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Campbell COWLEY

Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Trooper 2366 35y11m 17 Apr 1917 29 Aug 1919 3

Campbell Cowley (1881-1919)

Cowley Brothers booklet

Campbell was a Kiplingesque adventurer who was a Lieutenant in the Boer War, did intelligence work and hunted elephants in Africa, had a coconut plantation in Papua, and fought in the 11th Light Horse Regiment in Palestine. He died in an apparent suicide in a remote part of Papua in 1919.

His younger brother William Roy Cowley served in the artillery in the First World War and is the subject of a separate entry.

Family background

Campbell's parents – Sir Alfred Sandlings Cowley and Lady Maria (‘Marie’) Cowley nee Campbell - were notable in Queensland public affairs. Sir Alfred was born in England in 1848 but his Baptist lay missionary father took the family to Natal in South Africa in 1859.  Alfred did an apprenticeship and specialised in the installation of sugar cane machinery, but then became a sugar cane and coffee planter. Alfred migrated to Queensland in 1871, where his expertise was valued, and he entered into public life. From 1888 to 1907 he was the member for the North Queensland seat of Herbert in the Legislative Assembly, as well as secretary for public lands and secretary for agriculture 1890-93, and Speaker of the Assembly 1893-99 and 1903-07. He was knighted in 1904.

With the outbreak of war in 1914, Sir Alfred and Lady Cowley became heavily involved on the domestic front. Sir Alfred was an ‘ardent recruiter and conscriptionist’ and chairman of the Queensland Patriotic Fund. Lady Cowley was a vice-president of the Queensland division of the Red Cross Society, founder and president of the Queensland Soldiers’ Comforts Fund, and vice-president of the Sock Fund (which she also helped to establish). For her war work she was made an Officer of the British Empire (OBE).  An image in the photo gallery taken at the family home "Silky Oaks", Elizabeth Street, Toowong on 24 April 1919, shows an "At Home" given by Lady Cowley for Workers of Queensland Soldiers' Comforts Funds.

One of her nieces in South Africa, Edith Campbell was known to the Australian diggers as ‘the Angel of Durban’ for her warm welcomes and farewells by semaphoring with flags, gifts of fresh fruit to their ships, hosting of large tea parties in the grounds of her parents’ home, and supervision of hospitality at the Durban Young Men’s Christian Association building. She was enthusiastically greeted by returned servicemen throughout a five-month tour of Australia in 1923.

Beyond the war years, Lady Cowley was recognised as someone who gave considerable service to the community and ‘innumerable acts of kindness for those around her and for charitable causes’. Among other things, she was a committee member of the Young Women’s Christian Association, and president for ten years of the Women’s Auxiliary of the Presbyterian Children’s Homes (the Blackheath Home at Oxley for boys and the W R Black Home at Chelmer for girls). She devoted time to transcribing books into braille. A regular attendee at services in Saint Andrew’s Church on the corner of Creek and Ann Streets in Brisbane, she was also a willing worker at the annual Anzac Day lunches for returned service personnel.

Early life

Campbell Cowley was born in Townsville on 4 May 1881, the eldest of the children. He was a student at Brisbane Grammar School (BGS) from February 1895 to June 1897, and was the School’s champion rifle shot 1895 and 1896, a member of the rugby first fifteen 1896-97, and winner of the Cadet championship prize in 1896. He finished his schooling at the King’s School in Sydney 1897-98, where he was again in the rugby first fifteen and a member of the rifle team.

He was then apprenticed with the Colonial Sugar Refining Company Ltd, working in the machine shop at the sugar refinery in New Farm, Brisbane and studying at the Technical College.

Africa and Papua

With Cowley and Campbell relatives engaged in the war with the Boers in South Africa, it is not surprising that in March 1900 Campbell Cowley enlisted in the Fourth (Queensland Imperial Bushmen) Contingent, in which he was made a Lieutenant. He was not impressed by the British Generals or the conduct of the war, writing home that: ‘Here we have the biggest army that the world has ever produced on active service, but we cannot subdue a few ignorant but brave and determined farmers who have no homes left standing or crops left unburned’. After that Contingent returned to Australia, perhaps somewhat surprisingly given his earlier comments, Campbell joined the Sixth Contingent and returned to South Africa, finishing his service in 1902.

