Charles Henry Cowley VC

b. 21/02/1879 Baghdad, Iraq. d. 25/04/1916 Iraq.

Charles Henry Cowley (1879-1916) was born in Baghdad, Mesopotamia (now Iraq) on 21st February 1872, the eldest of ten children, to Henry Vereker Cowley, senior captain of the London-registered Euphrates and Tigris Steamship Navigation Company, which had been established by Lynch Brothers in 1840, and Mary Elizabeth (nee Holland). His mother was half Armenian, the daughter of a former Indian Navy officer and a refugee from Persia.

Charles H Cowley VC

He was educated in Liverpool, joining the training ship HMS Worcester as a cadet in January 1885. An able student, he gained a first class extra and ordinary certificate and was apprenticed, in July 1888 to McDiarmid & Co. Four years later, after the death of his father, 20-year-old Cowley returned to Baghdad. He took over the finances and joined the Lynch Brothers.

By 1914, he was the steamship company’s senior captain. When war broke out between Britain and Turkey in November, he was directed by Lynch Brothers to take a steamer from Basra to Baghdad to evacuate all British nationals who wished to leave. In command of the steamer Mejiedieh, without military rank, he played a vital role, delivering troops and artillery to points along the Tigris and Euphrates. In December 1914 the Turks, who had condemned him to death, sent him a message declaring him a “pirate”. Cowley continued to defy the Turkish threats and help the war effort against the Turks.

By the autumn of 1915, Cowley had become a persistent thorn in the side of the Turks. An attempt was made on his life, when an assassin boarded the Mejiedieh and stabbed Captain Wingate, who was sleeping in the bed normally slept in by Cowley.

On the night of 24th April/25th April 1916 in Mesopotamia, an attempt was made to reprovision the force besieged at Kut-el-Amara. Lieutenant-Commander Cowley, with a lieutenant (Humphrey Osbaldston Brooke Firman VC) (commanding SS Julnar), a sub-lieutenant and 12 ratings, started off with 210 tons of stores up the River Tigris. Unfortunately Julnar was attacked almost at once by Turkish machine-guns and artillery. At Magasis, steel hawsers stretched across the river halted the expedition, the enemy opened fire at point-blank range and Julnar’s bridge was smashed. Julnar’s commander Firman VC was killed, also several of his crew; Lieutenant-Commander Cowley was taken prisoner with the other survivors and almost certainly executed by the Turks.

Cowley’s body was said to have been buried at Fallahiya near the scene of his murder, although no grave was ever found. His VC was presented to his mother by Rear Admiral Drury Wake, Senior Naval Officer, Persian Gulf, in Basra, on 25th August 1917, by which time she was well aware of the rumours surrounding her son’s death. Investigations continued until 1920, when it was wound up. No one was ever prosecuted for the murder of the “Pirate of Basra”. He is commemorated on the Basra Memorial. His medal is not publicly held.