William Cosgrove V.C
East Cork’s greatest World War hero
William Cosgrove was born at Aghada, Co Cork on October 1st 1888, the son of Michael and Mary Cosgrove.
He had four brothers, Dan, Ned, David, Joseph and a sister Mary-Catherine. While they were still young their father emigrated to Australia, but later returned. In the meantime his wife moved with her children to a cottage in nearby Peafield, the children attended school at the National School, Ballinrostig. William began work at an early age as an apprentice butcher at Whitegate and one of his daily chores was an early morning delivery to Fort Carlisle (now Fort Davis) with a consignment of meat for the troops. It was from Fort Carlisle that he joined the army.
He enlisted in the Royal Munster Fusiliers on March 24th, 1909 and was given the regimental number 8980. Life in the army for William up to 1914 would appear to have been very mundane, but the declaration of war in August, 1914 drastically changed all that. At the outbreak of war the 1st Battalion of the Munster’s was stationed in Rangoon, Burma, as regular battalions were regularly stationed overseas. They left Rangoon on the 21st of November, 1914 and with them came Corporal William Cosgrove and landed in England on January 10th, 1915, still in their Indian issue uniforms and stood on the quays shivering in their khaki drill shorts. The battalion was then assigned to the 86th Brigade of the 29th Division, in preparation for the landings at the Dardanelles.
The 1st Munsters together with the 1st Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Hampshire Regiment were on the converted collier ‘River Clyde’ when it ran gently ashore at ‘V’ beach on the 25th of April 1915 at 06.20am. On departing from the ship they were subject to the most ferocious enfilading machine gun fire from the Turks. Some of the Battalion’s finest men fell at this stage of the battle, those who managed to get ashore could not advance due to this withering Turkish fire. On the following day it was decided to destroy the wire entanglements facing the men that the naval bombardment had failed to do. It was during this attack that Cpl. Cosgrove 1st RMF, performed the action that was to earn him the regiment’s first Victoria Cross of the war. The action is best described by Cosgrove himself.
“Our job was to dash ahead, face the trenches, bristling with rifle and machine guns and destroy the wire entanglements. Fifty men were entailed for the work, poor Sergeant-Major Bennett led us, but was killed, a bullet through the brain.
I then took charge, shouted to the boys to come on, from the village near at hand came terrible fire to swell the murderous hall of bullets from the trenches. Some of us got close to the wire and we started to cut it with a pliers, you might as well try and snip Cloyne round tower with a scissors.” He then grabbed hold of the stakes holding the barbed wire, “I dashed at the first one, heaved and strained and it came into my arms … I believe there was wild cheering when they saw what I was at, but I only heard the screech of bullets and saw dirt rising all round from where they hit. I could not tell you how many I pulled up. I did my best and the boys around me were every bit as good as myself.”
He was also wounded during this action and was promoted to Sergeant and saw no further action due to his wound, which was a contributing factor in his early death later on.
The award of the V.C. was gazetted on August 23rd, 1915, it stated that it was awarded “For most conspicuous bravery leading this section with great dash during our attack from the beach to the east of Cape Helles on the Turkish positions on April 26th, 1915.
Cpl Cosgrove on this occasion pulled down the posts of the enemy’s high wire entanglements single-handed, notwithstanding a terrible fire from both front and flank, thereby greatly contributing to the successful clearing of the heights.”
He was described by Surgeon P.Burrowes-Kelly, RN.,D.S.O.,as an “Irish giant” and by a person from Aghada who remembered him “As a very shy man who hated to be fussed over.”
He transferred to the Royal Fusiliers in 1918 to the Leinster Regiment in 1920, the Norththumberland Fusiliers in 1922 and later went as an Instructor to the Indian Territorial Force in 1928 to become 7042223 Staff Sgt Instructor.
He came home in 1935 pending discharge to pension, unfortunately his plans were all to go wrong. He was admitted to Millbank hospital, but took discharge before he was fit. After a short leave in Cork, he returned to London, where he was admitted to Middlesex hospital. He was later transferred to Millbank hospital, where he died on 21st July, 1936.
His body was conveyed from London to Fishguard by road en route to Upper Aghada for interment in his native place. About five hundred members of the O.C.A. of the R.M.F., met the vessle at Penrose-Quay, Cork, and formed a guard of honour as the coffin was being taken from the boat to the waiting hearse. The grand salute was also sounded, the guard of honour standing to attention bare-headed. The cortege then proceeded by road to Aghada. When the remains reached Upper Aghada, the coffin was removed from the hearse and shouldered by members of the Cork O.C.A., and local people to the burial place. The last post was sounded, while other ex-army men stood to attention. It was stated that it is an unusual spectacle in those days and many people were visibly moved. When the interment had taken place, this simple ceremony closed the chapter in the life of a great Irish soldier, “An Irish giant … a shy man who hated to be fussed over.”
On the 16th of June, 1940, the O.C.A., of the Royal Munster Fusiliers unveiled a memorial over the grave.
In 1972, Cosgrove’s V.C., was sold for a record price £2,300 to a private collector. When questioned about the high price which the medal fetched, the auctioneer replied “When one buys a gallantry medal, it is not just the medal one buys, but the act that won it. William Cosgrove’s Victoria Cross together with his other medals was sold recently by a London auction house – they realised over €200,000.-
Courtesy of The Avondhu, December 2007