From Swanston Street to the Somme

On the centenary of the Armistice, we remember some of our students who served

Frank Cahir was only a few months shy of completing his final exams at the Melbourne College of Pharmacy when the war broke out. Like many young Australian men in 1914, Frank was presumably itching to answer the call. Already a member of the militia, it seems he wasn’t willing to wait to take that final test before he shipped out.

Frank eventually made it back home. But the same can’t be said of four of his fellow MCP students set to receive posthumous degrees from Monash University in 2019.

In an all-too-common example of squandered potential and lives cut short, the four students died on active service before completion of their qualifications. Now Monash is keen to recognise and honour them, along with the many other graduates who served in WW1, and men like Frank Cahir, who, while not killed in action, like so many others lived with the toll of war well after November 1918.

Nearly 200 Victorian pharmacists, pharmacy students and apprentices served in that conflict. Roughly 10 per cent of them were killed in action or died on service. In some cases, whole generations of a family were wiped out on the battlefield. And because the pharmacy profession at the time was built around family businesses, their legacy was also threatened.

The centenary of Armistice in 2018 provides an opportunity to revisit their stories, acknowledge their sacrifice, and reflect upon the influence that World War I had and continues to have on shaping Australia.

This initiative has its basis in research conducted by Andrew McIntosh, a Business Manager in the Faculty’s Medicines Manufacturing Innovation Centre. Andrew is an accountant by trade, who moved into social media and business management.

Andrew believed that the College of Pharmacy Honour Roll, currently hung in the Cossar Hall at the Parkville Campus, and in the care of the Faculty/College, was a clear sign that the University had strong links to both WWI and WWII, and put forward a proposal for the Faculty to research and acknowledge these men. The idea was supported by Dean Bill Charman who brought together a team from across the faculty to ensure that the centenary was appropriately commemorated. In addition to the Dean and Andrew, the group included Library Manager Maxine Cuskelly, Faculty General Manager Marian Costelloe, Research Programs Manager Karen McConologue, Marketing Manager John Palmer and Student Services Coordinator Jervis Dean.

Andrew began to work his way back from the Honour Roll to painstakingly piece together the stories of pharmacists and students who had gone off to war, in an attempt to ensure that their wartime service is properly recognised and commemorated in 2019.

After sifting through reams of clippings, lists and testimonials, Andrew and the group were left with four students that appeared with consistent information across all sources. 21-year-old Alan Couve, 20-year-old Malcolm Jones, 28-year-old Eric Bisset and 22-year-old Gordon Jewkes all studied at the Melbourne College of Pharmacy (later the Victorian College of Pharmacy), which merged with Monash University in 1992.

All four are bound by at least one common theme – in addition to being MCP students, they ll had brothers who also served. Some of the brothers died and some returned to successful careers, which in itself hints at the sort of lives these men could have had ahead of them.

As pharmacy students were required to at the time, all four men had completed or were in the midst of apprenticeships. At the outbreak of WWI, in all Australian states, pharmacists had to undergo a compulsory system of education and examination before being added to the Pharmaceutical Register. Eric, Alan, Malcolm and Gordon were in the midst of completing apprenticeships ranging from three to four years, alongside completing the compulsory attendance at lectures and passing the prescribed theoretical and practical examinations.

MCP pharmacy student Alan Couve, otherwise known as Dutchy, landed at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915: ANZAC Day. He was 21 years old, and a registered apprentice back home. As the second son of Mr Jason Couve, he was following in the footsteps of his chemist father and along with his brother was a prominent member of the local Dandenong football team.

Alan led his men into battle on the day of the Gallipoli landing but was shot in the head and died on Gallipoli Beach one day later. From Swanston Street to the Somme

On 20 November 1915 the (Dandenong) Journal reported: “...On Tuesday morning, widespread regret was expressed when it became known that Lieut Couve had succumbed to the wounds received whilst fighting with the 8th Battalion at the Dardanelles, and many messages of condolence have been received by the sorrowing relatives. The flag on the Town Hall was at half mast, in honour of the local volunteer and mourning was displayed outside the business premises in Lonsdale St”.

