Virginia Silvester has most kindly contributed the following article to TACA, in which she traces the fortunes of two of her great-grandmother's soldier brothers, one of whom was an army schoolmaster. Her account vividly illustrates both the mobility inherent in the military way of life, and the hardship endured by the wives and children of serving soldiers around a century ago. To discover more, read on . . .
'Robert and Sydney Cockman were two of the younger sons of Abraham Cockman, headmaster of the boys' National School in Grantham [Lincolnshire]. Robert was born early in 1872, and Sydney on 12 March 1875. They grew up in the schoolhouse, with their parents and – initially – six older brothers and sisters. The three-bedroomed house would have been crowded, but gradually emptied out. The oldest son, George, left home in 1873 at the age of fourteen to become an apprentice in the Merchant Navy; he went on to become a senior captain with P&O. The oldest daughter, Emma, went away to teacher-training college in London less than a year after Sydney was born, and later was headmistress of her own school before marrying. The other two girls both died in their early teens. The second son, Frank, seven years older than Robert, became a clerk, while the third son, Charles, followed George into the Merchant Navy. After Sydney, there were two more children – Bertram, born in July 1879, and Harry, born in August 1881, who died in May 1883. All the boys probably attended their father's school.
On 24 February 1891, Sydney enlisted in the 2nd Battalion of the East Kent Regiment (the Buffs), under the name Frederick Cockman. He correctly gave his place of birth as Grantham, but claimed to be eighteen years old, when, in fact, he was only fifteen. He said he was a printer's assistant, and signed up for seven years. The 1891 census found him in the barracks in Canterbury. Meanwhile, only two brothers were left at home in Grantham – Robert, who was a pupil-teacher, and Bertram, who was still at school.
Abraham Cockman died suddenly on 6 December 1891, and whatever Sydney may or may not have told his family about what he was doing, he is recorded as attending the funeral in Grantham on 10 December. Abraham's widow moved out of the schoolhouse and into another house in Grantham, with her two sons. But on 6 April 1892, she too died. In the space of four months, aged only seventeen, Sydney had lost both parents, and the family home had been broken up.
JOINING THE GORDON HIGHLANDERS
On 8 August 1892, Sydney, alias Frederick Cockman, went absent without leave from the East Kent Regiment, and was concluded to have deserted. The following day, in London, he enlisted again, this time asking to be assigned to the Gordon Highlanders. To avoid the risk of discovery as a deserter, he assumed a false identity; for the period of his service in the Gordon Highlanders, he became Duncan Archibald Douglas, a printer, born in Glasgow, Scotland, and aged eighteen years and four months (only a year out this time). Whether the recruiting sergeant who took his details believed that he was Scottish, or his assurances that he had not previously served in the army, can only be imagined. Asked to nominate his next of kin, he gave Robert’s name as his cousin, and said he had a brother Frank (no surname) in Liverpool. Frank had married in Grantham the previous year and was now living in Liverpool, where his two daughters were later born. By 12 August, Private Sydney, alias Duncan Douglas, had joined the Gordon Highlanders at their depot in Aberdeen, Scotland, as number 4418.
Although Robert's attestation papers have not been found, almost certainly he joined the Gordon Highlanders a few days before Sydney; his regimental number was 4406, and Sydney stated that Robert was a Gordon Highlander when he nominated him as next of kin on 9 August. Family tradition tells that Robert was an army schoolmaster, and this is confirmed in some official records. But it is not clear whether he was a schoolmaster from the time he joined the army or became one later. In civilian life, he would have gone from being a pupil-teacher to attending teacher-training college and qualifying as a schoolmaster. In the army, there had been a normal school that provided equivalent training, but this had closed in 1887. Training of army schoolmasters, who were required to teach both soldiers (in evening classes) and soldiers' children, now appeared to be limited to study and teaching practice at the army's schools in Chelsea [in London] or Aldershot [in Hampshire]. Although there was a Corps of Army Schoolmasters, individual schoolmasters were part of the establishment of the regiment to which they belonged. They were given the rank of an NCO [non-commissioned officer] – usually sergeant. As Robert began as a private, he was probably not a schoolmaster at first. Although Robert had no need to change his identity, he did adopt the second name Bertram – his younger brother's name.
