Tragedy of teen’s WWI death uncovered by teacher

A German postcard illustration of the battle in which HMS Monmouth was sunk.
A German postcard illustration of the battle in which HMS Monmouth was sunk.
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he was a 16-year-old boy who dreamed of a better life on the ocean wave - but William Cookie, a slim built, 5ft tall Leither, would never return to his native Edinburgh after joining the Royal Navy, killed instead in an attack on his ship by the Germans.

Now, 100 years after his death – in an onslaught in which 735 men and boys went down in the cold waters of the South Pacific – the fascinating story of the teenager has been told for the first time.

Tragic young sailor William Cookie

Tragic young sailor William Cookie

His tale has been uncovered by Simon Boothroyd, a drama teacher at St Augustine’s High School, the successor to Holy Cross Academy where William Cookie was schooled.

The teacher became determined to uncover the history of a name on the school’s honour roll that he had walked past every day in his 20 years at the school.

Mr Boothroyd said: “I was interested in William Cookie because he had an unusual surname and also because there was another Cookie on the Roll – his brother.

“I have been working on this for a couple of months, using the library service and the internet.

“The whole school is looking at the rest of the Roll of Honour as part of a history project.

“Pupils have been walking past it for 40 years and nobody knew anything about the people named.”

Born in Leith on March 15, 1898, William Joseph Cookie was the son of domestic servants Patricia and Frank. Educated at Holy Cross Academy, he lost his father in 1910 to “General Peritonitis and Heart Failure”.

Sometime in April or May 1913 William, aged 15, turned up at the local Coastguard Headquarters in Queen Street, and with his application signed by his mother applied to join the Royal Navy.

He had to pass a medical inspection before he could be accepted. His records show he was 5 feet and half-an-inch tall and his chest measured 33 inches. He had brown hair, hazel eyes and a “fresh complexion”.

In June of 1913, William waved goodbye to his mother in Waverley Station and got on the long train journey to London and then to the naval shore base HMS Ganges at Shotley in Suffolk, to begin his training as Boy 2nd Class.

On June 23, 1914, training completed, William was posted to Portsmouth, where he was transferred to HMS Monmouth, an armoured cruiser built on the Clyde that had been in service since 1903.

With the ship in a terrible state of repair the crew were said to have been aware any contact with the enemy would likely see them killed. And on November 1, 1914, some 60 miles off the small town of Coronel on the coast of Chile they sighted the enemy and, battle ensigns flying, they steamed into a fight against a vastly superior force.

The Monmouth was hit many times; her forward turret exploded and the ship was eventually sunk by the German cruiser SMS Nurnbergr. The 735 men and boys of her crew, including William, all went down with the ship.

Patricia Cookie found out her son was dead when the Evening News broke the story on November 6. Three years later on December 23 her remaining son Edward, aged 21, was killed when his ship hit a mine and sank in the North Sea.

All that remains in memory of William is his name on the Roll of Honour in St. Augustine’s High School.

Mr Boothroyd said: “The Cookie family history is fascinating.

“They were not rich, just an ordinary bunch of folk. It’s a tragedy followed by a tragedy.”

Pupils are now looking into other names on the honour list to uncover their stories, and Mr Boothroyd is also hopeful that any surviving members of the Cookie family might get in touch.

newsen@edinburghnews.com