His brother LT Henry TL Couve, a civil servant and a fellow teammate of the Dandenong football team, died at Gallipoli just two weeks later. He was 24.

Corporal John Walker wrote to his father and part of the letter was published in The Journal on 26 August 1915.

“I miss the two Couves very much. Both Tom and Dutchy were well thought of, in fact very much admired. Those who faced the task in the beginning, and were killed, did their duty and died like men. Even I, who am not a military expert, can vouch for that.”

He mentions that Dutchy must have been buried at sea, as he believes he died the next day in a hospital ship.

MCP pharmacy student Eric Bisset and his younger brother Alan, both from Murrumbeena, also fought in World War I.

A 27-year-old chemist prior to enlisting on 16 December 1915, Eric embarked for overseas with the 15th Reinforcements of the 14th Battalion from Melbourne on 14 March 1916 aboard HMAT Anchises.

Following further training and a period of illness in Egypt, he proceeded to France where he transferred to the 53rd Battalion and then to the 46th Battalion.

Eric was killed in action on 14 November 1916 near Guerdecourt, France. He was 28. There are several eyewitness accounts on record:

“Bisset was my particular friend. He was formerly in the Transport and left them to be with me... He was near me in the Support Trench... about 6 am on the morning of the 14th November... when a shell dropped in the trench and killed him and nine other men....”

Another wrote that the group of men were about to draw breakfast rations when the shell hit. “On 14 Nov we were in a support trench behind the front line. I had just seen Bisset in the trench. I was about 7 yards away when a shell burst ...and 8 men were killed. Bissett among them, but his body was not found. The shell must have buried him. I was so close I was covered with mud from the explosion.”

Within a year, his brother Alan, a locomotive engine driver before the war, was also killed in action on 20 October 1917 in Belgium, at the age of 27.

Two fellow MCP pharmacy students, Malcolm and Allan Murray Jones, were the sons of John Albert Jones, a pharmacist originally from Wales. The Jones family was well known in Caulfield, with a family pharmacy on Derby Road near what we know today as the intersection of Sir John Monash Drive. They too cut their studies short and left a hole in the family business to join the war.

Malcolm’s life ended at 20.

He was killed in action in August 1917 in Ypres, Belgium. For some of these students, their young age and the way in which they died means there’s very little documentation to glean their story from, as one fellow soldier recalls Malcolm:

“Description: Height abt 5”10 fair colour, came from Malvern, Australia. Thinks his people were chemists or something of that sort.”

Like Eric Bisset, Malcolm was hit by a shell and the eyewitness reports are sketchy at best:

“I was next man to Sgt Jones at Ypres. We were marching on a duck board just past ANZAC House, when Jones was hit by a shell, and blown to pieces. The same shell wounded myself....”

Allan, who preferred to be known as Murray, applied for training at the Central Flying School, Point Cook, Victoria, and received his pilot's certificate on 15 June 1915. On 5 January 1916, Jones, as a lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Force, joined the newly formed No.1 Squadron, A.F.C. The squadron arrived in Egypt in April and between June 1916 and November 1917, Jones was in action against German and Turkish forces in the Sinai Desert.

Allan developed a reputation for his flying prowess and daring and aggressive tactics. In 1916 he was mainly involved in desert reconnaissance and was promoted to captain and flight commander in December. In February 1917, he was in a bombing raid on Beersheba, destroying three German aircraft, and next month near Gaza took part in the squadron's first serious aerial combat. On 6 April, while escorting a patrol after the first battle of Gaza, he fought off five enemy planes before his own machine was damaged and forced to land; although the Germans bombed his grounded aircraft he escaped unhurt. After an engagement with a German scout over Rafa in May he was again forced to land and this time was hospitalised in Cairo where “large pieces of petrol tank” were removed from his leg. He was awarded the Military Cross in April for “carrying out a raid on a hostile aerodrome. He descended to a height of 500 ft [152 m] under very heavy fire and destroyed two hangars”.

Allan took over as commanding officer, No.2 Squadron, A.F.C., in France in May 1918. Under Major Jones's leadership the squadron emerged as one of the finest on the Western Front.

