Private Thomas Cooke was born on 5 July 1881 in Kaikoura being the only son of Tom and Caroline Cooke. Educated at Kaikoura High School he followed in his father's footsteps to become a carpenter. He moved with his family to Wellington where in 1902 he married Maud Elizabeth Elliot, and together they had three children. In 1912 Thomas moved himself and his family to Melbourne, Australia where he worked as a builder.
On 16 February 1915 he enlisted as a private in the Australian Imperial Force and embarked for Egypt on 26 November 1915 from where he sailed to France in March 1916. According to his entry in the Australian Dictionary of Biography, he served from April to July in the Fleurbaix and Messines sectors of the Western Front. In mid-July his battalion was moved south to the Somme where it took part in the fierce fighting around Pozières.
Sometime between 24 - 25 July Cooke was ordered, with his Lewis-gun team, to a dangerous part of a newly captured line. There was little cover, and heavy enemy fire killed all his companions, but he continued to hold out alone. When assistance finally reached him he was found dead beside his gun. For his gallantry he was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross.
Victoria Cross (VC): 3055 Corporal Thomas Cooke, 8th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF). "For most conspicuous bravery. After a Lewis gun had been disabled, he was ordered to take his gun and gun-team to a dangerous part of the line. Here he did fine work, but came under very heavy fire, with the result that finally he was the only man left. He still stuck to his post, and continued to fire his gun. When assistance was sent he was found dead beside his gun. He set a splendid example of determination and devotion to duty." (The London Gazette," 8 September, 1916)
News of his death would have reached his family in Wellington (to where his wife and children had relocated) sometime during August however news of his Victoria Cross was discovered by his wife via the newspapers. She wrote to the Ministry of Defence in Melbourne on 20 September 1916 asking for confirmation of the award stating:
"It has been three weeks since I had a cable of my husbands death ... it appears in all Australian papers also N.Z. that he has won the V.C. and it is the only word I have of it, why hasn't the officials let me his wife know..."
Confirmation of his award eventually came and Maud Cooke was presented with his V.C. at Government House on 1 February 1917. Today Cooke's V.C. is held at the National Army Museum, Waiouru.
Poverty Bay Herald, Volume XLIV, Issue 14215, 5 February 1917, Page 3
Free Lance, Volume XVI, Issue 846, 22 September 1916
Cooke was 35 years old at the time of his death and sadly like so many has no known grave. He is remembered on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial, Somme, France. In 2010 newly constructed barracks were named after Cooke at the Linton Military Camp near Palmerston North. Ten of his descendants attended the opening ceremony.