ON HOME SERVICE WITH THE GORDONS: 1892 TO 1899
In August 1892, the 1st Battalion of the Gordon Highlanders was overseas, while the 2nd Battalion was in Ireland. By February 1893, the muster books record that Robert and Sydney had joined the 2nd Battalion in Dublin, serving as privates in D Company. The fiction that they were cousins must have been difficult to maintain! They were still based together in Dublin on 1 August 1893, although Sydney was in hospital and Robert was temporarily at the Curragh Camp. By 1 May 1894, the 2nd Battalion was split between Dublin and the Curragh. Sydney, still in D Company, was at the Curragh, while Robert, who had been promoted to lance corporal, was in Dublin with B Company.
On 9 June 1894, the 2nd Battalion embarked at Dublin on the HMS Tyne to return to Scotland, arriving three days later in Glasgow, where it occupied Maryhill Barracks. Sydney was appointed lance corporal on 19 June. In the muster for 1 November 1894, both Robert and Sydney were still lance corporals in the 2nd Battalion in Glasgow, Robert still in B Company, and actually away in Aldershot, and Sydney now in C Company and on furlough. It was perhaps during his time off in Glasgow that Sydney met a local girl, Helen (or Nellie) Dempster Paul. He reverted to the rank of private on 18 February 1895.
In 1896, the 2nd Battalion moved to Aldershot. Sydney went with them, as a private in C Company. The muster of 1 June 1897 shows Sydney absent on a pass. Perhaps he was preparing for his marriage to Nellie Paul, which took place in Poplar Register Office [in London] on 25 June. Sydney married under his (almost) correct name, as Sydney Douglas Cockman. In December 1897, Sydney was still in Aldershot.
When the 2nd Battalion moved to Aldershot, Robert appears to have transferred to the depot in Aberdeen. There, by 1 May 1897, he had been promoted to corporal, and by August 1897 he was a sergeant, when he was reported as taking part in a swimming gala. Robert had also been getting to know a local girl. On 4 March 1898, he married Isabella (Bella) Beattie Emslie at her home in Aberdeen. Robert was now a sergeant, living in Castle Hill Barracks in Aberdeen, where his and Bella’s daughter, Harriet Isabella, was born two weeks later. About the same time, Sydney and Nellie’s first child, Annie (or Nancy), was born.
The 2nd Battalion remained at Aldershot until 6 September 1898, when it left to embark at Southampton for India. Sydney must have left the 2nd Battalion at this point, as his records clearly show that he did not go to India. However, Robert did go to India, though not until after early October 1898, when he was reported in the Aberdeen Weekly Journal as being one of the organisers and MCs [master of ceremonies] of "the first quadrille party of the season" at Castle Hill Barracks, held in a decorated gymnasium. His son, Robert Bertram, was born on 11 July 1899. As this birth took place at Bella's parents’ home and was notified by Bella, Robert had probably left by then. Bella and the baby – perhaps Harriet as well – must then have travelled to join him at Umballa Camp in India, an established military cantonment where the 2nd Battalion had settled. Baby Robert died there of diarrhoea on 23 November 1899.
Meanwhile Sydney and Nellie had had a second child, Sydney Douglas, born in Glasgow on 4 August 1899. A few days later, Sydney transferred to the army reserve, and became a commissionaire.
THE BOER WAR: 1899 TO 1902
But war was looming, and neither brother was destined to remain on the same course. By 1 September 1899, the 2nd Battalion was preparing to travel from India to South Africa. The bulk of the battalion sailed from Bombay on 27 September, arriving in Durban a couple of weeks later. A further contingent left India on 8 December, arriving on 21 December. Given the medal clasps that Robert was awarded for his involvement in the Boer War, he probably left India with the main contingent – before the death of his baby son, and probably only shortly after Bella’s arrival. It must have been very hard for her, alone in a foreign country.
Life was hard also for the 2nd Battalion. As soon as it landed in Durban, it travelled north by train to Ladysmith. On 21 October, the Gordon Highlanders and other troops based in Ladysmith took the train north-east to a few miles short of the station at Elandslaagte, in support of an attack on an isolated group of Boers. The Battle of Elandslaagte took place in the middle of a thunderstorm, and the kilted Gordons played a significant part in securing a British victory, with an old-style Scottish charge and helped by their experience in India. But the battalion suffered heavy casualties: 50 per cent of the 263 officers and men who took part in the battle were killed or injured.
