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Bowtell-Harris J F  Pte  467

Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 2 years, 7 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918



Winner, 25 Apr 1917, p 8.


Bowtell-Harris J F   Pte  467    James Frederick        7 Inf Bn    19    Clerk    Single    C of E        

Address:    Moonee Ponds, Mt Alexander Rd, 710    

Next of Kin:    Harris, Flora Susanah, 710 Mt Alexander Rd, Moonee Ponds    

Enlisted:    15 Aug 1914     

Embarked:     A20 Hororata 19 Oct 1914

Prior Service: CMF  58 Inf  Bn, 2 years senior cadets.

Awards:  MC, OBE


Relatives on Active Service:

Harris-W-C-Pte-3762  brother




Captain James Frederic Bowtell-Harris MC


by Rod Martin


The soldier known as James Frederic Bowtell-Harris was born in St. Kilda on 15 August 1895 and registered as ‘James Frederick Harris’.  The circumstances of his birth are clouded.  His mother’s husband, Thomas Harris, had been dead for several years, and no father was listed on James’s birth certificate.  This lack of legitimacy may have influenced James in a number of ways in his later life.  He may have been seeking to gentrify himself as a way of overcoming and forgetting his humble beginnings. Certainly, by the time war broke out in 1914, the nineteen year-old was calling himself Bowtell-Harris and in his signature had deleted the ‘k’ from the end of his second name (as evidenced in his attestation papers and will).  He was working as a clerk at the time and held the rank of lieutenant in the citizen military forces.  However, he enlisted in the Australian Army as a private on 15 August, eleven days after the outbreak of the First World War.  He was appointed to D Company of 7 Battalion, trained at Broadmeadows and embarked for Egypt on HMAT Hororata on 19 October 1914.


After training near the Pyramids, 7 Battalion, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Harold ‘Pompey’ Elliot, went ashore at Gallipoli as part of the second wave on 25 April 1915.  By 30 April, it had suffered more casualties than any other battalion.[1]  Despite this decimation, it was transferred as part of 2 Brigade to Cape Helles on 5 May to assist in the British attempt to capture the village of Krythia.  In waves of unsuccessful attacks, the brigade lost one-third of its men.  It was while the badly mauled troops were standing in reserve at Cape Helles that James received his first promotion – to lance-corporal on 15 May and then, quickly, to corporal three days later.  The ranks of officers and NCOs were badly depleted, and a number of promising young men were promoted in the field.


The battalion returned to Anzac Cove in late May and resumed its defence of the beachhead. James obviously continued to impress his superiors because, on 19 June, he was promoted to the rank of sergeant.  Along with several other soldiers, he became well-known at Anzac Cove for seizing Turkish grenades (‘bombs’) and throwing them back.  It was originally quite easy when the grenades had long fuses.  However, it became a very dangerous case of catching them in mid-air and throwing them back in one fluid motion once the Turks woke up to the situation and shortened the fuses.  Many hands were lost as a result.  There was obviously a price to pay for such reckless behaviour, however.  It seems that James’s gallant exploits took a toll on him, for he was hospitalized for ‘debility’ in mid-July and then transferred to Alexandria for treatment.


Nevertheless, he recuperated quickly and was back at Gallipoli by 2 August. Six days later, James was participating in the Battle of Lone Pine – a rare Allied victory but also, to use Les Carlyon’s words[2], an epic of savagery and sacrifice, and something that achieved little in the overall scheme of things.  Once again the battalion suffered heavily, losing 354 men killed or wounded from a total complement of 694.


James survived the battle unscathed and continued to impress superiors, being commissioned as a second lieutenant on 28 September. In a letter written to the mayor of Essendon[3] in January 1916, an unnamed officer (but possibly ‘Pompey’ Elliot) noted that James had charge of the regimental ‘suicide club’, as the bomb-throwers were called.  The writer indicated that Bowtell-Harris showed the best qualities of leadership and, when the retreat from Gallipoli took place in December 1915, volunteered to be the last man to leave the battalion’s trenches and cover their retreat with his bomb throwers.  The writer went on to speculate that James could well win a VC before the war was over – ‘provided he survives’.


