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For me it‟s thrilling to see their young faces even when I know their lives were difficult at best. I get sad when they‟re Aunts and Uncles who I know will disappear from our cultural history because they had no heirs to carry on their stories. Because many of them did purposeful and wonderful things while they were living. My latest „find‟ comes in the form of pictures of my Grand Uncle, John Cosgrove. John was the younger brother of my grandfather, James Cosgrove. They were born in Burnley, Lancashire, England; John, in 1891. They were a large family: sturdy, everyday people living the soot-covered lives of a coal miner and his cotton weaver wife. There were nine children in all; the oldest born in 1886 with the youngest following 15 years later in 1901. The family had their share of tragedy having lost a daughter, Mary Ann, in 1906 to what must have been a long and painful disease “sarcoma of femur (right) secondary deposits of spinal col: paraplegia of lower limbs & bladder” with “J. Cosgrove father present at death.” She was only 17; James was 19 and John about 15. How harsh a way to stumble toward adulthood, by mourning the loss of a beloved sister? You‟d think that a life lived under those conditions would harden a person. But not a Cosgrove. Nope, no way. It would appear that instead of wearing that life like a mantel and shuffling along under the weight of it, they laughed in the face of adversity and grabbed every moment of light-heartedness they could find. This photo of John (on the right) with his sister Agnes and youngest brother Vincent belies that „devil may care‟ sentiment; it was taken around 1960, sent to our family here from their home in Verdun, Montreal, Quebec, Canada:
I must say, I know for certain where my Dad got that impish grin he has…it definitely runs in the family. And the way John‟s standing? Up until I found the few photos of him as a young man, I‟d never seen him pose for a picture without standing like that, with his hands clasped together in front of him, like he‟s standing „at ease.‟ The incredible part is that John joined the British Army at the start of the First World War and ended up traveling the world, fighting in some of the harshest of places. This picture of him as a 24 year old recruit in Burnley, Lancashire, England was taken “about April 1915”:
What a dashing figure he cuts, no? I can‟t look at this photo without mentioning the famous (or infamous) Cosgrove hair: thick, dark, colicky hair that would turn white but stay full. And stature? He seems ten feet tall and yet the reality is that he was 5‟4” and weighed about 150 pounds. Compact. Sturdy. Tough. Strong. While I‟d heard the stories of “Uncle John” and his war escapades, the key detail that‟d been left out was that he was originally part of the British Cavalry. My uncle, Daniel Barnes Cosgrove, Sr., told me that he had had many conversations with Uncle John about his military career (Daniel is a veteran). Daniel was the one who told me recently I should be on the lookout for a photograph of John astride his prized horse among my Aunt
Marilou‟s things (she‟s now permanently in nursing care). I was elated when I found this photo inscribed “Taken at Grantham Lincolnshire England about June 1915”:
When I first saw this picture, my thought was, „wow…that horse is built just like John!‟ Heh. I suspect in another time and place, and about 40 pounds lighter, John most likely would‟ve made a great jockey. Instead, he and his horse (I wish I knew its name) went off on the Egyptian Exploratory Expedition. At some point between June 1915 and April 1918, John left the Cavalry. But not by choice. My uncle Dan related this story to me this weekend: Daniel was getting ready to head off to Fort Benning, Georgia to begin his specialized military training and Uncle John and Aunt Agnes had come down to Chicago for a visit. He and John were sitting and discussing John‟s military career when Dan asked him, „Uncle John, did you ever cry?‟ Daniel says that John seemed to think for a moment, looked down and then back up at him. As he wiped a tear from the corner of his eye (Daniel noting he‟d never seen him cry before that, nor after) John said, „Yes. When I had to shoot my horse.‟ Daniel didn‟t pursue the subject any further, being surprised by John‟s unusual display of emotion. So, unfortunately, I don‟t know exactly what happened or when, but based on his military career and the units he was with we can infer that it was most likely during or after one of the battles they‟d been in. As Daniel said to me, it‟s hard to imagine a more difficult task than euthanizing the creature that had kept you alive through so much danger. What I do know is that John was listed in a supplement of the London Gazette in April, 1918 as a Driver for the Royal Field Artillery, and that he‟d told Daniel that he was a „driver‟ during „the wars‟. He‟d also said he‟d been
in India with the British Army so no surprise in the third photograph, on which he‟d written, “Taken at Kirkee, India about Feb 1920”:
He‟s noticeably thinner in this photograph, but looking no worse for the wear. Daniel seems to remember him saying that he‟d been ill and in a military hospital, but there wasn‟t anything in the papers I found to confirm that, or any of his service for that matter. But from just these few photos, and a few memories of a living relative who knew him personally, I‟ve been able to put together a fairly good story of John‟s military career. His experiences in life, and war, definitely left their mark. He spent his life outside the military living in Verdun, Montreal with his brother and sisters, never marrying. The people I was able to talk with about him all said that he was the most gregarious, fun loving man you‟d ever want to meet. My Dad has always spoken fondly of his „Uncle John‟ and I can remember him describing him as being „like a Leprechaun.‟ I‟m not sure John would appreciate that analogy. Hard to believe 40 years had passed between the picture of John in India and the one taken with his brother and sister. Since I‟ve just found these, I really haven‟t had time to research what records might be in existence to help fill in the holes in John‟s life story. I know, for certain, that he was awarded at least four military decorations, including the French Croix de Guerre, but I‟m not sure what the other three were or why he
received the CDG. And my „proof‟ of his medals? Oh, how some of my Twitter genea-friends will rejoice! My Uncle Daniel, proudly wearing John‟s medals as he prepares for a performance with the University of Chicago Pipe Band while he was attending the University of Chicago c. 1960:
Note the Cosgrove swagger. Oh, and the medals he‟s wearing which John proudly allowed him to wear as he marched and played his bagpipes with the Band. Gotta love a man in a kilt. But that‟s another story… Do you find it challenging to put together the story of your ancestor‟s lives? Sometimes simply taking a few photos out and laying them on a table to look at them help to draw out what might not be apparent when looking at information in a database or online. You can do the same with vital records or even personal documents; it‟s really surprising how looking at them as images instead of words can sometimes help to „see‟ what you might have missed before. Also, anyone know the whereabouts of records for the British Cavalry 1915-1918 or where I might find the records of medals of honors bestowed on servicemen? Anyone else with a relative in the British Calvalry?