Percy the Painter

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAMrs CowlesPercy the Painter Just a few weeks ago, someone mentioned an unusual First World War memorial on the exterior wall of St James’ Church, Mitcham Lane, Streatham. There are about 150 names on there and most distinctively, they are indicated under the street where they lived. Now it would have been helpful with this project if St Mary’s had done the same! The 22 streets close to the church were heavily affected and the losses shocked me. Twenty men alone from Fallsbrook Road lost their lives. One of the roads no longer exists but its name struck a chord. There are three names under Walrond Street and that was also the home of the widow of Percy Cowles, one of the Summerstown182 and one of four Australian infantrymen among their number. Before then they were living at 47 Blackshaw Road and another member of the Summerstown182, Edward Parker lived two doors away at No 51. Heading towards St George’s Hospital, the original house would have been just past Hayesend House, facing the cemetery. A 1950’s block, named after a prominent local councillor, Alfred Hurley House has replaced it. Unlike the other three ‘Aussies’ Henry Percy Cowles, a painter by trade was married with a child. Yet there he was at the age of 35, signing up for the 27th Battalion of the Australian Infantry on 17th May 1915 in Keswick, a suburb of Adelaide in South Australia. We can only guess why he made the decision to seek work so far away from his family, but the fact that their movement is noted in his records suggests he was keeping in contact and that he went to Australia purely for economic reasons. Percy sailed from Adelaide on HMA Kanowna on 23rd June 1915 and after two months training in Egypt, joined the action in Gallipoli on 12th September. By that time, the worst of the fighting had taken place and at the end of the year an evacuation was underway and 27th Battalion departed the peninsula with relatively few casualties. After another short stint in Egypt, Percy moved on to France in March 1916. The 27th Battalion entered the front-line trenches for the first time on 7th April 1916. On 20th May, Percy made it back to England for ten days leave and presumably a visit to Blackshaw Road. He returned in time for the Somme offensive but was hospitalised with illness on 1st July, the first day of the battle. On 15th it was noted that he sprained his ankle ‘whilst on duty carrying stretcher with wounded’. Meanwhile the 27th Battalion took part in its first major battle at Pozières between 28 July and 5 August and Percy was fortunate to rejoin them three days after a battle in which there were almost seven thousand Australian casualties. There then followed a quieter spell in Belgium before a return to the Somme saw fighting ground to a halt in the mud. In May 1917 Percy was admitted to hospital with trench fever and in September he was home again for two weeks. He rejoined his regiment in time for another major attack on 20th, the Battle of Menin Road, part of what is widely known as Passchendaele. In five days of fighting, this accounted for a further 5,000 Australian casualties. At the end of March 1918 Percy had his last period of leave. A change of next-of-kin address form is in his service records and show that Agnes Cowles moved from 47 Blackshaw Road to 17 Walrond Street (now Edencourt Road) on 1st December 1917. Hopefully Percy was able to see his new home. The 27th, like most Australian Infantry battalions were now pitched into the fight to turn back the German spring offensive in April 1918. On 8th of that month, Percy was admitted to hospital with ‘contusion of the leg’ and was in various field hospitals in Etaples, Doullens and Cayeux. On 1st June he rejoined his battalion but ten days later on 11th June 1918 he was wounded in action and died of a gunshot injury to the chest. The 27th Battalion attacked around Morlancourt on the night of 10 June and it was possibly in this assault that he was mortally wounded. It is recorded that he died whilst receiving the attentions of the 5th Australian Field Ambulance at 5am. He is buried in the cemetery at Querrieu, a village about six miles from Amiens. A poignant final reminder of Agnes Cowles’ loss is preserved in the last pages of his service records in the Australian National Archives. It is an envelope which she has returned to acknowledge receipt of the effects of her late husband, dated 25th July 1918. The Australian Imperial Forces Kit Store was just down the road in Fulham. It seemed rather appropriate today, that when I went to take a photo of Alfred Hurley House, it was covered in scaffolding and perhaps about to get a bit of a face-lift. Percy the Painter, we salute you. © Commonwealth of Australia (National Archives of Australia) 2013.

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