BOWLEY, Robert

Service Number: 3679
Enlisted: 17 July 1915
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 8th Infantry Battalion
Born: Creswick, Victoria, Australia, July 1886
Home Town: Creswick, Hepburn, Victoria
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: printer
Died: Accidental - hit by train, Near Creswick, Victoria, Australia, 6 October 1927
Cemetery: Not yet discovered
Memorials: Creswick Honor Roll, Creswick School Pictorial Roll of Honour, North Creswick State School No 2041 Honor Roll
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World War 1 Service

17 Jul 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 3679, 24th Infantry Battalion
5 Jan 1916: Embarked Private, SN 3679, 24th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Afric, Melbourne
5 Jan 1916: Involvement Private, SN 3679, 24th Infantry Battalion
24 Feb 1916: Transferred AIF WW1, Private, 8th Infantry Battalion
23 May 1917: Promoted AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, 8th Infantry Battalion
28 Oct 1917: Wounded AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, SN 3679, 8th Infantry Battalion, Third Ypres, Gassed, stayed on duty
24 Aug 1918: Wounded AIF WW1, Lance Corporal, SN 3679, 8th Infantry Battalion, "The Last Hundred Days", Gassed
16 Mar 1919: Discharged AIF WW1, Private, SN 3679, 8th Infantry Battalion, 3rd MD

Help us honour Robert Bowley's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Evan Evans

Ballarat & District in the Great War

LCpl Robert BOWLEY

Some families seem to be fraught with tragedy.
There’s no accounting for why so many dreadful visitations can occur – nor how those left behind cope with the aftermath. For the Bowley family of North Creswick, the seemingly never-ending trauma must have been too hard to bear.

The Bowley name was once well-known in Creswick. Robert Hobden Bowley, who was born at Collingwood in 1857, came to the township as a boy. His marriage to Emma Jane Tyzzer, from Long Swamp at nearby Newlyn, cemented his place in the community. Whilst Emma’s parents were both Cornish, Robert’s family originated from the English seaside town of Brighton in Sussex. They each brought a unique tenor to their eleven children.

Their eldest son, and third child, was named for his father, but would usually be known by the diminutive of Bob. He was born at Creswick in 1886. There would be three of the Bowley brothers who would ultimately serve in the Great War, but it is Bob who will be the main focus of this piece.

The original Bowley family home was at Camp Hill, and Robert Bowley maintained an ongoing connection to North Creswick for the rest of his life. He worked laboriously underground in the local mines and became a ‘staunch unionist.’

When Bob was a boy, the family lived in King Street, before moving to nearby Pasco Street. It was only a short walk to and from the North Creswick State School, where Bob received his education.

Bob was just 9-years-old when grief first touched his family. His eldest sister, Jessie Louisa, died on 29 June 1895 from ‘an affection of the lungs.’ Jessie’s death must have been very difficult for the entire family, for, as my own grandfather was heard to say when his 12-year-old daughter died: ‘when you get them to 12, you think you’ve got them forever.’
As Bob was soon to find out, life continues on…
Along with his State-funded schooling, Bob also received religious education at the North Creswick Methodist Church in Clunes Road. But, although Creswick and district had both military units and rifle clubs, Bob Bowley did not actively participate in either. Nor did he undergo an apprenticeship after leaving school, instead he learned “on the job” as a newspaper printer at the Creswick Advertiser. It was a good choice of occupation, however, as work in the township began to dissipate and mining jobs became harder to maintain. Even his own brothers, Walter and Alfred, were forced to move to Western Australia in search of employment; they left Creswick in February 1912.

The outbreak of war saw an instantaneous and enthusiastic flooding of volunteers to recruiting depots across the country. If Bob Bowley had entertained early aspirations to join the AIF, the initial strict physical requirements would have ruled him out – he was what would have been termed a “little fella”, standing just 5-feet 2-inches tall and weighing a slight 8-stone 9-pounds. His chest expansion of 33½-inches may have met the standard, but at the beginning of the war the authorities could afford to be choosy.
However, by mid-1915, requirement standards had been dropped to a more inclusive level and, on 17 July, Bob enlisted in the AIF.