Lieutenant-Colonel L. A. Strange, the officer commanding the wing, recorded in his memoir Recollections of an Airman that Murray Jones was 'a quiet, unassuming fellow, but a most resolute leader ... No.2, A.F.C., accounted for over 100 machines in one way or another in four months'.

Jones was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross in June 1918. No.2 Squadron operated until the Armistice and Jones was again mentioned in dispatches and awarded a Bar to his D.F.C. for service on 10 November when “he led his whole squadron on a low bombing raid against an enemy railway station. Descending to 100 feet [30 m] he remained at this low altitude till all his machines had completed the attack, though subject to heavy fire from machine-guns”. He was officially credited with shooting down seven enemy aircraft.1

Returning to Melbourne in May 1919, Jones was registered as a pharmacist on 14 April 1920 and went on to open a retail pharmacy before being called back into service to help establish the RAAF at Point Cook. He was awarded one of the first Distinguished Flying Crosses.

Thanks to a single, priceless letter penned by the 22-year-old soldier, we’re able to piece together a vivid picture of Wallace Gordon Jewkes. Gordon, one of two sons born to a prominent Melbourne pharmacist and on his way to carrying on the family business on his return home, penned his feelings to his parents on 9 January, 1917, the night before he was due to lead a trench raid.

He was filled with a mix of gratitude for the opportunity to lead his fellow soldiers and a sense of foreboding that, as it turns out, was prescient :

France – 9/1/17

Dear Mother & Father,
I'm afraid that you will think me rather gloomy in writing in the following strain but of course one has to take the necessary precautions at these times, the fact is that our Battn is carrying out a raid on the enemy trenches tomorrow night, and I am one of the chosen volunteers, there are three of us altogether, that is officers, & 50 men. Of course, we are considered the elite of the Battn & I am proud to be in the position for it shows that I have the confidence of those over me which is a great factor at these times of great tests.

This war business is one which makes a man a man as regards the possession of those qualifications which are expected in a real man & I am delighted to know that my superiors think me a possessor of those qualifications.

If I should meet with bad luck and not get back I don't want you to mourn for me but just think of it in the light that you have given a son in a great cause & that he did his duty as a man.

I'm afraid my personal belongings amount to practically air, but all there is will be sent home to you & if there is any money sent home I should like you to give it to the dependents of some soldier killed in action, it will be very little I know, but it will serve to show an officer's appreciation of his men & I can tell you they are marvels, & the finest chaps one could wish to meet.

Well dear Mother & Father please don't sorrow for me.

All my love
Your loving son

The raid itself was considered a success “...preceded by an artillery barrage on the enemy lines the raiders, carrying a large supply of hand grenades, left our trenches and stormed the enemy front line. The venture was successful. Numbers of the enemy were killed, dugouts were blown up and machine guns put out of action, while valuable information was gleaned from the documents captured in the German trenches...”

But Gordon was shot in the head and died hours later. He was described by the Essendon Gazette and Keilor, Bulla and Broadmeadows Reporter as a ‘very popular young fellow,’ who ‘showed great promise.’ There are several accounts of Gordon’s death.3

Staff Sgt Martin of the 39th Battalion shared this account:

“I knew Casualty. He was a very tall man, dark complexion about 24 years of age, known as "Gordon". Casualty was leading and in command of the raiding party, Houplines, Armentiers. There were a party of Germans in a dug-out and Casualty went in and asked them to surrender and they refused to come out, and on turning around to call for assistance one of the enemy shot him with a revolver, the bullet passing through his head. I was 100 yds away. His men brought him back and he died two hours later. I saw his grave which had a nice cross erected on it with his name and battalion. He was buried with his comrade Basil White. He was well known and liked by all his men.” 4

Just like Gordon, surviving Jewkes brother Gilbert also showed great promise, only he was lucky enough to return home. After serving with the Light Horse Field Ambulance (AIF) during the war, Gilbert went on to finish his Pharmacy qualifications after WWI and went into business with his father, who owned two stores in Melbourne, presumably one to pass on to each son.

