Second Lieutenant Alfred Cowie was killed in action on 2 October 1916 at the Somme, France. He was aged 24. He is buried at Warlencourt British Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.
Alf was born at Fordell, Wanganui on 12 February 1892. His parents were Alice (nee Cranstone) and John Peters Cowie. Alf was the third youngest in a family of six girls and two boys. His father was a storekeeper. He attended Warrengate School in Wanganui. He sat the New Zealand Civil Service Junior Examination in December 1906 and passed with the seventh-highest marks in the country.
Cowie matriculated and passed his solicitors' general knowledge exam at the end of 1909. He then worked as a pupil teacher at Foxton before resigning at the end of 1910 to begin studying law through Victoria University College in Wellington. It appears he was a keen rugby player. He was employed as a law clerk in Wanganui by Barnicoat, Treadwell and Gordon (Treadwell, Gordon and Brodie from 7 August 1915) and was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court by Justice Edwards on 26 May 1914.
Cowie was in the Wellington West Coast Regiment of the New Zealand Territorial Army and held the rank of Sergeant. In February 1915 he sat and later passed the examination for first appointment to commission. He enlisted in July 1915 and went into training camp at Trentham on 17 August. His medical examination report shows he was 5 foot 8-1/2 tall (1.73 metres) and weighed 148 pounds (67.1 kg) with blue eyes and brown hair.
Cowie had been appointed Second Lieutenant by 16 October 1915 and was posted to the 10th Reinforcements of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He embarked from Wellington on 4 March 1916, landing at Suez in Egypt on 10 April.
From Suez he joined the 2nd Infantry Training Battalion at Moascar. He embarked from Alexandria for France on 20 May 1916 and was initially attached to the base depot at Etaples, joining the Wellington Infantry Regiment Second Battalion in the field on 15 June. He was wounded on 10 August and sent to an officers' rest camp before being admitted to Number One New Zealand Hospital in Amiens on 28 August. He was discharged to duty on 13 September and rejoined his battalion on 23 September.
Second Lieutenant Cowie was killed in action on 2 October 1916 during the first battle of the Somme. He was killed only hours before the 2nd Battalion was relieved on the front line.
The news took some time to reach New Zealand, and at first his father was advised that he had been wounded. Several months later, his family and New Zealand received word of his heroism during the fighting. Brigadier-General WG Braithwaite, commanding the Second New Zealand Brigade wrote the following letter to his father on 4 December 1916. It was subsequently widely published in the newspapers:
"Dear Sir. I ought to have written to you some weeks ago, but ever since we returned from fighting on the Somme I have been laid up myself, and quite unable to write to anyone. I am quite certain that no words of mine can be of the smallest comfort to you and yours in your great sorrow, but I want to tell you how much I sympathise with you and yours in the irreparable loss you have sustained in the death of your gallant son. He was a first-class soldier, and his loss is very keenly felt in my brigade, and especially in the 2nd Wellington Battalion.
"I do not know whether you are aware of the following. During the fighting on the Somme your son was instrumental in getting possession of a very valuable German document, which gave the exact positions of all the German reserve corps and divisions at the particular period. Its immense value can hardly be assessed. Anyhow, your boy, knowing how valuable it appeared, lost no time in sending it in, and in less than four hours from the time that your son got it, this information was in the possession of the General Headquarters. The Second New Zealand Brigade naturally got the credit for your son's work that actually did it. I can only humbly hope that his gallant death may some day be a glorious memory to you, and that you may obtain some slight comfort and consolation from the certain knowledge that he died a glorious death for his country. I feel sure that Col. Cunningham and his brother officers will have written to you ere this. With my deepest sympathy, believe me, yours sincerely, WG BRAITHWAITE." (Wanganui Chronicle, 1 February 1917, page 4).
Inquiries from his father about whether Second Lieutenant Cowie should receive recognition for his feat resulted in a further communication from General Braithwaite which was published in New Zealand newspapers in 1918. The letter, sent to "the Defence authorities in New Zealand" in response to an inquiry about posthumous recognition read as follows:
"The statement contained in my private letter to Mr Cowie dated 4-12-16 is absolutely correct. The late 2nd-Lieut AC Cowie displayed great gallantry in the actions on the Somme, about Flers, between the dates 15th Sept and 2nd Oct 1916, and he was specially recommended by me for the award of the MC for conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty in the village of Flers on the 15th September when, under heavy shelling, he assisted 2nd-Lieut AJ Williams of the same battalion in getting wounded men back under cover, showing complete disregard for his personal safety.
"This recommendation was, however, not approved, in view of DRO 557 of 1916 on the subject, that such acts, to be rewarded, should be performed by stretcher-bearers only. Again, during the fighting towards the end of September, this officer performed a very valuable service by obtaining a German document, which disclosed the whereabouts and movements of certain German divisions, one being, if my memory is correct, a naval division, whose whereabouts had not been disclosed for twelve months. Realising the importance of this document, Lieut Cowie immediately sent it through the usual channels, and the promptness and rapidity which which it reached GHQ was the subject of a special order published by the 4th Army, giving the credit for the smart piece of work to 2nd NZ Infantry Brigade, which was in reality the work of 2nd-Lieut Cowie.
"As 2nd-Lieut Cowie was killed in action on the 2nd October, 1916, and as no posthumous award other than the VC could at the time be awarded, a recommendation for a DSO or MC was not submitted. I am certainly of the opinion that, had he lived, his work was deserving of a MC." (Wanganui Chronicle, 22 March 1918, page 4).
Alf Cowie's name is among those on the Whanganui Cenotaph.
Sources: Wanganui Chronicle, 26 July 1900, page 2; Appendix to the Journals of the House of Representatives of New Zealand, 1907, Volume III; Wanganui Chronicle, 19 January 1910, page 5; Wanganui Chronicle, 16 June 1910, page 8; Wanganui Chronicle, 26 January 1911, page 8; Evening Post, 26 October 1911, page 4; Manawatu Standard, 18 December 1913, page 5; Wanganui Chronicle, 28 May 1914, page 4; Evening Post, 27 May 1915, page 3; Manawatu Times, 28 July 1915, page 2; Wanganui Chronicle, 12 October 1916, page 4; Wanganui Chronicle, 14 October 1916, page 4; Evening Post, 16 October 1915, page 5; Press, 16 October 1916, page 8; Wanganui Chronicle, 1 February 1917, page 4; The Spike memorial number, 1920, page 20; WH Cunningham, CAL Treadwell, JS Hanna, The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914-1919 (Ferguson & Osborn Ltd, Wellington, 1928), page 124.
This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.
By Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: firstname.lastname@example.org.