Lance/Corporal (Acting) Corporal William Cotter was the second Allied soldier to win the Victoria Cross on the Western Front in 1916. He was a member of the 6th (Service) Battalion The Buffs (East Kent Regiment) which was formed in Canterbury on August 1914 when it became part of the 37th Brigade of the 12th Division. The division arrived in the area of the Hohenzollern Redoubt, near Bethune, in mid-February 1916, where it had been three months before. The Division took over from the Cavalry Corps, who, according to the official history, “. . . were holding the Quarries and Hohenzollern sectors from opposite Cité St Elie to opposite the dump of Fosse 8”.
Near the end of February the 170th Tunnelling Company Royal Engineers had completed three mines under the enemy’s shallow system. It was decided that these mines should be blown as soon as possible, which would allow the British to recover a position close to the Triangle Crater called the Chord, which had once been the front line but was now in enemy hands.
The Chord ran along the front of the German line between the sites of the first two mines, A and B, and at mine C it changed its name to Little Willie. The three mines were duly fired on 2 March and most of the objectives were captured, except for a northern section of the Chord. Over the next few days the enemy made strenuous efforts to retake the lost ground and in particular Mine A, which allowed the British to have good observation over their lines.
On 5 March the 36th Brigade was relieved by the 37th, whose HQ was based at Vermelles, and the 6th Buffs became the right battalion. According to the 37th Brigade Diary, their orders were to capture Triangle Trench and consolidate on the line the Chord–Big Willie, 50 yards south-east of its junction with the German trench running to the south of Triangle Crater:
“. . . We exploded a mine at midnight just south of Sap 6, close to the German front line to blow in hostile gallery; no attempt made to occupy crater by either side. Hostile Trench Mortars and artillery fire did some damage to Sticky Trench, Northampton Trench & Vigo Street. 5.10 a.m. enemy blew a small mine near Sap 2. No damage done. Neither side occupied crater. . . .”
At 9 a.m. the enemy blew a mine of their own, this time near Sap 6, only 20 yards from the parapet. No damage was done but Saps 5 and 6 were partly filled. Seven hours later, and preceded by heavy bombardment, another German mine was exploded, this time in front of Alexander Trench close to Sap 6. Sixteen men suffered badly from shock and there was slight damage to the trenches. An hour later, at 6.00 p.m., C Coy of the 6th Buffs attacked the Triangle Crater and the Chord in three parties. Two of the parties were held up within ten minutes by accurate bombing, and the third by the nature of the heavy ground conditions, with water and mud being knee-deep. Only one party made any real progress reaching their objective, but without the assistance of the other two parties the situation was hopeless. Reinforcements were requested and a company from the 6th Royal West Kents was ordered up to try to assist.
The attack turned out to be entirely unsuccessful, and the battalion diary recorded casualties of twenty-nine killed and 233 missing or wounded, including those men who had suffered from shock. The battalion diary considered that the attack failed because of a preponderance of the enemy (it was later discovered that a hundred German bombers with unlimited supplies of grenades were on the point of making an attack of their own launched from deep trenches intersecting the Triangle), muddy conditions and the short notice given for the attack. In addition, no allowance was made for the ground to be reconnoitred. Finally, the process of bomb supply was severely interrupted by a very active enemy.
On 7 March mining and counter-mining continued and the 6th Buffs were relieved by the 6th Royal West Kents.
The fighting at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, which had begun on the 2nd with the British firing five mines and occupying forward lips of the craters, continued with fluctuating intensity through deteriorating weather conditions of cold and heavy snowstorms. However, these conditions did not deter the enemy from making active preparations for regaining their former positions, which they eventually achieved on the 18th, when the 37th Brigade had been in the line for fourteen days.
There were many acts of heroism during the crater fighting, but one that stands out is that of Cpl William Cotter, who despite his shattered legs continued to direct a bombing attack and even managed to continue to throw bombs himself. There is no shortage of information in the records about his gallant deed, and it would seem sensible to quote in full from Appendix L from the 37th War Diary signed by Capt R.O.C. Ward under recommendation of Cpl W. Cotter for the Victoria Cross.
