Lieutenant John George Cosson DCM – 48th Battalion AIF
I don’t think there is an officer in the Australian Army loved better by his men or more game. I believe his mates say that he did not know what fear was, and most of those fellows belonging to his battalion did not know him before. You can tell his wife „
John George Cosson was born in Barnes, Essex England in 1866 to David and Eliza Cosson. When he was 8 years old the family moved out to Australia and took up residence in Victoria where John completed his schooling. He became a good athlete being a long distance runner, and also took up amateur boxing during which time he served as a referee at the Melbourne Athletics Club.
In 1896 he travelled across to Western Australia and opened up a business in Coolgardie as a tent maker and also became involved in the local community through his sporting activities. He took a great interest in horse racing and in 1900 he opened up a business in Kalgoorlie as a turf commission agent. During this time he built the Boulder stadium where he promoted several boxing contests and also took on the role of referee in many bouts.
John Cosson's house in Boulder (from Kalgoorlie Argus)
In 1900 in Coolgardie John married Elizabeth Mackenzie and they would go on to have four children: John Thomas born in 1900; Annie in 1902; Elizabeth in 1905; and, Donald in 1907.
In 1910 John and his family left the Goldfields and moved to live at Hill Street East Fremantle. After arriving in Fremantle; John opened up a tobacconists store in Market Street Fremantle which he ran for five years. He also worked as a Commission Agent.
On 8 May 1915 John went to the recruiting office in Perth and offered his services to the AIF. At this time John was actually 49 years of age which was four years over the recruiting limit of 45. However he told the Medical Officer who examined him that he was 44. The examiner found John to be 5 feet 7 inches in height; weight of 157 lbs; chest measurement of 36-38 inches; fair complexion; brown eyes and middle to fair hair. His religious denomination was Church of England.
After being passed as fit John was assigned to the 7th Reinforcements to the 16th Battalion AIF with the regimental no.2454. This reinforcement group trained in WA until midway through June 1915. On 18 June they embarked on HMAT Chilka and made their way to Egypt. They didn’t have long in Egypt as after arriving at Suez in July 1915 they were sent to Alexandria where they immediately proceeded to Gallipoli.
John arrived at Anzac Cove on 2 August 1915 and was taken on strength of the 16th Battalion. John’s arrival was only a few days before the launch of the August offensive in which the 16th Battalion would advance through the northern foothills as part of the 4th Brigade’s attempt to capture Hill 971. Over the 7th and 8th August the assault was made through the difficult Turkish country and though the foothills were secured, little headway could be made against the main objectives as Turkish resistance stiffened.
The 15th and 16th Battalion attempted to advance along the spurs below Hill 971 but were met with very heavy machine gun fire and were thus halted. Over the next few days the advance was again attempted but with the same result. On 15 August John was wounded in the thigh and was evacuated back to hospital in Egypt. On arriving in Alexandria on 22 August he was admitted to the 2nd Australian General Hospital.
John would stay in hospital for over a month, being discharged as fit on 26 September 1915. He spent a short time with the base depot, but on 18 October 1915, he sailed off to Gallipoli, being taken on strength of the 16th Battalion on 23 October 1915.
The battlefield was now experiencing very cold conditions and with the coming winter ahead, the decision was made to evacuate from the peninsula. This news was not immediately conveyed to the men and it was only when units began to leave that the men realised something was going on. Rumours however abounded. John wrote that: "There is something in the wind as men are being sent away in dribs and drabs. If the Turks knew how few men were here they would certainly have a go and would cause some trouble.”
The 16th Battalion would be one of the last units to leave; they withdrew their men over three days so that by the last night, only a handful remained. These last few picked were thought to be the hardiest of the battalion so that in case the Turks did attack during the last moments of evacuation, these men could be relied on. John was in the last party of "B” Company to leave the trenches on the morning of 20 December. Twenty two men of "B” Company left the trench they held from 0130 to 0250 and made their way down to the beach where they would be disembarked by the navy craft. During this time John managed to scribble a few lines:
"Likely to move off at any time…I have my pack ready, only taking one blanket, almost feel sorry to leave the old dugout. All Hospital tents are left standing, but empty, and work is going on just the same. This is all done to deceive the Turks…Just been told in confidence the whole arrangement for the retirement. 22 of B Company have been selected for the honoured position of holding post to the last, I am pleased to be one of the 22. Units are to be sent away at intervals until the whole of the battalion is gone except the machine gun section which will hang on till ordered to retire…The final is sure to be an exciting time even if we get away without Jacko discovering it, which I hope we do….Another chap and I took post at 9pm and the balance of our 22 men with Lieut. Adams incharge were distributed along the lines. Soon after 9 a very heavy bombardment was started at some point near Achi Barber, but along our line nothing occurred to make this eventful night differ from previous nights…As the time went on our numbers grew smaller. Punctual to time the machine gun section got away, leaving 22 of us to cover their going…At 1.55am Lieut Adams and the men of my post left… We were timed to reach Williams jetty at 2.50 and arrived at 2.40, marched straight on board troop punt and half an hour later were safely on board Z38 Prince Abbass…I had the honour to be on the last but one on barge to leave. The great success of the whole evacuation speaks for itself.”
