Exactly 100 years on, Ripon Cathedral falls silent for VC hero

The Dean of Ripon Cathedral the Very Rev John Dobson, with the Victoria Cross awarded to  Lt Col Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper.
The Dean of Ripon Cathedral the Very Rev John Dobson, with the Victoria Cross awarded to Lt Col Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper.

IT WAS at 7am that the Germans came. Exactly a century later, a hush fell over Ripon Cathedral as they marked the enormity of what had happened, and the sacrifice of one soldier in particular.

Lt-Col Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper had been, on that morning of November 30, 1917, among the first to learn that the enemy had broken through the outpost line at Cambrai, on the Western Front.

Lt Col Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper

Lt Col Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper

The Battle of Cambrai had begun 10 days earlier, with a bombardment by 1,003 guns on German defences, followed by smoke and a creeping barrage. At home, the bells rang out at Ripon and across the country in celebration of a strategic raid that was thought to be an Allied victory.

But then the tide turned. Hearing of the German counter-attack, Elliott-Cooper, a temporary lieutenant colonel commanding the 8th Battalion the Royal Fusiliers, rushed unarmed from his dugout, and called on the Reserve Company to follow.

Making straight for the advancing enemy, the troops under his direction had forced the Germans back 600 yards when their leader, some 40 yards in front, took a wound to the hip.

Realising that his men were outnumbered and suffering heavy casualties, he signalled a withdrawal,though he knew he would be taken prisoner.

Tanks preparing for the Battle of Cambrai

Tanks preparing for the Battle of Cambrai

“By his prompt and gallant leading, he gained time for the reserves to move up and occupy the line of defence,” the citation on his Victoria Cross said.

It was read at the cathedral yesterday by Maj Matt King, as the Dean of Ripon, the Very Rev John Dobson, placed the medal on the altar.

“This service recognises the heroism of an outstanding soldier,” Rev Dobson said.

In the congregation were serving and former Fusiliers, and Col Peter Stitt, Commandant of the School of Infantry at Catterick Garrison, where a barracks is named after the Cambrai battle.

The Dishforth Military Wives’ Choir sang the touching Bring Him Home from Les Miserables.

Lt Col Elliott-Cooper was already the recipient of the Distinguished Service Order and the Military Cross when, two and a half months after his final act, he died of his wounds, one of some 90,000 casualties of Cambrai, on both sides. He was 29 and a prisoner of war in Hanover.

Bravery and adventure had run in his family. His great-grandfather was the Helmsley native John Elliott, who had sailed as midshipman with Captain James Cook, on the second voyage of the Resolution. A memorial to him, also at Ripon Cathedral, records that he was not yet 14 years old, and the youngest person on board, save for the future Royal Navy Commander, George Vancouver.

The soldier’s father was Sir Robert Elliott-Cooper, a civil engineer from Leeds, who helped construct the railways in British West Africa, and who survived his son by 25 years.

The Victoria Cross of Lt Col Elliott-Cooper, one of 628 awarded during the First World War, was taken to Ripon for yesterday’s service from the Royal Fusiliers Museum at the Tower of London, where it is displayed. Its appearance in Ripon was, said Dean Dobson, “an opportunity for us to reflect on the contribution of the other 249 service personnel and choristers who died for their country in the First World War and whose names are recorded on memorials in the cathedral”.

He added: “Lt-Col Elliott-Cooper is the only one to have been awarded the VC but all the others made the supreme sacrifice.”

A memorial to the soldier is in the south nave aisle of the cathedral, immediately below the one to his great-grandfather.