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William Roy COWLEY


Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Gunner 21197 26y11m 15/12/15 16/05/19 4

William Roy Cowley (1889-1942)

Cowley Brothers booklet

Family background

Roy's parents – Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley and Lady Maria (‘Marie’) nee Campbell - were notable in Queensland public affairs. Sir Alfred was born in England in 1848 but his Baptist lay missionary father took the family to Natal in South Africa in 1859. Alfred did an apprenticeship and specialised in the installation of sugar cane machinery, but then became a sugar cane and coffee planter. Alfred migrated to Queensland in 1871, where his expertise was valued, and he entered into public life. From 1888 to 1907 he was the member for the North Queensland seat of Herbert in the Legislative Assembly, as well as secretary for public lands and secretary for agriculture 1890-93, and Speaker of the Assembly 1893-99 and 1903-07. He was knighted in 1904.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Sir Alfred and Lady Cowley became heavily involved on the domestic front. Sir Alfred was an ‘ardent recruiter and conscriptionist’ and chairman of the Queensland Patriotic Fund. Lady Cowley was a vice-president of the Queensland division of the Red Cross Society, founder and president of the Queensland Soldiers’ Comforts Fund, and vice-president of the Sock Fund (which she also helped to establish). For her war work she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE).

One of her nieces in South Africa, Edith Campbell was known to the Australian diggers as ‘the Angel of Durban’ for her warm welcomes and farewells by semaphoring with flags, gifts of fresh fruit to their ships, hosting of large tea parties in the grounds of her parents’ home, and supervision of hospitality at the Durban Young Men’s Christian Association building. She was enthusiastically greeted by returned servicemen throughout a five-month tour of Australia in 1923.

Beyond the war years, Lady Cowley was recognised as someone who gave considerable service to the community and ‘innumerable acts of kindness for those around her and for charitable causes’. Among other things, she was a committee member of the Young Women’s Christian Association, and president for ten years of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Children’s Homes (the Blackheath Home at Oxley for boys and the W R Black Home at Chelmer for girls). She devoted time to transcribing books into braille. A regular attendee at services in Saint Andrew’s Church on the corner of Creek and Ann Streets in Brisbane, she was also a willing worker at the annual Anzac Day lunches for returned service personnel.

William 'Roy' Cowley

William Roy (‘Roy’) Cowley served as a gunner in the the 7th Field Artillery Brigade of the 1st AIF.  In France and Belgium he faced dangers such as quagmires of mud, gas attacks, and thunderous barrages from massed artillery (with opposition artillery a desirable target). He was wounded twice. Roy made a successful return to civilian life, but without any apparent warning or reason, he committed suicide in 1942 when aged 53.

Roy’s older brother, Campbell Cowley, served in the 11th Light Horse Regiment and is the subject of a separate entry. 

Roy was born in Gairloch on the Herbert River, north of Ingham on 22 December 1889. He attended Brisbane Grammar School for the two years 1903-04 and moved to the King’s School, Sydney for 1905. He then left to be apprenticed at the railway workshops at Ipswich.

War service

When Roy enlisted in the AIF on 15 December 1915 his occupation was given as jackaroo. He was 5’8” (173cms) tall, weighed 135lbs (61kg) and had brown hair with dark eyes and complexion. Appointed a gunner, he was attached to the 9th Field Artillery Brigade (FAB), and embarked for the UK on the Argyllshire on 11 May 1916. After arrival in July, most of the rest of 1916 was spent training with the rest of the newly formed 3rd Australian Division. The 3rd Division moved to France during December 1917, and there Roy was transferred to the 107th (howitzer) battery in the 7th FAB.

The 7th FAB saw action in the Battle of Messines and later Ypres. Roy was promoted from gunner to temporary bombardier on 21 August 1917, but between the Battles of Polygon Wood and Broodseinde, he was wounded by a shell on Westhoek Ridge on 28 September 1917. He sustained injuries to his back and left elbow, and had fractured ribs. He returned to the Brigade from hospital in England late in December 1917.

When the German Army unleashed a major offensive in March 1918 the 3rd Division including the 7th FAB was rushed to the Somme region to confront the advance there. Fierce fighting eventually halted the Germans at Morlancourt and Villers Bretonneux. It was near Villers Bretonneux on 20 April 1918 that Roy was wounded for the second time, also by a shell, with a badly broken jaw. Repairs attempted in France proved unsuccessful, and further work was needed in hospital in England.

Roy returned to Australia on the Ulysses arriving March 1919, and was formally discharged two months later in May.

Post-war

On 16 March 1920 Roy married, with Presbyterian rites, Brisbane-born Robina Cochran Robertson at the home of her parents in Mowbray Terrace, East Brisbane. He gave his occupation as grazier at Tambo, but he subsequently worked as a fitter and turner for the Brisbane City Council.

He and Robina had two sons (Robert Alfred and Richard Roy) and one daughter (Lucy Sophia). Both sons served in the Second World War – Alf (Robert Alfred) in the 2nd Anti-Tank Regiment and then the RAAF, and Dick (Richard Roy) in the RAAF – and both were Mentioned in Despatches.

Roy went missing on Sunday 25 October 1942, aged 53. He was seen by his wife Robina reading a book late that evening in the sitting room of their home in Whitmore Terrace, Taringa, but was not in the house the next morning. Police conducted inquiries and searches, and on Sunday 1 November articles appeared in the newspapers appealing for anyone who might have seen Roy to come forward.

Later that day a Volunteer Defence Corps search party led by Captain Bill Allan (also recorded on the Honour Boards at St Andrew’s Church) found Roy’s body in a timbered gorge at the foot of Mt Cootha, some three miles from his home. He had apparently shot himself in the head with a walking stick shotgun (used by his wife for shooting pigeons).

An inquest was held on 16 December 1942 and Robina gave evidence that ‘He had far more to live for now than ever before in his life…he had no financial worries, no enemies and our family life was always very happy’. The day before, Roy had invested 500 pounds in the War Austerity Loan. The police could not offer any reason why Roy would have taken his own life. He was not apparently unduly bothered by the four-inch scar on the left side of his face extending to his mouth, or the deafness in his right ear, from his war service. But not all scars are visible.

Roy was cremated at the Brisbane Crematorium, with Presbyterian rites, and his ashes interred with his parents in Toowong Cemetery, near Mt Cootha.


Select bibliography

  • Australian War Memorial – embarkation rolls, unit histories and war diaries.
  • Brisbane Grammar School records - Golden Book, Annals 1869-1922.
  • National Archives of Australia – service records.
  • Queensland births, marriages and deaths registers.
  • Queensland State Archives – ‘No inquest file’ COWLEY, William Roy, series 13415, item ID 2308518, 206.
  • Cowley, Donald C  A Cowley story: with tables of the descendants of Sir Alfred Cowley (1848-1926) and his wife (Marie) Lady Cowley (1860-1940) (self-published, Toowong 1990). Held in the State Library of Queensland.
  • Horner, David The Gunners: a history of Australian artillery (Allen and Unwin, 1995).
  • The Courier Mail (Brisbane) 17 December 1942 p5.
  • The Telegraph (Brisbane) 16 December 1942 p8.
  • Truth (Brisbane) 20 December 1942 p16.

Compiled by Ian Carnell.  February 2016

 

 

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