Ask of any Australian, the simple question:- “Name just one battle which took place during the First World War?” More often than not, the battle of “Gallipoli” will possibly be the response.
To ask a similar question – “Name one action which took place during the Second World War?” and 8 out of 10 people will probably mention the ‘Kokoda Track’.
But go one further; and ask our subject to provide the name of a single soldier who fought at either one of these battles? The vast majority of people would be hard pressed, to deliver just one. Unless of course they had a grandfather, or other such relative who served during these campaigns.
Now….same questions….different scenario. A Military Historian of any standing should be able to provide you with a list of names without even trying; of diggers who fought at either Gallipoli or on the Kokoda Track.
BUT ask the same historian to supply the name of any ‘digger’ who served in BOTH campaigns……Gallipoli in 1915 and then Kokoda, 27 years later ….. and they will be hard pressed to name but a few.
IMAGE RIGHT: The gravesite of James Picken COWEY, showing the plaque which was a late addition to his tomb. Before this plaque was laid by his family during August of 2010, the gravesite showed no indication of the remarkable service life of ‘old Jim’. Indeed, it is believed that Jim Cowey is the only man to have served at both Gallipoli and Kokoda as an ‘enlisted man’. As seen in this photograph, his original war service medals were placed alongside the plaque during the official ceremony.
In fact, the average person would be totally astounded to learn that ANY Australian at all – could possibly have fought in both of these campaigns. Arguably – Gallipoli and the Kokoda Track; are the two most defining battles in Australia’s short history!
Well – if ever there was a name to be associated with both Gallipoli in 1915…..and Kokoda in 1942… then James (Jim) Picken COWEY is that name. If ever a man was to wear the mantle of ‘natural born soldier’, then James Picken COWEY is also that man. And it is a very sad indictment on our modern society, that the name “James Picken COWEY” – has been allowed to fade away into obscurity.
Yes – James Picken COWEY served in Two World Wars……. Yes – he fought at both Gallipoli and Kokoda and like many other veterans who did ”their bit” for their country…….old Jim would shun the thought of being declared a hero.
But what really is a hero?? Especially, when in this day and age – one only needs to score a ‘century’ at the cricket or kick the match winning goal…to be declared a hero.
James COWEY was born on the 23rd of February, 1890 at Brunswick in Victoria. By 1914, he was a strapping young man who stood 5 foot 10 inches tall and weighed in at 12 stone. Prior to the First World War – Australia had instituted the Compulsory Service Scheme where men of a certain age; living within a certain geographic distance of an Army base were required for Military Service.
PHOTO LEFT: Young James Cowey (centre front) aged approximately 8 years old with his family. Note the resemblance between James and his older brother Robert Orlando Cowey who also served in the Great War.
So Jim served out his time in the Militia army for over 3 years, discharging with the rank of Lance Sergeant – shortly before the outbreak of the Great War.
When the call went out in 1914 ‘to help the mother country’, Australians rushed to enlist. Jim Cowey was amongst them. In fact – far too many men within the first few months volunteered for active service. Subsequently the “Australian” Division which had been promised, was quickly filled – and a fourth Brigade of Infantry was offered to Great Britain. This offer was gladly accepted on the 03rd of September, 1914 – and with his prior military service; Jim was a natural selection to fulfill the role of ‘Non Commissioned Officer’ in the new force. He would quickly be appointed as a Sergeant in the fledgling AIF (Australian Imperial Force) …… as part of the 14th Infantry Battalion, 4th Brigade.
It would be hard for any Mother, to farewell her “soldier boy” as he headed off to war. With the Service Number of 426 and aged just 24 years, the First World War Embarkation Roll records Jim as boarding the troopship HMAT Ulysses from port Melbourne – on the 22nd of December, 1914. It must have broken Jim’s heart to learn that this would be the last time that he would ever see his father. John COWEY would pass away whilst his son Jim, was on active service. But had his mother lived long enough to see the start of the Second World War in 1939; how hard would it have been for her to endure this pain a second time?