After the battle, the British withdrew hastily to Ladysmith, where they were pinned down in the infamous siege from 2 November 1899 to 28 February 1900. Although Robert, as a schoolmaster, is unlikely to have taken part in the battle, he must have been trapped in Ladysmith during the siege. A diary kept by another army schoolmaster during the siege provides a clear account of his life there. With the school where he had taught closed, and few children left in the town, this man was engaged in clerical duties at army HQ, dodging enemy bombardments and adapting to the increasing shortages of food. The British troops besieged in Ladysmith suffered heavily from disease, although the Gordon Highlanders were less affected than other regiments. For months, little news and few letters passed in to or out of the town, so Robert probably did not know of his son’s death until Ladysmith was relieved.
Meanwhile, in Aberdeen, Sydney had rejoined the colours on 9 October 1899, and joined up with the 1st Battalion, which had been in Edinburgh since it returned from India in December 1898. By the end of the month, it too was preparing to leave for South Africa. The battalion received an enthusiastic send-off from the people of Edinburgh when it left for Liverpool, where it embarked on 9 November. It reached Cape Town on 30 November. On 11 December, it was involved in the Battle of Magersfontein, and lost nine killed and twenty-one wounded. The battalion then had a hard march to Paardeburg, south-east of Kimberley. For nine days, the Gordons lay and waited in intense heat. Eventually, the weather broke, and in torrential rain on 27 February 1900, the battalion was in action in support of the Canadian advance. British and allied forces were victorious at the Battle of Paardeburg, but at the expense of heavy losses: 1,270 casualties out of 15,000 troops. The Battle of Driefontein followed on 10 March 1900, further along the Modder river. As the Gordons moved further north and east as the British pushed the Boer forces further into the interior, the 1st Battalion was involved in the Battle of Johannesburg on 31 May 1900, while the 2nd Battalion took part in the Battle of Laing’s Nek (near Newcastle, north of Ladysmith, near the border between Natal and Transvaal), from 2 to 9 June 1900, and the Battle of Belfast (north of Newcastle, east of Johannesburg), from 26 to 27 August 1900.
The bulk of the fighting was now over for the two brothers. Sydney would have received bad news from home. His wife and children had moved to live with her mother in Glasgow while he was away, and on 18 May 1900, baby Sydney died there, from gastritis and convulsions. Nellie, notifying the death, betrayed her confusion about the names that she was supposed to be using: she gave the baby’s name as Sydney Douglas Cockman, his father’s name as Duncan Douglas Cockman, alias Douglas, and her name as Helen Dempster Cockman. By the time of the 1901 census, she had the story straight again, giving her name as Nellie Douglas and her daughter as Annie Douglas.
By 1 April 1901, the 1st Battalion was in Pietermaritzburg, where Sydney, alias Private D A Douglas, was awarded the Queen’s Africa Medal with clasps for Paardeburg, Driefontein, Johannesburg and Cape Colony. The peace agreement was signed on 31 May 1902, but the 1st Battalion remained in South Africa until the end. Sydney returned to Scotland on 19 August 1902, and was awarded the King’s Africa Medal with clasps for South Africa 1901 and 1902 in November.
In October 1900, the 2nd Battalion moved to Pretoria, and then, in May 1901, to Pietersburg [now Polokwane]. It was here, on 15 July, that Sergeant R Cockman was awarded the Queen’s Africa Medal with clasps for Belfast, Elandslaagte, the Defence of Ladysmith and Laing’s Nek. The two battalions had met up at Belfast, but as Sydney was not awarded the clasp for that action, perhaps he did not meet Robert there. The 2nd Battalion remained around Pretoria until January 1902, shortly before peace was declared, when it returned to India, where it was to remain until 1912.
AFTER THE BOER WAR: ROBERT, 1902 TO 1907
It is not known whether Robert travelled to India with the 2nd Battalion. What we do know is that his wife Bella, at home in Aberdeen, had been unfaithful to him. She gave birth on 8 June 1902 to a son, George McGhee Copland. The baby’s father was Thomas Copland, a postman, who had actually been one of the witnesses at Robert and Bella’s marriage. Moreover, Bella asserted that she had "had no personal communication with [Robert] since they ceased to reside together four years ago". This is surely somewhat economical with the truth, as their son had been born less than three years earlier.
Baby George lived for only a few months, dying on 28 October 1902, having been sick for most of his short life with, among other things, congenital syphilis – with which he must have been infected before birth by Bella – and marasmus, a malnutrition disease. Thomas does not seem to have formed a permanent relationship with Bella, and he went on to marry someone else.
