Philip Sedgwick looks back at stories of heroes from a previous generation.
WITH heroes in the NHS and the food industry among those now stepping up to the plate, a local historian believes they are the modern day equivalents of a previous generation’s heroes who did much the same.
But whereas our heroes are fighting a virus, the heroes of yesteryear were fighting in wars.
Historian and writer Antony Eaton from Northallerton has researched and written on the First World War. In the early 1980s he made contact with Victoria Cross winner Major Edward Cooper from Teesside and they became friendly.
Mr Eaton was also acquainted with three other local veterans of the conflict whom he also regards as heroes: Wilfred Braithwaite of Leeming Bar along with John Whitaker and Hubert Johnson from Northallerton. Mr Eaton and his wife Doreen invited them all to his home for a pleasant afternoon of tea and cakes.
Edward Cooper volunteered in August 1914, just as the war broke out, for 12th Battalion King’s Royal Rifle Corps. During an attack at Passchendaele, his company was under heavy fire. With his officer and several other men dead, Edward picked his officer’s revolver, called for covering fire and zigzagged to an enemy blockhouse. Arriving at its mouth, Edward fired the revolver into the opening slit. The firing stopped and 45 German soldiers surrendered.
Returning to the UK, he was treated like a celebrity in his native Stockton, and was commissioned, serving in the trenches right up to the ceasefire on November 11, 1918.
Wilfred Braithwaite of Leeming Bar joined the 4th Battalion Yorkshire Regiment (Green Howards) in 1915.
Sent to France, he was severely wounded in the hip by an incoming shell. He was returned to the UK, patched up, and worked in the Army Agricultural Corps producing food. In 1919, he was deemed fit to accompany the British contingent that fought with the White Russian forces.
He left the Army and created the Braithwaite Nursery Gardens at Leeming Bar.
John Whitaker joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps in 1914.
He was captured during the Battle of Passchendaele in 1917. He was awarded the Military Cross. After war, he was the station master at Newcastle station.
Hubert Johnson was called up in 1916 and joined 6th Battalion Leicesters. He arrived on Ypres sector in 1917. Later returned to the UK for officer training, after arriving back at the front, Hubert was injured by a shell and severely wounded in the spine.
Hospitalised in the UK for many months finally given an honourable discharge, he relied on walking stick for the rest of his life and later he worked at ICI as a designer. Mr Eaton encouraged him to apply for his medals which duly arrived through the post several day later.
Mr Eaton believes that these people, who showed incredible bravery to the point of self-sacrifice, came forward at the time when they were needed, and now, several generations later, there is a different sort of need but the bravery and self-sacrifice is being repeated, only now they are a new type of uniformed heroes: in nurses’ outfits or supermarket overalls, rather than military fatigues.
EDWARD COOPER’S heroism is always worth repeating. He was born in Portrack in 1896, left school at 14 and worked as a fruit cart salesman for Stockton Cooperative Society until 1914 when, lying about his age, he joined the King’s Royal Rifle Corps.
He survived two years on the Somme before his date with destiny: August 16, 1917, at Langemarck, in Belgium.
With the Third Battle of Ypres exploding all around him – it was fought in the wettest weather for 75 years over land already pounded into lifeless mud – he found himself second-in-command of a platoon of 30 men. Their orders were to take a German blockhouse – a pillbox, containing eight machine guns – in the centre of the village.
As Sgt Cooper and his men approached, they were cut down by German fire.
“I lost three or four officers, ” he said in the 1970s. “My company commander was killed. My own officer was killed. The intelligence officer was killed. The Lewis gun officer was killed. . .”
He was the most senior soldier left alive, but he knew death was imminent unless he changed the terms of engagement. He spotted that the enemy arc of fire did not quite reach the edge of the field. He picked up a dead officer’s pistol and, with four men, dashed 250 yards along the treeline. On his own, with his men covering him, he sprinted the final 100 yards to the blindside of the blockhouse.
Then he spun round the concrete of the blockhouse to the slit at the front, through which the machine guns were firing.
Standard procedure would have been to lob a grenade into the blockhouse to blow up everyone inside.
Sgt Cooper apparently did not like such indiscriminate slaughter. Instead, he picked his moment to perfection and fired his pistol down the barrel of the machine gun, causing it to explode. Then he invited the 45 Germans inside to stop firing their seven remaining machine guns and surrender.
Which they did.
A German corporal tried to sneak off, so Sgt Cooper “disposed” of him, and the rest came quietly.
“Of course, I was frightened, ” he said later. “That’s what bravery is all about. You hide your fears and share your courage with the men.”
And that was that. He thought no more about it,and went back to slogging through the bloody mud of the Somme, and somehow avoiding death.
That September, he went home on leave. While waiting at King’s Cross for his train to Darlington, his eye caught a discarded newspaper in which the latest gazette was published – an alphabetic listing of the new recipients of VCs.
He was particularly taken by the listing of Chavasse N – a captain who had won a bar to his VC, an extremely rare award.
The name beneath Chavasse N was Cooper E. It was only after he had read and re-read the citation and the regimental number that he realised that Cooper E was in fact he.
“I could hardly believe my eyes, ” he told The Northern Echo the following day. “I asked if I could have the paper as it had in it a bit of good news for me. I showed them the announcement, and they gave me the paper at once. I am keeping it as a memento.”
Then he calmly caught his train.
At Darlington, he was surprised to find his father and brother waiting for him. At Eaglescliffe station, he was shocked to find a large crowd had gathered, and he was amazed when he eventually arrived at Stockton at 11.20pm to be “cheered with the utmost enthusiasm”.
The Echo said: “He was seized by eager hands and, accompanied by thousands of people, was carried in triumph to his home at 12 Barrett Street.”
In peacetime, he returned to Thornaby and the Co-op where he worked for the rest of his life. On July 24, 1985, he was given the Freedom of Stockton and he died, aged 89, four weeks later.