After training in Egypt, the 14th Battalion touched shore at Gallipoli on the first day of the landing (25th April, 1915) numbering 25 Officers and 915 other ranks. After the initial confusion of the first few days, the 14th Battalion was assigned to hold the position of COURTNEY’s POST ….. just south of QUINN’s POST. A most perilous position. On the 3rd of May, barely 9 days after the landing; Jim received a Gun Shot Wound to the left forearm. The wound was severe enough to require evacuation and he was subsequently convalesced to England.
During this time, a Correspondent for ‘The Argus’ Newspaper of Melbourne conducted interviews of the wounded. Themed – WAR DAY BY DAY, an ensuing article was titled “Australian Wounded in England – Interviews in Hospital” and a short narrative focussed on the experiences of James Cowey. He went on to say:-
“There were a terrible lot of Germans with the Turks and they did all sorts of rotton things. They sounded our bugle calls, gave orders in English and sometimes one would come up in the dark and call out ‘Officer in Charge of the Trench’ – and if our officer showed himself they would shoot him. I suppose they considered themselves brave, as in every case they came to their own death. I’m getting on nicely now, and hope soon to be discharged from here. I come from Ferntree Gully.”
This wound may have proved fortuitous – as Jim was absent during the Turkish onslaught of 19th May…. and the ill-fated Allied August offensive. After recovering, Jim returned to Gallipoli – only to be evacuated a second time to Lemnos, due to influenza. By mid November he was evacuated once and for all; and disembarked at Alexandria from the Dardenelles.
After Gallipoli – the AIF experienced a massive restructure which saw it expand from 2 Divisions to a force of 5 Divisions. As a result, Jim found himself transferred to the 46th Infantry Battalion. In the next few months to July of 1916, he would rise through the ranks from C.S.M (Company Sergeant Major) to R.S.M (Regimental Sergeant Major). By this time the 46th Battalion had been thrown into the turmoil, that was the Western Front. Obviously Jim’s experience and ability was recognised – and he was Commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant by August of 1916 in London. By March of 1917, he would be promoted again to the rank of full Lieutenant; whilst serving on ‘secondment’ to the 13th Training Battalion.
On the 29th of September, 1917 Jim was wounded for the second time. In accordance with his service record, he suffered a GSW (gun shot wound) to the forehead near the right eye. Again, the wound was severe enough to necessitate his evacuation to England. This injury rendered him unfit for duty and unable to return to his unit, until Christmas Day of 1917. His return to health would see him take on the role of Intelligence Officer during operations west of Bellenglise.
IMAGE RIGHT: The Military Cross, 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal & the Victory Medal. (The Military Cross is the third level decoration awarded to Officers, in recognition of an act of exemplary gallantry during active operations against the enemy on land) The award was first established on the 28th of December, 1914.
On the 18th to the 19th of September, 1918 his gallantry and devotion to duty was to see him awarded with the Military Cross. It is recorded “When the line was held up by heavy machine-gun fire, he dashed forward, organised a party and pushed forward to a sunken road, where he established posts under intense machine-gun fire. It was owing to his fine work in assisting to organise the line that the position was held”. This award was promulgated in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette No. 10 – dated 29th of January, 1920.
On the 21st of September, 1918 Jim was granted ‘Special Leave’ to Australia (due to his early enlistment) and he embarked at Taranto on the 08th of October, 1918. Subsequently, his overseas service was officially documented as commencing on the 22nd of December 1914….. and concluding on the 02nd of December, 1918. His appointment as ‘Officer’ was terminated on the 31st of January, 1919 owing to the war’s end.
PHOTO LEFT: Captain James Cowey with his wife Annie on their wedding day. Evident on his uniform; above his left breast pocket is the ‘ribbon’ signifying that he is the recipient of the Military Cross. Also of interest are the three “Wound” stripes on his left sleeve and the four ‘Overseas Service Chevrons’ on his right cuff.
