cockerell kept going  until he came across a trench with 40 Germans. 

So he "called upon them to surrender".

The waking nightmare.
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The waking nightmare.

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In any case it proved a tragi-comic moment. 

Because the Germans did, indeed, surrender to this lone figure.

They were completely out of ammo.

Under his firm instructions they dutifully tracked back, hands over their heads.

A little further ahead lay the first of the hated blockhouses whose occupants had inflicted such damage on the Kiwis.

Writes Gray: "Cockerell, still unscathed, bayoneted six of the garrison as they emerged through the rear door, prompting the surrender of the remainder".

By now he was joined by Dipton farmer George James Hampton, who had bravely struggled forward with a Lewis light machine gun.

"Demonstrating extraordinary gallantry, these two then attacked the second, and larger, blockhouse 100 yards distant.

Inside was a garrison of 32, with two machine guns.

It turned out they, too, had run out of ammunition.

They surrendered and were dispatched rearwards.

This made the tally two blockhouses, a length of trench, and 80 German soldiers.

"This," writes Gray, "speaks volumes about the poor discipline and low morale of the Germans."

To the right of the Southerners, troops of the 3rd Australian Division had also been shot to bits.

Cockerell met up with an Australian officer and six men and together they figured it would be best to keep pressing ahead and round to the back of the defences.

Reinforcements would, however, appear to be in order.

Hampton was sent back to report all this to Battalion HQ.

But 200m in the open he was shot down.

So were three of the Australians sent, in turn, on the same mission.

"When darkness came, Second Lieutenant Cockerell left the Australians in possession of the blockhouse and struggled back through No Man's Land to the rear.  

"There he took command of, and organised, the remnants of 1st Otago, scattered along a line only a short distance ahead of where the attack had started in the morning."

A hell of a day, then.

_______________

Matthew Wright, in his book The New Zealand Experience at Gallipoli and the Western Front is another who highlights Cockerell's drive and leadership in what he calls "an astonishing feat of arms".

Cockerell was awarded an immediate Distinguished Services Order.

Now this, as Gray acknowledges, was a rare award for a junior officer.

But it "fell far short of the Victoria Cross which he clearly deserved".

In fact Gray, whose book runs to 400 pages, concludes the passage about Cockerell's feat in the most emphatic terms.

"We will not read of a greater soldierly feat in these pages."

So why not a VC?

The explanation appears to lie alongside the fact that no New Zealand World War 1 officer received a VC.

It was a different story elsewhere, but Major-General Sir Andrew Russell appears to have drawn a particularly sharp distinction reacting to the gallantry of officers compared to the lower ranks.

Sergeants, for instance, might conceivably receive VCs as due acknowledgment.

But it was an officer's duty to be brave.

So it was that DSOs,  normally the province of field officers, were probably considered "hard luck VCs" when awarded to junior officers.

Back in Middlemarch, Cockerell's dad, Allan, received word of the DSO, which of course resulted in a wee write-up in the paper.

Communications were hardly swift back then and the newspaper report contained no explanation of what, exactly, Cockerell had done to merit the award.

But the story did record that the chairman of the Middlemarch Patriotic Committee had received a letter from the newly decorated  local, conveying "the sincere thanks of the boys to the Red Cross and patriotic workers of Middlemarch, who have done so much in sending parcels and other comforts".

Cockerell sent a much more pained and personal letter back to private Hampton's family in Southland, explaining the circumstances of his death.

He acknowledged that, under the conditions, it hadn't been possible to bury him at the time. 

And the ground had later come under further bombardment.

Cockerell also added one small extra piece of information.

His own younger brother, Jim, had been killed at almost the same spot, that same morning.

He also wrote his future wife Gladys: "I am terribly broken up over it. (It) will break my mother's heart".

He wrote, too, of the pitiful cries of the wounded in a day he called absolute murder.

"Someone no doubt made a terrific blunder."

Cockerell, having survived Gallipoli, the Somme and Passchendaele, saw out the war and also served in World War 2 in the western desert, reaching the rank of Colonel. 

He died aged 83 in Gore in 1975.

Memorial services marking the centenary of the October 12 assault are being held throughout the country. Invercargill's begins at 11.55am at the Cenotaph.

 

 - Stuff

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