When I was researching the World War 1 recruiting posters of Norman Lindsay that I posted last Anzac Day, I came across again some information on the Cooee Marchers.
The word cooee, sometimes written as coo-ee, is a traditional shout used to attract attention in the bush. Shouted correctly, it carries a considerable distance. The word originates from the Dharuk language, the original inhabitants of the Sydney area. It means "come here” and was used by the Dharuk people to call to each other in this way.
By late 1915 the setbacks in the Dardanelles and the increasing casualty figures at Gallipoli and in France had caused the initial fervour for participation in the war to dissipate. Recruiting figures had plummeted across the country, despite recruiting posters calling for assistance. Recruiting rallies became increasingly ineffective.
In the central western NSW town of Gilgandra, local butcher Dick Hitchen met with his brother Bill, the local plumber, for one of their usual post-dinner chats. Eventually the topic turned to recruitment. Together they came up with the idea of a march to Sydney, collecting volunteer recruits along the way.
The military authorities were reluctant to become involved, there being issues as to when the payment date would commence and how they would be fed and cared for during the walk. Nonetheless the idea caught the imagination of the public. Gilgandra held fundraising events, donated supplies and encouraged those involved.
On 10 October 1915 the Cooee Marchers left Gilgandra, 26 men, led by W T “Bill” Hitchen, the youngest aged 16. The oldes was their leader, Bill Hitcehen, who was 51. The name came from a speech made on the eve of their departure, where someone had said that they were responding to the cooee from the Dardanelles. Marchers came from all walks of life of life – stockmen, farmers, shearers, cooks, businessmen, eager youths and swagmen.
Travelling the 500 kilometres to Sydney, their numbers had grown to 263 at the end.
The following extract is from:
which in turn is from the book The Coo-ee March by John Meredith:
In each of the towns the Coo-ees rested, they demonstrated their military drills; gave impassioned speeches and enjoyed the hospitality of the local female population. News of their adventure quickly overtook them and their arrival into towns such as Wellington was marked with cheering crowds, flag waving school children, brass bands, detachments of police, militia and gifts of chocolates and a shower of rose petals.
Enthusiasm for adventure and a sense of patriotic duty pulled on local men with equal force. Although none of the towns could meet Gilgandra’s number (Gilgandra became celebrated throughout the British Empire for having the highest number of volunteers serving in WW1 per head of population) men and boys from Dubbo to Lithgow, Springwood to Parramatta downed their working tools, left their farms to join the Cooees.
Camaraderie and peer pressure would also have played their part in attracting recruits but equally the ability of the organisers to maintain military discipline and weed out undesirables also saw the Coo-ees gain increasing respect as the weeks passed.
Their achievement is even more remarkable when 1915 road conditions, the difficulties in feeding and transporting such a large number of men and other logistics are taking into account.
The night before their arrival in Sydney the marchers stayed in the Drill Hall at Ashfield, which later became part of Ashfield Boys High School. They were welcomed into Sydney by an immense crowd which stretched from Newtown to the Domain.
- The march inspired further marches, from different starting points and different destinations but all with the intent of collecting volunteer recruits along the way. The marches became known as snowball marches, the idea being that as a snowball rolled down a hill and became bigger, so the march would do the same with recruits. In 1915-1916 there were 9 marches: the Coo-ee March, the Dungarees, the Waratahs, the Kanagaroo March, the Wallabies, the Men from Snowy River, the Kookaburras, the North Coast Boomerangs and the Central West Boomerangs. About 1,500 men marched. It is estimated that they inspired between 2 to 3 times that number to enlist.
- Of the 263 Cooee Marchers, 220 served overseas.
- At least 20 did not return home.
- John Robert Lee, a Gilgandra Coo-ee, served overseas and was later NSW Minister of Justice.
- Bill Hitchen died of illness in an English hospital in 1916. With the enlistment age set at 45, he had nominated his age at 44. In reality he was 51.
- Coo-ee marcher Emerton (Bill) Hunter, died at Poziers with the 45th Battalion in 1916. His two older brothers had lost their lives at Gallipoli on the 27th August, 1915, with the 18th Battalion.
- Charles Alfred Hampson, enlisted at Lithgow, stating his age as 18 years. He was in fact 16 years old. His father Lightfoot Hampson, heard of his son's enlistment, followed the Coo-ees and joined them at Springwood to protect and support his young son. They served together overseas in the Australian Field Artillery, having the military numbers 4789 and 4790. Charles was killed in action in France on the 28th of April, 1918. He was 17 years of age.