The man who signed the document that ended the Second World War lived in Knowlton. Colonel Cosgrave represented Canada on the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri where the document was signed. Inadvertently, Cosgrave signed below the line set for Canada and so forced all the other nations to follow suit. Fortunately, the Japanese accepted the document. He signed the Allied copy correctly. He had been blinded in one eye in World War I and had trouble finding his way in the document.
Cosgrave was the Canadian signatory because, as the Canadian Military Attache to Australia, he was the most senior Canadian serviceman in Asia. He had been a Canadian diplomat in the Trade and Commerce Department between the wars. In this role, he served for a decade in Shanghai, where he became friends with a Japanese diplomat, Mamoru Shigemitsu. On this momentous day in 1945, Shigemitsu was the Japanese Foreign Minister and would sign for Japan. As Shigemitsu walked on deck, the two old friends allowed themselves a quick nod of recognition before returning to their roles. Shigemitsu had worked relentlessly in the months before Pearl Harbour to avoid war. Ironically, in 1945, he was imprisoned as a war criminal. In happier circumstances, he and Cosgrave would meet again in London in 1953 at the coronation of the Queen.
Cosgrave’s career as a diplomat was founded on his distinguished service in World War I. A graduate of the Royal Military College and McGill, Cosgrave was one of the few professional soldiers in the Canadian Army. He went to England in September 1914 as a member of the First Division. As a gunner, he was close friends with the man who later commanded all the Canadian Artillery, then Lt. Colonel “Dinky” Edward Morrison, and an experienced Gunner who had served in the Boer War with Morrison, Captain Dr. John McCrae. They shared, first of all, a tent and then lodgings on Salisbury Plain.
On May 2, 1915, during the Second Battle of Ypres, Helmer, while walking behind their positions behind the Ypres Canal with a friend from Montreal, Owen Hague, was blown literally to pieces by a German shell. McCrae put the remains of his friend into a sack and held a committal service, from memory, for his friend. On May 3, according to Cosgrave, McCrae, shaken by this experience, wrote a poem on a scrap of paper using Cosgrave’s back as a lectern. The poem was In Flanders Fields, perhaps the best-known war poem.
Cosgrave courage was recognized all through the war and ended as a Lt. Colonel. He retired from the army in 1946 and continued his diplomatic career. On July 28, 1971, Cosgrave died at his home in Knowlton.