COWAN, James

Service Number: 2586
Enlisted: 7 February 1916, Mount Gambier, South Australia
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 32nd Infantry Battalion
Born: Moralana Station, South Australia, 17 December 1897
Home Town: Amyton, Mount Remarkable, South Australia
Schooling: Hammond, South Australia
Occupation: Labourer
Died: Died of wounds, France, 2 December 1916, aged 18 years
Cemetery: Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension
Memorials: Adelaide National War Memorial, Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour
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World War 1 Service

7 Feb 1916: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, 2586, Mount Gambier, South Australia
25 Mar 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, 2586, 32nd Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1, --- :embarkation_roll: roll_number: '17' embarkation_place: Adelaide embarkation_ship: HMAT Shropshire embarkation_ship_number: A9 public_note: ''
25 Mar 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, 2586, 32nd Infantry Battalion, HMAT Shropshire, Adelaide
29 Nov 1916: Wounded AIF WW1, Private, 2586, 32nd Infantry Battalion, GSW (face)

Private James COWAN, 2586, 32nd Battalion AIF

James COWAN was orphaned at an early age. Enlisted at 18 years and one month of age. Dying in France on 2-12-1916 (15 days before his 20th birthday) from wounds received on 29-11-1916, his medals, memorial scroll and memorial plaque are all still held by the Army for someone to claim as Next of Kin.

Private James COWAN
17-12-1897 - 2-12-1916

James COWAN was born at Moralana Station, South Australia on 17th of December 1897. He is recorded (in the WW1 Pictorial Honour Roll of South Australians) as having been the son of William TRAFFORD & Ida Lily May COWAN (nee TURNER) but I am unable to confirm this. James is also listed as having the middle names of “Trafford Castle” but again I am unable to confirm this. Moralana Station is about 50 kilometres north of Hawker S.A.

James was made a ward of the State when given into their care when he was aged 1 year and 2 months old. James’ mother had died and his “alleged father” was in the “stockade”. (Ida Lily May COWAN is buried at Moralana Station Cemetery having died on July 27th 1899 aged 23 years so it is possible he was placed into care before she passed as she was unable to care for him.) James was moved through various homes until on his birthday, the 17th December 1910, aged 12 years he was placed with James LEITCH at AMYTON (about 9 kilometres from HAMMOND and 25 kilometres from WILMINGTON.) LIETCH later testified that whilst James was in his care he considered himself his “foster father”. Whilst in AMYTON, James was a popular lad and a member of the Methodist Church.

By January 1914, (3 years later) LEITCH returned James to being a ward of the State saying he was “No longer able to keep” the lad. In February 1915 James was placed with a family at “Margaret Flatt near Mount Gambier” and was still a ward of the State until December 1915 when he turned 18 years of age.

On 7th February 1916, James enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) at Mount Gambier. He was described as being 18 years & 1 month old, 5’10” tall, 147 lbs, (67 kgs) with a 37” chest, a medium to fair complexion, blue eyes and light brown hair.

On enlistment James filled out paperwork including a Will in which he left “the whole of my property and effects to Mr James LEITCH of Hammond, South Australia.” He was allocated to the 5th Reinforcements of the 32nd Battalion and entered training. He was allocated the Battalion number 2586.

On the 25th of March 1916 he embarked with the rest of the 5th Reinforcements from Adelaide aboard “HMAT Shropshire”. They embarked for Egypt and after training embarked again for France.

On arrival James and the reinforcements did yet some more training but soon were with the 32nd. The 32nd Battalion was being prepared to be moved in and out of front line positions. On the 5th of July 1916 James was admitted to hospital with hydrocele, and he re-joined his battalion on 13th August, luckily the illness means he missed the massacre of the 32nd Battalion men that occurred at Fromelle. The 32nd Battalion was committed to the Western front for the first time on 16 July 1916. On the 19th July 1916 only three days after taking up position in the trenches the 32nd took part in the fighting around Fromelles during which it suffered 718 casualties—which equalled roughly 90 percent of its effective strength !— a third of the battalion's total casualties for the entire war. The Battalion was withdrawn from action to be rebuilt. On that one terrible, senseless day over 5,500 Australians became casualties at Fromelles. Almost 2,000 of them were killed in action or died of wounds and some 400 were captured. This is believed to be the greatest loss by a single division in 24 hours during the entire First World War. Some consider Fromelles the most tragic event in Australia’s history.