Once away from Gallipoli, the Anzacs returned to Egypt.  While there, James was promoted to first lieutenant in March, shortly before leaving for Europe with the battalion and arriving in Marseilles on the thirty-first of that month.  As part of I Anzac Corps, 7 Battalion entered the front-line trenches on 3 May, and its first major action was in the Battle of Pozières in July and August, a component of the great offensive on the Somme that began at the start of July. The Pozières campaign, a failure, resulted in the largest single number of Australian casualties in any battle (22,826).  James, however, distinguished himself during the campaign by moving in as ordered and defending the flank of a captured trench against repeated enemy counter-attacks.  When help was requested for this task the 7 Battalion commander, Colonel Jess, chose ‘Bo’, saying that “I could send no one better for your needs.”[4]  In response to James’s brave actions, the colonel recommended him for a Distinguished Service Order or a foreign award.  Neither was granted, but James was promoted to the rank of captain at the end of July.


The hostilities at Pozières petered out, like those of other battlefronts along the Somme, after the start of September and 7 Battalion was sent to the Ypres salient in southern Belgium to reinforce the trenches there.  Once in place, James continued his gallant efforts, receiving a mention in despatches on 30 September ‘for participation in a very successful raid on the enemy trenches’. [5]  Colonel Jess is quoted as saying that, in any crisis, he “. . . always maintained an unruffled exterior.”[6]  He also became well-known among his men for playing ditties on any available piano to cheer them up.


7 Battalion returned to the Somme Valley in October 1916 and survived what was described as an ‘horrendous’ winter while rotating between training, working parties and duty in the trenches.[7]  On 30 October, while at Pommières, James achieved his highest award in the form of the Military Cross.  His service record states that he received it for


. . . conspicuous gallantry in action.  He led a raiding party under very heavy fire displaying great courage and determination.  His leadership was largely responsible for the success of his party.[8] 


Whatever the success of that party was, however, it was just one shining speck in what was generally a murderous morass on the Western Front.


In early 1917, the battalion was involved in a brief advance as the Germans carried out a strategic withdrawal to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line.  It then participated in the disastrous action at Bullecourt in April that year.  By that time, however, James had been transferred to hospital in England after initially being injured accidentally at the front in mid-March, and then undergoing an oesophagectomy five days later.  This operation, involving the removal of part of the oesophagus, was probably carried out to relieve a bout of achalasia – difficulty in swallowing.  The other main purpose of such an operation is to remove a cancer.  As survival rates of this cancer are low even today, it is unlikely that this was the cause of James’s problem, as he lived for a further fifty-one years!  He remained at the hospital until the end of April and then was placed on the supernumerary list until 20 October, when he headed back to France and rejoined his battalion on 1 November.


While he had been away, 7 Battalion had been heavily involved in the Third Battle of Ypres (commonly and erroneously known as the Battle of Passchendaele), taking part in such actions as Menin Road, Polygon Wood, Broodseinde and Poelcappelle.  Of these, only the actions at Menin Road and Polygon Wood could be described in any way as successes.  However, in the whole boggy, murderous scheme of things at Ypres in 1917, even they had basically no effect upon the overall strategic situation. ‘Passchendaele’ was an unmitigated disaster for both sides.


Group portrait of the officers of the 7th Battalion , taken in the Ypres area, 20 February 1918.  Captain F J  Bowtell Harris, MC, is seated in the front row second from the right. Australian War Memorial Collection. Major C H Swift, is next to him third from the right, and  Lt V R Dickinson is standing far left in the middle row.  Both those officers were from Moonee Ponds.  http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/E01814


After James returned, the once again depleted battalion stayed in the Ypres Salient over the winter before returning to northern France in early 1918.  It was there when the Germans commenced their last offensive in March of that year, and it fought defensive battles at Lys and Hazebrouck that helped to stem the German tide.


The battalion was still in the Somme area in early July, the German offensive having been halted in April-May.  It was then that James did what many would consider a strange thing.  He left for England on the twenty-fifth of that month to report to the Indian Army office.  It seems that he, along with a number of 7 Battalion officers, had applied for transfers to that organization and had been accepted into its ranks. Ron Austin[9] tells us that they did this because they feared that their military careers in the Australian forces would end once hostilities were over.  The chances of long-term appointments seemed to be much greater in the Indian Army.  It may also be the case that James saw the opportunity to gain further promotions with the Indians.  After all, his rather spectacular rise through the ranks of 7 Battalion came to a sudden halt after August 1916.  He had stayed at the level of captain for almost two years – very slow by his standards.  Had he fallen foul of superiors for some reason?  He was obviously a spirited personality and, according to the battalion association’s notes[10], one of its most popular members.  The stories of other similar individuals, such as his former commander ‘Pompey’ Elliot and Albert Jacka VC, suggest that such men have a habit of speaking their minds in the face of obduracy or stupidity, and are ostracised accordingly by the top brass.  James may also have had health problems that necessitated a change of political and/or physical climate.  He had, after all, suffered from afflictions while on the Western Front.


