b. 01/10/1888 Aghada, County Cork, Ireland. d. 14/07/1936 Millbank, London.
William Cosgrove (1888-1936) later feted as the “East Cork Giant” was born on 1st October 1888 at Ballinookera, near the little fishing hamlet of Aghada, County Cork, one of five sons to farmer Michael Cosgrove and Mary (nee Morrissey). A sister, Mary Catherine, died aged just 13, from tuberculosis. Life was extremely hard for the Cosgrove family and Michael Cosgrove was forced to emigrate to Australia leaving behind his family to seek work.
Mary and her six small children moved to nearby Peafield, and William attended the local school at Ballinrostig. As soon as he was old enough, he left to become an apprentice butcher, working in Whitegate, on Cork Harbour. At around this time, Michael Cosgrove returned from Australia and the reunited family moved to Ballinookera. It was from here that three of his brothers, Dan, Ned and David join the exodus to the United States, one to become a racehorse breeder, one to join the police and the other to become a high ranking official in the postage service. Only William and youngest brother Joseph, later to become a farmer, remained. William however, decided being a butcher was not for him, and enlisted in 1910 with the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
He served four years with the Regiment in India and Burma, and the outbreak of the Great War found the battalion quartered in Rangoon, where they spent the monsoon season occupying a string of outposts along the river estuary. In November 1914, they were ordered back to England, arriving in the following January. Two months later, the Munsters left their billets in Coventry bound for the Dardanelles where, during the two-day battle for V Beach, they sustained approximately 600 casualties.
Cosgrove described his VC action as thus…..”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.”
Cosgrove was wounded during the action and evacuated to Malta, before being sent home to Ireland. The announcement of his Victoria Cross made him the centre of attention wherever he went. Promoted to Sergeant, he remained for a while in his native Ireland, the military authorities being anxious to exploit the celebrity status of a hero in their midst. Cosgrove in fact, hated all of the attention and despite being 6ft 6in tall, was a very shy and gentle man.
After the war, Cosgrove remained with the Munsters, and when the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922 brought about the disbandment of the regiment, he decided to transfer to a British Army unit, the Royal Northumberland Fusiliers. Six years later, he transferred into the 6th (Burma) Battalion, University Training Corps, based in Rangoon. By then in his 40s, he was still a powerfully built man, who was well known for his disinclination to discuss his actions at Cape Helles.
In 1934, Staff Sergeant Instructor Cosgrove retired from the Army, and sadly shortly afterwards, his health began to fail. It was discovered that splinters of shrapnel, which surgeons had failed to detect in the operations on his back wound in Malta were slowly killing him. The wounds caused drastic muscle shrinkage and even regular treatment at Millbank Military Hospital in London couldn’t alleviate the decline.
On 14th July 1936, after a ten month battle against ill health, he died at Millbank Hospital, his brother Joseph by his side. During his final months, two further awards were bestowed upon him, the Meritorious Service Medal and the King George V Jubilee Medal. Three days after his death, his body arrived back in Cork aboard the SS Innisfallen. He was buried in Upper Aghada Cemetery with full military honours. Two years later after a fund raising campaign, an impressive memorial was placed on his grave. Almost forty years later, his gallantry was back in the news when his VC, together with his other medals (1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19 with Mentioned in Despatches oak leaf, Army Long Service and Good Conduct Medal and Meritorious Service Medal) were sold at auction for the then world record price of £2,300. The medals are now part of the Ashcroft Collection in the Imperial War Museum, having been purchased at auction in 2006 for £180,000.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: LORD ASHCROFT GALLERY, IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM.
BURIAL PLACE: UPPER AGHADA CEMETERY, COUNTY CORK, IRELAND. FAMILY GRAVE
Thomas Stewart – Images of Cosgrove’s medal group at the Imperial War Museum, London, and of his VC Stone at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.