In the attack made by the 6th Battalion The Buffs, along the Northern Trench of TRIANGLE CRATER, on the night of the 6th March, the party led by Corpl. Cotter was cut off owing to casualties in the centre. He returned under heavy bomb fire, reported the matter and then took back bombs to his party, so enabling them to fight their way back to No 2 CRATER.
While directing this latter operation his right leg was blown off close to the knee and he was also wounded in both arms.
He made his way unaided along 50 yds of trench in order to reach No 2 CRATER.
While doing so he came upon a junior N.C.O. (Lance/Corporal Newman) who with his section was bombing towards the right. Corpl. Cotter appreciating where help was most needed directed him to bomb towards the left.
He reached No 2 CRATER and by this time the Germans had developed a violent and rapid counter-attack.
Matters became somewhat disorganised as the garrison of the Crater was throwing bombs and firing wildly, whilst they were suffering heavy casualties from the enemy’s bombs.
Corpl. Cotter then from a position on the side of the Crater although suffering great pain, steadied the men, issued orders, controlled their fire and then altered their dispositions to meet the attack on his side of the Crater. He also directed and controlled the supply of bombs and S.A.A.
He remained in this position for about two hours and only after the attack had been repelled and matters had quietened down a little would he permit his wounds to be roughly dressed.
It was not possible to evacuate him until 14 hours later and during this time he had a cheery word for all who passed by the entrance of the ‘dug-out’ where he was placed.
Undoubtedly the fine example he showed to all by his endurance under suffering, coolness under fire, and keen sense of duty, helped greatly to save what might have become a very critical situation.
During the time he has been with the 6th Battalion The Buffs he has always proved himself a fine soldier. In the trenches his activities lay chiefly in Sniping and Scouting, and in this connection he has rendered very valuable service.
He was always ready to volunteer for such work as patrols, wiring etc, and never considered a task too dangerous or disagreeable for him.
Cotter was taken to a casualty clearing station (CCS) at Lillers, where his right leg was amputated below the knee. Both of his arms were also wounded. In Unknown Warriors, a book of extracts from the letters of Nursing Sister K.E. Luard, RRC, who was a sister-in-charge of a CCS, is a letter written from Lillers on 15 March 1916:
There is a story to tell you about the quiet, determined-looking little man in the ‘Surgical,’ with the glass eye – Corporal Cotter of The Buffs – who came in with his leg bombed off.
Yesterday morning he was so much better he was able to talk a little more.
He told me (only when asked how he got it) that he was leading a bombing attack at the Hohenzollern Redoubt, and took his men up a wrong turning and came on ‘thousands of Germans’.
He somehow got his men away again, minus his leg. ‘It was dark, and I didn’t know me leg was gone – so I kep’ on throwing the bombs, and Little Wood he kep’ by me and took the pins out for me.’ (His hand was badly wounded as well.)
At last ‘Little Wood’ got him into a dugout in a crater and stayed with him all night.
Yesterday morning, General Gough, Corps Commander, and two other Generals turned up and asked to see Corporal Cotter of The Buffs, to tell him that he was recommended for the V.C. General Gough told me he was a marvellous man, known throughout the Division as the ‘Corporal of The Buffs with One Eye,’ famed for bravery and scouting at night for snipers by himself.
They were awfully nice to him, and Capt. R. told them all about the leg and the drip treatment, etc.
Later that day the Corporal had a severe haemorrhage and so nearly died that they daren’t give him an anaesthetic, but Capt. R. took his gangrenous leg off through the knee as he was, without his feeling it as he was unconscious.
We slaved at him all the evening, but he died at 8 p.m.
Wasn’t it horribly tragic? But he did know about his V.C.
Cotter died on 14 March. A priest who attended him wrote the following to his mother soon after:
Dear Mrs. Cotter, – Your son William, I regret to say, has just collapsed after a serious operation for amputation. He seemed so strong and in such good spirits when he came in that I felt assured and full of hopes of his recovery. However, Almighty God has disposed otherwise. He will be missed from the Army, he was a great favourite, and so full of bravery. The General came to tell him that he was going to be recommended for the Victoria Cross. This no doubt will console you somewhat, but I am sure you will be more pleased to know that he received devoutedly Holy Communion, and shortly before he expired extreme unction and the last blessing.
