Sunderland man’s sons were Gallipoli heroes

BROTHERS IN ARMS: Lieutenant Robert Orlando Cowey, of 3rd Battalion AIF, pictured left with his brother Sergeant James Picken Cowey, of 14th Battalion AIF, in February 1915. Photo from the Stewart Cowey collection.
BROTHERS IN ARMS: Lieutenant Robert Orlando Cowey, of 3rd Battalion AIF, pictured left with his brother Sergeant James Picken Cowey, of 14th Battalion AIF, in February 1915. Photo from the Stewart Cowey collection.
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THE Australian-born descendent of a Wearside man today reveals how Anzac Day is an important date for both her country - and her family.

Thousands of Australian and New Zealand soldiers laid down their lives in the fight to capture the Gallipoli Peninsula from the Ottoman Army during a bloody campaign in 1915.

HOME FROM HOME: The house John Cowey built in the Dandenong Ranges when pioneering farming land.  Photo dates from 1894. L-R John Cowey, son Robert, daughter Esther in high chair, son James, wife Augusta Cowey.

HOME FROM HOME: The house John Cowey built in the Dandenong Ranges when pioneering farming land. Photo dates from 1894. L-R John Cowey, son Robert, daughter Esther in high chair, son James, wife Augusta Cowey.

The day the two forces invaded Turkey - April 25 - is now known as Anzac Day. As a national day of remembrance, it is important to millions - and especially to Summer Lynch.

“It is a sacred date in Australia and New Zealand but, while largely an Antipodean day of remembrance, thousands of British, Indian and French also sacrificed their lives,” she said.

“And some of those Australian soldiers who fought that day also had a Sunderland connection - including my great-grandfather James and his older brother Robert.”

James and Robert were the sons of John George Cowey, eldest child of Master Mariner Robert Cowey and his wife Esther Small, who was born in 1863 and grew up in Robinson Street, Bishopwearmouth.

Before Gallipoli, Jim had never fired an angry shot - old tins and rabbits were his targets. Now he was shooting and bayoneting men.

Summer Lynch

John’s younger brother, Robert Horsbrough Cowey, went on to become a Wearside railway clerk, while his younger sister Esther Mary helped out around the house before marrying.

But mystery seems to surround John, who disappears from the UK census reports after 1871 - only to reappear sometime later in Australia. No record of his journey can be found.

“The family legend is that he was an apprentice chemist and may have injured someone with one of his concoctions, fleeing to Australia in around 1880 to start a new life,” said Summer.

“In 1887 he married Augusta Knapp and their pairing produced a trio of first generation Australians. The family pioneered virgin forest in the Dandenong Ranges, near Melbourne.”

PIONEERS: Formal portrait of John George Cowey's family 1900.  L-R John Cowey, Esther, Robert (standing), James (kneeling), Augusta.

PIONEERS: Formal portrait of John George Cowey's family 1900. L-R John Cowey, Esther, Robert (standing), James (kneeling), Augusta.

Both of John’s sons would grow up to fight at Gallipoli - Robert as a career soldier who was already a lieutenant at the time, and Jim as an enthusiastic volunteer keen to play his part.

“Robert left in the first convoy to Egypt, while Jim arrived in the second convoy to set up camp at Heliopolis - later meeting with Robert, who was stationed at Mena,” said Summer.

“Their meeting in front of the Sphinx was captured in a treasured photo. The troops then trained in gruelling desert conditions; before receiving orders to take the Dardanelles.”

Jim’s Anzac Day was spent on tenterhooks; his battalion was in reserve - first witnessing the British bombardment of Cape Helles - then seeing the horror unfold ashore.

SECOND TIME AROUND: Jim Cowey pictured during World War Two, when he served as a Staff Sergeant with the 39th Battalion 2nd AIF at the age of 52 and fought on the Kokoda Track against the Japanese.

SECOND TIME AROUND: Jim Cowey pictured during World War Two, when he served as a Staff Sergeant with the 39th Battalion 2nd AIF at the age of 52 and fought on the Kokoda Track against the Japanese.

As hospital ships packed with casualties steamed away from the conflict, so the decks of Jim’s troopship were cleared to make way for more wounded - which he helped haul aboard.

“The decks were saturated with blood. I can’t imagine how alarming it was to witness the aftermath of the fighting, knowing full well it was your turn tomorrow,” said Summer.

“When they landed, Jim’s battalion was largely unchallenged by the Turks. But when he moved up Shrapnel Gully, the battle closed in. They fought for 40 hours without respite.

“Jim was a part of deadly quid pro quo, with bullets fired in such rapid succession, the barrels of their rifles were red hot. At times the fray crescendoed to hand-to-hand fighting.

“Before Gallipoli, Jim had never fired an angry shot - old tins and rabbits were his targets. Now he was shooting and bayoneting men. After a week of fighting he was shot in the arm.”

The shot fractured Jim’s radius and, within days, he was stricken with double pneumonia - caused by exposure to the freezing Turkish nights. Evacuation to Blighty quickly followed.

FIGHTING HERO: James Picken Cowey. the photo is believed to have been taken in 1916, when he was a 2nd Lieutenant with 46th Battalion.

FIGHTING HERO: James Picken Cowey. the photo is believed to have been taken in 1916, when he was a 2nd Lieutenant with 46th Battalion.

Jim’s brother Robert, who had landed in Gallipoli on Anzac Day, was also severely injured just two days into fighting - wounds which would put an end to his Turkish tour of duty.

After recuperating, however, Robert rejoined his unit on the Western Front - but not before paying a fleeting visit to his uncle Robert Cowey and Aunt Esther Burdes in Sunderland.

Jim also returned to fight after medical treatment, participating in the battles of the August Offensive in Gallipoli - where he was left shell shocked whilst endeavouring to take Hill 60.

“After another hospital stint, Jim went back to Gallipoli yet again and, between bouts of illness, saw out the campaign - enduring the worst blizzard on the peninsula for 40 years.

“By then Jim was company quartermaster and, when the storm hit, he melted snow to make warm drinks for his men. Such simple acts of kindness belie the barbarous nature of war.”

Gallipoli was, however, just the first chapter in Jim’s story. The Western Front was to come, followed by a commission, a serious head wound and two Military Cross recommendations.

He was finally awarded a Military Cross before the end of the conflict and, after returning to Australia, Jim married, had a large family and provided for his brood with a “modest farm”.

“He struggled with his mental and physical health,” said Summer, “He was deeply troubled and slept with a loaded gun under his pillow. At night he woke the house with his screams.

“When it all got too much, he left his family for days, living in the forest surrounding his home, searching for the Germans he was convinced lurked there.”

Summer’s grandmother - Jim’s eldest child - had to “keep the farm running” during his many absences. Despite his demons, however, Jim volunteered to serve again in World War Two.

Indeed, at the age of 52 he fought alongside men more than half his age in New Guinea - against the Japanese on the Kokoda Track - saving the lives of eight young Diggers.

Again, Jim survived to return home. Yet despite fighting in both wars, he was ultimately powerless to save his own son - who was shot down by the Japanese in his RAAF bomber.

“I certainly feel a personal pride in my great-grandfather’s strength, his fighting spirit. But I’m equally amazed at his vulnerability, and his love for his mates in situations devoid of any notion of humanity,” said Summer.

“It may seem contradictory that we, as a nation, hold Anzac - a military failure - so dear in our hearts. But it wasn’t a failure. The history books were wrong; we actually won.

“Our men fought and gained a prize far greater than any battle honour at Gallipoli. We grew up, became a nation, and in the end we found ourselves.”