John Cook (VC)

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John Cook
Major Cook, depicted in the Illustrated London News
Born(1843-08-28)28 August 1843
Edinburgh, Scotland
Died19 December 1879(1879-12-19) (aged 36)
Sherpur, Afghanistan
Allegiance United Kingdom
Service/branch British Indian Army
UnitBengal Staff Corps / 5th Gurkha Rifles
AwardsVictoria Cross

Major John Cook VC (28 August 1843 – 19 December 1879) was a Scottish recipient of the Victoria Cross, the highest and most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. An officer of the Bengal Staff Corps who transferred to the 5th Gurkha Rifles, Cook was a veteran of the Umbeyla Campaign who received the VC posthumously for his actions during the Second Anglo-Afghan War.

Early life[edit]

Born in Edinburgh, Cook was educated at Edinburgh Academy before attending the Scottish Naval and Military Academy in Edinburgh from 1856 to 1858, Dr Greig's School in London from 1858 to 1859, and finally the Royal India Military College at Addiscombe from 1859 to 1860.[1]

Military career[edit]

Cook sailed to India in late 1861 at the age of eighteen, joining the British Indian Army, Bengal Staff Corps as an ensign before being promoted lieutenant on 29 March 1862,[2] and soon after his arrival was posted to the 3rd Sikh Infantry.[3]

3rd Sikh Infantry at Kabul, 1879.

He was mentioned in despatches for his services in the Umbeyla Campaign in 1863,[4] and also distinguished himself while serving as adjutant of his regiment in the Black Mountain campaign, Hazara Expedition of 1868 on the North West Frontier.[5][6]

After being promoted captain on 19 December 1872,[7] Cook transferred to the 5th Gurkha Rifles as wing commander in 1873.[8]

On 24 September 1878 at the beginning of the Second Anglo-Afghan War, the 5th Gurkha Rifles were warned for active service, and in October proceeded from Abbottabad to Thal. Here it joined Sir Frederick Robert's Kurram Valley Field Force. Cook crossed the frontier with his regiment as part of Brigadier-General Thelwall's 2nd Brigade and following the reconnaissance of Peiwar Kotal Pass, won his Victoria Cross on the slopes of the Spingawai Kotal, or White Cow Pass. Captain Cook led repeated charges against enemy barricades with a joint force of 5th Gurkhas and 72nd Highlanders. At dawn, as the Afghans fled their positions, Cook collected a few men and charged and killed a large number of enemy who were trying to rescue one of their guns before going to the aide of Major Galbraith. Cook's helmet was pierced by an enemy bullet.[9][10]

Gallantry recognized[edit]

Just days after the action, Major Galbraith wrote to General Roberts a report dated 'Camp near Zabbardast Kila, 5 December 1878:[8][11]

I have the honour to submit the following statement in the hope that should you see fit you will bring the name of Captain Cook, 5th Goorkha Regiment, to the favourable notice of His Excellency the Commander-in-Chief.
"On the morning of the 2nd December 1878, after our troops had stormed the second entrenchment above the "Spin Gawai", the enemy attempted to rally in the woods at our right flank, and at the same moment about 150 to 200 men were observed moving down from a height on the left. The latter were at first supposed to be our own sepoys, and were thus enabled to approach unmolested within 50 yards of the entrenchment, when, their identity being established, Captain Cook opened fire with about 15 to 20 of his men. A very heavy fire was interchanged for two or three minutes, during which time he was reinforced by about 12 men of his own regiment and the 72nd Highlanders. Seeing that the enemy had a mountain gun with them, he charged out of the entrenchment with such impetuosity that the enemy broke and fled, leaving many of their men and three battery mules on the ground. At the close of the mêlée I was on the left flank of the Goorkhas when a man rushed towards me from behind. I had seen him advancing but thought him a friendly sepoy, until he raised his rifle at about three yards from me, fortunately an intervening tree sheltered me for the moment, and gave me time to turn and discharge my pistol at him without effect. Captain Cook seeing my danger, with a shout distracted his attention to himself, and aiming a sword cut which the Duranee avoided, sprang upon him, and grasping his throat, grappled with him. They both fell upon the ground, the Duranee, a most powerful man, still endeavouring to use his rifle and seizing Captain Cook's arm in his teeth, until I was able to end the struggle by shooting him through the head. The whole affair was the work of [a moment] but I feel convinced that but for Captain Cook's prompt endeavour to draw the man's fire upon himself, I should, in all probability, have been shot before I could have again discharged my pistol, several others of the enemy were at the time within a few yards of us."[8]

