Uncanny: WW1 story unfolds

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Former Oamaru man Greg Hall, now of Auckland, visited Oamaru recently researching World War 1 for a future novel and came across the intriguing story of Jack Cowan, a farmer from Kia Ora who was killed in the war.

He writes of what he learned.

On page 19 of Lindsay Malcolm’s book, ‘The Waiareka Warriors’, he features John William (Jack) Cowan of Kia Ora district killed in action July 24, 1918. [tab] At the end of the page dedicated to Jack Cowan, Lindsay notes an anecdote told to him by the son of Jack Cowan’s ex-neighbour Alan Thompson.

Before departing for overseas, Jack walked over to his Kia Ora neighbour John Thompson carrying his saddle, bridle and whip on his shoulder. [tab] He told them to keep them if he didn’t come back.

Those items remain in the Thompson family today.

Alan Thompson recalls riding a horse called ‘Peace’ that was born on Armistice Day November 11, 1918 using the saddle left behind by Jack Cowan.

This story also invokes the ghost of Jack Cowan.

During the week of November 17 to 22 I was in Oamaru carrying out some research into a First World War project.

As part of that project I had read the excellent book by Dorothy McKenzie and Lindsay Malcolm, ‘Boots, Belts, Rifle & Pack’, which provides a narrative around a collection of letters by Lindsay’s father Bill Malcolm written to members of his family during WW1.

I also met with Lindsay Malcolm and had a very pleasant hour or so with him while we talked about the book and the war history.

On Friday 21st, my second cousin, Margery Uttley told me at dinner that she had unearthed what she thought was a medal from her garden at 19 Till Street a few years ago.

She can’t remember exactly when, however, she asked me if I would like to look at it.

So on Saturday 22nd, before leav ing for Dunedin I called in to see Margery and the medal.

I recognised straight away as a First World War, ‘British War Medal’, one of usually two awarded to those who served during 1916 1918.

The medal is not in great condition after being buried in the garden for what might be anything up to 90 years…probably not that long.

However a careful examination of the rim under light with a magnifying glass revealed that it had been awarded to Pvte J. W. Cowan.

A small light went on in my head and I thought I recalled the Cowan name from Lindsay’s book. [tab] Sure enough, on page 114 there is a letter from Bill Malcolm to his brother Alex in which he confesses to “being shocked to hear about Jack Cowan.”

A quick look at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website re vealed that Private J. W. (Jack) Cowan had been killed on July 24, 1918.

His service number was 63305.

The details on the rim of the medal confirm that this is that same Jack Cowan’s medal.

It is quite uncanny that all of this should come to light during a time I was in Oamaru researching WW1 and that the coincidence of the book which revealed the name and the discovery of and identification of the recipient should be so closely related.

I discussed this with Lindsay Malcolm and he gave me two leads to try in an effort to track down a relation.

The first proved to be an other Cowan family and not related.

I spoke to Alan Thompson, whose father wasthe Cowan’s ex-neighbour and he confirmed that there are no living relatives on the Cowan side of the family with both a brother and sister having never married.

The next secret to be revealed is ‘how did the medal come to be buried in the garden at 19 Till Street and could that garden possibly also hold a ‘Victory’ medal which would have been awarded to Jack Cowan and forwarded to his next of kin at the same time?

PHOTO: Oamaru resident Margery Uttley in her garden where she found a medal belonging to Jack Cowan.