Once rebuilt the 32nd Battalion in November 1916 were moving in and out of the front line in the Ancre valley area of the Somme. It was a cold and wet winter gradually getting colder as the year moved towards its end.

The state of the ground on the Somme front became much worse in November 1916, when constant rain fell and the ground which had been churned by shellfire since June, turned to deep mud again. (Some witnesses considered that the state of the ground was worse than at Ypres a year later.)

The ground in the Ancre valley was in the worst condition, described as “a wilderness of mud, flooded trenches, shell-hole posts, corpses and broken equipment, overlooked and vulnerable to sniping from German positions.” Little could be done beyond holding the line and frequently relieving troops, who found the physical and mental strain almost unbearable.

Supplies had to be moved up by soldiers at night, to avoid sniping by German infantry and artillery-fire. Horses in transport units were used as pack animals and lots died when the oat ration was reduced to 6 lb (2.7 kg) per day as sourcing and getting the animals food was extremely difficult.
Constant rain wet the ground so badly, that horses drowned and men became stuck up to their waists; (It was so bad that in December ropes were issued to drag soldiers out of the mud.) New trenches collapsed as they were dug and the front and support lines were held by shell-hole posts, which became islands of squalor. Duckboards and ration boxes used as platforms sank under the mud; cooking became impossible and movement in daylight suicidal.

There were epidemics of dysentery, trench foot and frostbite; old wounds opened. Morale plummeted and moving about after dark led to working parties, runners, reliefs and ration parties getting lost and wandering around until exhausted.

No man's land was not wired on this part of the front and British and German troops blundered into the wrong positions, Germans being taken prisoner on six occasions. Some dug-outs in Regina Trench were usable but conditions in the artillery lines were as bad as the front line, with ammunition being delivered by pack horse under German artillery fire.

"Elephant" shelters (the materials for which took ten men to carry forward and 24 hours to build) were placed in the front-line, sunk below trench and shell-hole parapets. Larger shelters were dug into the sides of roads further back and only a minimal number of troops kept in the front zone.
On the north bank of the Ancre the 7th Division returned to the line after a month of rest and reorganisation in Flanders. It had marched 82 mi (132 km) south in rain and fog and returned to the line on 23 November, relieving the 32nd Division and the right of the 37th Division along New Munich Trench. The trench ran north-west to south-east below the crest of Beaumont Hamel spur; Beaucourt Trench ran east from the south end of New Munich Trench. The British line was parallel to the German end of Munich Trench and Muck Trench.

Conditions were worse if possible, than those on the south side of the Ancre valley, causing much sickness despite precautions like rubbing whale oil into the feet to prevent trench foot and bringing dry socks up with the rations. One battalion had 38 men sick after a short period in the line. The temperature dropped several times in December, which began to harden the ground but this brought torrential rain, an even worse ordeal. Snipers caused many British casualties and on one trench relief, the mud was so bad that a special rescue-party had to be sent to dig out troops caught in the mud. Despite swift medical attention, a large number of men had to be taken to hospital and one soldier is recorded to have died of exposure.

The area was covered with trenches, many of which were derelict, damaged, half-built or obliterated by artillery-fire. Identifying the course of the front line or relating it to the map was impossible, as was the reconstruction of the front line, because trenches collapsed as soon as they were dug. Despite the conditions, raids were mounted by both sides and a party of about 100 Germans was repulsed from New Munich Trench on 25 November.

Despite the conditions, New Munich Trench was extended to the north by the British and another 250 yd (230 m) was dug to the south, in preparation for an attack on Munich Trench as soon as conditions allowed. The British line was held by posts about 30 yd (27 m) apart during the day and on 29 November a German raid on one of the outposts failed.

