Sunday Insight: Windswept memorial

By Sandra Coney

As thousands of New Zealanders prepare for Anzac Day on Thursday, Sandra Coney tells the stories of two World War I soldiers whose names are engraved on a weathered plaque on Piha's Lion Rock.

Anzac Day visitors read the plaque at the base of Piha's Lion Rock. Photo / Supplied
Anzac Day visitors read the plaque at the base of Piha's Lion Rock. Photo / Supplied

Charlie Cowan was one of the lucky ones. Aged 18, he enlisted for the second Anglo-Boer War (1899-1902) and he survived. More than a decade later he again signed up, eight days after New Zealand declared itself at war in 1914. Once again, he survived.

Charlie Cowan's name, with his brother Doug's, is listed among the injured on a plaque near the foot of Lion Rock. Salt and wind are slowly etching away the Cowan brothers' names and they may one day disappear. For now, his name and those of 48 others are still visible as each Anzac Day hundreds of people gather on Piha beach to honour the memory of men who served in both world wars.

To the soulful skirling of the Otahuhu and District Pipe Band, residents, visitors and a smattering of returned servicemen march across the black sand to the foot of Lion Rock. There, joined by surfers, kids and dogs, they lay wreaths at the Rolls of Honour to both wars.

The older World War I plaque was erected to the men of Piha State Sawmill who served from 1914 to 1918. Its list of 49 names contains inaccuracies.

Some listed as dead actually came home, and some names are missing.

Piha's young men thronged to sign up for war, so the mill workforce suffered a considerable toll in deaths. Others, like Charlie Cowan, came home injured, maimed or suffered from gas or shellshock. Charlie, his brother Doug - who signed up under a false name when he was first rejected - and their cousin Keith are among those listed injured.

While many mill workers named on the plaque came from kauri milling areas further afield, especially Northland, Charlie had close ties to Piha. His father was from a Scottish family who settled there in the late-1860s. Charles Cowan snr ran the hauler that took cut timber over the hill on its journey to Manukau Harbour.

At Auckland Grammar, Charlie excelled at boxing, swimming and shooting, although worried his parents by running off to sea. An adventure-lover, he enlisted for the Anglo-Boer War, claiming to be 20.

In 1914, despite being married with five children, he signed up again. Military records of the Piha bushmen and millhands show they were small by modern standards, but tough with tons of stamina.

At 1.8m, Charlie was a big man. His job at Piha had been driving the locomotive, Sandfly, that pulled loads of timber to Whatipu, the line raised on trestles to keep it clear of the waves.

Gallipoli was shockingly different. Fighting in the Battle of the Landing, he dispatched two Turkish snipers at close range before they could get a shot away. But, while rescuing a wounded mate, Charlie was shot in the side - his ammunition belt taking most of the impact - and hit in the leg with a dum-dum bullet (which expanded on impact; outlawed by the Hague Convention of 1899).

"Our Company has been badly cut up," Charlie wrote from hospital to his father, "and I do not know who is left yet." He underwent painful treatments, including burning all the skin off his leg from hip to toes to kill an infection.

Invalided to Hornchurch Hospital in England, Charlie Cowan's war was over. He came home limping badly and spent time at Rotorua sanatorium recuperating. His wife suffered ill-health and the now six children were distributed around the family.

Once he was well enough, Charlie worked for the Kauri Timber Company in the Solomon Islands and later, with his cousin Jim O'Neill, went trading in the Solomons. A fellow trader described him as a "man of colossal strength, conspicuous in light-blue shirt and super-Stetson hat".

He shot crocodiles for their skins and was admired by the islanders for his physical feats, including saving locals from drowning.

Despite surviving horrific war wounds, Charlie didn't make old bones. In 1932, he contracted black water fever and died on Santa Cruz, where he was buried, far from his family.

Among the dead listed on the plaque is W O'Donnell but another O'Donnell brother, who worked at Piha, also died in that war. William and Jack O'Donnell were two of nine children born to John O'Donnell and his wife, Catherine, the widow of his bushman friend Richard Heke. The O'Donnell brothers, close in age, worked as bushmen. Jack enlisted a few days after war was announced and Bill six months later.

Jack was in the first contingent to leave Auckland. In April 1915 he was made a corporal just before the NZ troops arrived in the Dardanelles.

Private Ernest Bollard reported that he and Jack were smoking, waiting to advance, when a sniper's bullet "passed between our heads and smashed a twig alongside Jack's ear".

When the New Zealanders dashed forward, Jack was less lucky. He was shot through the heart. It was April 25, 1915, the day we commemorate as Anzac Day, and Jack was one of the first Kiwis to die.

Bill O'Donnell reached the Dardanelles in July and, while there, found Jack's grave and sent his mother a sprig of clover he plucked from the ground marked "A little piece of Gallipoli, Bill". Nearly 100 years later, his family still treasures it.

Bill went on to France, writing home that leaving "dear old Jack behind was a big heart-wrench" and that New Zealand was "the only place worth living in".

He fought on the Western Front over two long years, until June 8, 1917 when, during the major Messines offensive, he was shot in the stomach and died in the casualty clearing station.

This was devastating news for the O'Donnells, and it did not end there. Catherine's son by her first marriage, Edward Heke, lost his leg in October 1917, and their daughter Daisy's husband, Captain William McCarthy, died of wounds in November 1918. Like others, their family suffered an enormous toll.

The suffering prompted Catherine O'Donnell to travel to the other side of the world in 1924 to visit the three graves. She was told by the Turks she was the first mother to visit Gallipoli.

Back in NZ, she was able to reassure other mothers of fallen soldiers that their sons' graves were tended with loving care.

- Herald on Sunday

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