The young Australian soldier above, Colin Douglas McCowan, was killed almost 100 years ago in the aftermath of the Battle of Messines (June 7-14, 1917) in Belgium. The John Oxley Library has recently digitised photographs, correspondence, postcards, and ephemera relating to this brave soldier, which were kindly donated to us by his descendants.
Colin Douglas McCowan (service no. 167) was born at Palmers Channel on the Clarence River in New South Wales. He was the eldest son of Alexander McCowan, a sugar cane farmer and miller, and his wife Annie, nee McDonald. The couple had seven children, four boys and three girls, and eventually established a dairy farm at Mullumbimby in the Northern Rivers region of New South Wales, before moving over the border to North Arm on Queensland’s Sunshine Coast, in late 1915.
Colin enlisted in Lismore on the 18th October 1915 at the age of 23. Together with his cousin, D.D. Campbell, and other boys from the Tweed region, he travelled over the border to Queensland for basic training at Thompsons Paddock in Enoggera, Brisbane.
He was assigned to A Company of the 42nd Battalion where he was shortly promoted to Corporal in May 1916. The 42nd Battalion was known as the “Australian Black Watch” as it shared its numeric title with the famous Scottish regiment of that name. Like its Scottish equivalent it was recognised by its bagpipe band and contained many men, like Colin, of Scottish descent.
Colin embarked from Sydney on 5 June 1916 on the ship HMAT A30 Borda, travelling to England for training at Lark Hill Camp on the Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
Colin wrote the following letter to his mother on 21st October:
My Dear Mother. I received your last yesterday, also one from Chris and Alleine. To-day the 11th Brigade was inspected by our Brigadier. We had to turn out in fighting order. It was just to see if we had everything ready. We received our rifles today, the ones we will use. I was hoping that we would never use them but it is inevitable that we shall sooner or later. Not this winter though, at least I do not think so. (Accession 30729/18)
The 42nd Battalion, including Colin, deployed to France in November 1916 to fight against German forces on the Western Front. The men endured the horrendous conditions of the bitterly cold winter of 1916/17. During 1917 the 42nd, which was part of the 3rd Division, took part in the Battle of Messines in early June, and it was in the aftermath of this major engagement, on the 24th of June, that Colin McCowan was killed in action.
According to reports Colin was initially wounded in the buttock and on his way to a dressing station was hit directly by a shell. After being listed as missing in action, it was not until an enquiry in 1918 that his family were officially notified of his death. One can only imagine the pain and suffering which they endured. Colin rose to the rank of sergeant and is commemorated at the Menin Gate Memorial in Belgium which includes the names of 6178 Australians with no known grave.
The collection also includes a typescript about, and group photograph of, the Queensland Schools’ Rugby League Representative Team in Sydney, 1921. One of the group is Donald McCowan, the younger brother of Colin.
The McCowan family photographs and correspondence, Accession 30729, is available online.
Original Materials Librarian