By this time, Bob’s father had been forced to give up work as he had developed the dreaded “miner’s complaint”, phthisis, which is now recognised as silicosis. Workplace health and safety had been almost unknown, Robert had spent years breathing in the fine dust of the gold mines. Now his health and ability to earn a living were both gone. It was to have a deep and profound impact on his mental health.

Whilst his condition was causing him great distress, he had the added stress of watching three of his sons enlist in quick succession – Alexander on 8 April 1915, then Walter on 13 July and Bob just four days later. Each time an official telegram arrived (which occurred multiple times) the effect on Robert was considerable.
Although Bob was recorded as enlisting on 17 July, for some reason (hitherto unexplained) he did not undergo his medical or sign the oath until 18 October. Ballarat’s Dr A. B. Campbell recorded the necessary information to complete Bob’s physical examination, noting that he had a dark complexion, with brown eyes and hair.

On 22 November, Bob joined the AIF Signal School at Broadmeadows. His official posting to the 8th reinforcements for the 24th Infantry Battalion came through on 9 December, but he completed his signals training before joining the allotment on 20 December.
With his training in Australia complete, Bob boarded the troopship Afric at Port Melbourne on 5 January 1916 to begin his voyage to Egypt. Upon arrival, he was posted to the 6th Training Battalion at Zeitoun.
Restructuring of the AIF resulted in Bob being reassigned to the 8th Infantry Battalion. He joined his unit at Serapeum on 24 February.

The 8th Battalion, having arrived in Alexandria early on 26 March, sailed for France onboard HT Megantic at 10am the following day. Throughout the trip the sea remained calm, allowing boat station crews unimpeded practice and a second round of inoculations to be conducted. The Megantic docked at Marseilles on 31 March and the men were immediately entrained for the north.

Bob saw his first major action on the Western Front at Pozieres; he arrived in the frontline trenches on 23 July. It was to be a harsh baptism that included a second tour during August.

Following their time on the Somme, the men of the 8th were sent to the trenches outside Ypres for what was deemed a rest – the sector was relatively quiet at this time, but there were still the occasional bursts of activity.

On 6 September, Bob wrote from Flanders to his uncle, Henry Bowley, who was also a printer at the Creswick Advertiser.
‘…At present, where we are in the line, it presents quite an autumn appearance, very much different to down south; where we were up to a few days ago.
It being very hot around the Somme. It is said a soldier, after going through heavy fire and roughing it, will put up with anything, and I quite believe it now, judging by my own experience of warfare The main thing is if one is blessed with good health he can endure anything.

The thorough preparation we got prior to coming to France has made us as fit to give out our deal of "stoush" beside our other brothers in arms. I remember our forced marches across a fair stretch of France prior to our first "hop out" in the "big push," averaging 12 miles a day for the week, with full packs and blankets, and our boys were congratulated thereon. The long tramp made us fit for the job that was in front of us.

Our turn in the trenches came pretty quickly, and we moved out on a Sunday night to attack the enemy's position, where our artillery had been battering away for some days previously. The artillery gave them some "hurry up," and to be near and see the big and field guns "going some" presented a pretty scene while our boys were dishing out our friend "Fritz" his iron rations, presumably much harder to digest than bully beef and biscuits.

Although I said it was a pretty scene, it was terrible, and one I shall not forget, for when our turn came to get in the front line, he repeated the dose, but not with the same severity as our fellows pumped the "big stuff"' in, but it was bad enough. Shells are bad enough, but one thing I object to is when he throws over his munition factories. A wounded Hun prisoner was telling some of our boys that we do not know what a bombardment is, as we want to be under one of our own.

After the preliminary preparation by the artillery in smashing trenches and barbed wire for an opening for us to move out, an order was passed alone the line, "Five minutes to go," and we all knew what it meant. It was a long five minutes, but at last, it went, and everybody to a man leaped over the parapet with a smile on his face and moved forward. Then it was an anxious time skipping over No Man's Land to the tune of machine and rifle bullets, as well as field pieces. We pushed forward to our goal and then had a busy time, but after a few minutes more rough and tumble we gained our objective.

