Jim Cowey-Gallipoli to Kokoda; One Victorian two World Wars
Jim Cowey on his wedding day
The sun was setting over the Kokoda plateau. The order to withdraw had been given and most of the men of “A” Company were making their way back along the track towards the village of Deniki. The Japanese assault would be launched at any moment. For J.D McKay and his separated Gun group, which had taken up positions in the rubber, no such orders had been received.
When the overwhelming Japanese onslaught commenced, the remaining Australians continued to fight for their lives. “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”.
Throughout the surrounding area, the Japanese were firing at anything that moved. Pockets of Australian militia were desperately trying to make their way out of the rubber plantation to link up with the main track. J.D. McKay and his men had only moved a short distance when they were challenged by a figure kneeling in the darkness. “It was old Jim Cowey, the coolest, bravest man I have ever known”.
This was Jim Cowey’s second war. James Picken Cowey MC was already a veteran of Gallipoli and the Western Front. In 1942, at the ripe old age of 52, Jim found himself serving as the Company Sergeant Major of “A” Company, 39th Battalion. He’d made the arduous journey over the Owen Stanley Ranges with his battalion to engage in combat with the Japanese. If they weren’t stopped there, then they might end up in Australia and Jim just wasn’t going to stand by and let that happen.
At the outbreak of the First World War, Jim was farming on his property “Yulong” to the East of Melbourne but soon enlisted for service in the AIF. He sailed from Port Melbourne aboard the troopship HMAT “Ulysses”. As he already had three years previous service in the militia, Jim was quickly made a Sergeant and landed at Gallipoli on the morning of 26 April 1915 with the 14th Battalion AIF. There, his Battalion was tasked with holding Courtney’s Post, where Albert Jacka would later earn his Victoria Cross. In fact, Jim had been serving in the same Company as Jacka before being hit by a bullet in his left arm and subsequently evacuated from the Peninsula.
After recovering from his wounds, Jim returned to Gallipoli for short while before sustaining an injury to his ankle, he was subsequently evacuated from ANZAC Cove for the final time. Upon his recovery in Egypt, he was transferred from his old Battalion to help form the nucleus of the new 46th Battalion as part of the AIF’s expansion from 2 Divisions to 5.
The 46th arrived in France in June 1916 wearing the new circular colour patch of gold over blue (the same colours as their parent Battalion the 14th). The 46th’s baptism of fire would come on 2 July 1916, when they relieved the 4th Battalion in the trenches at Fleurbaix.
The 46th Battalion history talks of the agony of trench life. “Although it was the middle of a European summer, the area of France that they were in was in the grip of a sudden cold and wet snap...add to this the constant strain of an enemy bombardment...the constant threat of enfilading fire, and of sniping from enemy positions to the front, side and sometimes the rear of your trenches. It was no wonder that some of the troops were pushed over the edge of reality, or “Shell Shocked”.
Jim would rise through the ranks, from Company Sergeant Major to full Lieutenant. By the 28 September 1917, the 46th had taken up positions near Polygon Wood, positioned to stop any counter attacks that the Germans may have launched. During that campaign, the Battalion was tasked to bury the dead and in the salvaging of equipment. It was during these activities that Jim Cowey was wounded for a second time when he received a gunshot wound just above his right eye. Jim once again found himself in hospital and would not return to his unit until Christmas of 1917.
When Jim did rejoin the 46th, he took up the position of Intelligence Officer during operations near Bellenglise. Between 18 and 19 September 1918, Jim’s bravery was recognised by the award of the Military Cross. Promulgated in the Commonwealth of Australia Gazette on 29 January 1920, Jim’s citation reads: “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’. Jim would leave his Battalion and the Western Front for the last time on 21 September 1918 when he was granted ‘Special Leave’ owing to his early enlistment, Jim sailed home to Australia. Upon Jim’s return he would marry his sweetheart Annie. His appointment as an officer in the AIF came to an end in January 1919.
In the interwar years Jim continued farming on his property, “Yunlong” where he and Annie raised six children. Jim also remained on the reserve list of officers but was deeply disenchanted with the British Empire’s policies of appeasement of Nazi Germany. In October 1938 he sent a letter stating that he had contacted the army resigning his commission, he also returned his medals to the army. The letter reads in part: “To-day I forwarded to the Defence authorities the Commission given to me as a reservist officer, and also war medals, and ask the authorities to remove my name from the records in view of the Czechoslovakian dishonour. I now feel clean in part.”
Jim Cowey was clearly affected by his experiences in the Great War and family folklore tells of Jim going “walkabout” in the hills overlooking his property, sometimes for days on end. With the news of Germany occupying the Sudetenland, and Britain’s reluctance to forcibly intervene, Jim like so many other soldiers of the Great War would have contemplated the significance of their sacrifices.When war finally broke out, Jim Cowey answered the call. In August 1940, he joined the CMF (Citizens Military Force). At fifty years of age he would have been too old to enlist in the 2nd AIF and take up the fight with his old foe. Nonetheless within a year Jim would be sailing off to war, this time to fight a new enemy, one much closer to home.
Back in New Guinea, Jim had managed to pick up more of the stragglers of “A” Company. J.D. McKay recalls: “Old Jim had picked up three or four of us by now....there was no wounded in our group...Jim said ‘Good we’ll walk out’. I was all for running out but there were Japs everywhere. They were throwing grenades into weapons 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 in single file and us out over the bloody bridge!”
After spending a night separated from the main body, the small party stumbled onto the main track. As they continued towards Deniki, fire from a Japanese Juki machine gun came raining down upon them, rounds landing right above Jim’s head. No enemy machine gun would stand in the way of Jim safely linking up with the rest of the company, and J.D. McKay would later recall the way in which Jim dealt with the situation. “Jim didn’t even grunt-he just carefully leans against a tree, restrains the breathing slightly, and shoots the No. 1 on the ‘Juki’. Then the No 2 rolls in and takes his place. Jim restrains the breathing again after reloading at the shoulder and shoots the No 2. Talk about coolness! Of course by now there’s Japs running everywhere and every time one of ‘em jumps down behind the ‘Juki’ Jim shoots him.”
J.D. McKay MM
In the days following the withdrawal from Kokoda, the Battalion would make a defiant stand alongside their AIF counterparts against the Japanese at Isurava. Jim Cowey along with the survivors of the 39th, returned to Port Moresby soon after this battle. The conditions imposed by jungle warfare had taken such a toll that Jim and many others of the 39th would never return to the battlefield. Jim’s long military service came on to an end on 29 October 1943.
Jim’s name appears in the Books of Remembrance in the ambulatory of the Shrine of Remembrance, Melbourne. These books contain the names of all Victorians that served overseas during the Great War. The Shrine is also the sacred keeping place of the original 14th Battalion Colours which are on permanent display in the Hall of Columns.
Jim Cowey is but one of many exceptional Victorians who despite knowing the horrors of the Great War, stepped up and volunteered to once again serve their country. We owe Jim and those like him a great debt.