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Richard Thomas Cooke

ANZAC DAY - 2003


When I was a child growing up in Kilmore I remember attending Anzac Day ceremonies as a Girl Guide.  Although I certainly respected what it was all about, Anzac day did not have any immediate meaning to me as I did not know of anyone who had either fought or died in a war.


It was not until many years later that I decided to research my family history.  I have now learned of a number of relatives who fought and returned in both World Wars and some who did not return.  In fact I have learned that my own Grandfather was a Rat of Tobruk, dying for his country in Libya in 1941 aged 39.  The age I am now.


Today in particular I would like to tell you about a young local lad, a cousin of mine who fought in The Great War as it was then known. World War one – Richard Thomas Cooke.


Richard was born into two Pyalong pioneering families.  My Great Great Grandparents were Thomas Ryan and Bridget Keane. Irish immigrants, they married in Melbourne in 1864 and settled in Pyalong.  For a while Thomas was involved in road contracting and tried his luck on the McIvor Goldfields.  He returned to Pyalong where he selected eighty acres between Pyalong and Tooboorac.  His original selection and home was where two big elm trees still stand opposite “hanging rock” on the Northern Highway.  This Victorian countryside was sold under the Land Act of 1865.  It was intended that the farms become small holdings that could be worked by a single family. Thomas and Bridget Ryan had four children.


Patrick Cooke and his wife Mary Walsh were also Pyalong pioneers.  Attracted by the Gold Rush, Patrick brought his family from County Limerick, Ireland arriving in Australia in 1854.  In the year 1857, he settled in Pyalong, taking up some land, to which he added considerably during his long residence.  He also held the licence for the White Hart Hotel, was on the Pyalong Road Board and afterwards the Pyalong Council. The first five of Patrick and Mary’s nine children were born in Ireland.


Among those children was Nicholas Michael Cooke.  He married Margaret Annie Ryan the eldest child of Thomas and Bridget Ryan. 


They married in Kilmore in 1881.  Nicholas, like his father was prominent in local affairs.  He donated land for the Pyalong West Primary School and had associations with the properties “Black Springs” and “The Pines” where the Cooke family were to live through out the war years.  He also owned property in Queensland.


Nicholas and Margaret had thirteen children between 1882 and 1903.  Only one was to die as an infant. 


Richard Thomas was their ninth child and fifth son.  Richard and Thomas were family names; he had Uncles and Grand Uncles on the Cooke line bearing these strong names.  He was born at home on February 24 1896.


Richard became known as Dick and typically would have spent his childhood on the farm.  His early formal education was at the Pyalong State School.  He would later attend Assumption College Kilmore where the Marist Brothers taught him. This would have been on the original site of Assumption in White Street where the International School is situated.


The 1909 Defence Act introduced a compulsory military training program.  Trainers were divided into junior cadets boys aged 12 to 14, senior cadets, aged 14 to 18 and citizen forces aged 18 to 20.


Around his seventeenth birthday in February 1913 Richard began a three-month probation period as a bank clerk in the Kilmore branch of the Bank of Victoria.


 In July, the Essendon Rifles, 58th infantry battalion was raised. The recruits were drawn from Essendon and district.  To ensure full numbers they also established tour companies from the country, which included Kilmore.  This is the group that Richard was drafted into initially to undertake his compulsory military training with the Senior Cadets.  This was followed by a period of time, probably less than a year with the Essendon Rifles, 58th infantry.  As an infantryman he was given complete web equipment including a kit bag, rifle and bayonet – the later two that he would have been trained in the use of.


On the 4th August 1914 Britain declared war on Germany, Prime Minister Joseph Cook, no relation that I know of, declared that Australia would naturally join the Mother country in defending her shores.  He offered an expeditionary force of 20 000 men.  He said,  “If the Armageddon is to come, then you and I shall be in it. If the Old Country is at war so are we.  Our resources are great and the British spirit is dead …our duty is quite clear – namely to gird up our loins and remember that we are Britons” Nationalist sentiment was high in the community with reports of wild enthusiasm and patriotic songs taken up by crowds in the City streets.  In September Andrew Fisher took Federal Office.  He had won great support in his campaign by pledging “our last man and our last shilling” to help with the war effort.


