Major William Hay GOSSE MC – killed in Action on 5 April 1918
William Hay GOSSE was born at Kent Town, South Australia on 21 October 1875, the son of explorer William Christie GOSSE and Agnes GOSSE (nee Hay). He received his education at Melbourne Grammar School, Geelong Grammar and St. Peters in Adelaide and later attended the University of Adelaide where he was prominent in the Men’s Rowing Team. He competed in the 1896 Oxford-Cambridge Race and the 1899 Inter-colonial University Boat Race.
In late 1899, he enlisted for service in the South African War (Boer War) as 104 Trooper William Hay GOSSE. He was posted to the 2nd South Australian Mounted Rifles Contingent and embarked from Adelaide on 26 January 1900. He served with the unit until its return to Adelaide in May 1901. In 1908, William took up farming in Western Australia and in 1911 married Muriel Mary Davidson. They were two children of the marriage. The family holidayed regularly at Victor Harbor.
On 7 May 1915, William volunteered for service with the British Army. He was commissioned as a lieutenant and posted to “A” Battery of the 79th Brigade, Royal Field Artillery (RFA). The 79th Brigade RFA formed part of the 17th (Northern) Division and was commanded by Major-General T.D. PILCHER CB. The Division embarked for France on 12 July 1915 and saw its first action in the Ypres Salient in Belgium. By June 1916, the 17th was deployed at Pozieres where it took part in the battles around Pozieres, which resulted in the capture of Fricourt, Fricourt Wood and the trenches around Contalmaison. The 17th and the 38th (Welsh) Divisions attacked the heavily defended Mametz Wood on 7 July, however heavy casualties were suffered. Field Marshal Haig was appalled with the handling of the operation and sent General PILCHER and the commander of the 38th Division home in disgrace. Three days later, the two Divisions attacked the Wood again and most of the objective was taken, but at a heavy cost in men.
In August 1916, the 17th Division was heavily engaged at Longueval and Delville Wood, suffering from heavy and continuous shell and machine-gun fire whilst holding the line. Throughout the winter of 1916-1917, it remained on the Somme and engaged in constant hard fighting and endured great hardships throughout the severe and trying weather conditions. On 1 January 1917, Lieutenant GOSSE was promoted to the rank of captain. By now he had served with “A” Battery of the 79th Brigade through all its campaigns to date. In September 1917, the Division moved north to play its part in the Third Battle of Ypres and the struggle for the Passchendaele Ridge. In the attack on 12 October, it was the only division to gain all its objectives.
On 19 June 1917, the Division moved to the Arras front and was successful in taking its objective that included the ruined chemical works at Roeux on the night of 26 June. Captain GOSSE’s leadership and intelligence skills played an important role in the capture of the Division’s objective and he was awarded the Military Cross. He was later promoted to major.
Further intensive fighting followed for the Division that year near Cambrai, and in March 1918, the men were in the thick of the great German Spring Offensive. On 21-23 March, all enemy attacks on the Division were successfully repulsed, however it was forced to retreat because of chaotic British organisation.
On 5 April 1918, Major GOSSE was leading his Battery against a strong German attack when his command post was struck by a shell and he was killed instantly. Major GOSSE was buried by his men in the village of Varennes.
Major William Hay GOSSE MC was survived by his wife Muriel, son George and daughter Agnes. Muriel died in 1920, leaving George and Agnes in the care of their paternal grandmother. Major GOSSE is commemorated on the Victor Harbor War Memorial.
Atteridge, A.H. (1929), The History of the 17th (Northern) Division. Glasgow: First published by the University Press, Glasgow (1929); later reprinted as a facsimile edition by The Naval & Military Press, London (date unknown).
Service file of Major William Hay GOSSE purchased from the National Archives (UK).
Major Gosse’s daughter Agnes (born 1913, died 1981) married Donald Maxwell Hole (born 1905), a serving RAN officer, in 1935. Lieutenant-Commander Hole was killed in action aboard HMAS Canberra on 9 August 1942 during the Battle of Savo Island.
Major Gosse’s son George (born in 1912) enlisted in the Royal Australian Navy on 1 January 1926, as a cadet. He served with the RAN during World War Two and held the rank of Lieutenant Commander and specialised in the clearance of sea mines. In April 1945, he was sent to Bremen, Germany after the capture of that port.
He was awarded the George Cross for his actions in disarming new, and previously unknown, German mines in the murky waters of Bremen harbour during May 1945. George Gosse was demobilised in March 1946 and died on 31 December 1964, age 54.
Compiled by the Victor Harbor RSL History Research Team, May 2011.