His last words were ‘Good-bye, God bless you all’. RIP. I am now going to lay him to rest.
Cotter’s body was taken to Lillers Communal Cemetery, north-west of Bethune, and buried in Plot IV, E, 45.
The general who visited Cotter in hospital, pinning a VC ribbon on his breast, was General Hubert Gough. There was to be no delay with approving Cotter’s deeds as being worthy of the VC, and the citation was published in the London Gazette on 30 March, only sixteen days after his death.
William Richard (sic, Reginald) Cotter, No. 6707. Lance/Corporal. (Acting Corporal.) 6th Battalion. East Kent Regiment. For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty. When his right leg had been blown off at the knee, and he had also been wounded in both arms, he made his way unaided for 50 yards to a crater, steadied the men who were holding it, controlled their fire, issued orders, and altered the dispositions of his men to meet a fresh counter-attack by the enemy. For two hours he held his position, and only allowed his wounds to be roughly dressed when the attack had quieted down. He could not be moved back for 14 hours, and during all this time had a cheery word for all who passed him. There is no doubt that his magnificent courage helped greatly to save a critical situation.
The regimental history says of Cotter:
His letters home were always of a cheery type, and in the trenches he was one of the happiest and best of men. He kept his comrades in good spirits, and he was always ready to help the wounded or dying. Cotter distinguished himself on several occasions in bayonet fighting, and in December last (1915) he was recommended by his officers for conspicuous bravery. He was then, it appeared, recommended for the D.C.M.
Cotter’s parents were invited to an investiture at Buckingham Palace on 29 November. They were given railway warrants from Folkestone to Charing Cross and took with them a nephew who had also served in the trenches. From Charing Cross they left for Buckingham Palace, where they were to spend about three and a half hours. It was Mr Cotter’s first visit to the capital for thirty years, and the King expressed interest in the elderly man’s campaign medals before presenting the VC to Mrs Cotter.
In July 1916 Cotter’s effects were returned to his family, and in May 1917 at Sandgate a memorial plaque was erected, fixed to a wall at the entrance to the Chichester Memorial Hall in the High Street, at a time when the building housed the offices of the Sandgate Urban District Council. The marble tablet was surmounted by a dragon scroll and paid for by public subscription. It was unveiled on 5 May 1917 by Col F.G.A. Wiehe at a ceremony in the presence of the mayor of Folkestone, a group of local dignitaries and a large crowd. A detachment of the Buffs took part, together with a bugler who sounded the general salute after the sheet covering the memorial was pulled away. In addition many of Cotter’s former Army colleagues attended, as did a group of local Boy Scouts. The Sandgate War Memorial was unveiled at the foot of Military Road on 11 May 1921 by the Countess of Rocksavage, and among the forty-five names on the memorial were those of Bernard and William Cotter.
In 1956 a brief service of commemoration was held at the Chichester Hall Memorial and in the same year another memorial to William Cotter was created on the seafront at Folkestone, which took the form of a floral tribute in the Leas, the mile-and-a-half promenade adjacent to the sea. It was in commemoration of Cotter and other holders of the VC who had local connections.
However, by the early 1960s usage of the hall in Sandgate had changed it into a social centre, and the memorial now found itself adjacent to a ladies’ public lavatory, with direction notices outside. This was felt by some to be unseemly and there was a considerable local controversy about the suitability of the site for the local VC hero. Some people wanted the memorial to be moved to the local parish church; one of his brothers argued that as William had been a Roman Catholic this decision would be quite wrong.
In July 2000 eleven members of the Cotter family, together with more than thirty members of the Sandgate Society, decided to make a pilgrimage to France in order to visit the places associated with William Cotter. Led by the Revd John Botting, the group visited the spot near Bethune on the site of the former Hohenzollern Redoubt where Cotter won his VC. They also commemorated his memory at his grave at Lillers Communal Cemetery, where a short service was held and a wreath of poppies was laid on the grave. At one point a framed commemorative scroll together with a badge of the Buffs and a replica VC was presented to the Sandgate Society as a memento of the visit. Cotter's VC and medals were acquired by the Buffs Regimental Museum which closed in 2003 and they were bequeathed to the National Army Museum.