Our work was not finished then, for we had to consolidate our position won and be ready for a counter-attack, but the latter did not come till a few days after. While we were patching up the damaged trench we noticed Huns advancing on the right, and every man dropped pick and shovel and ''stood to,'' ready for any emergency, but we found that they were only advancing to give themselves up, which they were pleased to do. They looked like a mass of human wreckage.

But it is terrible for anyone—friend or foe—for when you see your own pals go down on every side the horror of it comes nearer home to us. My own pal went down just after leaping out, and after putting his water bottle handy for him I went forward more determined than ever.

We held the trench won by us till relieved a few days after by part of another Australian division, which Alex, is in. 1 am sure that every man left in the trench so dearly paid for would have gone down to a man rather than yield an inch if attacked by any large number. However, the enemy will never get that part back, as our other Australian brothers have gone over what we took and held other ground won.
At this place we had on both sides of us the famous Scottish ("Jocks," as they are called) regiments. We witnessed a great feat performed by these fine soldiers one day after we came back from a rest, the night after we had our second "hop out'' some 17 days after our first, one. To pick up a flank and link up with us they moved out at 9 o'clock in the morning, and the way they moved out in open order was a grand sight. The most noticeable thing that appealed to one was the perfect line they kept. Without a doubt they are the flower of our army, and think the world of the Australians, who, they say, do them to fight along side. The Canadian is another, and we all are good chums.

After having performed our task at the latter place we were transferred to this part of the line, where it is all trench warfare, and seems a great change after advancing, and very much quieter. No doubt it is a rest for us. To be here where we are one is reminded of Gippsland, as the trenches run through the tall dead trees, which had been blown about by shells.

I might say that France has had a great harvest, which has all been cut and carted in. It is marvellous what a woman can do, as the harvest was all put in and reaped by the fairer sex. All the work about the homesteads is done by the women, who are playing an important part in the way of victory.

I have run up against a lot of the old boys here, and some who have gone down I miss very much. I have been going now five months since coming to France, and hope to be able to still keep going, as we can ill afford to lose many if we want to be successful right to the end.

I feel tired at times, but after a bit of a night's rest feel fit to be ''up and doing'' again.

Jack Gee is again with us, having completely recovered, and I can tell you he is a great soldier…’
Two days later, after things ‘had been a bit livelier,’ Bob was able to resume his letter. In the interim they had ‘been treated to an artillery duel,’ but without a casualty in their section. Bob believed that the cause was ‘no doubt retaliation for an air raid which the Huns were treated to.’

He went on to describe the war in the air as the ‘"chickens coming home to roost,"’ and the exciting combats he had witnessed on the Somme and elsewhere, allowed him to express the opinion that ‘the British are superior in the air.’
He continued—

‘…It is a grand sight to see fleet after fleet of these winged craft moving out at night on an expedition. You might think I am blood thirsty telling you it is grand to see these and other "stoush ups," but all is in the game, and as long as we play the game all is fair in warfare.

There are others who are not playing the game, especially in industrial circles in Australia, and one that came to me most was the recent day baking dispute. It is no time for disputes, for to win the war should be their first consideration. To have seen their brothers on the Somme, and now in the Ypres salient, giving their all, they would wake up and see there is only one thing worth fighting for—victory. Why do not some of our back-yard fighters come over here and give a hand? There is any amount of gaps to be filled. But I think they, still prefer to stay where they are, as they think a bulged-out pocket, is far better than that, which our fellows will get in the end. Such, I think, have got the brand of Cain on them when they will see their own go down when they could give all the help that is required.

I have seen us after our first charge working day and night, with a biscuit to eat and water to drink, rather than lose a minute in order to hold the ground we dearly paid for.

