Lieutenant George Angus Cockburn was born in Toronto on 28 September 1894, the son of Lieutenant Colonel Angus Cockburn and Mrs. P.G. Cockburn.
When he enlisted in the Canadian Expeditionary Force at Valcartier, Quebec, on 22 September 1914, he had been a member of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada for 3 years. His Attestation Paper was signed by Lieutenant Colonel R. Rennie, Commanding Officer, who took the Regiment to France and was later promoted to Brigadier General to take command of 4th Canadian Infantry Brigade.
Rifleman Cockburn was Presbyterian, 5 feet, 6 and 1/2 inches tall, with blue eyes, light brown hair and a fair complexion. He had been employed as a Clerk with the Massey-Harris Company upon enlistment. Pay was approximately $1 per day. He assigned $15 per month to his mother.
The Regimental History records that:
“On 3 October 1914, the 3rd Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force, under Lieutenant-Colonel Rennie, embarked at Quebec on the S.S. Tunisian. From Plymouth, England, the battalion went to Salisbury Plains. Three and a half months were spent under canvas.
It was a cold muddy winter and all ranks suffered as a result. On 11 February 1915, the battalion landed at St. Nazaire, France. Two days later the battalion was billeted at Merris, 15 miles from Armentieres. Initiation into trench routine took place with The Imperials at Armentieres.
On 4 March, the battalion went into the line on its own at Fleurbaix. The division was relieved at the end of March and moved south to attack Aubers Ridge. This attack was cancelled; the battalion moved northward again, and took over from the French the trenches from Langemarck to Zonnebeke, north-west of Ypres.
During the afternoon of 22 April 1915, the enemy launched the first gas attack of the war against the French and the left flank of the Canadians. The French broke; the Canadians bent but held.
The 3rd Battalion was immediately rushed up and temporarily attached to the 3rd Brigade which was in the line. On the morning of 23 April, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies under Major A. E. Kirkpatrick, a Queen’s Own officer, filled in the gap existing between Kitchener’s Wood and the village of St. Julien.
Throughout the day and night the flank held. There was no artillery support. By the morning, ‘C’ and ‘D’ Companies had practically ceased to exist. Meanwhile, the British were rushing up support. By 27 April, the line was stabilized, the 3rd Battalion being the last to be withdrawn. St. Julien or the Second Battle of Ypres was the unit’s first battle. The “green Colonial troops” – a description used by one writer – had played a major part in preventing a German breakthrough to the Channel ports. The term was not used again. The casualties were 19 officers and 460 other ranks.”
In May 1915, the Toronto Star reported on the battle with an article:
Carried Ammunition Under Heavy Fire
Was in Broad Daylight With Path Raked by Deadly Fire
“I am safe, thank God for that” writes Pte George A. Cockburn, in a letter to his mother, Mrs. A.A. Cockburn, 195 Roxton Road. Pte Cockburn is a member of No. 2 Company, 3rd Battalion, and went through the engagement at Langemarck without serious injury. “We have been in the trenches for four days now and it has been hell on earth. The whole contingent was in together this time and I think there is not half of them to come out. We (Sergeant Dingle and myself) are sending a cablegram to you and his mother through the Massey-Harris Company, so you will know when this reaches you how we are.
We were very lucky, that is, our company, because we were put on the reserve along with A Company in support of the battalion. But forty men out of our entire company had a little of the dirty work to do, and Watson and I were among the forty. The first line of trenches ran out of ammunition so we had to carry it up to them in broad daylight. Just imagine, if you can, going up to the first line of trenches in the day time. We were under artillery and rifle fire all the time, and after accomplishing that feat, which we did with very few losses, we waited at Headquarters until night and took them up rations. When we got back from the ration fatigue, we stayed at headquarters because we could get a sleep there, as our trenches had no dugouts at all.
We slept there that night and were surprised at 5 o’clock in the morning to have “stand to” yelled at us, and were rushed right into the second line of trenches because our men in the first line had no reinforcements, being unable to hold out any longer. We worked hard in these trenches and just got them fixed up when we received an order to go over to one of the other second line trenches. We beat it without packs, just grabbing rifle, ammunition, and every other of us taking an extra box of ammunition. We just got there in time to see the last of our men retreating and the Germans following them up. Now if I ever got my own back it was then. We just mowed them down like leaves falling off a tree in the fall. I certainly had my share of the fight. We were under heavy artillery fire for the four days and believe me, if they had of left us in very much longer we would have all been crazy.
I think Watson and also Gord Dent, of our church, have both lost their brothers. There is some hope for Watson’s brother, but very slight.
Sergeant Dingle referred to is Gordon Dingle, whose parents reside at 1060 College Street; also Watson White, of 120 Ossington Avenue, and Gordon Dent, of 174 Quebec Avenue. Before enlistment, both Private Cockburn and Sergeant Dingle were employed by the Massey-Harris Company. Private Cockburn is nineteen years of age.”
Private Cockburn was promoted to Lance Corporal on 16 May 1915.
The Regimental History continues: “After several days in support for re-organization the battalion left the Ypres salient and moved south. On 21 May, the battalion was in action again at Festubert. The trenches, mere shallow ditches, were under enfilade fire from Aubers Ridge. The strategic importance of Aubers Ridge was that it dominated the city of Lille.
This was an extremely difficult position to hold, as little artillery support was available, and the enemy shell and machine gun fire was intense. An attempt was made to improve the position but without success. After eleven trying days, during which the casualties were 8 officers and 182 men, the battalion was relieved and went into bivouac near Bethune. Once more a reorganization was effected.
A few days later the 3rd Battalion was in line at Givenchy. On 15 June, an extensive attack was made. The 3rd was in support of this attack. Even so, it lost 5 officers and 165 other ranks. On 28 June, the 1st Canadian Division went into a quiet part of the line at Ploegsteert. Here, after fighting through three of the fiercest battles of the war, the battalion remained for three months doing routine trench tours, patrols, trench building and wiring. On 7 October, the unit moved northwards and went into the line at R.E. Farm, just north of Wulverghem.”
Lance Corporal Cockburn was promoted to Corporal on 26 September 1915.
The War Diary of the 1st Canadian Infantry Battalion reports “May 18th. Bombers occupying the Crater. New Year trench shelled between 1.00 a.m. and 2.00 a.m. Lieutenant Cockburn wounded in Front Loop 10.20 p.m.”
“May 19th. Fine and warm. Wind still northerly. Battalion in trenches, disposition as above. Lieutenant Cockburn died 4.40 a.m. in No. 10 C.C.S., 1 O.R. killed by sniper. Friendly aeroplane over lines between 12 midnight and 12:30 a.m. Gas alert at 11.35 p.m.”
Lieutenant George Angus Cockburn of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada died at Number 10 Casualty Clearing Station at Remy Siding, near Ypres, Belgium on 19 May 1916 from a gunshot wound to his head.
He is buried in Lijssenthoek Military Cemetery, 12 kilometres west of Ypres.
Lieutenant Cockburn’s Coin of Remembrance is carried by Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, the Colonel-in-Chief of The Queen’s Own Rifles of Canada.