No.3139 – Private James Cowan – 48th Battalion AIF

James’s mother Sarah penned the following epitaph for his grave from her house in East St, East Fremantle: "Weighed in the balance and not found wanting."   


James Cowan was born in Melbourne in 1887 and while still a child his family moved across to Fremantle where his father began a timber yard on the corner of Market Street & South Terrace.

James attended Fremantle Grammar School and was heavily involved in local sporting activities, later being a member of the successful Fremantle Caledonian Soccer Club.

James enlisted in early 1916 and was at Blackboy Hill Camp for 33 days but on account of his Father’s death he was released from service to assist his family. However in November 1916 he again offered his services and was accepted into the AIF, whereupon he embarked on more training at Blackboy Hill camp.

He was firstly put into the 7th Reinforcements to the 44th Battalion, but instead on the 23rd of December 1916 he embarked from Fremantle on the H.M.A.T. Berrima with the 8th reinforcements to the 48th Battalion.After arrival in England he was sent to the 12th Training Battalion, the training unit of the 12th Brigade, for further infantry instruction. Apart from one bout of sickness for which he was sent to hospital for 5 days, and a period of leave in which he visited relatives in Northern Ireland, James stayed with the 12th Training Battalion until June 1917 when he was sent over to France to join the 48th Battalion in the field.

He joined the 48th Battalion which had just come from the front line after their work at Messines; and he stayed with them through their time at the front in August and September around the vicinity of Wytschaete.

It was during the Third Battle of Ypres on October 12th 1917 when the 48th Battalion was attacking along the Ypres railway line that James was wounded in the leg. Though the infantry of the 48th advanced on their section of the line and overcame opposition in front, their flanks were in the air due to the failure of adjoining units. Thus with only a thin outpost line of men in front it was going to be a difficult position to hold and even though the first German counter attack was held off, further stronger attacks pushed the soldiers of the 48th Battalion back, and while retiring many were cut down by fire from the front and flanks.

To exacerbate matters the headquarters of the 48th was largely wiped out by German shellfire and due to the German pressure, the men of the 48th finally retired to their original positions. According to the 48th Battalion history:

"the hardest feature about the whole attempt was the fact that so many of the wounded were necessarily lost. When the battalion retired, the enemy following up so closely gave no chance to any man who fell badly wounded…Leaving the wounded behind, however involuntary and inevitable, is a bitter experience, and it formed a fitting and gloomy climax to the ill fortunes of the day.'"

James Cowan, one of the fortunate wounded to be rescued, received gun shot wounds to the right knee and back and was taken to the 3rd Field Ambulance. He was then sent to No.24 General Hospital at Etaples, where he stayed for over a month. However, the doctors were unable to save his infected leg, and it required amputation above the knee as a consequence of gas gangrene setting in.

He was soon after deemed fit enough to be sent as a stretcher case to England, and after crossing the channel was sent to the Civil General Hospital in Birmingham where every care was given to him.

The following letter was penned by the matron of the hospital about Cowan’s short stay.

"He was admitted to this hospital on Thursday evening Nov. 22nd last, he was very ill, but seemed to improve a little next day. He had had his right leg amputated above the knee in France and the limb was in a very bad condition, complicated by ‘gas gangrene’. We were from the first, afraid of secondary haemorrhage and watched him very carefully. It occurred during Saturday evening and he was at once taken to the Operating Theatre and the bleeding was stopped. He stood this very well and came around from the anaesthetic, which was only a short one, but later on he sank and died very quietly just before midnight. He had given his relations address as being in Australia, and it was not until Saturday afternoon that I discovered that he had an Uncle and Aunt living in London. We immediately telegraphed to them, asking them to come. A reply was received saying they would come Monday, unless it was necessary for them to come on Sunday, upon which another wire was sent asking them to come as soon as possible, as it was evident that he might not live to the Monday. The Uncle arrived on Sunday, but in the meantime that patient had died.
The Uncle arranged for the funeral to take place in Belfast, where he had relations, otherwise he would have had a military funeral here…
I spoke to Pte. Cowan myself during the afternoon of Saturday and asked if there was not anything he would fancy, as he would take so very little, but he said that Nurse had just given him a drink of coffee and that all they had offered him was very nice, but that he had absolutely no appetite. He appeared to be very ill, and I sent my Assistant up to see him a little later on, to see if she could write a letter for him or do anything else. He thanked her, however, and said he had no letters he wished to write, that Nurse had already offered to do so. I think he was so thoroughly poisoned through, being in such a septic state, that his mind was a little dulled. He appeared to be apathetic.
At the end he sank so quickly and quietly, there was not time to write, even had he seemed to want to do so. He sent no sort of message to anyone – He was very patient and uncomplaining but evidently felt very ill.”

James Cowan died of his wounds on the 24th of November 1917 and his body, accompanied by his Uncle was taken across to Belfast for burial in the family plot, and though his mother could not be there he was laid to rest among his relatives. (Also remembered on the family grave is an Irish Uncle of James Cowan, Captain William Craig who was killed when HMS Harbury was sunk in June 1917 and his body was not recovered).

The funeral was reported in the Belfast Newspaper The Northern Whig, 'Military Funeral in Belfast':

"The news of the death on Sunday of Private James Cowan, Australian Forces, in the General Hospital, Birmingham, was received in Belfast by those who knew him with sincere regret. Yesterday morning the remains arrived from England by the Fleetwood boat, and the funeral took place with full military honours, the interment being in Balmoral Cemetery. Deceased was the second son of the late Mr John Cowan, Fremantle, West Australia, and grandson of the late Mr Hugh Craig, Belfast. The chief mourners were Rev DH Craig, Mr James Craig, Mr JC Craig and Mr A Craig (uncles), Rev James Meek, Mr Alexander Moore, Mr James Tate and Mr J McDowell (uncles-in-law). A large number of friends also attended. The firing party and band were supplied by the Northumberland Fusiliers. At the graveside a brief service was conducted by the Rev Dr R Barron and the Rev WA Watson, MA, BD. The usual volleys were fired and the "Last Post" sounded on the bugle. Messrs Melville & Co Ltd has charge of the funeral arrangements, which were carried out satisfactorily."

Later, James’s mother Sarah penned the following epitaph for his grave from her house in East St, East Fremantle: "Weighed in the balance and not found wanting."

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