You may think it hard of me summing up thus, but after seeing all I have it would make me shudder at the thought of staying home and hide behind the courage of my fellow man. I am in good "nick" to night for writing the last few sentences, as I can tell you there has been something doing for a few hours, and I am giving vent to what has been in my mind for a long time…’

In late October, the 8th returned to the Somme battlefields once again. They spent the bitter winter months through into 1917 in the sector. We do know, however, that the Christmas boxes, so lovingly prepared in Australia, were thoroughly enjoyed by the men. Ballarat’s Basil Ross wrote a letter of thanks to Creswick boy, Malcolm Howie, which included the following,

‘…Now, I am a non- smoker myself, but Robert Bowley and Dave Powell will make good use of the smokes, while I will thoroughly enjoy the shaving soap and the tooth paste, especially after being so neglected now for the last 20 days or so one feels rather dirty…’

During the First Battle of Bullecourt, the 8th Battalion was in the line when, on 15 April 1917, the German Army launched their attack on Lagnicourt - Unternehmen Sturmbock (Operation Battering Ram). They faced several days of ongoing bombardment by the enemy artillery.

The Second Battle of Bullecourt saw the 8th involved again in the operations that followed up the German withdrawal to the Hindenburg Line.

Bob Bowley received word on 23 May, shortly after the 8th was relieved to billets at Bresle, that he had been appointed to the rank of lance-corporal.
Returning to the Ypres Salient, the 8th Battalion took a prominent part in the first of the battles that formed the Battle of Passchendaele – the Battle of Menin Road on 20 September.

In a letter written to his mother on 23 September, Bob stated at the time of writing that he was at an Army School. He indicated that he would be away from the firing line for about six weeks, but that he ‘liked it very much after the very hard work they had had.’

‘…At the end of the term here we will have learned a lot, as the school itself is very up to date.
I have met a lot of old friends here, and have also met young Bert Hamill, from Beech Forest: he is a nephew of Nurse Mitchell's. I also met young Bell [a son of Mr T. Bell, former greengrocer at Creswick]t in the school. I have not heard from Alex lately, but he would be with the boys in the great push that is in progress. They are doing great work again, and in a way, I would like to be with the boys. This is the first time I have missed anything since leaving Egypt, so that is not a bad record…’
The 8th Battalion continued in the line at Broodseinde Ridge, and further fighting around Westhoek Ridge. Bob had returned from school and was at ANZAC Ridge when the enemy launched an intense bombardment of gas shells during the night of 27-28 October. Bob was affected by the gas, but remained on duty. Even so, his family were duly notified and the following appeared in the Creswick Advertiser,
‘…Mr and Mrs R. H. Bowley, of North Creswick, have been notified by the Defence department that Lance Corporal Robert Bowley, one of their sons on active service, has been slightly wounded, and was suffering from the effects of gas, the latter probably being caused through being kept on duty in the trenches for too long a period…’

Back in Australia, Emma Bowley was given the honour of unveiling the honour board at the North Creswick Methodist Church on 30 December. The board bore the names of 48 former Sunday School scholars, including her three sons.

In March 1918, Bob received a well-earned leave pass, which he spent in France. He rejoined the 8th on 28 March in the Wytschaete Sector outside Ypres.
During the attack on Herleville Wood on 9 August 1918, Bob’s brother, Alex, who was serving with the 2nd Machine Gun Battalion, performed an act of uncommon bravery, showing ‘great resource and presence of mind,’ that resulted in him being awarded the Military Medal.

‘…Forward of the objective he saw one of our teams knocked out by point blank shell fire. Without hesitation he ran forward into “No-Man’s Land,” brought the gun back to his team and put it into action. He then went forward again, bandaged the wounded and carried them back under heavy fire. Though deafened and stunned, Private Bowley carried on for hours assisting the wounded from “No-Man’s Land” back to safety. His courage and devotion to duty were most conspicuous…’

The 8th Battalion, meanwhile, was in the line near the village of Foucaucourt. On the 24 August, at about 3am the enemy threw Yellow Cross and other gas shells into the woods and the area around Battalion Headquarters. The vicinity remained thick with gas for hours afterwards, and, as the day wore on, a number of men, mainly from the Support Line Company, succumbed to the fumes and were evacuated.

