Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement/Cowans, John Steven

4174156Dictionary of National Biography, 1927 supplement — Cowans, John Steven1927Richard William Alan Onslow

COWANS, Sir JOHN STEVEN (1862-1921), general, was born 11 March 1862 at Carlisle, the eldest son of John Cowans, civil engineer, of Woodbank, Carlisle, by his wife, Jeannie, elder daughter of Samuel Steven, of St. John, New Brunswick. He was educated for the navy, at Dr. Burney’s academy at Gosport, but did not pass the examination. In 1878 he went to Sandhurst, and in 1881 joined the Rifle Brigade in India, where he served as aide-de-camp to Sir John Ross [q.v.], commanding the Poona division of the Bombay army. In 1891 he passed the Staff College with distinction, and after holding several staff appointments he became deputy assistant quartermaster-general in the movements branch of the War Office to supervise the transport of troops to Egypt. He was promoted major in 1898 and lieutenant-colonel in 1900. So well did Cowans perform his duties that he was retained at the War Office through the South African War in spite of his efforts to be employed on active service. He was gazetted colonel in 1908, and then served at Aldershot (1903-1906) and subsequently in India, where he held the posts of director of military education (1906-1907) and director of staff duties (1907-1908), and later commanded the Bengal Presidency brigade (1908-1910). In 1910 he returned to the War Office as director-general of the Territorial Force. Here he organized the horse census, which contributed greatly to the efficiency of the army in 1914. In 1912 he became quartermaster-general, the member of the Army Council responsible for the provision of the accommodation, food, transport, horses, clothing, and equipment, of the army, and for its movement by land and sea to the scene of operations. He was created K.C.B. in 1913.

Thus the critical moment of the outbreak of war in 1914 found Sir John Cowans in the position of supreme administrator of the most vitally important services of the army; and before many weeks had passed it was seen that a strain was to be placed upon those services to an extent not only unapproached hitherto in British military history, but hardly even dreamed of by those responsible for the military policy of the country. Fortunately, contemporary opinion recognized from the outset that in Cowans the country possessed an administrative genius, with the foresight and ability to grasp and solve the problems—of extraordinary complexity and magnitude—which faced his department. Statistics will furnish the best evidence of the success with which Cowans and his staff carried out, practically without a hitch during more than four years of war, the enormous expansion in the necessary services.

At the outbreak of war, barrack accommodation existed for only 262,000 men, so that every expedient had to be adopted in order to meet the rush of recruits and the mobilization of the Territorial force. Troops were quartered under canvas, in public institutions, but largely in billets. As men joined the army, houses were left solely in the occupation of women, and to avoid the billeting of troops in such houses, large hutted camps were built. The arrival of Dominion and Allied troops, of Belgian and Russian refugees, and of German prisoners, the creation of tank units, and the formation of the Women’s Auxiliary Army Corps, continually increased the strain. In 1917, exclusive of volunteers, there were one and three quarter million troops billeted throughout Great Britain. In addition, storage had to be found for munitions and supplies, and ever-increasing hospital accommodation. In 1917 there were 1,090 hospitals with 820,000 beds, but these were only just enough, since at the time of the greatest strain, in October 1918, when the average number of wounded arriving daily was 6,000, there were at one time only 3,697 available beds.

Cowans, who was promoted lieutenant-general in 1915, recognized from the first that the War would last a long time. During 1914 he had established supply-depots all over England, and from the earliest moment he made every effort to achieve economy, as, for instance, by making changes in the items of the ration according to the state of market prices. So far as practicable, supplies which otherwise would have gone to Germany—such as Norwegian fish—were purchased for the army; and, in order to save shipping, stores were bought locally, and cultivation encouraged in the areas occupied by British troops overseas. The meat imported was all frozen; at first it came to England, but later it went direct to stores at Havre and Boulogne. In the provision of forage great difficulty was found owing to the lack of shipping, but practically all the hay required was provided from England and France. In dealing with the transportation of supplies Cowans showed equal ingenuity in order to ensure that they should reach the right place at the right time. He strongly advocated the scheme for utilizing Richborough harbour.

One important feature of the War was the use of motor transport. In August 1914 250,000 gallons of petrol were being used per month; this rose to 10,500,000 per month in 1918. In 1914 the army owned only 80 motor vehicles, but subsidized vehicles were called up in order to equip the Expeditionary Force. Large contracts for construction were placed both in England and America, and steps were taken on a large scale to train drivers and mechanics. In 1918 the personnel numbered 178,570, the four-wheeled vehicles 85,138, and the cycles 34,711; in addition the War Office provided motor transport for the Ministry of Munitions, the General Post Office, and other bodies. In order to regulate everything Cowans established a motor transport board under his own chairmanship, with three committees dealing respectively with technical questions, land and buildings, and general purposes.