On the 29th of November as the 32nd was again entering the trenches, The Battalion diary notes that the 32nds positions, especially in the “Zenith trench” area were “Shelled heavily and German machine guns were much more active” It is also noted that an officer and 15 other ranks went to hospital, 5 of whom were wounded.
James COWAN was one of those injured. He was shot in the face shattering his jaw and also in the thigh. He was taken back to the dressing station and then on to Number 2 Stationary hospital at Abbeville but on the 2nd of December 1916 he succumbed to his severe injuries.

James was 19 years old, a few weeks short of his 20th birthday. He was buried with a military funeral at the Abbeville Communal Cemetery Extension not far from the Hospital. James’ headstone is not adorned with a cross like many others but is plain, it has the epitaph “His Duty Nobly Done”, these were choices made in 1919 by James LEITCH.

Within a few weeks James LEITCH was advised of James’ death and the AMYTON community were devastated. A newspaper article referred to James loss.
“Adelaide Chronicle - 20 January 1917.

Much regret was expressed in the Amyton district when news was received of the death of Private James Cowan. He went to reside in the district at the age of 13 and was a member of the Methodist Church. In 1914 he went to Mount Gambier, from where he enlisted in February, 1916 and sailed for Egypt on March 25. From there he left for France and was four months in the trenches. He died of wounds on December 2 at the age of 19. Although an orphan boy, his cheerful disposition and lovable character endeared him to all who knew him. A memorial service was held in the Amyton Methodist Church on January 14 and was conducted by the Rev T. Wood."

Reports from the time advise that the memorial service was well attended. James LEITCH made application for James COWANs money and possessions as he had been named in his will as the recipient. In his application James LEITCH stated he had COWAN as a foster child since he was 10 years old after he had been placed into state care when he was 3 years old. He did not advise when or that COWAN had been returned to State care. In 1921 LEITCH applied for any medals that may be due James be given to him as he considered himself the “foster father”. He was paid monies owed to COWAN and on 15th September 1917 James LEITCH took possession of James COWANs possessions as returned by the army. They had travelled back to Australia aboard HMAT WILTSHIRE.

Efforts to locate James parents were unsuccessful and the State Childrens Department advised the Army that James had been in State care since he was 1 year and 2 months old after his mother had died. They advised that COWAN had entered James LEITCHs care on 17th December 1910 (his birthday) and returned to be a ward of the State in January 1914 as LEITCH stated he was “unable to keep” him.

The decision as to where James COWANs British War Medal, Victory Medal, Memorial Scroll, Kings Message and Memorial Plaque were to be sent was left to the Major, Commandant of Base Records for the 4th Military District (which was SA and NT). Who noted “Mr LEITCH took over the boy when he was 12 years of age and kept him -working presumably- till he was 16 years of age, I am of the opinion he has no claim to the war medals, he already got the lads money.”

As such LEITCH was advised he would not be considered eligible to receive COWANs war medals. The file was marked “Next of Kin - Untraceable” and James COWANs war medals are still being held by the Australian Army for issue to anyone who can prove they are eligible to receive them.

James COWAN is remembered on the HAMMOND Roll of Honour, The Australian Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial and on the National War Memorial, South Australia.

James is recorded on the Hammond Roll of Honour which was moved from the Hammond Hall when it was sold and placed into the care of the Wilmington Soldiers Memorial Hall where it is proudly displayed today.

James is remembered here as growing up he was part of Wilmington and surrounding Districts and sadly appears almost forgotten after he made the Supreme Sacrifice.


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Biography contributed by N. Campbell

James COWAN 2586 is commemorated as having died in service on the Hammond Roll of Honour,  South Australia. This Roll of Honour is displayed in the Wilmington Soldiers Memorial Hall. 




Much regret was expressed in the Amyton district when news was received of the death of Private James Cowan. He went to reside in the district at the age of 13, and was a member of the Methodist Church. In 1914 he went to Mount Gambier, from where he enlisted in February, 1916, and sailed for Egypt on March 25. From there he left for France, and was four months in the trenches. He died of wounds on December 2, at the age of 19. Although an orphan boy, his cheerful disposition and lovable character endeared him to all who knew him. A memorial service was held in the Amyton Methodist Church on January 14 and was conducted by the Rev T. Wood." - from the Adelaide Chronicle 20 Jan 1917 (nla.gov.au)