Wherever Robert was, the news of his wife’s affair probably reached him, if only through contacts at the regiment’s depot in Aberdeen. What followed is uncertain. Family tradition has it that Robert emigrated to Canada. There is, however, no evidence that he went to Canada, nor, indeed, that he emigrated anywhere else. But a Corporal (Lance Sergeant) Robert Cockman, described as Scottish (as he had been in earlier returns), serving in the 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment in Gibraltar, died there on 24 January 1907 – of a self-inflicted gunshot wound – aged twenty-seven years and four months. Robert, the former Gordon Highlander, was actually thirty-five years old at this time, but the register of soldiers’ effects records that his widow’s name was Bella, so it is almost certain that this was the same person. This register also gave Robert’s birthplace as Aberdeen, his date of enlistment as 27 August 1902 (perhaps this was the date on which he joined the Border Regiment), and his trade on enlistment as a clerk. The 1st Battalion of the Border Regiment had arrived in Gibraltar in September 1906, having previously been based in Plymouth [Devon] after returning from the Boer War. Perhaps Robert had changed regiments in South Africa, being unwilling to go back to India. Opportunities for army schoolmasters on home service were limited during the twentieth century, as most army schools were overseas.
If, indeed, our Robert did kill himself in 1907, some of the pressures on him are not hard to find. His marriage had broken up, and he may well have lost contact with his daughter. He had been left without parents when he was just twenty, and contact with most of his family may well have been disrupted by army life. The brother to whom he was closest, Sydney, was about to emigrate to Canada. A 1904 report on army schools had found that schoolmasters were working excessive hours, with inadequate assistance in the face of increasing demand from soldiers seeking to improve their education.
When he died in Gibraltar, Robert Cockman’s effects were sent to the faithless Bella. In due course she remarried; and when their daughter Harriet married in August 1921, she stated that her father, Robert, was deceased.
FAMILY AND CANADA: SYDNEY, 1902 TO 1915
In Scotland, Sydney transferred again to the army reserve on 23 April 1903, and was discharged finally, after completion of his twelve years’ service, on 8 August 1904. Sydney thereafter resumed his true identity, discarding his alias of Duncan Archibald Douglas for good. He took up the occupation of waiter. On 22 December 1904, a son, Charles Henry, was born to Sydney and Nellie, at Kingennie in Monifieth, Forfarshire (now Angus).
In 1907, Sydney emigrated to Canada, sailing from Glasgow to Halifax. Two years later, Nellie joined him, with their children Annie and Charles; they arrived in Montreal, Quebec, on 17 May 1909. Another son, Douglas, was born in Canada in about 1911 or 1912. Sydney continued to work as a waiter, and by 1915 the family was settled in St John, Winnipeg. Sydney joined the local militia, the 79th Cameron Highlanders of Canada.
WORLD WAR I
Canada had raised troops to support the British forces from the outset of World War I, and the Cameron Highlanders began recruiting in Winnipeg for service overseas in the winter of 1915–16, as part of an initiative to increase the numbers to 500,000. On 26 October 1915, at the age of forty, Sydney enlisted for the third time, in the 179th (Cameron Highlanders of Canada) Battalion, Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force. This time, he used his real name and personal details. Like his nephews in England, he may have been hoping to get quickly to the front, but in fact it was almost a year before he left Canada for Europe. In the meantime, he had been promoted to corporal on 1 February 1916, and to sergeant on 10 March.
Sydney arrived in England in October 1916, and spent a year there, in the Shorncliffe area of Kent, where the Canadian troops were mainly based. Like most other Canadian units, his battalion was quickly absorbed into a reserve battalion and lost its identity. At the end of October 1917, he finally arrived in France, having reverted to private just before his posting to the front. By 17 November he had joined his unit in the 16th Battalion, Canadian Infantry.
During January 1918, Sydney first reported symptoms of difficulty breathing, especially if he did any heavy lifting. This was diagnosed as impaired heart function, caused by service conditions. Then, on 26 February 1918, he was wounded at St Pierre, when a shell fragment destroyed his left eye, and he received a shrapnel wound to the head. He spent the next two months in hospitals in France and England, eventually being fitted with an artificial eye. He was finally sent back to Canada at the end of September and was discharged in Winnipeg on 9 December as being medically unfit for further war service due to both the loss of his eye and heart problems. It was judged that his heart should get better in a year or so, and that he should be able to resume his occupation as a waiter.
Nellie visited Scotland at least once, with Douglas, in 1921. The family’s last known address was in Nelson, British Columbia, in 1924. Sydney died at Kaslo, British Columbia, on 11 January 1933, aged sixty.'