Orders, Decorations and Medals (22 September 2006)

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Date of Auction: 22nd September 2006

Sold for £180,000

Estimate: £120,000 - £150,000

The Gallipoli landings V.C. group of six awarded to Sergeant W. Cosgrove, Royal Munster Fusiliers, for his exceptional bravery the day following the costly disembarkation from the River Clyde on ‘V’ beach, Cape Helles on 25 April 1915: a giant of a man who weighed 16 stone and stood at 6ft. 6in., he used his exceptional strength to wrench enemy wiring stanchions out of the ground to clear a path for his comrades, notwithstanding a terrific fire from both front and flanks, as a result of which he was seriously wounded - ‘the manner in which this man worked out in the open will never be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to witness it’

Victoria Cross
(Corpl. W. Cosgrove, 1st Bn. Royal Munster Fusrs.; 26 April 1915); 1914-15 Star (8980 Cpl. W. Cosgrove, R. Muns. Fus.); British War and Victory Medals, M.I.D. oak leaf (8980 Sjt.W. Cosgrove, R. Mun. Fus.); Army L.S. & G.C., G.V.R. (7042233 Sjt. W. Cosgrove, V.C., North’d. Fus.); Army Meritorious Service Medal, G.V.R. (S. Sjt. Instr. W. Cosgrove, I.U.L.), the fifth with minor official correction to unit, polished, otherwise generally very fine (6) £120,000-150,000

Footnote

Our Sergeant-Major was killed - a bullet through the brain. I then took charge; shouted to the boys to come on. From the village near at hand there came a terrible fire to swell the murderous hail of bullets from the trenches. In the village they fired from doors and windows, and from that advantage they could comfortably take aim.

The dash was quite 100 yards, and I don’t know whether I ran or prayed the faster - I wanted to try and succeed in my work, and I also wanted to have the benefit of dying with a prayer in my mind. I can tell you it is not fortunately given to everyone to note the incidents that seem to be the last of your life, and your never feeling better or stronger.

Well, some of us got close up to the wire, and we started to cut it with pliers. You might as well try and snip Cloyne Round Tower with a lady’s scissors, and you would not hurt yourself either. The wire was of great strength, strained as tight as a fiddle-string, and so full of spikes or thorns that you could not get the cutters between.

“Heavens,” said I, “we’re done”; a moment later I threw the pliers from me. “Pull them up,” I roared, “put your arms round them and pull them out of the ground.” I dashed at the first one; heaved and strained, and then it came into my arms and same as you’d lift a child. I believe there was wild cheering when they saw what I was at, but I only heard the screech of the bullets and saw dust rising all round from where they hit.

I could not tell how many I pulled up. I did my best, and the boys that were left with me were every bit as good as myself, and I do wish that they all got some recognition.

When the wire was down the rest of the lads came on like devils, and not withstanding the pulverising fire, they reached the trenches. They met a brave and honourable foe in the Turks, and I am sorry that such decent fighting men were brought into the row by such dirty tricksters as the Germans. They gave us great resistance, but we got to their trenches and won about 200 yards length by 20 yards deep, and 700 yards from the shore.

A machine-gun sent some bullets into me, and strange, I was wounded before I reached the trench, though I did not realise it. When I got to the trench I did my own part, and later collapsed. One of the bullets struck me in the side, and passed clean through me. It struck the left hook of my tunic, then entered my body, took a couple of splinters off my backbone, but of course did not injure the spinal column, and passed out of my right side, knocking off the belt hook. I was taken up feeling pretty bad, when I came to my senses, and considered seriously wounded. I was removed to Malta Hospital, where there were two operations performed, and the splinters of my backbone removed. I was about 16 stone weight at the Dardanelles, but I am now down in weight, but not too used up.’

William Cosgrove, ‘the East Cork Giant’, was born at Ballinookera, near Aghada, Co. Cork in October 1888, one of five sons of a local farmer, Michael Cosgrove, and his wife Mary. Such were the hardships and difficulties associated with making a living in rural Ireland at this time that his father was compelled to seek a better income in Australia, while his wife moved with the children to a cottage at Peafield. Young William duly attended the local school before becoming an apprentice butcher at nearby Whitegate, on the edge of Cork harbour, but with the return of his father from Australia, the family moved back to Ballinookera. It was from here that William witnessed the departure of three of his brothers for America, while for his own part he elected to pursue a career in the army, enlisting in the Royal Munster Fusiliers in 1910. In the intervening period before the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Cosgrove served with the regiment in India and Burma, following which he was embarked with his Battalion for the Dardanelles.