Bob Bowley was amongst those badly gassed and he was immediately admitted to the 41st Casualty Clearing Station at Proyart, suffering from vomiting, difficulty breathing and chest pains. He was placed on an Ambulance Train the next day and taken through to the 1st Australian General Hospital at Rouen, where he was admitted on 26 August.
On 30 August, Bob was invalided to the UK onboard the Hospital ship Aberdonian. He was admitted to the Bath War Hospital on 31 August. During his time there, Bob continued to suffer from dyspnoea (shortness of breath), giddiness, and a rapid pulse after the slightest effort. His chest was clear, but he was very weak and easily exhausted.

News that Bob had been admitted to the Bath War Hospital with gas shell poisoning (although his actual condition was not stated) reached Robert and Emma Bowley on 23 September. This news proved overwhelming for the young man’s father. The ensuing tragedy, which unfolded on 30 September, was played out in graphic detail in the local newspaper.

‘…Very great regret was expressed throughout the town yesterday morning when it became known that Mr Robert Hobden Bowley, of North Creswick, had hanged himself, for the deceased, who was of a quiet and unassuming nature, was respected by all who knew him.

The deceased, after enjoying very good health for the greater part of his lifetime, contracted miners' complaint, and four years ago he had to give up work. Of late his illness was a source of much worry to him, and he had the additional burden thrown on him of being troubled by the fact that he had three sons on active service. This became aggravated a few days ago by the reception of the news that one son had been badly gassed, and had been admitted to one of the hospitals in England.

His troubles evidently preyed on his mind, for he was missed from his room early yesterday morning, and when a search was made, he was discovered hanging from a rafter in an outbuilding.

The late Mr Bowley was born in Melbourne 61 years ago, and came to Creswick when a lad. He had resided here ever since. There is a widow and family of six sons and four daughters to mourn their loss, and the relatives have the deep sympathy of very many friends in their bereavement.

Mr Geo. Tait, J.P., deputy coroner, held an inquiry yesterday morning, when the following evidence was adduced:— Emma Jane Bowley deposed that she was the widow of the deceased, who went to bed about 7.30 the previous night, saying "bed is the best place, I think." He had been complaining during the past six months of feeling ill. He had been weak and unable to get his breath. He suffered from miners' complaint.
Her daughter, Ivy, retired when she did about 10.30 p.m. She heard her husband moving in bed; he was in a room opposite hers. She did not hear him get up.
She got up about 7 o'clock that morning. Just as she went out, she saw that her husband was not in his bed, so she went outside to see if she could see him. She looked round the yard. When she could not see him, she went and woke up her son Gordon, and asked if he knew where his father was. He replied that he did not, and asked if he was not in bed. Then went to see if her husband's clothes were there. Her son occupied the same room as his father. The clothes were all there.

She went outside to a storeroom in the back yard, and saw her husband hanging there. Called Gordon and got him to go for her neighbour, Mr Coffey, who came. Her husband had never stated he thought about taking his life. He never seemed so depressed as to say life was not worth living, or anything of that sort. He had been depressed during the last six months, and during the last three months he had been talking a good deal to himself.
She had not been well for some time. They have three sons at the front; and news came about a fortnight or 10 days ago that one of them was badly gassed. The news seemed to affect her husband very much.
Gordon Bowley corroborated his mother's evidence regarding being called. He went out to see what was wrong. He looked in the store room and saw his father hanging from the roof. He went for Mr Coffey.
Thomas Coffey deposed that at about 7 a.m. that day his wife told him there was something wrong at Bowley's, to go down at once. He was in bed, but dressed and hurried down. Was pointed to the store room, about 10 yards from the residence. Opened the door and immediately inside the deceased was suspended by a strap from the ceiling. His body was quite warm. The arms were cold. There was no pulse. There was no doubt of his appearance showing death. Cut the strap and reported the matter to the police.
Had seen deceased from day to day for some weeks past. He complained much of shortness of breath, not being able to walk, the misery of not being able to work, and the great risks of his boys at the war. He seemed very depressed. Thought all this had a tendency to unhinge his mind. Had never said to witness that life was not worth living.

