Joseph Ernest Cooper was born in New Bedford, Massachusetts, United States of America, on the 16th January 1915, the son of James M.M. and Nelly Elizabeth Cooper (née Thorpe).
His parents had originally come from England, James Cooper from Burnley and Nelly Cooper from Leicester. His father had immigrated to New Bedford, in 1908, after service in the British Regular and Volunteer Army, and his other had immigrated in 1912. James Cooper had obtained work as a weaver in a New Bedford mill, and his mother also worked in the textile industry there.
The Burnley Express and Advertiser, for 30th December 1916 tells the story of the reason why James Cooper decided to return to Lancashire: -
He was weaving at a mill in New Bedford, America when war broke out. He was outside this place when news was received that a British ship had been sunk. There were a lot of Germans who worked there, and when they heard of it, they waved their hats in jubilation. He said to them “You pigs! I’m off!” and he came right away to England to join his old regiment. This was at Christmas, 1914, and he left his wife and three children behind.
Whereas James Cooper had left New Bedford before the birth of his son, the newspaper’s assertion that the couple had three children was erroneous.
Nelly found it too difficult to try and raise her baby and continue working in the textile industry at the same time, so decided to return to her family in England where she would have some support. Thus, in late April 1915, she travelled to New York City, and with her young son, and boarded the Lusitania as third class passengers before the liner left her berth at Pier 54, just after mid-day on 1st May 1915.
Six days later, both mother and child were dead, killed after when the liner was torpedoed and sunk, by the German submarine
U-20, off the coast of southern Ireland and about 250 miles from her Liverpool destination. Neither of their bodies was ever recovered from the sea and identified afterwards. Joseph Cooper was just over three months old!
At the time of his death, his father had rejoined the 1st Battalion, The Border Regiment and as 18799 Sergeant J.M.M. Cooper, had been sent to fight against the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula.
On embarkation leave before sailing for the Dardanelles, he had visited Joseph’s aunt, Mrs. Evans, in Burnley and this visit was reported in the press: -
Whilst on leave to his sister, a fortnight before the disaster to the liner, he told her that if the Germans touched that vessel, he would have his revenge. Since the ship was sunk and he lost his loved ones, the sergeant has lived for revenge on the brutal enemy.
Obviously the time scale was not reported accurately, as the 1st Borders left for the Middle East on 17th March 1915, two months, not two weeks before the sinking!
Naturally incensed by the loss of his wife and child and true to his word to gain his revenge on the enemy, Sergeant Cooper was awarded a Military Medal for storming an enemy position and killing three Turks at Gallipoli on 8th November 1915. Nearly two years later, on 15th October 1918, he was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for gallantry in Flanders, against the Germans.
The Cork Examiner for Friday 14th May 1915 stated that Sergeant Cooper went to Queenstown to search for the bodies of his wife and son and further stated that he was :-
..... frantic with grief but expressed the intensity of his feelings in expressing the wish to be in the trenches to avenge the cruel murder of his loved wife and child.
This account must have been purely speculative, however, as his regiment had been fighting in the Dardanelles since April 1915 and home leave to England was never granted from that theatre of war.
Sergeant Cooper survived the war to return, eventually, to Burnley, but although the fortunes of war had spared him, he would not return to the closest members of his family!
Massachusetts Birth Records 1840 – 1915, Cunard Records, Andrew Gill, PRO BT 100/345, UniLiv D92/2/111, Deaths at Sea 1871 – 1968, The Burnley Express and Advertiser, Cork Examiner, Yorkshire Post, Graham Maddocks, Geoff Whitfield, Michael Poirier, Jim Kalafus, Cliff Barry, Paul Latimer, Norman Gray.
Copyright © Peter Kelly.