The naval V.C.-winning exploits that were enacted around the
River Clyde during the landings at ‘V’ beach at Cape Helles on 25 April 1915 have rightly secured a place in the annals of British military history, but from the army’s point of the view it was the 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers who bore the brunt of the murderous enemy fire that swept the beach during and after disembarkation - over 70% of the three Munster companies to emerge from the sallyports cut in the side of the River Clyde became casualties. That the survivors, raked by machine-gun fire, somehow managed to cling on to the beach, and then advance the following day, has been described as ‘one of the most glorious tales of the Dardanelles’. And that advance was only made possible by the magnificent courage of 26-year-old Corporal Cosgrove, who quite literally turned the tide of battle by forcing a way through the enemy’s wire. According to 9693 Private Edward O’Brien, a fellow Munster, Cosgrove was driven to his desperate deeds by the senseless slaughter around him, and he ‘proceeded to attack the wire, which was over 6ft. high, with his bare hands, and so thick a bird could not fly through it. Although wounded, he continued to up root the wire thereby opening a gap that enabled us to go through and advance’.

Cosgrove’s actions were witnessed by many, but it was a report submitted by one of his officers, 2nd Lieutenant H. A. Brown, 1st Battalion, Royal Munster Fusiliers, that set in motion the award of his V.C., arguably one of the finest of the Gallipoli campaign:

‘I was ordered by a Staff Captain to collect all the men of my Battalion that were on the beach as a general advance at all costs had to be made to take Hill 141. After a great effort I managed to collect about 40 N.C.Os and men. On a given signal I advanced over very exposed ground being under the fire of two machine-guns and snipers. After we had advanced 40 yards from the beach we were held up by about 60 yards of thickly constructed barbed wire entanglement. Having only one pair of wire cutters our progress was very slow getting through though Private Bryant was doing his best to cut a passage through the wire. Corporal Cosgrove seeing our difficulty jumped into the wire and hauled down the heavy wooden stakes to which the wire was attached to a distance of about 30 yards long in quite a short space of time. I personally consider he deserves the height of praise for such a courageous act and was much impressed to see him though wounded in the back leading his section shortly before the enemy were driven from their trenches and the fort captured.’

Another witness was Surgeon P. Burrowes Kelly, D.S.O., R.N., of the
River Clyde, who noted in his diary:

‘An Irish giant. With his officers and brother Tommies dying and dead around him, continued the task he had set himself of clearing a way through the Turkish wire. Though under heavy fire he continued at his task, and eventually, aided by his exceptional strength, succeeded in wrenching a stanchion out of the ground. The others had failed to cut the wire. The manner in which this man worked out in the open will never be forgotten by those who were fortunate enough to witness it.”

Brown’s report formed the basis of a recommendation for the V.C., a recommendation that received the endorsement of General Hunter-Weston, G.O.C. 29th Division, who wrote, ‘By his gallantry he contributed not a little to the success of the all important operation of clearing the heights commanding the beach, an apparently impossible task.’

Evacuated to Malta, Cosgrove was eventually embarked for the U.K., where he was invested with his V.C. by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 5 November 1916. Back in Ireland, where his gallant deeds were widely reported, he attended a number of official gatherings and functions, but proved a very reluctant and modest hero. Returning to duty, he remained with the Munsters until the regiment was disbanded in 1922, when he transferred in the rank of Sergeant to the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers, and thence, in 1928, to the 6th (Burma) Battalion, University Corps, based in Rangoon.

Sadly, however, Cosgrove’s retirement was short-lived, for having left the Colours in 1934, he suffered recurring ill-health, largely as a result of shrapnel splinters that he had carried around in his back ever since Gallipoli. For several months treated by military surgeons at Millbank Military Hospital in London, he died there in July 1936, one of his brothers, Joseph, at his side. He was buried with full military honours back in Upper Aghada cemetery, Ireland, and two years later, following a public appeal, sufficient funds were raised to erect a fine Celtic cross over his grave.

Sold with a modern watercolour portrait of Cosgrove in uniform, wearing his V.C., and another watercolour depicting his V.C.-winning exploits, based on the drawing used in
Deeds That Thrill The Empire; together with several original letters written by ex-Munster Fusiliers, etc., who knew Cosgrove at the time of the Gallipoli landings, or in later life.

Provenance: Ex J. B. Hayward, January 1975 (Item No. 440).