A towering pine tree grown from a pine cone found on the battlefield survives in Melbourne. (ABC News: Zalika Rizmal)
More than one hundred years ago, a young Australian soldier retrieved a single pine cone from a battlefield in Gallipoli and stashed it in his rucksack as a keepsake.
Today, a living piece of this Anzac history thrives in a serene park in Melbourne’s eastern suburbs in the form of a Turkish red pine.
Australia’s oldest Lone Pine tree, the towering pinus brutia in Burwood’s Wattle Park, commemorates one of the fiercest hand-to-hand combat battles of World War I.
Thomas Keith McDowell, pictured here with his wife, brought a piece of history home. (Supplied: Dr Lindsay McDowell)
It’s estimated over 2,000 Australians and 5,000-7,000 Turks lost their lives in August 1915, in what became known as the Battle of Lone Pine.
Part of the Gallipoli campaign, it got its name from the solitary pine tree that distinguished the scene of the battlefield.
Although the tree was destroyed in the fighting, 25-year-old Private Thomas Keith McDowell managed to collect a cone from the fallen tree.
It accompanied the soldier throughout his service — including 18 weeks at Gallipoli — until he was sent home from the Western Front with tuberculosis in 1916.
The landscape at Lone Pine before the charge in August 1915. (Supplied: Australian War Memorial)
On his return, he gifted the souvenir to his aunt, Emma Gray, a general store owner from Grassmere, near Warrnambool in the state’s south-west.
“Green thumb” Emma Gray was able to grow the seeds from the pine cone. (Supplied: Jean Giblett)
Her granddaughter Jean Giblett recalled her father describing Private McDowell scratching around at the bottom of his wartime kitbag.
“Here, Auntie, you’ve got a green thumb. See if you can grow something out of this,” the soldier reportedly told Ms Gray.
Some 12 years later, she planted some seeds from the cone. Four seedlings sprouted.
“She grew them in flower pots outside the back door and looked after them like pet lambs,” Ms Giblett said.
On May 7, 1933, the first tree was planted at Wattle Park, the home base of the 24th Battalion, which fought side by side with Keith McDowell’s 23rd Battalion at Lone Pine.
The other three were planted around Victoria between 1933 and 1934; one at Melbourne’s Shrine of Remembrance, one at The Sisters near Terang and another at Warrnambool’s Botanic Gardens.
Thomas Keith McDowell (R) kneels down next to one of the seedlings being being planted near Terang in 1933. (Supplied: Dr Lindsay McDowell)
According to Wattle Park Heritage Group chairman Tom Thorpe, these were the only “direct descendants” of the Lone Pine tree.
At least two trees were also grown from pine cones from the same battlefield, but Mr Thorpe said they were a different species of pine.
“It’s been documented that the other Lone Pines came from branches covering the trenches. They were imported from other areas,” he said.
“It’s probable that a few soldiers brought home pine cones from the Lone Pine tree, but they never grew them.”
Mr Thorpe also said he has seen interest in the story grow over the years.
“It’s got that little bit of romance and mystery about it.”
But he said the story is not just about the men who fought at Lone Pine, but those who have served the country in every war.
“It embraces all of them. It’s just a symbol now.”
Of the four original trees, only two have survived.
Dr Lindsay McDowell has been captivated by the story of his grandfather Thomas Keith McDowell. (ABC News: Stefan Lowe)
The tree at Melbourne’s Shrine died from disease in 2012, while the tree near Terang was struck down by lightning last year.
Thomas Keith McDowell’s grandson, Lindsay McDowell, grew up hearing about the family connection, but never met his grandfather.
He said the soldier was an English migrant who had worked as a miner in Wonthaggi and that the families lived in different states, eventually losing contact.
As a former army medical officer and lieutenant colonel in East Timor, Dr McDowell became fascinated with his grandfather’s legacy.
He discovered all sorts of memorabilia from his grandfather’s life, including discharge papers and postcards sent en route to the war.
“I’ve got it all preserved for my two sons,” he said.
Australian visitors still converge on the Lone Pine memorial in Gallipoli every Anzac Day. (Reuters: Osman Orsal)
Dr McDowell said he hoped the trees would be cared for by the younger generations.
“These trees are the last living tangible link that we have from the Battle of Lone Pine,” he said.
“When they go that link will be severed, never to see the light of day again.”