The Missing – a tale of two families

Alison Shannon, IWM North

Alison Shannon is a Museum studies graduate student at University of Manchester completing a work placement to digitally document the handling collection related to First World War soldiers at IWM North.

Here she shares one of the moving stories that she has encountered.

A SOLDIER’S DIARY is both a challenging and exciting task for a museum studies student. It is an object that is so symbolic and representative of an individual’s experience.

THE FIRST PAGE OF WILLIAM COCHRANE'S DIARY instructing that it should be returned to his wife, Harriet at their address if found.

THE FIRST PAGE OF WILLIAM COCHRANE’S DIARY instructing that it should be returned to his wife, Harriet at their address if found.

The challenge lies not only in the practical difficulty of deciphering 100 year old faded pencil handwriting, but the emotional weight of reading about those difficult experiences. Especially when you know the writer will not survive the war.

In the IWM North handling collection I had the privilege of encountering the diary of Corporal William Joseph Cochrane with entries from the beginning of his service, July 31st to October 22nd, 1915.

One particular entry led me on a journey.

The entry for Sunday 29 August 1915 reads:

“A beautiful morning very quiet. Heard about Bob Leake. Bled to death unable to bury him owing to shrapnel. Died sat up. God Bless his soul.”

In the handwriting you can see that he had crossed out the word ‘your’ before he wrote ‘Bob Leake’.

Later while searching for records, I found that Cochrane was married to a woman called Harriet and her  maiden name was Leake.

I wasn’t sure what the relation was but the inclusion of the word ‘your’ was touching, meaning that he was thinking of writing to his wife before he realized it was only his diary.

WILLIAM AND HARRIET and their young family. He wears his Army uniform and proudly shows his Corporal's stripes.

WILLIAM AND HARRIET and their young family. He wears his Army uniform and proudly shows his Corporal’s stripes.

With this information I took to the archival records armed with only a name and death year.

But I was able to find him.

Sergeant Robert Francis Leake of the 1/8 Battalion Manchester Regiment was killed in action in Gallipoli on June 4 1915 not far from where Cochrane himself was stationed. His name is recorded with 20,905 others on the Helles Memorial on the Gallpoli Peninsula.

Following that, I was able to find a census record which identified Robert Leake as Harriet Leake’s oldest brother. Cochrane was imagining writing to his wife, with her heavy on his heart, perhaps desperately wishing he could be there to console her about her brother’s death.

Robert Leake is commemorated on the Helles Memorial in Turkey. He was 36 years old.

While transcription can be difficult and searching through records can be extremely frustrating, moments like this make it so rewarding and fulfilling.

To be able to empathize with two people long gone; Cochrane, writing in his diary about the death of his brother-in-law, and Harriet, feeling the grief of losing a brother.

Reading the diary was made even more tragic as I knew that one year later Harriet would lose her husband as well.

Corporal William Cochrane was killed in action on the Somme on 7 October 1916 while serving with the 12 Battalion The King’s (Liverpool) Regiment.

This knowledge made it incredibly painful to read entries like, “Heard about the terrible nature of the battles from our boys most of whom are killed, wounded or missing. It is awful hope + pray we come through alright.” and “Always thinking of home sweet home. It will be sweet when we get home which I hope to do + I pray every day to our maker to guard my life as he is the only one who can”.

His is one of the 72,338 names commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial to the Missing in France.

Tracing back through records, following the connections between people (wife, husband and brother) is a profound reminder of the bonds we all form as human beings and the immortality of those relationships that endure over 100 years later through the brief and simple words of a diary.

Further information

More details of the lives of Robert and William – and almost eight million others – can be found at IWM’s Lives of the First World War project.

The project has now closed, but we will preserve all the wonderful contributions made as a free-to-access permanent digital memorial, available from June 2019 on iwm.org.uk.

In addition the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has details of the respective Memorials to the Missing where each man is commemorated.

In addition the Commonwealth War Graves Commission has details of the respective Memorials to the Missing where each man is commemorated.

William can be found by searching https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/761073/cochrane,-william-joseph/ and Robert’s details are at https://www.cwgc.org/find-war-dead/casualty/690227/leake,-robert-francis/.

All links retrieved 5 March 2019.