In January 1915, the “Kilmore Advertiser” newspaper reported that Richard had moved to the Melbourne head office with the bank, but in fact Richard moved to the Watchem branch of the Bank in North-eastern Victoria.  The newspaper described him as a general favourite with the bank’s customers and “a good sport all round. We wish him luck wherever he goes to”, it said.


In early February he returned his cadet web equipment to H. Company in Kilmore.  By April he had accepted a transfer further north to Ouyen.


Volunteers for the call of arms were not difficult to find in 1914 and 1915.  This was probably a factor in the constant transfers Richard was having with the bank where he was probably replacing men who were enlisting.


Most of southern Australia at this time was experiencing a severe drought.  A life on the land did not look promising and it was obviously a decision that Richard had already made in choosing to follow a career with the Bank.


By the end of April 1915, reports were reaching Australia of the heroic exploits by our troops at Gallipoli where there had been heavy battles against the Turks.


Bank Archive records indicate that in June Richard was transferred yet again to the head office of the Bank of Victoria but Richard had already decided that he was to “join up”.  I am sure that news of the Gallipoli campaign must have influenced him greatly.    There was a prevalent attitude by enlisted men of pitching in and doing their bit.  The call was out for reinforcements and Richard must have thought it was his time. He was nineteen years old.  On May 12th Richard went home to Pyalong and informed his parents of his desire.  One can imagine the three sitting around a table – his mother tearful but proud not really wanting their young son to go but knowing that he had to.


He returned to Ouyen with a letter giving written consent by both his parents to volunteer for active force, as he was under the age of twenty-one.


I would like to say at this point that we are very fortunate in Australia to have excellent access to the records of our World War One soldiers. I have been able to obtain a copy of Richard’s service record from the National Archives of Australia in Canberra.  These records combined with his Battalion History illustrate in much detail his life at that time.


In June, Richard enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force; later know as the 1st A.I.F. His attestation papers represent the paperwork completed at the time of enlistment.  Aside from the information you would expect including, age, occupation, next of kin, Richard’s physical description is provided.  As follows: height 5 feet, 8 inches, weight 154 pounds, chest measurement 33 to 35 ½ inches, complexion medium, eyes, brown, hair dark brown, religious denomination Roman Catholic.  He had a small scar on the right patella, a mole over his left buttock and a vaccination mark in his left arm.


Having passed the medical he was assigned to the 23rd Battalion, 3rd reinforcements at Seymour. Regimental number 1889. The 23rd Battalion was made up of Victorians and had already served proudly at Gallipoli.


After only two months he boarded His Majesty’ s Australian troopship the “Anchises” for the Western Front.  One can only imagine the excitement the young lad must have had bound for War and shores beyond his homeland.


In October he was taken on strength at Anzac Cove, Gallipoli.  He was probably among the last of reinforcements there.  Thousands of soldiers lived in holes in the ground; there was rampant diseases and exhaustion among the troops.  The daily diet of bully beef, biscuits and jam, did little to provide adequate nourishment.  They rarely received fresh bread and the water ration of half a cup of water a day was totally inadequate.  They also endured head lice, fleas and very cold weather, although they were given an issue of rum once a week. He would have experienced a degree of firing, shelling and mortar bombardments.  This must have been quite an awakening period of time for Richard.  By the end of 1915 he left Anzac and disembarked at Alexandria, an Egyptian port.  Time was spent resting and strengthening bonds with members of the battalion, undertaking drills and exercising.


In March, he disembarked at Marseilles, France.  The battalion continued with their company training and daily route marches. During this time Richard was reported absent from roll calls twice.