In 1903 Campbell was - in the words of the Queensland Governor in 1919 - ‘detailed for special duty by the Imperial Government with the rank of acting-captain, and made a tour through Nairobi, Abyssinia, and Uganda. He pioneered country which had not been previously visited by a white man. His tour occupied three years’. Other newspaper reports were less coy and refer to him exploring Central Africa and ‘making valuable plans for the British Intelligence Service’.

From 1907 Campbell hunted elephants and traded in ivory in Uganda, Abyssinia, Kenya and probably Sudan. At one time he drafted an unfinished manuscript entitled ‘Hunting the mighty Atom’ - ‘Atom’ being a local name for elephant – and a copy of this is in the State Library of Queensland. Campbell returned to Australia in 1911 and then took up a coconut plantation named Mogubo, on the edge of Amazon Bay on the south coast of Papua, nearly two thirds of the way from Port Moresby to Samarai.

First World War

When the war started in 1914 Campbell returned to Brisbane with thoughts of enlisting. However, it seems that when told he would not be given an officer’s commission, and with the not uncommon presumption at the time that the war would not be a prolonged one, he returned to Papua.

After the early optimism of a short conflict evaporated, recruit numbers fell and the first of two referendums proposing the introduction of conscription was defeated, Campbell travelled to Brisbane and enlisted in the ranks of the AIF on 17 April 1917. He was one month short of his 36th birthday. He was recorded as 5’7” (170cms) tall, weighed 130lbs (59kg), with grey eyes, brown hair and a medium complexion. Placed as a trooper in the 19th reinforcement for the 11th Light Horse Regiment, Campbell embarked in Sydney on the Port Sydney in May 1917, and reached the Regiment in Palestine on 3 August 1917.

When Campbell arrived in Palestine there was something of a stalemate, with two earlier frontal attacks on Gaza having failed. However, a successful wide outflanking move led to the well-known cavalry charge to take the town of Beersheba. At the time the 11th had a flank protection role and was not directly involved in the charge itself. The 11th did take part in a charge on 7 November against Turkish positions at Sheria, but heavy fire forced them to dismount and withdraw.

In December Campbell had an attack of malaria – something he had first suffered in the Boer War – and was hospitalised for a little over a month. In April the 11th moved into the Jordan Valley and took part in the Es Salt operation at the end of April and early May. Crossing points over the Jordan then had to be defended and determined Turkish and German assaults on 14 and 15 July 1918 were repelled.

In August the 11th was issued with swords and trained in traditional cavalry tactics – historian Jean Bou has tracked how by the end of the war most of the light horse had been converted from mounted rifles to fully effective cavalry. In the last cavalry charge of the war in Palestine, the 11th stormed the Turkish defences around the town of Semakh with swords drawn, and then dismounted and using rifles and bayonets cleared the town on foot. Campbell was wounded during this action, with a gun shot wound to his left leg.

The Turks surrendered on 30 October 1918, but before they returned home the 11th was called on to defend European civilians, suppress public disorder and protect transport in rural areas during a civilian revolt that broke out in March 1919.

Return to Australia and Papua

Campbell embarked on the Essex in June and arrived back in Australia on 28 July 1919, being formally discharged on 29 August 1919.  

He became engaged to Isabella Mary (‘May’) Philp, the eldest daughter of Sir Robert Philp, who had been Premier of Queensland 1899-1903 and 1907-08. The Philp and Cowley families had had a strong social connection over the years, and May’s brother Colin had been a fellow officer with Campbell in the same Contingents during the Boer War.

Campbell was apparently anxious to see the state of his plantation, and no doubt conscious of the need for a sound financial position with marriage looming, he returned to Papua as soon as practicable.