Victoria Cross[edit]

He was 35 years old, and a captain in the Bengal Staff Corps, British Indian Army, and 5th Gurkha Rifles during the Second Anglo-Afghan War when the following deed took place for which he was awarded the VC:

For a signal act of valour at the action of the Peiwar Kotal on the 2nd December, 1878, in having, during a very heavy, fire, charged out of the entrenchments with such impetuosity that the enemy broke and fled, when, perceiving, at the close of the melee, the danger of Major Galbraith, Assistant Adjutant-General, Kurum Column Field Force, who was in personal conflict with an Afghan soldier, Captain Cook distracted his attention to himself, and aiming a sword cut which the Douranee avoided, sprang upon him, and, grasping his throat, grappled with him. They both fell to the ground. The Douranee, a most powerful man, still endeavouring to use his rifle, seized Captain Cook's arm in his teeth until the struggle was ended by the man being shot through the head.[12]

He was promoted to the brevet rank of major on 22 November 1879 in recognition of his services during the Afghan Campaign.[13][14]

Death in action[edit]

Cook was attached to Macpherson's Brigade during the December 1879 Siege of the Sherpur Cantonment at Kabul. On 11 December, Cook participated in the attempt to attack the Afghans in the rear at Argundeh but – faced by overwhelming numbers – they were forced to fall back towards Sherpur. Late in the day, Cook distinguished himself in the rearguard action which saved the brigade's baggage. He fought a determined throng of Afghans, and resorted to a bayonet charge which he led with his brother, Lieutenant Walter Cook, 3rd Sikhs, which forced the Afghans to withdraw. Unfortunately Walter Cook was shot in the chest and was carried wounded to the Sherpur Cantonment and John Cook received a head wound.[6][8]

The next day, 12 December, John Cook was still able to take part in the attack on the That-i-Shah peak, which dominated the high ground around Kabul. During this action Major Cook received a fatal wound, being struck by a bullet that passed through the bone of his left leg below the knee. After spending the night on the hill in the open he was taken to the hospital at the besieged Sherpur, but died of wounds on 19 December 1879.[6][8][15]

On 21 December 1879, Major John Cook was buried in the Sherpur Cantonment British Cemetery, locally known as the 'Gora Kabar' which literally means 'White Graveyard'.[16] He was mentioned in despatches by Frederick Roberts on 23 January 1880.[13]

Medals and awards[edit]

The Victoria Cross and campaign medals awarded to Cook were sold on 17 September 2004 by the London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb for £82,000. They were purchased for the Michael Ashcroft Trust, the holding institution for Lord Ashcroft's VC collection,[8] which is displayed at the Imperial War Museum in London.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ India Office, L/MIL/9/250 ff.218
  2. ^ "No. 22639". The London Gazette. 1 July 1862. p. 3323.
  3. ^ Discovery Dundee – Cook family papers
  4. ^ National Army Museum – Major John Cook VC
  5. ^ Weekes (2009), p.61
  6. ^ a b c Hensman (2009), p.242
  7. ^ "No. 23962". The London Gazette. 28 March 1873. p. 1714.
  8. ^ a b c d e f Stewart, Iain (18 September 2004). "John Cook (VC)". Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  9. ^ British Empire Website – 5th Gurkha Rifles
  10. ^ National Archives, London, document WO 32/7381
  11. ^ Discovery Dundee – Cook Family papers
  12. ^ "No. 24697". The London Gazette. 18 March 1879. p. 2241.
  13. ^ a b Weekes (2009), pp.61–62
  14. ^ "No. 24785". The London Gazette. 21 November 1879. p. 6587.
  15. ^ Colonel H. E. Weekes (2011). History of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles: 1858 to 1928. Andrews UK Limited. p. 61. ISBN 978-1-78149-333-5.
  16. ^ Perry, Tony (6 January 2010). "Afghanistan cemetery holds memories of foreigners". Los Angeles Times. Retrieved 31 December 2015.
  17. ^ "No. 8984". The Edinburgh Gazette. 21 March 1879. p. 274.
  18. ^ "No. 24841". The London Gazette. 4 May 1880. p. 2848.
  19. ^ "John Cook (VC)". Lord Ashcroft Medal Collection. Retrieved 31 December 2015.


  • Hensman, Howard (2009). The Afghan War 1879–1880. Lancer. ISBN 978-0981537863.
  • Weekes, Colonel H.E. (2009). History of the 5th Royal Gurkha Rifles. Naval & Military Press. ISBN 978-1843427728.

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]