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Silent Heroes Project - Australian Customs Officers WW1 - Clifford Roy Cowling

Updated on May 26, 2019
Laurie Favelle profile image

Laurie has a strong interest in Genealogy and stories of people and places. This story was first published in 2011 & recently updated.

During the First World War, 27 officers of the Australian Customs Service served their country of birth, or adoption, in the military forces or in a support capacity.

Clifford Roy Cowling was one of them.

Clifford Roy Cowling, known as “Roy” to his friends, was enjoying life in Melbourne as a young eligible bachelor when he heard the trumpet call to enlist. It was the 21st of September 1914, and the war had barely begun. Yet the recruiting stations in public halls all over the country were busy, with nervous anticipation oozing from both sides of the attestation desk.

Roy, as we will call him (although there were many “Roy’s” in the Cowling family), had been building a career in the Commonwealth Customs Service. It was, no doubt, this background that encouraged the recruiters to enlist him in the 1st Australian Army Pay Corps. The army needed skilled clerical staff for the huge range of support functions it required and, in Roy’s case, his qualities were recognized at an early stage.

The infant Roy entered this world on the 25th of March 1888 in the beautiful Victorian rural area of Castlemaine. He was a first son to his parents, James Edward and Ada Elizabeth (nee Blight), and an infant brother to his older sister, Ivie Isabel Mary, born two years earlier. Sadly, Ada passed away in 1890, leaving James, a teacher by profession, with the task of raising his two young children.

Of course, Nature has a way of healing wounds, when it is permitted to do so. As a result, James Cowling eventually met and married Minna Ellenora Fox, providing young Roy and his sister with a step mum and two brothers, Inglis Hall Cowling (1902) and Roden Cowling (1909). At some stage during the decade before the war, Roy’s father took up a position at St Arnaud’s State School, where he was to become head teacher. This was the school where young Inglis won his scholarship (see footnote).

Roy was a strapping lad. Almost five feet ten inches tall (176cm) and 162 pounds (73.5kg), his blue eyes peered from beneath a strong forehead capped with a healthy bush of dark hair. As he walked into the recruiting office he had already enjoyed several years Army Cadet service and was a regular rifle club participant. His developing career in the Customs Service had nurtured strong administrative skills. It was no surprise to find that, before that first day was over and amidst the organized chaos of swearing in, medicals and uniforms, he was promoted to Staff Sergeant.

We cannot be certain, but we can guess that Roy was immediately engulfed with the urgent need to create administrative order out of the impending chaos. Basic training, not really required for this young man, would have been a waste of time given the urgency confronting the army in that year. The army had to set sail for foreign shores at the earliest opportunity - kitted up, trained up and paid up!

And it did!

Exactly one month later, on the 21st of October 1914, the Australian Army Pay Corps sailed from Melbourne. They were on board the “Orvicto”, one of the many transport ships to meet at Albany and forming that impressive fleet bound for the Middle East. The adventure had begun.

The fleet sailed from Albany in the early morning of November the 1st. It was an impressive sight! Twenty-eight Australian transports, ten New Zealand ships, plus escorts, including HMAS Sydney which was soon to make short work of the Emden, the notorious German raider.

Arriving in Alexandra around the 5th of December, the troops made for their new base camp at Mena, with much of the headquarters staff seeking various posts and billets in nearby Cairo. While a role for this ANZAC force was yet to be clearly defined, the serious training began. This also included the development of procedures and protocols necessary to maintain the health, welfare, efficiency and morale of this new army. During this period Roy seems to have continued to impress his superiors. In March 1915 he was promoted to commissioned rank as a Lieutenant. It would not be long before the responsibilities of command would weigh heavily.

So the army trained, the administrators became organized, records were created and routines established. And they waited.

And the waiting ended! On the morning of April 25 1915 Australian and Allied forces landed on the Gallipoli Peninsular. The casualty toll was beyond the wildest imagining of the campaign planners and strategists. Thousands were dead, wounded or missing. Privates suddenly became corporals, corporals became sergeants and sergeants received battlefield commissions. Junior officers became company and even battalion commanders. The confusion went on.

The pay office at Cairo, while not suffering the horror of the trenches, had serious and difficult work to do. It is important to remember that this work would have been done with a strong sense of loss and grief. Those “1914 men” – as they became known – were well acquainted with many of their number. Familiar names would be crossed from pay lists, or question marks placed beside their names. Familiar faces, or what was left of them, were starting to arrive in great numbers at hospitals in Cairo and harrowing stories were being told.

