Edwin Victor Cook, ‘Namgis First Nation student, soldier and war hero (born 10 May 1897 in Alert Bay, BC; died 28 August 1918 in Dury, France), served in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) during the First World War. He was an infantryman and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his heroic actions in battle.
Edwin Victor Cook, c. 1916
Cook’s village of Alert Bay is on Cormorant Island, a small island off the northeast coast of Vancouver Island. He came from a large family and was the fifth of 16 children. His mother, Jane, was of noble birth (from a family of chieftans), while his father, Stephen, was a member of the ‘Namgis Thunderbird Clan.
Although Cook attended the same residential school as his parents, he also learned the culture of his people from his paternal grandmother and parents. He was indoctrinated into the ‘Namgis warrior society and trained following the ancient traditions. This meant he fasted, prayed and undertook strength and endurance training.
Cook went to Britain as a teenager and spent three years as a cadet in His Majesty’s Ship Conway. Conway was a former Royal Navy two-deck sailing ship permanently moored in the River Mersey near Birkenhead, across the river from Liverpool. It was a naval training centre that produced officers for the huge merchant fleets of Britain and the Empire.
First World War
Cook returned to Canada when the First World War broke out. On 15 January 1916, he enrolled in the Canadian Expeditionary Force (CEF) in Vancouver in the 102nd (Comox-Atlin) Battalion, soon renamed the 102nd (North British Columbians) Battalion. He was only 19 years old.
The 102nd mobilized at Comox on Vancouver Island. Its cap badge showed an Indigenous chief in profile, wearing a feather war bonnet. The unit sailed to Britain from Halifax on the Empress of Britain on 20 June and docked in Liverpool eight days later. After a short period in Britain, it deployed to France on 12 August. The 102nd Battalion was assigned to 11th Canadian Infantry Brigade, 4th Canadian Division.
In late March 1917, Cook was wounded in action near Vimy Ridge, a few days before Canada’s most famous battle of the war (see Battle of Vimy Ridge). Shrapnel from a trench mortar had cut part of his upper left thigh, in addition to a slight wound in his right forearm. Also, he suffered gunshot wounds to his left leg and left arm. He was operated on at a British medical facility, 42 Casualty Clearing Station (CCS), but his wounds required further medical treatment. He was then evacuated to a military hospital in Portsmouth, Britain. After nearly three months there, he was transferred to a Canadian convalescent hospital in Epsom, before being discharged on 3 August. On release from the hospital, Cook remained in Britain. He was assigned to the 16th Canadian Reserve Battalion and transferred to the 1st Canadian Reserve Battalion at Seaford.
On 25 October 1917, Cook was sentenced by a Disciplinary Court Martial to 60 days detention and 72 days loss of pay for “when on active service stealing money the property of a comrade” at Seaford on 13 October. He began to serve his time at Wandsworth Detention Barracks on 31 October and was released on 26 November, after serving only 27 days of his sentence. Early releases were usually awarded for good behavior while in detention.
Three days after his release, Cook returned to the Western Front in France and was posted to a different infantry unit, the 7th (1st British Columbia) Battalion. The 7th Battalion served in 2nd Canadian Infantry Brigade, 1st Canadian Division. In February 1918, he was slightly wounded in action but remained on duty.
Canadian soldiers needed permission to marry at the time and Cook requested this in April 1918. It was granted and in May he married Dorothy Cook of Southsea, Hampshire. As Southsea is a part of Portsmouth, it is reasonable to assume that he met his future wife while being treated in hospital there.
Distinguished Conduct Medal
As the war ground to an end in 1918, Cook was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) “for conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty.” The citation for the medal described his bravery: “He was in advance of his company as scout, and single-handed he rushed an enemy machine gun and killed the crew, thereby saving many of the lives of his own company and permitting the advance to proceed unchecked. He showed splendid gallantry and determination.” At the time, the DCM was the second highest award for bravery in action after the Victoria Cross.
During operations on 21 August 1918, Cook was severely wounded in his left arm and hand, face and legs. After immediate treatment in the field, he was evacuated to 4 CCS, a Canadian unit. He was then transferred to 48 CCS, a British medical unit, in the town of Dury. On 21 August he was reported as dangerously ill, but improving, when he suddenly died of his wounds on 28 August.
Cook was originally buried at Dury Hospital Military Cemetery, but after the war his remains and those of others were exhumed and reinterred at Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetery near Amiens, France. The epitaph on his headstone, chosen by his family, bears the biblical quotation, “GREATER LOVE HATH NO MAN THAN HE LAY DOWN HIS LIFE FOR A FRIEND.”
After his death, the awarding of Cook’s DCM was published in the London Gazette on 30 October. Two days later, on 1 November 1918, a lifetime pension of $576 a year was authorized for his widow. She later received a war gratuity of $180.
In his home village of Alert Bay, Cook’s heroism and memory during the First World War is honoured annually during Remembrance Day ceremonies. His relative and namesake served in the Second World War. Lance Corporal Edwin Victor Cook of the Calgary Highlanders was killed on 30 September 1944 and is buried in the Bergen-op-Zoom Canadian War Cemetery in the Netherlands.