Thus Anzac Cove was evacuated and the men were sailed across to Lemnos Island where they rejoined their battalion. John wrote that: "We soon got going to camp and all the way the march was lined with men who had left Gallipoli earlier and they cheered us with good hearty lungs. At 5pm we arrived at our camp and our chaps of the 16th Batt cheered themselves hoarse as we marched past.” The 16th did not spend long at Lemnos Island and by 30 December were back in Alexandria Egypt.
On 1 January 1916 John was promoted to Corporal and for the next few months the Battalion trained in the Egyptian desert at Ismailia and Serapeum. With the expansion of the AIF the original 16 battalions of the AIF soon received orders to split their numbers to form new battalions. It was sad times for those men who had fought at Gallipoli with the 16th Battalion but orders were orders and the men who were chosen went on to form the new 48th Battalion. John was offered a commission by Colonel Pope, though he would have to join the 48th Battalion. New officers had been needed and on 1 April 1916 John was promoted to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant and he trained in Egypt with his new unit until the end of May 1916. On the 2nd June 1916 John embarked from Alexandria with the 48th Battalion, their destination being France.
After arriving at Marseilles on 9 June 1916 the men were put onto trains and were sent up to the north of France in the region south of Armentieres, near Fleurbaix. Shortly after arrival in France news came through that due to his gallant work on Gallipoli with the 16th Battalion, John was to be awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal. This was followed up in July when he was mentioned in despatches for his continued distinguished and gallant service.
After a short time at Fleurbaix, the men were relieved in mid July and were sent south where the Battle of the Somme had been raging since 1 July 1 1916. The 1st Division AIF had captured Pozieres and their gains were followed up by the 2nd Division. The 2nd Division were then relieved in early August 1916 by the 4th Division. Further advances were to be made from Pozieres towards Mouquet Farm.
On 7 August Lt John Cosson DCM was killed instantly by shellfire while the 48th Battalion were sustaining a German counter attack. A Private D.B. Green wrote to Jack’s brother that he had been told that a "Private A McPherson No.4672 48th Battalion was looking over the top of the trench. About 5 o’clock a.m. he saw something moving and going on, and he then saw your brother with about seven of his own men with ten German prisoners. They came into the trench, and Jack sent his men back with the prisoners, as they were then in our lines. He had a chat to the fellows in the trench and then made his way into the battalion lines and about one hour after he was killed. I don’t think there is an officer in the Australian Army loved better by his men or more game. I believe his mates say that he did not know what fear was, and most of those fellows belonging to his battalion did not know him before. You can tell his wife and children that he was a soldier.”
It seems that Jack got in and amongst it during the German counter-attack but was killed by shrapnel shortly after. He was buried at the time a half a mile north of Pozieres and given a cross over his grave. In 1917, Elvin Davies of the 12th Field Ambulance made mention in his diary of visiting John’s grave in the vicinity of Pozieres, however at some point the cross from the grave disappeared and when war graves parties came through after the war they could not locate his grave. John Cosson is therefore commemorated on the Villers-Bretoneux Memorial.The family put in Memoriam notices in the newspaper and Elizabeth composed an epitaph for his grave if it was found. Unfortunately the grave was not located but the epitaph she wrote exists amongst the papers of his service record:
One of the dearest and best
Inserted by his loving wife and family.
On 21 March 1917 Elizabeth and her family attended a service at Government House Perth to receive John’s Distinguished Conduct Medal. The West Australian reported that: "A ceremony carrying with it a significance at once proud and mournful, sad of nature and so far unique in this state, took place yesterday in the grounds of Government House when Mrs. J Cosson was presented by the Lieutenant-Governor (Sir Edward Stone) with the Distinguished Conduct Medal won by her late husband, Lt. J Cosson at Gallipoli. Among those present were the Chaplain General (Archbishop Riley), the State Commandant (Colonel Courtney), Colonel Tilney, Captain E.T. Knight and T.V. Taylor and Lieutenants Collins and Curlewis. The company also included a number of returned soldiers of the 16th and 48th Battalions and many soldier’s wives. The Lieutenant Governor said that when he seceded to the request of Colonel Brockman to present to Mrs. Cosson the medal earned by her husband at Gallipoli for distinguished conduct, he did so with feelings of regret and pleasure-regret that her brave husband was prevented by death from receiving the medal himself and having it pinned upon his breast…Handing the medal to Mrs. Cosson, his excellency said he was sure she would receive it with pride, and would hand it down to her children, that they too might look upon it with pride, as a recognition of their father’s good work and the gratitude the country owed him.”
Further speeches were made by the Premier and the Chaplain General and a Mr. J Shaw responded on behalf of Mrs. Cosson. The Governor called for three cheers for Mrs. Cosson.
The service at Government House at which Elizabeth Cosson received John's Distinguised Conduct Medal
After the war Elizabeth and her children moved across to Victoria, taking up residence in Elsternwick and then St. Kilda. John’s sons Donald and John and daughter Elizabeth served in World War Two.
Many thanks to Andrew Pittaway for writing and sharing this story and the accompanying imagery.