The Army Pay Corps was tasked to ensure that payment to soldiers was timely and correct. This, in particular, included the allotment of allowances to dependents back home. It was vital and necessary work, of great importance to the morale and resilience of the troops in the field. The last thing field commanders needed was to hear that troops were receiving mail from loved ones complaining of financial difficulties.

Of course, it wasn’t just “blokes” in Cairo during these grim times and there were happier moments to be captured and shared. The Australian Army Nursing Service was strongly represented and the presence of competent Australian women was a great consolation to the injured. The Australian Red Cross, newly formed in August 1914, was contributing strongly to the care of troops. Some of these wonderful women, under the guidance of Vera Deakin (daughter of former Prime Minister Alfred Deakin) established the “Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau”. This agency was responsible for bringing resolution to thousands of families whose loved ones could not be located.

There was, also, a small group of Australian women who had defied their Government and found their own way to Egypt, joining up with the British Volunteer Aid Detachments (VAD) and, for the most part, being seconded to Australian hospitals. These women were not nurses, but they were workers. These are the girls that carried out all the other work that needed to be done, the scullery work, the cleaning, canteen operations and much more.

A young girl from Cheltenham in Victoria had found her way to Cairo in 1915. Euna Elizabeth Mary McNiven, twenty-three years old and the daughter of William and Mary McNiven, had arrived as a volunteer with either the Red Cross or the VAD. It was not long before she met an overworked Australian Lieutenant by the name of Clifford Roy Cowling. The inevitable happened and the two were married at the British Consulate in Cairo in November 1915. With no time for a traditional honeymoon, Euna took up residence in The Continental Hotel and Roy, no doubt, joined her whenever he could.

The end of the Gallipoli campaign and the inevitable evacuation was complete by Christmas 1915. The troops gathered in Egypt and rested. The army was reorganized and retrained for further operations. The work of the Pay Corps continued at a frantic pace as new units were created, manpower shuffled like cards and thousands of reinforcements arrived. The word came through that France was the next destination for many and the Pay Corps was to move to London.

With Euna newly pregnant, the decision was made that she should return to Australia. Traveling to Port Said, the couple bid farewell to each other and Euna boarded the transport Mongolia, bound for Sydney. She arrived in Australia in the 25th of June 1916 and travelled to join her family in Victoria. On the 10th of January 1917 she delivered a son, Kenneth James.

Meanwhile, Roy was deployed to London on the 22nd of July 1916. He appears to have done a short stint in France and was, briefly, in charge of cash services. The reasons are not clear from the official record, but Roy returned to Australia aboard the Ulysses in late March 1917. Although his army appointment was terminated in April 1917, he appears to have remained on the “Reserve of Officers” list until his resignation in May 1928.

Returning to civilian life, Roy remained in the Customs Service for some time. He appears on the Public Service list in 1925 as employed at the “Investigations Branch, Customs House, Melbourne”. In the Electoral Rolls of 1943 and 1949, he is described as a Customs Agent, suggesting that, in later life, he may have entered private enterprise.

Roy and Euna went on to have two more children, both girls, Margaret (later Mrs. WJ Knight) and Judith Mary (described as a nurse in the 1949 Electoral Roll). Their son, Kenneth, served as an army officer in World War 2.

Apart from work and family, Roy’s passion was tennis. Although not a great player, he was heavily involved in the Lawn Tennis Association of Victoria. He was a Council Member from 1934 to 1951. He also captained the Australian Davis Cup team in 1948 and was a Davis Cup Selector for a number of years up to 1951.

On the 24th of November 1951, Roy attended the NSW Championship match at Rushcutters Bay in Sydney. He was seated in the Marsh Stand during the game between Victor Seixas and Mervyn Rose when he excused himself to take a “breather”. As he passed by the committee rooms he suddenly collapsed and passed away within moments. He was 63. His passing was widely reported throughout both Australia and overseas. The news travelled rapidly, even being reported in the Toledo Blade in the issue of November 24 (US time)

Euna took her time joining her Roy. She passed away 31 years later in 1982.

Dr Inglis Hall (Tom) Cowling 1902-1941. Inglis won a scholarship in December 1914 which provided assistance for his junior high school education. His senior secondary education was at Scotch College, Melbourne, where he was in the winning team of the 1919 Head of The River Regatta. He completed a medical degree at Melbourne University, followed by post graduate studies in England. At the time of his death he was married with two children, in General Practice in the Coburg area and a Reserve Captain in the Australian Army Medical Corp.

Links & Acknowdgements

© 2012 Laurie Favelle


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