Sergeant-Major Cornelius Coughlan VC

Published in 18th–19th - Century History, Issue 3 (Autumn 2004), News, Volume 12

36_small_1245950563A unique and historic occasion occurred in Aughavale cemetery near Westport, Co. Mayo, on 7 August 2004. For the first time since the foundation of the state an Irish minister for defence dedicated the grave of an Irish soldier in the British Army, Sergeant-Major Cornelius Coughlan.

 
Cornelius Coughlan was born in June 1828, and brought up and educated in Eyrescourt, Co. Galway. Evincing a taste for military life, he joined the 75th Regiment—now the Gordon Highlanders—in which he served for over 21 years. He was destined to become famous in the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and was awarded a medal with two clasps for bravery at Delhi and Lucknow. On 8 June 1857 he was wounded in the left knee, but returning to the fighting line he won fresh laurels. Again in the same year he was decorated with the Victoria Cross for bringing in a wounded private of his regiment in circumstances of great personal danger. Under heavy fire and accompanied by three others, he entered an area occupied by the enemy in great numbers and succeeded in the object of his daring adventure by rescuing Private Corbett, who lay severely wounded amongst a number of mutilated men. He was also decorated for cheering and encouraging a party that hesitated to charge down a lane in Subjee Mundee, Delhi, occupied by the enemy, who were entrenched on both sides of the lane. Despite a severe and rapid crossfire Sergeant-Major Coughlan led on his men, and his pluck resulted in the destruction of every man of the opposing forces. On the same occasion Sergeant-Major Coughlan returned under crossfire to collect dhoolies to carry off the wounded, and for the successful performance of this gallant deed he was highly complimented by the officers of his regiment.

 
Perhaps his most notable feat of valour was during the siege of Delhi. When his regiment charged the enemy the commanding officer was shot dead, but Sergeant-Major Coughlan, undismayed, encouraged the wavering men by word and example and returned to the attack. The engagement was followed by victory and the Kabul Gate was stormed and taken, in addition to the capture of several pieces of cannon. This achievement was so noteworthy that a memorial tablet and monument were erected over the Kabul Gate, and inscribed on the tablet was the name of Sergeant-Major Coughlan. Queen Victoria wrote a personal letter complimenting him on his bravery and expressing regret that she was unable to pin the Victoria Cross on his breast herself. He served for thirteen years in India as a Gordon Highlander and for a further 21 years back in Ireland in the 3rd Battalion, Connaught Rangers. He died in 1915 at the age of 87. A commemorative brochure is available from Captain Donal Buckley, ‘Woodfield’, Derryhick, Castlebar, Co. Mayo, dbuckley@anu.ie.

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