One hundred years ago, a courageous group of 35 men set off from Gilgandra, in western NSW, on a 320-mile recruitment march to Sydney that became known as the Great Cooee March.
Last month, 40 people joined to commemorate that inspiring occasion, among them several descendants of the original marchers.
“If we let our history die we will lose a lot of our culture, the Anzac Spirit – and everything that goes with it – that started during the First World War. It’s important that we grab it and hang onto it,” said Kim Templeton, an organiser of the 2015 Cooee March Re-enactment.
The 1915 Cooee March was the front-page newspaper story of the day for each of its 33 days, and when the tired and dust-grimed men finally reached Martin Place prime minister Billy Hughes and a crowd of 100,000 Sydneysiders gave them a rapturous welcome. The men marched through 50 archways of blood-red roses held aloft by maimed Gallipoli veterans in the Domain. It was only in 1994, at the Australian War Memorial, that I learned that my grandmother’s much-loved younger brother, Private Harold Baxter, had been one of the original 35 men who had set off from Gilgandra, full of patriotism, adventure and duty to “King and Country” on October 10, 1915.
The march had been organised to boost numbers of new recruits and morale after the disastrous casualties at Gallipoli, where Harold’s brother Herbert was still fighting as part of the 1st Light Horse Battalion. The Cooees marched on, day after day, through numerous country towns including Dubbo, Wellington and Orange, through the Blue Mountains and onto Parramatta and into Sydney, encouraging young men to join their ranks as they passed through, calling “Coo-ee — come and join us”.
Each day for 33 days they endured heat, flies, the cold and wind, smoke from mountain bushfires, blisters on their feet and arduous terrain but also the wonderful hospitality of the people of each township. Each night they camped in country halls or schools after evening dances with all the young girls, who proudly waved off all those brave young men who had joined the march in the morning. By the time the Cooees got to Sydney the original band of 35 had swelled to 263. They completed initial training at Liverpool Camp and then embarked for Egypt for final training.
As part of the 45th Battalion, Private Baxter was then sent to the Western Front in France in the terrible conditions of the winter of 1916. The men fought valiantly from the trenches in the bitter cold amidst mud, sleet and snow but on November 22nd, 1916, Private Harold Baxter was killed by a sudden shell-burst above his trench. He was just 19 years old.
Recently I had the privilege of being part of the 2015 Cooee March Re-enactment where 40 modern-day “recruits” undertook the same arduous journey in memory of their 1915 counterparts and marched 650km more than 26 days, proudly arriving at Martin Place on November 11 for Sydney’s Remembrance Day Ceremony.
We averaged 20-32km a day with the youngest marcher being 20 years old and the oldest 78. Among the marchers were six descendants of original marchers. We wore period dress, with some of the women dressed as the men of 1915.
Next year, there will be centenary commemorations of other marches inspired by the Cooees — the Men From Snowy River, the Kookaburras, the Kurrajongs from Inverell, the North Coast Boomerangs.
Lest We Forget.