On 26 November 1919 Campbell died in the village of Doi-labi in the Iomedi district, Upper Musa. A magistrate took evidence from eight natives that while on a recruiting expedition Campbell became very ill, and after a shot was heard one night, Campbell was found dead in his sleeping quarters with a gunshot wound to his throat. It was said that his carriers and the villagers including a village constable had buried Campbell the next day, along with most of his belongings.

A diary kept by Campbell was also tendered, which showed that he had fallen ill on 8 November and on 19  November had written that ‘I am too ill to walk and the situation is becoming serious’.

The magistrate concluded: ‘That the cause of the deceased’s death was a bullet wound, inflicted by himself, that the deceased was in a very weak state of health at time of death, that the deceased could not obtain the necessary medicine and attention, being in the centre of Papua, and that there is no evidence to show that the wound was not the result of an accident.’

It seems unusual for a suicide using a firearm to involve a shot through the throat, and frontier Papua New Guinea could be a violent and dangerous place, but the magistrate was satisfied that the accounts given by Campbell’s native bearers and by the villagers were the same. Importantly, it seems that Campbell had developed blackwater fever - malarial haemoglobinuria - a complication of malaria which even today can prove fatal in up to 50% of cases. Symptoms include urine that is black or dark red in colour as extensive destruction of the patient’s red cells by malarial parasites releases large amounts of haemoglobin. In a remote place without medical care Campbell would have known his chances of survival were negligible.

A description from the coroner of the gravesite was relayed to Sir Alfred – it was said to be a bleak desolate spot in grass country, on a low ridge, fenced and very clean all around, with a cross of Bandilla wood into which was burnt ‘CAMPBELL COWLEY Died 26.11.1919’. For a man who had spent his adult life journeying, hunting, fighting and working in remote and wild places, it seems a suitable resting place.

Select bibliography
• Australian War Memorial – embarkation rolls, unit histories and war diaries
• Brisbane Grammar School records - Golden Book, Annals 1869-1922
• National Archives of Australia – service records
• Queensland births, marriages and deaths registers
• Bou, Jean Light Horse: a history of Australia’s mounted arm Cambridge University Press, 2009.
• Brugger, Suzanne, Australians and Egypt 1914-1919 Melbourne University Press, 1980.
• Cowley, Donald C.,  A Cowley story: with tables of the descendants of Sir Alfred Cowley (1848-1926) and his wife (Marie) Lady Cowley (1860-1940) (self-published, Toowong 1990). Held in the State Library of Queensland.
• Cowley, Donald C., Campbell Cowley: life and letters (self-published, Toowong, 1990). Held in the State Library of Queensland.
• Hammond, Ernest W., History of the 11th Light horse Regiment, Fourth Light Horse Brigade, Australian Imperial Forces: War 1914-1919 (William Brooks and Co, Brisbane, 1942)
• Wilcox, Craig, The Boer War: Australians and the war in South Africa, 1899-1902 (National Archives of Australia, 2000)
In respect of Campbell Cowley:
Daily Standard (Brisbane) 15 December 1919 p7
Cairns Post 14 January 1920 p4
The Brisbane Courier 13 December 1919 p15
The Daily Mail (Brisbane) 17 December 1919 p4
• Warwick Daily News 16 December 1919 p4
In respect of Lady Cowley:
The Telegraph (Brisbane) 14 May 1919 p8; 7 December 1920 p9; 26 April 1921 p7; 27 May 1940 pp5 and 8
The Courier Mail (Brisbane) 4 December 1933 p16; 28 May 1940 p10.
In respect of Sir Alfred:
The Brisbane Courier 10 November 1904 p5.
The Telegraph (Brisbane) 3 December 1926 p5.
The Week (Brisbane) 10 December 1926 p21.
• Saunders, Kay, ‘Cowley, Sir Alfred Sandlings (1848-1926)’, Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, Vol 8 (MUP, 1981)

Compiled by Ian Carnell.  February 2016, Edits MK November 2022 ©



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