A History written on the 23rd Battalion called “Forward undeterred” by Ron Austin, which was published in 1998, describes in more detail what Richard was going through. By July, the Battalion had been organised into fighting order.  On the 25th of July the Battalion was sent to the reserve trenches near a small village called Pozieres as part of fresh troops needed to carry on the British attack – the village of Pozieres was obliterated in a massive artillery barrage and more than 23,000 Australian Officers and men were either killed or wounded in July through August of 1916.  “The 23rd Battalion waited in the reserve trenches throughout 28th July”.  William Allan noted in his diary, "We are in fighting order and are supposed to attack at dawn. I hope to come through anyway." Charles Turner succinctly summed up the situation: “Our battalion the 23rd is going into the front line of trenches tonight and making a charge on the Germans' trenches tomorrow, which will be pretty warm and there is a chance that there will be a lot of us never come out of it.”


Richard was wounded on the 28th of July, taking a bullet in the buttock.  The wound put him out of action for almost a month during which time he convalesced behind the front. The Australian Army suffered more casualties in six weeks at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm than in eight months at Gallipoli.


In late August, Richard rejoined the Battalion.  He had survived one of the worst battles of the War only to return to the Somme offensive. The Battle of the Somme was the largest all out offensive planned by the British against the German Army up to this point in the First World War.


Meanwhile on the home front there was much division and debate over Prime Minister Hughes conscription referendum. He wished to establish public opinion as to wether compulsory overseas military service should be introduced.  Richard and members of the A.I.F. in France were asked to vote on October 16.


On Thursday, 9th of November 1916, just on dusk, Richard was killed on the line at Flers.  There was an overhead shell burst and shrapnel killed him instantly.


Last year the Australian War Memorial gave access via the Internet to its records from the Australian Red Cross wounded and missing enquiry Bureau Files. There are five documents relating to Richard and his death – three of which are statements by witnesses, some of who were friends of his.  They are in fact quite graphic testimonies and I am choosing not to relate the specifics here.  One witness suggested that he was nicknamed “Rob” and he had been acting as a batman for a Lieutenant. This is not reflected in his service file.


News was not to reach home till a month later.  Ten days before Christmas, Nicholas and Margaret received the news of their sons’ death.  He was only 20 years old. On writing home to Kilmore early the following year, Farrier Sergeant Alex McDonald wrote: “...."I can't say how sorry I am to hear of young Dick Cooke going under. He was such a happy good natured young fellow, always smiling, the sort of lad everybody liked".  The Kilmore Advertiser described him as “a game, joyous boy and a general favourite”.


He was finally laid to rest at the A.I.F. Burial Ground in Flers, which is actually situated in the middle of the Flers battlefield from where the A.I.F. fought, two kilometres north of the actual village. A headstone with the AIF insignia and rising sun and a cross now marks his grave in a line of many. The battle was considered over by November 18 and the Somme Front considered stable.


Richard’s family received the 1914/15 Star, British War Medal and the Victory Medal, although the whereabouts of these medals are today unknown. It is possible they were destroyed by fire when bushfires ravaged the family property “The Pines” on Boxing Day in 1940.  Nicholas and Margaret moved to Ascot Vale in the 1920s.  Nicholas passed away in 1931 and Margaret in 1947.  They are buried together in the Kilmore catholic cemetery.


Private Richard Thomas Cooke 1889 is commemorated on the Pyalong State School Honour Roll, on the doors of the small chapel at Assumption College.  On the Kilmore War Memorial and Honour Board in the Kilmore Memorial Hall. His name is inscribed on a Roll of Honour from the Shire of Pyalong, which lists residents who enlisted for active service in the “Great European War”.  This is situated in the council chamber of the former Shire Offices, now the Pyalong Community Hall. He is also remembered on a plaque beneath a picture of Saint Joseph, which was presented to the Pyalong Catholic Church.


He is also commemorated on the Australian War Memorial in Canberra and by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission whose records are also available on the Internet.


I believe Richard symbolizes the glamour of youth and the spirit of Anzac.  May we remember him today?



Elizabeth Pidgeon


Delivered at Pyalong Anzac Day Ceremony

25th April 2003