As part of our series looking into the lives of the RUSI members who were Victoria Cross holders and fell in the Great War, we profile Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper.
Neville Bowes Elliott-Cooper was born in London on 22 January 1889. From 1901–1907, he attended Eton and he was a member of the Eton College Volunteers. He also attended Sandhurst. On 9 October 1908, Elliott-Cooper joined the army as a second lieutenant in the Royal Fusiliers. He served in South Africa, Mauritius and India.
Elliott-Cooper was awarded the VC for his actions on 30 November 1917, east of La Vacquerie, near Cambrai, France. He was commanding the 8th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. That morning, a German counter-attack had begun at 0800 hours, in an attempt to reverse Allied territorial gains made during the first ten days of the Battle of Cambrai. The 8th and 9th Royal Fusiliers held positions on the north and south sides of the Cambrai-Gouzeaucourt road, around Bleak House. The Germans attacked their locations from the south after putting down an artillery barrage consisting of smoke and gas shells. By mid-morning, the Fusiliers were in a ‘desperate situation’.
The ‘two forward companies’, which were situated south of the road, were decimated by ‘heavy attacks from the front and the right flank’ as the Germans broke through the Fusiliers’ ‘outpost line’. A third company, which had been advancing southward across the road to reinforce these forward positions, then came under ‘concentrated’ light machine-gun fire, leaving them ‘stranded on open ground’. Upon realising this, and seeing the Germans advancing across open ground—the enemy were within 50 yards of the Fusiliers’ position north of the road by this stage— Elliott-Cooper ‘mounted the parapet’ and charged the enemy, calling for the reserve company, as well as men from the battalion headquarters, to follow him. Completely unarmed, he headed straight towards the enemy. His men followed.
Elliott-Cooper’s counter-attack forced the Germans back over the Bonavis Ridge and back onto the south side of the road—a distance of some 600 yards. Elliott-Cooper, still 40 yards ahead of his men, and the officers near him then ‘came under heavy machine-gun fire’. Elliott-Cooper was seriously wounded in this onslaught but, even in that moment, he had the presence of mind to realise his men were heavily outnumbered and, seeing that they were taking heavy casualties, ‘signalled them to withdraw’. He did so knowing that this made his own capture inevitable.
That day the 8th Battalion lost 247 men and 10 officers, while the 9th lost thirteen officers and 208 men. Elliott-Cooper’s action had, however, bought time for the remainder of his battalion to withdraw to La Vacquerie, and for reserves to be brought up in order to ‘occupy the line of defence’. He was mentioned in despatches on 18 December 1917.
Elliott-Cooper, who had been ‘badly wounded in the hip joint’, was treated for his wounds at Münster. A fellow soldier, also injured and imprisoned, noted that when Elliott-Cooper’s injuries were paining him, although he never complained, his ‘language was very bad but a joy to hear, and, when at his worst, he hurled things about’. According to a House Master at Eton, Elliott-Cooper was allowed to dictate a letter to his mother while imprisoned.
Elliott-Cooper died of his wounds on 11 February 1918 in Hanover, Germany. According to his hospital file, he died from wounds to his right thigh, and cardiac weakness. It has also been suggested that he died of blood poisoning. He is buried in Hamburg Cemetery in Plot V, Row A, Grave 16. His VC was gazetted two days after his death, on 13 February 1918. He also held the DSO and MC. At his memorial service, held 15 March 1918, a ‘detachment of Royal Fusiliers … lined the aisle during the service’.
His parents were presented with his VC at Buckingham Palace on 25 May 1918. He is commemorated on a Royal Fusiliers memorial, along with his brother Gilbert D’Arcy, who was wounded in August 1915 and died in 1922 as a result of these injuries. In 1973, Elliott-Cooper’s family donated his VC, DSO and MC to the Royal Fusiliers Museum, Tower of London.
An officer who knew him noted: ‘His life will always be a shining example to all who knew him. Absolutely fearless, he never for one moment considered his own safety. Always happy and cheerful, his spirit was never daunted by hardship or danger. He was universally loved and admired, and his influence was enormous on those serving with him’.
Ashley Ryan is an RLMH volunteer and 2016 Trench Gascoigne Essay Prize third place winner.
This article is the ninth in a nine-part series to be published in the RUSI Library News.
Part I For Valour: The Victoria Cross, RUSI and the First World War
Part II Captain Charles ‘Fitz’ FitzClarence
Part III Brevet Major John Edmond ‘Johnnie’ Gough
Part IV Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell
Part V Major Charles Allix Lavington ‘Cal’ Yate
Part VI Lieutenant John Henry Stephen Dimmer
Part VII Captain Garth Neville Walford
Part VIII Temporary Lieutenant Colonel Bertram Best-Dunkley
2017. “Great War Stories: RUSI’s Fallen Members.” RUSI Journal 162, no. 3 (June/July): 4–10. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/03071847.2017.1357379.
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