Patriotism and adventure were irresistible to young men eager to prove themselves
In spite of his stature, Harry Cooke joined the army on April 3rd 1916. Ten days earlier he’d turned eighteen but already he was a member of the Seaforth Cadets of Canada, a reserve infantry brigade based in Vancouver. One night each week and one weekend each month they trained; all fine preparation for volunteering for the Canadian Expeditionary Force.1
At his patriotic best, Harry measured in at 5-foot 2½ inches which fell short of the height regulation by an inch and a half. Nevertheless, so urgent was the need for recruits that anyone declared fit by the medical officer was accepted. This “war to end all wars” had already dragged on for nearly two years with immense loss of life.
Harry wasn’t alone in his determination to serve his country in spite of looking like a boy in soldier’s uniform. Some 2,000 other Canadian men whose height was less than five-foot-four enlisted into one of two Bantam regiments formed in Canada during this period. Their determination and heroism―like their height―was out of the ordinary but still it took over half a century for their contributions to receive due recognition. One military historian, Sidney Allinson, set out to correct this omission in a book he entitled, The Bantams, the Untold Story of World War One.2 Harry was assigned to the 143rd Battalion CEF when he enlisted. It just so happens they were also known as the BC Bantams.3
Born March 24th 1898 in Nova Scotia, Harry had been living and working in North Vancouver where he held a job as a store clerk. Fifteen years earlier his family was together in Nova Scotia, where his father Charles Herbert Cooke had been a blacksmith in the village of Economy on the Colchester side of Cobequid Bay. In the household were his parents and his maternal grandmother. By the time Harry had finished school, both his mother and grandmother had died and his father was working in the United States. The West coast beckoned and, besides, he had relatives out there so when he enlisted he gave as his next-of-kin the name of his maternal aunt Susan Belle Lewis Fletcher from North Vancouver.4
Eleven months later, following further training, the BC Bantams arrived in England on February 1917, ready for action. Their first shock was to learn they’d be divided between railway troops and infantry for the trenches. However those allocations took place, Harry Cooke ended up in the 47th Battalion forces positioned near Ypres, a small market town in Western Belgium. The importance of Ypres was considered strategic because nearby Belgian ports lay close to England and some British commanders were convinced that if Ypres fell to the Germans, so would all Belgium. Regardless of the cost, the British dared not forfeit it.
Landscape was critical that summer of 1917. Naturally flat and below sea level at the best of times, the Belgian lowlands lay ruined because bombing had wrecked the elaborate drainage systems. Rains became torrential that summer, creating seas of yellow gloppy muck. So soupy and deep was this mud, they said, that even a horse could disappear. Topping it off was the introduction of new weapons in the form of chlorine and mustard gas. “Hell’s corner”, was how one historian described it.5
Still, the British were determined to make another assault for a ridge that gave only the slightest military advantage. Persuaded by Canadian prowess at Vimy the previous April, it was decided to send in the Canadians. For four months allied troops had attempted to wrestle the high ground from the Germans at the price of 400,000 lives.6
In a surprising break with protocol, the Canadian commander, Arthur Currie, insisted on directing his own men and creating his own timetable. This was a startling departure because the foreign policy of Canada, like that of New Zealand and Australia, was then still set in Britain. Currie was granted his request but, nonetheless, warned his superiors that even if everything went according to plan, the losses could be staggering.7
Early Friday morning, October 26th 1917, a calculated battle began for Passchendaele lead by Canadians and backed up by Allied troops. Readied were 20,000 men of two Canadian Divisions advancing perilously along treacherous space toward an enemy holding higher ground. The outcome of that day was grim: a few hundred yards gained and 12,000 men lost, among them 2,500 Canadians. One of them was Harry Graham Cooke, the 19 year old from Economy and North Vancouver.
In an eleven-day period during these battles, the Victoria Cross was awarded to nine Canadian soldiers, tribute to the remarkable courage they exhibited throughout this ghastly time. In all of World War Two, by comparison, only ten Canadians received the Victoria Cross.8
Nine years after the end of the war, a memorial known as the Menin Gate was erected in West Flanders to commemorate Commonwealth soldiers killed in the Ypres Salient; those whose actual graves remained unknown.9 It included 6,983 Canadians, among them:
H.G. Cooke, Private 826367
47 Battalion Canadian Infantry
Every evening at 8 pm, rain or shine, a bugler plays the last post under the Menin Gate amidst the thousands of names carved into the surrounding panels. Harry’s name is one of them. His name also survives on the family grave marker in the Economy, Nova Scotia Cemetery. Nine decades later, his name would be added to a commemorative stone at the Veterans Memorial Park in Bass River, Nova Scotia close to the community of Portaupique where Harry’s ancestors first settled in Canada in the 1760s.10