Soldier’s enduring legacy of Gallipoli nurtured by fertile Western District soil

UNLIKE many of his mates, after 17 weeks Thomas Keith McDowell was lucky enough to escape the hellfire of Gallipoli with his life, but the haunting memories of death and suffering would remain.

Stashed at the bottom of his kitbag, the young private, known as Keith, of the 23rd battalion, carried another, more welcome legacy that was destined to produce a living, lasting tribute to his fallen comrades.

From the remnants of the solitary pine tree, obliterated in the deadly conflict to become known as the Battle of Lone Pine, Private McDowell salvaged a single cone.

From the Gallipoli Peninsula, across the deserts of North Africa and the mud of the Somme, for the next year the pine cone accompanied Private McDowell until his return, ill but uninjured, to Melbourne in October 1916.

Remarkably, about 12 years later, nurtured by the fertile Western District soils at Grassmere by Emma Gray, the green-thumbed aunt of the by-then Sergeant McDowell’s wife Iris, the pine cone produced four flourishing seedlings. 

Several years later, they were planted in ceremonies from May 1933 to January 1934 at Wattle Park in Melbourne; Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance; The Sisters near Noorat where Emma’s son Verner farmed a Soldier Settlement block; and Warrnambool’s Botanic Gardens.

Tomorrow a gathering of onlookers including descendants of the McDowell and Gray families will assemble in the gardens before the now mature and stately Lone Pine, marking 80 years since the original dedication ceremony.

Among them will be Sergeant McDowell’s grandson, retired Brisbane doctor Lindsay McDowell. 

Although he never had the chance to meet his grandfather, Dr McDowell speaks with pride of the man who left such a unique legacy.

Keith McDowell, a former hairdresser in London, had migrated to Australia just a little over a year before his enlistment at Wonthaggi on January 14, 1915, noting his occupation as “coalminer”. 

Sent home from France suffering from tuberculosis 20 months later, he was listed as an invalid soldier living at Geelong before returning to hairdressing around Melbourne, dying in 1977 aged 88.

“When he came back he joined the Permanent Guard and was discharged after a total of 997 days’ service, medically unfit,” Dr McDowell said. “I suspect the Gallipoli episode had some long-lasting effects on him.”

Dr McDowell was a former lieutenant colonel with INTERFET in East Timor in 1999, one-time Flying Doctor and contract medical officer based at Gallipoli Barracks at Brisbane’s Enoggera army base. In a strange twist of fate, a “grandchild” seedling taken from Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance pine was planted at the Enoggera base about five years ago and is now flourishing.

Dr McDowell recalled his first sighting of the Warrnambool Lone Pine during a visit to the district two years ago.

“When I saw the Warr-nambool tree, it sent a cold shiver down my spine,” he said. “It’s a beautifully looked-after tree in beautiful gardens.” He also called at Camperdown, where Keith’s wife-to-be Iris Shiels worked as a bookkeeper for his half-sister, Lilian Watt, who ran a store in Manifold Street during the war years. 

Grassmere, where Emma Gray and her husband Robert ran the local store and post office, was also on Dr McDowell’s itinerary, along with The Sisters’ Lone Pine. 

A grainy photo records the planting on June 18, 1933 at The Sisters Memorial Hall. A group of men, some in army uniform, women and children crowd around as Keith McDowell and local landowner Mr I. S. Black together plant the tree, all under the watchful gaze of Emma Gray.

Emma’s granddaughter, Jean Giblett, of Timboon, says her grandmother was well known for her gardening talents. It is believed she attended all of the dedication ceremonies for the pines she cultivated.

Mrs Giblett, who will be among the guests at tomorrow’s ceremony, said Keith McDowell’s pine cone was passed to her father, Emma’s son Alec Gray, who held it for many years before it was donated to the Timboon RSL. 

It is now on display at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.

Widely regarded as the healthiest of the three remaining original pines — the Shrine pine succumbed to disease several years ago and has been replaced by a direct descendant of the original —  Warrnambool’s Lone Pine is listed on the National Trust’s Victorian Heritage Register of significant trees.

For the Friends of the Warrnambool Botanic Gar-dens who are hosting the commemorative ceremony, tomorrow marks an important milestone in the history of the tree before more wide-ranging Great War centenary commemorative events. 

Friends secretary Mandy King believes the pine will likely attract increasing attention as the centenary momentum builds.

“The value of the tree, which is the best specimen of the Lone Pine trees remaining, will attract a lot of attention because of its significance,” Ms King said.

Descendants of key figures in the 1934 dedication, Warrnambool secondary school students and Legacy and RSL members will also be among guests invited to tomorrow’s ceremony. 

The Lone Pine has long been a symbol of Legacy, with clubs throughout Australia planting direct descendant trees in school grounds in their club areas. One was recently planted in the grounds of Warrnambool’s Legacy House in Banyan Street.

An application by the Warrnambool Friends of the Botanic Gardens to the Anzac Centenary Local Grants program is set to provide funding for improved signage around the historic pine, along with a propagation project utilising seeds accessed from the more fertile cones higher in the tree.

It seems Keith McDowell and Emma Gray’s legacy is assured.

n Anyone with further information about the Lone Pine should email the Friends of the Botanic Gardens at friends@wbgardens.com.au

jmclaren@fairfaxmedia.com.au

Smartphone
Tablet - Narrow
Tablet - Wide
Desktop