A letter written by Jim COWEY to a “Mrs Gunn”, in late 1938 has been retained in his service record. There is evidence in this letter to suggest, that Jim may have been serving as an Officer in the Militia (between World War 1 & World War 2). It could also be interpreted that he may have “handed in” his war medals – as an act of protest over a certain issue. As a result of this letter, Mrs Gunn expressed her opinion to the Deputy Commissioner (Dept. of Repatriation). In this letter, she questioned Jim’s alleged state of mind. What we civillians fail to acknowledge is that the stress of combat, may have had an influence on a man’s point of view. In this day and age, we come up with exotic titles such as ‘post traumatic stress’ disorder. What must be understood is that after this war had ended….. typical of the era, the men were sent home and simply expected to “get on with it”. Is it any wonder that a man could develop an attitude that is considered ‘unusual’ and questioned by those, who enjoyed the luxury of civil life away from the war zone?
There is absolutely NO doubting Jim COWEY’s mental clarity and state of mind – when one reads of his actions and demeanour during the Kokoda campaign.
When the Second World War began, James Picken COWEY was motivated to sign up in service of his country for a second time. The World War Two Nominal Roll indicates that he joined the Citizens Military Force on the 22nd of August, 1940. At this time, he was 50 years old and well over the average age of front line troops. Twelve months later, the 39th Militia Battalion was formed (September 1941) and Jim’s relatives witnessed him sailing off to a World War with a nightmarish sense of deja vu. The battalion set sail for New Guinea on the 29th of December, 1941 aboard the Aquitania. By July of 1942, James COWEY would find himself marching across some of the most rugged terrain in the world. As part of ‘A’ Company of the 39th Militia Battalion….this unit was poorly trained and poorly equipped….and was being sent to take on an enemy – regarded as the best jungle fighters in the world.
Having walked across the Kokoda Track – ‘A’ Company of the 39th Battalion found themselves advancing towards Kokoda Village on the 8th of August, 1942. The village had already been fought for……and lost……to the Japanese over one week earlier. Upon reaching the Kokoda Plateau, Sergeant Jim COWEY fired a signal flare as a sign to his C.O. (Major Alan CAMERON in Deniki) that they had “re-taken” the village. This signal went unnoticed and subsequently, no reinforcements would be sent. ‘A’ Company was on it’s own.
The second battle for Kokoda is well documented (please visit www.kokodahistorical.com) and by 7pm on the 10th of August, the Australians were forced again to withdraw and surrender the village. But an account, written by J.D. McKay of the 39th Battalion, is well worth recounting:-
“Just on dusk there was a nice little shower of rain and the first assault wave came in and we stopped ‘em. My Bren gun group, Bill Drummand and Bill Spriggs, were firing and I can see the gun firing now – no kidding, you could see the bullets going up the barrel and it ran red-hot. Vern Scattergood had a Bren too and he was firing wildly. We stopped ‘em again. Then there was a bit of a pause before the next wave came in and overran us. So we said, “We’d better get out because they’ve gone past us”. Well old Scattergood (or should I say young Scattergood? – he was younger than me) he got excited. He was standing up firing the Bren from the hip and that was the last I saw of young Scattergood. He must have been hit. We couldn’t find him in the dark and we moved back. After we came out of the rubber, we found Johnnie Stormont in the Company Headquarters dug-out. We tried to put a shell dressing on him but the wound was too big and he was dying. We had to leave him. We only moved a few yards and we were challenged! It was old Jim Cowey …….the coolest, bravest man I have ever known. There he was, in the kneeling position, with his rifle pointing at us. Jim’s motto was “if you were a digger, he had to get you out”. The rest of the company had gone, but he’s stayed to get us out because he knew we’d been left behind.