There was a chair alongside, and some shelves from which to fasten the strap. Once he got off, he could not have recovered his position. He could not save himself once the strap was tightened.
Witness lifted the body before cutting the strap. He thought the body had been dead about an hour.

The deputy coroner recorded a finding that the death of Robert Hobden Bowley on the 30th September, was due to suicide by hanging whilst in a state of unsound mind. The funeral will take place this (Tuesday) afternoon, leaving his late residence, Pasco street. North Creswick, at 3 o'clock, for the local cemetery…’
(It is important to note at this point that, unfortunately, we don’t know when Bob was informed of his father’s death. Unsure of her son’s condition, Emma would have had to make the difficult, if not impossible decision to send a cable through to Bath).

Despite his symptoms persisting, at the beginning of October, Bob was passed fit enough to be discharged to furlough. He was to report to the Littlemoor Camp at the No4 Command Depot, Weymouth, on 16 October.

Bob was still at Weymouth when the war ended.
By the end of November, Bob was ‘still short of wind’ after exercise, and, during a Medical Board held on 3 December, it was evident that he was still far from well – all the earlier symptoms were continuing to cause him distress.

On 20 December 1918, Bob boarded the Orient steamer, Orontes, at the Liverpool dock to begin his journey home. His condition was monitored throughout the voyage, with his symptoms still quite marked: his resting heartrate was 104 beats per minute.
The Orontes berthed at the New Railway Pier in Melbourne on 30 January 1919. Being the first well-known liner to arrive since the signing of the Armistice, it was immediately noted that the former camouflaging and “war grey” paintwork had gone and her pre-war colours – black hull, red water line, buff and white deck fittings and masts, and yellow funnels – had been reinstated.

The spectre of the global influenza pandemic also clung close to the all mentions of the ship’s arrival.
Given the state of Bob’s lungs, the threat of influenza was very real. However, he managed to avoid the dreaded virus and returned home to Creswick and his former job with the Advertiser – although he was physically disabled by a quarter according to the doctors. He was immediately recommended for discharge from the AIF as permanently unfit, which was confirmed on 16 March 1919.

Later in the year, Bob took a position as a compositor on The Mail newspaper at Ouyen. His health, however, continued to cause concern.

In June 1921, an alarm was raised when Bob went missing from his room. He had been unwell for some time and real ‘fears were entertained for his safety.’ Search parties were immediately organised, and Bob was eventually found by the police – 15-miles from Ouyen, exhausted and clad only in a singlet. They transported him to the St Arnaud Hospital.

We are left wondering as to the state of Bob’s mind… Given the nature of the theories as to the causes of Robert Bowley’s suicide, it can be assumed that some of this was fed back to his sons. It is also fair to assume that there would have been a certain degree of unreasonable guilt in having caused their father further stress.

A further tragedy occurred on 16 July 1921, when Alex Bowley, who was working as a bread carter in the Melbourne suburb of Auburn, met with an unfortunate accident. He was travelling on a tram along Riversdale Road when his hat blew off into the street. Without thinking, Alex stepped off the moving tram and fell heavily to the ground. Although he was then accompanied home, he refused to see a doctor. When he later collapsed, he was rushed to hospital, but died from a fractured skull and ‘compression of the brain’ on the way.

In the years following Alex’s death, Bob continued to live and work in Ouyen, before returning once again to take over as proprietor of the Creswick Advertiser in 1927.

On 6 October 1927, Bob left his room at an hotel in North Creswick ostensibly to meet a workmate. His body was found the next day on the railway line west of the township, having apparently been run over by the late-night goods and early morning passenger trains.

Local newspapers hinted at a mystery surrounding his death. There were also indications ‘that of late he had been despondent.’ A coroner’s inquest concerned itself with a gash on his head and injuries to his side and came down with the verdict of accidental death, supposing that he had been knocked down by the earlier train. There was seemingly no mention of his state of mind or of the previous episode at Ouyen during the course of proceedings. Nor was the considerable distance from the railway line to the Bob’s proposed route of travel brought into question.

Indeed, it IS a mystery, raising many unanswerable questions.