18 September 2004

The Victoria Cross and campaign medals awarded to Captain John Cook, 5th Gurkha Regiment, were sold at auction on the 17th September 2004, by the London auctioneers Dix Noonan Webb for the sum of £82,000. The VC group was part of the Brian Ritchie Collection of HEIC and British India Medals. The VC group was purchased on behalf of the Michael Ashcroft Trust, the holding institution for Lord Ashcroft's VC Collection.

( select to enlarge )

Medal entitlement of Major John Cook,
5th Gurkha Regiment

  • Victoria Cross
  • Indian General Service Medal ( 1854-95 )
    • 2 clasps:
    • "North West Frontier" - "Umbeyla"
  • Afghanistan Medal ( 1878-80 )
    • 3 clasps:
    • "Peiwar Kotal" - "Charisia" - "Kabul"

John Cook went to India at the age of eighteen and soon after his arrival was posted to the 3rd Sikhs. He was mentioned in despatches for his services in the Umbeyla Campaign and served as Adjutant of his regiment in the Hazara Expedition of 1868 on the North West Frontier. After being promoted Captain in 1872 Cook transferred to the 5th Gurkhas as Wing Commander in 1873.

On the 24th September 1878 the 5th Gurkhas were warned for active service, and in October proceeded from Abbottabad to Thal, were 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 reconnaisance of Peiwar Kotal, won his Victoria Cross on the slopes of the Spingawai Kotal, or White Cow Pass.

A few days after John Cook's Victoria Cross action, a grateful Major Galbraith sent General Roberts the following report dated 'Camp near Zabbardast Kila, 5th December 1878: "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 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 entrenchement 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."

[ London Gazette, 18 March 1879 ], Peiwar Kotal, Afghanistan, 2nd December 1878, Captain John Cook, Bengal Staff Corps & 5th Gurkha Regiment.

"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 mêlée the danger of Major Galbraith, Assistant Adjutant-General Kurram 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."

On the 11th December 1879 Cook was attached to Macpherson's brigade which attempted to attack the Afghans in the rear at Argundeh, but was forced to retire towards Sherpur in the face of overwhelming numbers. Late in the day Cook distinguished himself in the rear guard action which saved the brigade's baggage and found himself fighting shoulder to shoulder with his brother. So persistent and bold were the Afghans that it was found needful to resort to a bayonet charge, which, gallantly led by Major John Cook, 5th Gurkha Regiment, and Lieutenant Walter Cook, 3rd Sikhs, taught them to keep their distance. Unfortunately, Walter was shot in the chest and was carried to the Sherpur Cantonment, and John was brought to his knees by a blow to the head.

However, John Cook was able to take part in the attack next day on the Taht-i-Shah peak, the highest and most inaccessible point of the range of hills dominating Kabul. It was during this action that Major Cook received his death wound, being struck by a bullet that passed through the bone of the left leg, just below the knee. After spending the night on the hill in the open, Cook was eventually taken to the hospital at the besieged Sherpur Cantonment, where he died later from his wounds.

On the 21st December 1879 Major John Cook was buried in the Sherpur Cantonment British Cemetery, locally known as the 'Gora Kabar' which literally means 'White Graveyard'.

The medal entitlement of Lieutenant Colonel Walter Cook - 3rd Sikh Infantry, Indian Army.
( recommended for the Victoria Cross )

  • Afghanistan Medal ( 1878-80 )
    • 3 clasps:
    • "Ali Musjid" - "Kabul" - "Kandahar"
  • Kabul to Kandahar Star ( 1878-80 )
  • India General Service Medal ( 1854-95 )
    • 2 clasps:
    • "Burma 1885-87" - "Burma 1887-89"

In June 2004 Fr Mark O'Keeffe CF ( RC ), serving with the HQ ( UK ) division in Afghanistan, visited the British Cemetery at 'Gora Kabar', lying at the northwestern corner of the Bimaru Heights, Kabul. By the standard of cemeteries in the sub-continent, the Kabul Cemetery is in reasonable condition considering it contains British military gravestones dating back to the 1839-42 British occupation of Kabul. (This cemetery is also be known as the Sherpur Cantonment Cemetery ).

Some gravestones have been damaged, but there is little evidence of the vandalism that has been reported elsewhere in Howshera and Simla. The British military headstones suffered damage during an exceptionally cold winter in 1978 and have subsequently been moved from their original position and cemented vertically along the south wall of the cemetery. The headstone of Major John Cook, VC, 5th Gurkha Rifles, is still in very good condition, as are the headstones of five other British officers buried in the cemetery. Of the two remaining stones, one is simply initialled 'AJR', an officer killed during the first Afghan War in September 1842. The other stone lists 29 names killed in December 1879, probably from the 67th Regiment of Foot ( The Hampshire Regiment ).

The names of the six officers buried in the Sherpur Cantonment Cemetery, Kabul, are:

  • Lieutenant Charles Hearsey, 9th Lancers - killed in action 11 December 1879
  • Lieutenant John Forbes, 92nd Highlanders - killed in action 12 December 1879
  • Lieutenant Cecil Gaisford, 72nd Highlanders - killed in action 15 December 1879
  • Major John Cook VC, 5th Gurkha Regiment - killed in action 19 December 1879
  • Lieutenant Charles Nugent, Royal Engineers - killed by a mine 23 December 1879
  • Principal Medical Officer Joshua Porter - died 9 January 1880


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Iain Stewart, 17 September 2004