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First World War soldier laid to rest after being identified by ‘War Detectives’

·5 min read

A British soldier who died during the First World War has finally been laid to rest, more than 100 years after his death.

Lance Corporal Robert Cook received full military honours including a gun salute at a ceremony in Belgium on Wednesday after his identify was confirmed by experts known as the “War Detectives”.

The decorated soldier died aged 38 on May 2 1915, two days after arriving on the front line near Ypres on the Western Front.

Born in Bishop Wilton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, L/Cpl Cook was one of seven children and served with 2nd Battalion The Essex Regiment.

He was buried at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s (CWGC) New Irish Farm Cemetery near Ypres after being identified by the Ministry of Defence’s Joint Casualty and Compassionate Centre (JCCC).

His great-nephew and great-niece attended the service to pay their respects, laying wreaths beside his white headstone.

Also present were members of C Essex Company of 1st Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment – the modern equivalent of L/Cpl Cook’s regiment.

Draped in a Union flag, L/Cpl Cook’s coffin was carried to its final resting place by soldiers in full military dress.

First World War soldier to be laid to rest
The coffin is carried in to the New Irish Farm Cemetery (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Conducting the service, Reverend Paul Whitehead said: “Today we accord Lance Corporal Cook the dignity and respect that he is due

“I was struck that Lance Corporal Cook died only two days after arriving on the front line. Life expectancy was very short for a soldier on the Western Front.

“And like the 23 other soldiers whose remains were found with Lance Corporal Cook, many are known only to God.

“So in some ways, when a soldier is identified their name represents many others who fought and died with them. Those who we may never know, but who knew each other’s names as they stood side by side in the trenches.

“So this is an important day for many reasons. Most importantly for the family of Lance Corporal Cook to finally be able to lay to rest his remains side by side with his colleagues. But also to celebrate his memory.”

Mr Whitehead, who serves as chaplain to 3rd Battalion The Royal Anglian Regiment, spoke of the privilege to be at the ceremony and remember the sacrifice made by L/Cpl Cook and many others.

L/Cpl Cook’s surviving great-nephew Arthur Cook was presented with the folded Union flag.

First World War soldier to be laid to rest
Family members watch as he is laid to rest (Gareth Fuller/PA)

After the coffin was lowered into the ground, volleys of shots rang out as six soldiers honoured him with a gun salute.

As the service drew to a close, the famous line from Laurence Binyon’s poem For The Fallen – “We will remember them” – was read out and echoed by military and civilian guests.

After the service, Arthur Cook said he had been surprised to be contacted by a team from the Ministry of Defence requesting a DNA sample.

Asked about the service, he told the PA news agency: “I can’t put it into words, it’s just amazing. I never anticipated anything of this nature.

“To think that 105 years further on and they still put this effort into a burial is unbelievable, it’s amazing.”

He praised the “forensic” work of the JCCC team and the Essex Regiment Museum in identifying L/Cpl Cook.

Mr Cook, 73, who lives in Orkney in Scotland, pledged to pass down the knowledge through his family.

First World War soldier to be laid to rest
Arthur Cook and Sally Cooper, great-nephew and great-niece of Lance Corporal Robert Cook, prepare to lay a wreath (Gareth Fuller/PA)

The JCCC team known as the War Detectives work to match names to remains of soldiers.

One of the team, Rosie Barron, told PA that L/Cpl Cook was one of 24 soldiers whose remains were discovered near the site in 2014 and 2015.

She added: “He was found with a cap badge and shoulder titles of the Essex Regiment, and he also had a medal ribbon bar with three medal ribbons of South Africa medals, so we knew that this solider had served in the Boer War, and based on that we were able to work out roughly how old he might have been

“In this case it was very much a question of the artefacts supported the DNA evidence so the whole thing came together.”

Ms Barron praised the work of retired Major Peter Williamson from the Essex Regiment Museum, who provided crucial help narrowing the evidence down until they were sure it was L/Cpl Cook.

First World War soldier to be laid to rest
Lance Corporal Robert Cook is laid to rest with full military honours (Gareth Fuller/PA)

Born in 1876, L/Cpl Cook had served in the Boer War before arriving on the front line near Ypres on April 30 1915.

Two days later, at 5pm on May 2, L/Cpl Cook and his comrades were hit with gas, shelled and then attacked.

By the end of the day 23 people had been killed, 72 were wounded and 175 were missing.

Tens of thousands of those who died in Flanders, including during the five battles of Ypres, have never been found.

The names of more than 54,000 men are inscribed on the Menin Gate in the town, a monument to those whose graves are not known.

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