In 1914 the army owned 25,000 horses, to which were added 140,000 from the reserve created by Cowans, and 115,000 were impressed. In 1918 the total numbered 735,409, most of the remounts having been imported from America. Great difficulty was found in breaking in horses owing to the want of fit men. The supply of veterinary surgeons was heavily taxed, but it just lasted out, and assistance was rendered by the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in the training of farriers. Glanders fortunately were kept under, and over two and a half million doses of mallein were supplied for the purpose. In 1914 there was accommodation in hospital for 2,000 animals; in 1918 for 64,450.

The supply of clothing and general stores also devolved on the quartermaster-general’s department, and the expansion was as rapid as it was extensive. In a normal peace year, for instance, the requirements were 45,000 water-bottles, 2,500 spades, 57,000 ground-sheets, and 123 miles of rope. During the War 12,500,000 water-bottles, 10,500,000 spades, 15,750,000 ground-sheets, and 45,000 miles of rope were supplied. Every effort was made to economize material. Thus in all the back areas overseas boot-repair shops on a large scale were instituted, for which nearly all the tallow wanted was derived from mutton cloths, and the cloths themselves were used for cleaning rags. Moreover, sudden demands were often made for special needs. Thus when the British troops went to Italy, ropes, ice-axes, and mountaineering gear had to be supplied immediately. Newly devised articles were constantly needed for trench warfare; and on one occasion Cowans supplied at 48 hours’ notice 80,000 tins of special grease for ‘trench feet’. Tropical clothing and kit was required at short notice for minor expeditions, and the necessities of camouflage caused a sudden demand for special canvas and paint.

As the War went on, the difficulty of maintaining the personnel increased. In 1914 the Royal Army Service Corps consisted of 450 officers and 9,976 other ranks, and the Royal Army Ordnance Corps of 248 officers and 2,273 other ranks. In 1918 these had increased respectively to 11,564 and 2,253 officers and 314,313 and 38,193 other ranks. The demands of the infantry were heavy, and Cowans released from the Army Service and Ordnance Corps all officers born after 1887, and gave no commissions to men under thirty-five. The constant ‘combing out’ of tradesmen was met by employing women and ‘C3’ men. The extension of the war areas continually threw fresh duties on the quartermaster-general. Thus in 1916 responsibility for the operations in Mesopotamia was taken over by the War Office from the Indian government; the operations in the Eastern Mediterranean were based on Egypt; and in 1918 the feeding of the troops and civilians in North Russia, in the Archangel zone, was taken over. In 1914 the ration strength of the army was 164,000 men and 27,500 animals; in 1918, 5,863,352 men and 895,770 animals.

Cowans relinquished the post of quartermaster-general in March 1919. He was promoted general in 1919 and had received the G.C.M.G. (1918) and G.C.B. (1919), besides numerous foreign orders. On leaving the army he became associated with an important oil group in the City on behalf of which he visited Mesopotamia; but the strain of the War had seriously impaired his health, and after some months of illness he died at Mentone on 16 April 1921. He had been received into the Church of Rome shortly before his death, and a public funeral was held in Westminster Cathedral.

Cowans’ achievement can best be judged by ‘the fact that he held the post of quartermaster-general throughout the War, and that in spite of the necessity for expanding the army from a six-division basis to such vast numbers, no breakdown occurred except in Mesopotamia, for which campaign he had no responsibility until in 1916 his services were required to place it on a proper administrative footing, a task he soon accomplished.

Cowans possessed an immense power of work and unusual quickness of perception. His methods were unusual and sometimes surprised orthodox staff officers and officials, but they very soon learnt to appreciate his remarkable powers of getting things done, while his genial and kindly nature endeared him to all those who served with him. Outside his work his chief interests lay in sport and society. Sometimes his recommendations for appointments were criticized, and not without reason; but there is no doubt that the chief secret of his success lay in his power of selecting the best men available to serve him in the really responsible positions. He married in 1884 Eva May, daughter of the Rev. John Edmund Coulson, vicar of Long Preston, Yorkshire, who survived him. There was no issue of the marriage.

A portrait of Cowans was painted by Sir W. Orpen (Royal Academy Pictures, 1917), and another is included in J. S. Sargent’s picture ‘Some General Officers of the Great War’, painted in 1922, in the National Portrait Gallery.

[The Times, 18 April, 1921; War Office records; Mesopotamia Commission Report, 1917; Statistics of the Military Effort of the British Empire; Sir C. E. Callwell, The Life of Sir Stanley Maude, 1920; D. Chapman-Huston and O. Rutter, General Sir John Cowans, 1924; private information.]