Whatever the reason, James joined 3/2 Punjab Regiment, served in that unit for the remaining months of the war, and stayed in the organization after the conclusion of hostilities. During his time with the Indians he became fluent in Punjabi and served on the North-West Frontier, fighting against rebellious local tribesmen and Afghan invaders around 1920.  However, if promotion was what he was after, he was disappointed.  He stayed at the level of captain throughout the 1920s and was listed as having that rank (and one Military Cross!)[11] at the time of his marriage to Joan Finlay in Karachi in 1927 and his return to Australia in 1930.


BOWTELL-HARRIS - FINLAY - November 8 at  
Karachi, India, Captain James Frederick Bowtell-
Harris, M C, 32nd Punjab Regiment, son of the late
Thomas Bowtell-Harris and of Mrs Bowtell Harris,
Mornington Victoria to Joan Pringle second daughter
of Mr and Mrs T J Finlay, Bundella, New South Wales. 

Sydney Morning Herald, 17 December 1927, p 16.



Bowtell Harris marries Joan Finlay in Karachi in 1927.

(Source: Noble Numismatics Pty Ltd.  Accessed 25/3/2011)


When James did finally return to Australia, he took up a position at London Stores in Elizabeth Street, Melbourne. In 1937 he was listed as living in Mornington, Victoria, and occupying the position of company director.  By this time he had added a bar to his Military Cross - at least on paper.  Just how he did this is open to question.  He did not earn any more awards with the Australian Army and he was listed in the Indian Army in 1921 as ‘Captain Bowtell-Harris MC’.  There was no mention of a bar. Certainly, the Australian Army knew nothing about it, as evidenced in its reply to an enquiry about his medals in the late 1930s.  He may have won the bar during the border conflicts around 1920 but the evidence cited above seems to contradict that possibility.  Did he deliberately invent a second award to enhance his position in the civilian world?  His undoubted bravery may suggest that it would have been out of character for him to have done so, but the issues with his name and parentage mean that it remains a possibility until evidence to the contrary is found.


Bo's medals and other effects were auctioned in 2006, realising $3200.  The medals were described as:  " Order of the British Empire (GVIR); Military Cross (GVR); 1914-15 Star; British War Medal 1914-18; Victory Medal 1914-19 with MID; Defence Medal; British War Medal 1939-45; India Service Medal. 2/Lieut H.R.Briggs 51/Punjabis on first, Capt. J.F.Bowtell-Harris on second and third". (Source: Noble Numismatics Pty Ltd  accessed 25/3/2011.) 


In October 1939, after the outbreak of war in Europe, James was recalled to the Indian Army and left Melbourne for the sub-continent. He is reported as having served in the Western Desert, later achieving an OBE and promotion to the level of brigadier.  In that role he was responsible for the ‘Indian Army Followers’, a force of 60,000 members of the lowest, uneducated castes who were used mainly as labourers, stablemen and such.  James survived the war and managed a paper mill in Hyderabad in the late 1940s. Perhaps the ‘bar’ to his MC had served its purpose!  However, the mill was burned down at the time of the independence riots and he subsequently returned to Australia and Mornington.  By 1954 he was obviously retired and operating as a farmer in nearby Red Hill and at one stage was president of the 7 Battalion Association.  He died in Mornington in 1964 at the age of 68 and Australian military history lost a very colourful character.  His wife Joan had predeceased him two years earlier at the age of 56.  In his obituary he was described as ‘one who was born sinewy, waggish and game, a man who was more spirited than he ever appeared and to whom we became vastly indebted.’