Gilbert became Federal Vice-President of the Pharmacy Guild of Australia and also President of the New South Wales Pharmacy Board. He was appointed Chief Pharmacist to the National Insurance Commission in 1938. Gilbert eventually received an OBE for his post-war efforts including a key role as Director of the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme of the Commonwealth Department of Health. He was seen as mainly responsible for the scheme’s successful inauguration.

The Canberra Times wrote at the time of his death, “Mr Jewkes was of a reserved disposition, but he developed a warm interest in Canberra, giving valuable service to the growing capital in many ways...He was a great lover of music, and earlier a keen golfer...Mr Jewkes will be well remembered also for his friendliness and for the many fine qualities of his character and citizenship.”

Back on the battlefield, Frank Cahir managed to make it all the way to Armistice Day. Landing on the beaches of Gallipoli as a private with the role of a stretcher bearer in April 1915, by June he was promoted to staff sergeant dispenser, working with the 2nd Field Ambulance. Frank served with distinction in two Australian field ambulances in Egypt, Turkey and on the Western Front between 1914 and 1918.

In a letter to his mother that he smuggled via a friend to avoid the censors shortly after storming the beaches at Gallipoli, he wrote:

“You are getting very tame accounts of the war here and it is a much tougher problem than they anticipated. They are giving you the casualty lists very gently, as the day we landed there was close on four thousand killed and wounded out of the first division, the poor old 1st division they have borne the brunt of it, and those who come after have no idea what they have gone through.

Sunday, April the 25th is a day I will never forget. The first boat to hit the shore was full of 3rd Field Ambulance men (as they accidentally got ahead of the Infantry in the dark) there were eight of them killed and seventeen of them wounded out of the one boat. After the 3rd Brigade landed and charged the cliffs, our Ambulance was embarked in the boats, only our stretcher bearers 108 of us, I can tell you my heart beat rather erratically, for the deck of the Destroyer that took us in close to the shore was strewn with wounded and dying, poor fellows who had been hit before they reached the shore.

At any rate, Providence had a watchful eye over us and we landed without losing a man. On reaching the shore our work began, the beach was strewn with wounded and dying Australians and Turks, three of our own fellows were hit before we went a dozen yards, but the sight of our wounded pals put a feeling for revenge into our heads, and into it we went after the Infantry, you should have seen the wounded, it is impossible to describe it, anybody who went through those first three or four days will never forget it...”

Despite witnessing such horror, Frank was clearly inspired by the bravery of the men around him. He rounded off his letter by writing about what propelled him forward:

“Those first few days are like a huge nightmare to us, but the work our men did was glorious. Carrying men from off the top of the hills under an awful hail of shrapnel, but the thanks and grips of the hands of the dying and wounded would only spur you on to do more, it was impossible to use a stretcher and four of us would have to do the job with waterproof sheet.

Good bye mother, my friend is ready to go. More news when I get the chance.

Your loving son,

Frank would be later recommended for a Distinguished Conduct Medal (DCM) for his service with the 9th Australian Field Ambulance, specifically for the bravery and courage he displayed in many of the major battles in 1918 as the war was drawing to a close. For reasons that remain unknown, he was never awarded the medal and instead, his son Pat Cahir was presented with a Distinguished Service Medal (DSM) in 2017. The original recommendation for the DCM talks about his leadership through 1918:

“On the 23rd August 1918, in the neighbourhood of Bray, between 5am and 7am his NCO four times made his way along a half mile of valley through a heavy concentration of gas, and in the face of fierce and continuous shelling to deliver dressings to a Regimental Aid Post.”

“During the fighting from Aug 22nd to Sept 1st his continuous devotion to duty and organising ability, coupled with great coolness and determination under fire, were a large factor in the difficult task of keeping touch with movings RAPs, thus rendering possible the quick evacuation of casualties.”

“From the end of March 1918 until the present date, he has been constantly employed in the forward areas, in the organisation and supervision of the evacuation of the wounded.”

“In the many days of bitter fighting during this period, he displayed a contempt for danger, energy and initiative beyond all praise. In the weeks of arduous trench warfare he set an example of endurance, cheerfulness and soldierly qualities that stimulated all ranks.”

