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WW1 graves rededicated after bodies of sailor-soldiers finally identified

WW1 graves rededicated after bodies of sailor-soldiers finally identified
20 July 2022
The graves of two sailor-soldiers have been rededicated with full honours – 104 years after they were killed on the Western Front.

Lieutenant Alfred Owen Cookson and Sub Lieutenant John Francis St Clair Barton were just 24 and 22 respectively when they were killed serving with the unique Royal Naval Division in France in the closing months of the Great War.

For over a century, the two junior officers were buried as unknown soldiers.

But thanks to the research of the MOD’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre – also known as the ‘MOD War Detectives’ – the bodies were formally identified, allowing headstones to each man to be installed at Commonwealth War Graves Cemeteries, and their last resting places rededicated with full honours.

The 63rd (Royal Navy) Division was formed on the outbreak of the war when the Admiralty found it had more men than ships and decided to form them into a fighting force for action on land.

The division served with distinction – Winston Churchill regarded it as one of the finest units in the entire Army – throughout the war: at Antwerp, in Gallipoli, on the Somme, Arras, Passchendaele and the titanic battles of 1918.

Though the sailors were issued the same kit and served under the command of the British Army, they maintained Royal Navy ranks and terminology in the trenches, and fought in battalions named after naval heroes.

Sub Lieutenant John Francis St. Clair Barton of the Hood Battalion from Beckenham in Kent was the son of a surgeon and airship pioneer.

He served in the ranks of the Honourable Artillery Company before gaining a commission in June 1917 and was posted to the RND in November 1917.

Four months later his battalion relieved the Hawkes in the frontline at Ribecourt on the eve of the German spring offensive.

The Hoods were subjected to heavy bombardment from the enemy’s artillery, including gas shells. On his fourth day in the line, March 13 1918, Sub Lt Barton was killed on patrol having just turned 22. He was buried in the British Cemetery on the edge of the village alongside 294 comrades.

Seven months later the tide of war had turned; the German offensives were first halted, then a succession of Allied blows began to drive the Germans back towards their border.

Alfred Cookson from Barnsley in Yorkshire was at the forefront of the advance to victory with his Hawke Battalion.

A veteran of three years’ fighting with the Royal Naval Division, he saw action in the Dardanelles and Western Front and had twice been wounded in action.

He died from his wounds during at attack on the village of Niergnies, on the outskirts of Cambrai, on October 8 1918 – just five weeks before the armistice.

Lt Cookson was subsequently laid to rest in Proville British Cemetery in the grave of an ‘unknown captain’.

We feel honoured and privileged to be included in the celebration of the life of Alfred Owen Cookson.

Mrs Cooper

Over a century later, his niece-in-law Elizabeth Cooper was present as the Very Reverend David Conroy, Deputy Chaplain of the Fleet, dedicated the new headstone, supported by members of the Royal Navy.

"We feel honoured and privileged to be included in the celebration of the life of Alfred Owen Cookson,” Mrs Cooper said.

Nicola Nash, one of the team responsible for formerly identifying the two officers’ graves, said it was “a privilege to see their names on their headstones and pay our respects to them.

"These two brave young men served throughout the Great War fighting in almost all the major battles on the Western Front. It is tragic that they both lost their lives so close to the Armistice.”

The Very Rev Conroy added: “‘We will remember them’ is the phrase widely heard at our November ceremonies. Today, on behalf of the nation, it was a real honour to enact that promise.”

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