Of William’s brothers, three served in the Army and two in the Navy. William and Bernard (died 19 October 1914) both of the Buffs, were listed on the Sandgate War Memorial. A roll of honour in St Paul’s, the parish church, was later erected; carved in stone or slate panels it forms part of the entrance porch. Another Cotter brother, Fred, had died in South Africa, when also serving with the Buffs.
William Cotter’s early years and enthusiasm for the army in which he served for 13 years before the War
William Reginald Cotter was the eldest of six sons of Richard and Amy Cotter of 2 Barton Cottages, Wilberforce Road, Sandgate. These cottages are now no more. William was born in Young’s Road, Folkestone, in March 1883, although there is conflicting evidence of his date of birth, and even his family seemed unsure as to which year he was born in. Richard, his father, was a former soldier who had served with the South Wales Borderers and taken part in the South African Wars in the late 1870s. He later worked in the building trade for various firms and was recognised as a hard worker. He was well known in Folkestone and, being an Irishman, was inevitably known as ‘Mickey’. Owing to rheumatism he had to give up building work and later took up selling papers instead.
From about the age of five William attended a Roman Catholic school behind the church in Guildhall Street, Folkestone, and after leaving he worked at various labouring jobs in the building trade. He then decided he was in need of some adventure and ran away to sea, working with the crew of a liner for a short time before returning home because he knew that his mother would be anxious about him. He then decided to try to get into the Army and enlisted in the East Kent Regiment (The Buffs) on 8 October 1901. He was slightly under 5 ft 8 in in height. A year later he joined the 1st Battalion, and during his early years in the Army he served in Dublin, India and Aden. Only six weeks after joining he was involved in a fight in the Lion public house in Folkestone. During the fracas he was badly injured in the face by a glass that was thrown at him by a rowdy customer – possibly the assailant was ‘taking the micky’ out of Cotter and his friends. But, tragically, Cotter’s injuries led to the loss of sight in one of his eyes. Inevitably, a court of enquiry was set up, which was convened on 13 December. Cotter’s injuries were still too bad to allow him to sign an account of what had happened in the pub. His left eye (according to the records) was subsequently replaced by a glass one, which had obvious repercussions on his good eye, which then had to compensate for the extra work it had to do.
It is tempting to write off this incident as a fight or scuffle which for Cotter went disastrously wrong. However, it was not to be the only ‘black mark’ against him on his Army record in the thirteen years of service prior to March 1914: his service record shows six misdemeanours of drunkenness, being absent from duty and irregular with the hours that he kept! He was sometimes warned or admonished but on two occasions was confined to barracks for five days. His misdeeds were spread over his Army career from 1901 to 1913; not surprisingly he remained a private.
After thirteen years in the Army, where he had become one of the best bayonet fighters in the regiment, he was discharged in mid-March 1914 to join the Reserves. He then took a job with Sandgate Council. When war broke out he promptly rejoined the Army from Reserve on 5 August 1914, returning to the 1st Battalion of the Buffs, and proceeded to Canterbury before going on active service in France for six months from 7 September until 29 May 1915. He was then invalided home sick, as with only one eye the strain on his sight had become too much, and he took up garrison duties at Dover instead. An operation was carried out on his good eye and his sight slowly improved. On 20 October he joined the 6th Battalion (37th Brigade) 12th Division and left again for France. He was promoted for the first time to paid lance-corporal on 14 November and paid corporal on 12 February 1916. He won his VC on 6 March and died of wounds eight days later.
As William Cotter VC was born in Sandgate which is close to Folkestone, his commemorative paving stone will be unveiled there on 6 March 2016.
Kent County Council,Local Studies,Folkestone
Folkestone Herald, 30 June 1956, 21 December 1963 and 4 January 1964
Kentish Express 1 April 1916
Kentish Messenger 13 December 1963 and 27 July 2000
TNA WO95/1823 12th Division
TNA WO95/1858 37th Bde,Appendix 1
TNA WO95/ 1860 6th East Kents
TNA WO363/C1190 W.R.Cotter
Readers who have enjoyed this piece about Corporal William Cotter VC will be interested to know that Gerald Gliddon's classic work 'Somme 1916: A Battlefield Companion' was reissued last month in an updated reprint by The History Press.