GW Macartney Lieut Colonel CC of the 10th Australian Field Ambulance wrote:

“His cheerfulness and soldiery bearing under the most trying and exhausting circumstances merit the highest praise.”

Instead of returning home to his family at the first opportunity after Armistice like most of the “1914 men”, Frank then made the extraordinary decision to stay on to help identify the dead. This was despite the fact that both his brother and sister had succumbed to tuberculosis back in Melbourne in 1918 and 1919. “We just don’t know why he didn’t jump on a ship and come home...” grandson John Cahir told Alchemy.

Frank would stay behind for another two-and-a-half years after the Armistice to work as a photographer for the Australian Graves Service, who were charged with disinterring and identifying bodies, in a bid to let grieving families know the final resting place of loved ones. Frank and his grave- digging colleagues spent years searching over the very same battlefields where they had fought the Germans to discover the bodies of their dead friends and fellow soldiers and rebury them.

Decades later, Frank’s grandson, University of Ballarat researcher Fred Cahir, told The Sydney Morning Herald in 2010 that the mostly experienced soldiers who volunteered to work for the Graves Detachment, a unit of the Australian Imperial Force, undertook “a grisly task that inevitably exacted a tremendous toll”.

Frank returned home in 1921, and went on to marry Mabel Murray from Ireland, whom he met on the ship journey back home. Records suggest he never completed that final exam, but he did pursue his interest by working in pharmacy and was clearly involved in the wider pharmacy community when he returned. On 22 May, 1928, Frank was working as a chemist’s assistant in Collins St, Melbourne when he fronted up to a nearby doctor complaining of feeling unwell and very shortly thereafter passed away.

Mabel wrote to her sister Lou in England in June of that year of her distress: “I worshipped the ground my man trod on yet my love could not keep him. And after only 6 1⁄2 years. He was the loveliest man ever born and all his friends say that. The letters I’ve received and telegrams – all from his friends, many of whom I’ve never seen, but all testifying to the respect and affection he engendered. It can’t be true, Lou. And I have only his little sons left to remind me of my lost happiness. Thank god they are like him so that I can never forget him.”

An equally extraordinary woman, Mabel wrote to Lou that despite being able to count on Frank’s many friends for support she could not “survive on charity alone” and soon after, the mother of three small boys started her own business, a cake shop based in Preston.

All three sons went on to fight in World War II, and all were to return home to Mabel and to make families of their own. John Cahir told Alchemy that Frank’s extraordinary legacy was a source of great pride for the family, and like many of these men’s stories of both immense contribution and unfulfilled potential, his memory loomed large for all of them, “...for a man I never met I know an awful lot about him. He has well over 100 descendants and he’s embedded in our collective memory even though most never met him...”

The manner of Frank Cahir's death remained largely unknown by his sons and in turn his grandchildren, all of whom were under the impression that their grandfather died of war wounds. The truth only came to light when one of the grandsons was searching in the Public Records Office and found reports of Cahir's death, including this story in The Argus, from May 1928:

“While working at the shop of E.G.Owen, chemist, Collins Street, city, yesterday morning, Frank Cahir, chemist's assistant, of Leicester Street, Preston, complained that he felt ill. And he visited a doctor a few doors away. The doctor suggested that he should go home, but Cahir replied that he had no home to which he could go. The doctor then told Cahir to rest in a spare room at the rear of the building. When the doctor visited him half an hour later Cahir was much worse, and he died a few minutes afterwards. Plain-clothes Constable Evans of Russell street has reported that when Cahir was lifted from the floor an empty bottle, which had contained poison, fell from his coat pocket. The doctor expressed the opinion that death was due to poisoning.”

At 38, Frank had outlived his fellow student- soldiers Malcolm, Gordon, Alan and Eric by more than a decade, but he was no less a casualty.

“In some way, shape or form, World War 1,” says John, “that’s what got him.”

* Frank Cahir will feature in the Australian War Memorial’s ‘After the war’ special exhibition:



3 According to The Thirty-ninth : the history of the 39th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force by A.T. Paterson CSM-142)

4 W-G-CSM-142w