Saturday, November 12, 2011

William Cosgrove VC by Aidan O'Shea

A forgotten Irish Hero.
© 2011

The coast of East Cork has a modest charm of its own. Rostellan, Farsid, Whitegate and Roche’s Point lead on to Guileen and Inch bay.   This is the area where we spent seventeen summers, staying in former coastguard houses at Poer Head. That name (from the Norman-French de la Poer) tells us that this is fertile tillage land of large estates and relatively poor Irish tenants. 
I heard that a local man had been a First World War hero, and I set out in search of his story. William Cosgrove was born on October 1st 1888 at Ballinookera, near the little fishing village of Aghada. He was one of five sons to farmer Michael Cosgrove and Mary Morrissey. A daughter, Mary Catherine, died aged thirteen from tuberculosis. Life was harsh for the Cosgrove family, and Cosgrove’s father journeyed to Australia to seek work.
Mary Cosgrove and her six small children moved to a cottage in nearby Peafield. William attended the local school at Ballinrostig where his academic career was undistinguished. As soon as he was old enough, he left to become an apprentice butcher in Whitegate, a neighbouring village on the edge of Cork Harbour. He regularly delivered meat to Fort Carlisle army camp. The military establishments around Cork harbour were an important part of the local economy, drawing supplies and personnel from the immediate area. 
As the years passed, William’s thoughts turned increasingly towards the Army as a career, and in March 1909 he enlisted in the 1st battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers and was assigned regimental number 8980.  The Munsters had developed from the private army of The East India Company, which explains why their cap badge featured a Royal Bengal tiger. 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 Munsters was stationed in Rangoon, Burma. They left Rangoon on the 21st of November, 1914 and landed in England on January 10th, 1915, still in their Indian issue uniforms. They 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. This was a narrow strait in North-eastern Turkey, joining the Aegean Sea to the Sea of Marmara.

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 6.20am. On departing from the ship the 2000 British troops 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 that the naval bombardment had failed to do. It was during this attack that Cpl Cosgrove 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 hail 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 wounds. The award of the V.C. was gazetted on August 23rd, 1915, stating “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.” 
A popular ballad celebrates the bravery of the Munsters, who lost 4267 men in World War One. 
The Kaiser knows the Munsters
By the Shamrock on their caps,
 And the famous Bengal Tiger, ever ready for a scrap,
 And all his big battalions, Prussian Guards and grenadiers,
 Fear to face the flashing bayonets of the Munster Fusiliers.

Cosgrove transferred to the Royal Fusiliers in 1918 to the Leinster Regiment in 1920, the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1922 and later went as an Instructor to the Indian Territorial Force in 1928 to become 7042223 Staff Sgt Instructor. These regimental changes came about following the disbandment of Irish regiments in July 1922, because of the establishment of The Irish Free State (Saorstát Éireann). 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 with complications caused by shrapnel still lodged in his body. He was later transferred to Millbank hospital, where he died on 21st July, 1936.

William Cosgrove’s 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 Old Comrades’ Association (O.C.A) of the R.M.F., met the vessel at Penrose Quay, Cork, and formed a guard of honour as the coffin was being taken from the boat to the waiting hearse. 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. A British serviceman’s funeral was an unusual spectacle in those days, following the struggle for Irish independence. . On the 16th of June, 1940, the O.C.A. of the Royal Munster Fusiliers unveiled a memorial over the grave.

Every year, a small ceremony takes place at the war memorial in Whitegate village, to honour Irishmen who fought and died in all wars. Irish Army UN veterans mingle with British and US forces veterans in mutual respect and remembrance. A guard of honour is provided by the Irish Naval Service. 
Footnote:  The Dardanelles landings ended in failure and the withdrawal of Allied forces after ten months of intense fighting, at a cost of 200,000 lives. William Cosgrove’s portrait is given a place of honour in Collins Barracks Military Museum, Cork, beside veterans of the War of Independence. History has come full circle.

1 comment:

  1. Hey there Aidan -

    I know you wrote this piece a long time ago but I wanted to reach out and send a thanks for writing it. William Cosgrove was my grandfather's uncle (and his namesake) and so this story has a special place in my heart. I don't know much about my Pa's family, so this is one of the only stories I have.

    My family emigrated to Boston but I will be moving to Galway on a year long visa in a few short weeks. Hopefully i'll get down to Cork to visit this memorial. Thanks again for putting the story out there.

    All the best,
    Suzy Cosgrove