Old Jim had picked up about three of four of us by now and he said, “Just stay quietly” and then he dispersed us a bit. And then he got Roy Neal and Larry Downes, and I think that was about all of us. You know most were dead then. There was no wounded in our group. Then Jim said, “Good, we’ll walk out”. I was all for running out but there were Japs everywhere. They were throwing grenades into weapon-pits, they were searching under huts, and Jim said, “We’ll walk out, they don’t know who we are”. And if you don’t mind, casually got up, put us into single file and walked us out over the bloody bridge”. We walked across the airstrip into the dense scrub and then Jim said, “Good! We’ll rest here till daylight”. So he puts us down and then ‘clunk’, being a youth – and mentally and physically exhausted, I fell straight asleep. But I suppose old Jim Cowey, being the amazing soldier that he was, stayed awake all night. “
IMAGE LEFT: Veterans of the 39th Infantry Battalion, AMF stand alongside the surviving children of James Picken COWEY at the graveside dedication, during August of 2010. Behind them is the banner of the 39th, proudly showing their ‘Battle Honours’ which include Kokoda and the beach heads of Buna, Gona and Sanananda.
After hiding out for the night, Jim COWEY’s party attempted to return to their own lines. The story is best told by author Lex McCaulay (Arrow Books) in his superb account of the Kokoda Campaign, titled BLOOD AND IRON:-
“Staff Sergeant Cowey’s party found the main Kokoda/Deniki track and began to follow it. They came to the Japanese base area with supplies piled at the base of a tree and realised just what size force “C” Company had come up against when they tried to advance up the track to Kokoda on the 08th of August. Cowey continued along the track, to the dismay of some of the others. Suddenly they met Privated Drummond and Spriggs, also alone, with their Bren. The gun had seized, but they had only one magazine with three rounds left. Cowey called a halt. There were 10 in the group, with Tommy guns, rifles and a few grenades, but little ammunition. Cowey led the men, but a Japanese machine-gun opened fire, narrowly missing his head with the first burst. Cowey then demonstrated coolness under fire to the other Aussies. He leaned against the tree nearby. Brought up his .303 rifle, aimed and shot dead the Japanese gunner – who was pushed aside by his partner, so Cowey reloaded at the shoulder and shot dead this man also, then continued to kill every Japanese who climbed behind the gun. Of course, a hornet’s nest had been aroused and the Japanese were swarming.”
On page 94 to 95 of Lex McCaulay’s book, he concludes COWEY’s ordeal:-
“When the men of ‘A’ Company began arriving at the Isurava Rest House, it was then that the soldiers with Jim Cowey realised just what the previous days had taken from that brave man. He was so exhausted that the physical effort of eating was almost beyond him. He had stayed behind to make sure that as far as possible, no Australian was left behind. He had taken command of those he did find – had led them and continued to teach them while bringing them out from the midst of numerous Japanese. He had set a high standard of personal coolness and courage in action, had endured hunger – cold and rain, at 52 years of age. Jim Cowey received no medals for his service on the Kokoda Track, but is well remembered by the unit survivors.”
As pointed out by Lex McCaulay, the whole Kokoda Track campaign took it’s toll on this man. So much so – that the World War Two Nominal Roll records his discharge from the army as taking place on the 29th of October, 1943. Well before the end of the Second World War.
But nobody would disagree, that Jim COWEY had certainly done more than his fair share.
In the book “Retreat From Kokoda” published in 1958 (when memory of the war was still fresh) author Raymond PAULL wrote of COWEY:- “Service in two wars had not subdued Cowey’s individualism. He feared nobody. He held radical political views. His officers, often embarrassed by their Sergeant-Major’s outspokenness, yet appreciated his sterling qualities”.
On page 81, the author goes on to say “Cowey never deprecated the respect and authority accorded to rank, nor on the other hand, did he hesitate to sumbit at a propitious moment, criticism of a decision that seemed unwise. Tall, lean, tanned by a liftetime of outdoor occupation, Cowey was an expert marksman and bushman. He won the affection of the troops, and gave Symington consistently loyal service. No Company Commander ever had a better, or more critical, Sergeant Major”.