One other question remains unanswered.  How did he come by the surname of ‘Bowtell-Harris’?  As indicated above, he was registered as ‘Harris’ at birth.  However, his mother cited her name as being ‘Bowtell’ on the birth certificate and additionally registered her newborn son as ‘Bowtell’.  At no stage, however, was he registered as ‘Bowtell-Harris’.  Nevertheless, James was using the hyphenated surname when he was in the citizen military forces prior to the war, and he used it on his attestation papers in 1914. However, he then listed his mother (next-of-kin) as ‘Flora Susanah Harris’.  When he made a will while in action, he listed his mother as ‘Flora Susanah Harris known as Flora Susanah Bowtell-Harris’.  On his death certificate his mother is listed as ‘Flora Bowtell’.  It would appear that Flora’s maiden name was Bowtell, she changed it to Harris on marriage but then, for reasons unknown, slowly but surely changed it back to ‘Bowtell’ – at least in reference to James.  Why James had the hyphenated surname as early as 1914 is open to question.  Was it an affectation?  Did he think it made him sound more impressive?  Did he use it to separate himself from his four older half-siblings, all surnamed ‘Harris’?  It is interesting to note that, when referring to her son William in 1921, Flora called herself ‘Harris’.  At the time of his marriage in 1927, James went one step further.  In the announcement of the marriage published in the Sydney Morning Herald[12]  his father was listed as ‘the late Thomas Bowtell-Harris’ – a falsehood in two respects.  Perhaps ‘Pompey’ Elliot should have the last word.  While the battalion was training at Broadmeadows, the lieutenant-colonel was circulating amongst the ranks and came across James.


‘What is your name?


Bowtell-Harris, sir.


Hyphened name, eh?  No hyphens in this battalion


- your name is Harris.’[13]



Rod Martin 


[1] McMullin, Ross: Pompey Elliot, Melbourne, 2nd edition 2008, p.132

[2]  Gallipoli, Sydney, Macmillan, 2001, p. 357

[3] Published in the Essendon Gazette, n.d.

[4]  Austin, Ron: Our dear old battalion: the story of the 7th Battalion AIF, 1914-1919, McCrae, Slouch Hat Productions 2004, p. 142

[5] National Archives of Australia

[6] Austin, op. cit., p, 146

[7] Australian War Memorial

[8] Ibid.

[9] Op. cit., p.208

[10] O’Neill, D.: 7 Bn Assn papers, PR 87/215, AWM. Quoted in McMullin, op. cit., p.84

[11] Argus, 17 December 1927

[12] 17 December 1927

[13] O’Neill, op. cit., p. 84



CAPT. J. BOWTELL-HARRIS, St. Thomas' Harriers. 

J. Bowtell-Harris, of St. Thomas' Harriers, whose photo is

reproduced above, has just been appointed to a

captaincy. Latest advices are that he is in England.

WAR AND WINTER PASTIME. (1916, July 5). Winner

(Melbourne, Vic. : 1914 - 1917), p. 8.




Capt. James Frederick Bowtell Harris, Infy. For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led a raiding party under very heavy fire, displaying great courage and determination. His leadership was largely responsible for the success of his party.




Capt. J. Bowtell-Harris, of the same club, was heard of by the last inward mail. He sends kind regards to club mates, and adds, 'We will have 'some' times when we return".


ATHLETES. (1916, December 27). Winner (Melbourne, Vic. : 1914 - 1917), p. 8. Retrieved September 14, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article154551779




Bowtell-Harris, of St. Thomas'   Harriers, has experienced a most successful military career. As previously recorded in these columns a captaincy and a military medal have come his way. In a letter from France dated December 10, he pays a tribute to the stamina-producing and general healthful effect of cross-country running.


ATHLETES. (1917, January 31). Winner (Melbourne, Vic. : 1914 - 1917), p. 8. Retrieved September 14, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article154547455





Mention (writes Mr A. S. Howcroft) has frequently been made in these columns to J. F. Bowtell-Harris, the St. Thomas' harrier. It has been most easy to make reference to him; the promotion lists from time to time have been a constant reminder. When the Kaiser bit off the awkward mouthful in 1914, Bowtell-Harris entered the ranks as a private. From Gallipoli with the 5th he went to France, and is now a major with the 7th. The photograph reproduced below was taken some months ago at Oxford, he being then a lieutenant.  


The St Thomas' runner has not yet reached his 25th birthday. Some two or three months back he was awarded a military cross, and was the recipient   of personal congratulations for distinguished conduct from Brigadier General Elliott. Local rumor now has it that Major Bowtell-Harris has been recommended for one of the highest honors in the army.


