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Coward, Harry Keith (1887–1971)

by Alan Fewster

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

Harry Keith Coward (1887-1971), soldier and grazier, was born on 20 November 1887 in Sydney, second son of William Gratus Coward, an English-born architect, and his wife Jane Ann, née Crossing. After his father's death in a railway accident at Glebe in 1894 he moved with his family to Mudgee (where his Crossing relatives lived) and attended the grammar school there. He joined the Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney on 13 January 1905 and was transferred in turn to Coolamon, Wagga Wagga and Kempsey.

In July 1909 Coward resigned to go into partnership with his brothers, William and Edwin, on a land-ballot block at Mungindi. He helped work the property, Comilaroy, until 20 May 1915 when he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a private. Reaching Egypt in January 1916, he was posted to the 45th Battalion in March and sailed for France on 8 June. On 4 July he was attached to the 12th Light Trench-Mortar Battery and went into the line at Fleurbaix. He then fought at Pozières Heights and Mouquet Farm. On 15 October, while his trench-mortar crew was under heavy fire, a fragment from an enemy shell ignited the fuse of a mortar bomb in an ammunition pile beside their gun-pit. Coward grabbed the shell and hurled it over the parapet where it exploded. For his promptitude, which saved many lives, he was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal.

Coward was promoted lance corporal in December and in April 1917 was commissioned second lieutenant in the field in the 45th Battalion; however, he remained attached to the 12th L.T.M.B. He served in the battle of Messines and for 'devotion to duty and courage from 7 to 11 June' was awarded the Military Cross: he followed the barrage in front of advancing Australian troops, destroying several enemy strong points and enabling the attack to proceed. Afterwards he 'commanded his guns under continuous heavy enemy bombardment, setting a fine example to his men'. He was promoted lieutenant in August. Early in 1918 his battery fought on the Somme and, at Dernancourt on 3 April, Coward was wounded in the face and right leg by shell fragments; he was evacuated and did not resume duty until late July. His leg injury was to plague him in later life. By August he was serving at Méricourt and on 18 September, during operations near Bellenglise, won a Bar to his Military Cross for using his mortars to silence German machine-guns which were holding up the Australian advance.

Demobilized on 14 July 1919 Coward returned to Comilaroy, then in 1922 moved to Newfarm, an adjoining grazing property. On 17 January 1923 he married Mary Roberta Curwen-Walker at All Saints Anglican Church, St Kilda, Melbourne. Three years later he took up Riversdale at St George, Queensland, and spent the rest of his working life there. He and his wife retired to a small property near Glen Innes, New South Wales, in 1953.

Tall and well made, Coward evoked Charles Bean's image of the bushman soldier. Though city-born, he had always preferred country life. In a letter written from the front in 1917, Kit, as his family called him, made light of the holocaust around him; rather, he questioned his brother about wool prices, sheep-crutching and shearing. Survived by his wife (who died only five days later), three sons and two daughters, he died at Glen Innes on 1 August 1971 and was buried with military honours in the Anglican cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916-18 (Syd, 1929, 1933, 1937, 1942)
  • J. E. Lee, A Brief History of the 45th Battalion, A.I.F. 1916-1919 (Syd, 1962)
  • London Gazette, 8 Dec 1916, 24 Aug 1917, 8 Mar 1919
  • Commercial Banking Co. of Sydney Archives (Sydney)
  • private information.

Citation details

Alan Fewster, 'Coward, Harry Keith (1887–1971)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/coward-harry-keith-5794/text9829, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 16 November 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (MUP), 1981

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