PHOTO LEFT: A picture of Jim COWEY, taken for his Service Register – prior to embarkation for New Guinea in 1941. The picture clearly shows him – wearing his First World War service ribbons on his uniform. One can only speculate – there would be no “Choco” comments from any AIF members, when they recognised the colours of a “Military Cross” mounted alongside the 1914-1915 Star, British War Medal and Victory Medal on the chest of this MILITIA Sergeant.
PHOTO RIGHT: This portrait taken approximately 20 years before, is a stark contrast from the image on the left. It is hard to imagine that this ‘fresh faced’ young man who served as an officer in the first AIF – would be leading the “sons” of his First World War comrades back into battle during 1942.
As described above by author Raymond PAULL, James Picken Cowey was “tall, lean and tanned by a lifetime of outdoor occupation”. Without a doubt, when a youngster of the 39th Militia Battalion looked into this face – he drew confidence from the knowledge that Jim Cowey would look after them and everything would be alright. A generation later when James Cowey had passed on, his grandson (Ken Stacey) who was by then an adult; attended a 39th Battalion Reunion. Whilst many a memory may have faded amongst those ‘old soldiers’ – the diggers were very interested to meet a descendant of “Old Jim” and patted him on the back. After all these years, they still declared James Cowey ‘a hero’ and never forgot what he did for them in the jungles of New Guinea.
James Cowey fathered six children. It is an utter tragedy that one of his sons – Wallace James Cowey would not share in his father’s good fortune. Wallace had joined the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) in February of 1943 and would eventually be posted to No. 18 N.E.I (Netherland East Indies) Squadron. Flying B-25 Mitchell medium bombers out of Batchelor Airstrip in the Northern Territory, Wallace was crewed as a ‘tail gunner’ in aircraft designated “N.5-177” On the 18th of May, 1944 he would be killed in action when his aircraft was brought down by anti-aircraft fire during low level strafing over the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). He was just 19 years of age.
PHOTO LEFT: Jim’s six children. The eldest child – Marjorie (the tall girl in the centre of the photograph) served in the Women’s Land Army during the Second World War. Wallace is on the far right of the photo and his younger brother David (second from right) also served in the RAAF. Fortunately David survived the war.
When you add to the World War One medals, the campaign medals of a man who had served in Papua New Guinea – you have a very impressive set of decorations. And if Jim was to wear these war medals on any Anzac Day – and march under the banner of the 39th Battalion – he certainly would have been held in the very highest regard.
James Picken COWEY
14th Battalion – AIF (1914 – 1916)
46th Battalion – AIF (1916 – 1919)
39th Battalion – AMF (1940-43)
A true AUSTRALIAN legend!
PHOTOS by courtesy of Jim’s daughter, Marjorie Stacey – and are not to be reproduced without the express permission of the Cowey family. I extend my heartfelt gratitude to (Summer Lynch) the Great-Grand daughter of James Cowey for her assistance in writing this memorial.
Recommended Reading: BLOOD AND IRON by Lex McAuley (Arrow Books)….. Thoroughly researched and a wealth of facts…..without a doubt, one of the best books on the subject of the Kokoda Track – I cannot recommend it enough.
RETREAT FROM KOKODA by Raymond Paull……first published in 1958 – this book is often quoted in recent histories. The publication is quite hard to come by….but is essential reading for any historian and contains several facts, which simply are NOT recorded in other narratives. An absolute must.
Wish to visit the battlefield of Kokoda? www.kokodahistorical.com Kokoda Historical is offering an “Over 50’s Trek which will be conducted over 12 days of actual trekking. This is a much slower trip and at a very comfortable pace. Please contact David Howell on 0405 007 700 for further details or visit the Kokoda Historical website.
First World War Embarkation Roll.
World War Two Nominal Roll
Archives of Australia