Lest We Forget

Article written by Michael George

A few weeks ago, on 11 November, the country joined together in the annual act of Remembrance. After the Great War of 1914-1918, where so many communities lost significant numbers of their men folk, there was a huge emotional need for a focus for the grief  which had often been borne quietly and stoically behind closed doors. It was this need that led cities, town and villages across the country to find land on which to build their memorials.

In Sandgate the Urban District Council set up a committee to consider and recommend where best to site its own memorial and to choose a design. The decision was unanimous, with the chosen spot being significant for a number of reasons. Although not stated as a key reason, the location at the junction of Military Road and the High Street was central and prominent. The location had very real significance to the people of Sandgate who had lived through the war. Firstly, as stated on the memorial itself: It also marks the spot where a bomb exploded during the German air raid of May 25th 1917. Although none of the five bombs dropped on Sandgate claimed any lives, the village shared the agony of Folkestone’s severe loss of life that day. The second reason why the site for the memorial was chosen was that so many men had marched past this junction on their way to the war. From their camps at Shorncliffe and Hythe, often singing songs, they headed for Folkestone Harbour and the troop ships which would take them to France and the unimaginable carnage of the Western Front.

Today, the names on Sandgate’s memorial are still clearly legible, but memories of the men behind the names have faded.

Each of the 46 names from the Great War was a son, husband or sweetheart who gave his life. Not listed are the many more who came back home damaged in mind or body. To their names have been added a further 17 who died in the Second World War and, when we remember them, we also pay tribute to those lost in later conflicts.

Perhaps one of the names stands out a little more than the others. It is not his name, but the two letters inscribed after it that catch the eye. William Cotter “VC”. This man’s actions in the face of the enemy were so outstanding that he was awarded the highest decoration for valour in the field of battle, the Victoria Cross.

 Born in Folkestone in 1883, Cotter had originally joined the East Kent Regiment, the Buffs, when he was twenty years of age and had been discharged in February 1914, but kept on the Reserve list.

With the outbreak of war, Cotter was soon back in uniform, despite his glass eye, a trophy acquired following a fight in Dover. His five younger brothers all joined the army or Royal Navy and, as they all went off to war, they left their mother, Amy, now living at 2 Barton Cottages in Sandgate.

We do not know much of William Cotter’s military record before his death, but his previous army experience would have been welcome to stiffen the ranks of raw recruits, and it is not surprising that he was promoted to corporal. In March 1916 the 6th Buffs had not moved far from Loos in northern France, where in September 1915, they had suffered heavy casualties.

They were entrenched around the Hohenzollern Redoubt and Festubert in conditions which the Regimental diaries said ‘beggared belief’. Since February 1916, two men from the Buffs had been executed for desertion, and morale in the regiment was very low. There is no doubt that news of William Cotter’s award was quickly passed throughout the battalions of the regiment as an example of selfless devotion to duty and comrades, and there is evidence that discipline and pride did improve thereafter.

How William Cotter won his Victoria Cross is recorded in the London Gazette of 28 March 1916: 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 fifty 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 fourteen 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.

Cotter’s VC was pinned on his chest by Sir Herbert Gough as he lay in a hospital bed at Lillers shortly before he succumbed to his wounds, and he was then buried at Lillers Communal Cemetery [Grave reference IV.E.45]. As well as his name being engraved on Sandgate’s War memorial, there is a plaque to William Cotter’s memory in the entrance lobby of the Chichester Hall.

2008 will mark the 90th anniversary of the Armistice, which brought an end to the ‘War to end all Wars’. To coincide with this event I am writing a book to record the effect of the conflict on the people and towns of south Kent. There is still time to include accounts from local people who have memories or pictures from the period. I would be delighted to hear from anyone with a story to tell. Please contact me on 01303 253278 or by email: Michael@megeorge.com