Mrs. Bowtell-Harris, Fernleigh, 58 Buckley street, West Essendon, has received word that her younger son, Major James Bowtell-Harris. has been wounded in France. Major Bowtell-Harris left Australia in October, 1914, as signaller. He was at the Gallipoli landing, and received his commission after the evacuation. In France he gained further promotion and the Military Cross. He has not yet attained his 22nd birthday.


WITH THE COLOURS. (1917, May 3). The Essendon Gazette and Keilor, Bulla and Broadmeadows Reporter, p. 5 Edition: Morning.



Gen. Birdwood Cheered


According to a letter received by Major O. V. Hoad (Commandant of the Fourth Military District) from the headquarters of the Northern Command in India, former members of the Australian and New Zealand forces held their annual celebration at Rawalpindi. During the last four years the gathering has  been attended by Gen. Sir W. R. Birdwood, Bart., G.C.B., K.C.M.G., K.C.S.I., C.I.E.,  D.S.O.".


Others present included: Col. C. M. Wagstaff, C.M.G., C.I.E., D.S.O. (Anzac Corps Staff), Col. A. H. Bridges, C.B., C.I.E., D.S.O. (G.S.O.1, Second Division), Lieut.-Col. W. H. Hastings, D.S.O. (G.S.O.3. New Zealand Expeditionary Force), Major E. LeG. Whitting, D.S.O., M.C. (26th Indian Mountain Battery), Major H T. Molloy, D.S.O. (5th Gurkhas), Capt. Basil Holmes, D.S.O. (17th Battalion),. Capt. J. Bowtell-Harris, M.C. (7th Battalion),. Capt. J. H. Pulling (17th BattalIon), Capt. W. H. Cawthorn (22nd Battalion), Capt. R. V. Cutler, M.B.E., M.C. (2nd Field Company), Capt. K. C, D. Dawson, M.B.E, (24th and 23rd Battalions), Capt. A. K. Roberts (105th Howitzer Battery), Capt. R. C. Stevenson, R.E. (37th Fortress Company), Capt. the Rev. L. M. Gorrie (38th Battalion), Lieut. L. T. Wilcock (2nd Auckland Battalion), Mr. J. Callinan (9th Battalion), and Lieut. F. N. Nurse (W.A.), Lieut. A. G. Wilson (N.S.W.), and Lieut. A. K. Anderson (Vic.), of the Australian Staff. Gen. Birdwood said that they were glad to welcome three young members from the Duntroon College. who were temporarily attached to British regiments in India. He referred to a telegram received from Gen. Walker in Poona, who regretted his inability to be present. All Anzacs knew what Gen. Walker did at Galiipoli, and how much they owed him.


As the general drove away in his car, flying the little Australian flag he used in France, a hearty cheer was raised for "The Soul of Anzac." When this subsided Mr. Callinan, who landed on April 25 with the Ninth Battalion, and is now a jockey temporarily in India, was heard to say:-"There goes the man who commanded the --- roughest army ever raised, and did it damn well, too."


ANZACS MEET (1924, May 6). News (Adelaide, SA : 1923 - 1954), , p. 4 (HOME EDITION). Retrieved July 16, 2016, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article129725327



One Thousand Days with the AIF




Mentioned in these publications:

Essendon Gazette 13 May 1915

St Thomas' Parish Magazine January 1916

St Thomas' Harriers

Barker H A Pte 43  letter in Essendon Gazette 9 Sep 1915

Recommended Harty L J Pte 449 for a Military Medal 9 June 1916

Recommended Cowan C D L-Cpl 415 for a Military Cross 2/10/1916.

AMATEUR ATHLETICS. (1916, July 15). The Australasian

Article in Winner based on letter from Harry Manners, 21 Mar 1917

Makes a character witness statement on behalf of Hopkins-E-J-Pte-448 at his court martial, 16 July 1917.

Letter from  H L Fynmore published in Winner 8 Aug 1917

Fair Dinkums, The, by Glenn McFarlane.  pp 132, 261.

Wrote to parents of Sgt A A P Rogerson, KIA


War Service Commemorated

“Send off to the Essendon Boys”

Essendon Town Hall A-F

Essendon State School   [Harris J B]                                                                        

St Thomas' Anglican Church                                          

Essendon Gazette Roll of Honour Wounded (Harris J Bowtell Maj)           

Patriotic Concert, Essendon Town Hall, 1914

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