First World War centenary: Forest Gate soldier’s memoir sheds light on Middle East action
PUBLISHED: 12:00 30 September 2017
The realities of the Great War resonate more keenly when they come from the mouths of those who experienced it themselves.
Letters, diaries and other accounts are valuable tools in discerning what life was like at the front for servicemen, nurses and others.
William Bowyer was one of the soldiers to put their thoughts to paper, and his illuminating 1918 memoir is today part of the National Army Museum’s collections.
The private spent most of the war fighting in the Middle East, before joining soldiers in the Western Front for the Hundred Days Offensive, the final ‘big push’ of the conflict.
Born in Forest Gate on December 6, 1892, William Basil Bowyer was the son of meat salesman and farmer Joseph Bowyer and his wife Mary Gardiner.
He had an older sister, Jessie, and two younger brothers, Joseph and Edward.
A student at Dulwich College, William worked in the City before enlisting for the First World War in spring 1915. He joined the 1st Buckinghamshire Yeomanry (Royal Bucks Hussars), part of the Territorial Force cavalry.
Leaving Plymouth on the SS Ausonia in April, William would see combat in multiple places, including Chocolate Hill (Gallipoli, August 1915), Egypt (November 1915 onwards) and Palestine (March 1917 onwards).
Contrary to the Christmas truce of 1914 – where some British and German soldiers observed a temporary ceasefire on the Western Front, playing football and exchanging gifts – William’s first festive season of the war consisted of continuing action against Senussi tribesmen, who were revolting against the Allies.
He wrote in his memoir: “On Christmas Eve we have a short voluntary service and communion in a bell tent, very strange singing ‘peace on Earth’ and off to kill all we can early next morning... We had a few comforts given out, including a piece of Christmas pudding...
“Our colonel wishes us a happy Christmas and we move away into the night.”
William then describes some of the ensuing action.
“We pull off the road and the guns go into action in the open, firing over the Sikhs who had got into position during the night about a mile in front of us.
“Soon after, a British gunboat cruising off the coast joins in, shelling the ravines and wadies with high explosive[s].
“It was all a fine setting for our baptism of fire, more like the Boer War fighting, plenty of rifle fire, and everybody in the open.
“As the day wore on curiously enough we seemed to have a cessation mid-day for our Christmas dinner, bully and biscuits. We keep working round their flanks like a horseshoe, with our artillery and infantry in the curved part.
“Darkness fell about 5 o’clock and saved them today from a decisive smashing, but they will not again worry Matruh as they retreat towards Shamash leaving about 400 dead. Our casualties are reported about 250.”
In April 1918, the Bucks merged with the Berkshire Yeomanry to create the 101st Battalion The Machine Gun Corps, meaning a farewell to their horses.
“Everybody seemed depressed at parting with old pals,” wrote William. “Some of them had been with us for three years and one knows a horse intimately when they have seldom been more than ten yards away.”
Following additional training, the men left Alexandria, on HMT Leasowe Castle. William was lucky to survive when the ship was torpedoed and sunk by U-boat 51 in the Mediterranean, on May 27, 1918.
The private was rescued by a lifeboat, but 102 passengers and crew perished.
The soldier spent the remaining months of the war in France, promoted to corporal and even selected for the Officer Training Corps, but the conflict concluded before he was commissioned.
Post-war, William farmed and bred racehorses in Suffolk and Essex, and when peacetime ended with the Second World War, he commanded Home Guard units.
The veteran died aged 89 in October 1981, in Sudbury, Suffolk.
With thanks to the National Army Museum.
To read additional extracts from William’s memoir, visit ww1.nam.ac.uk/stories.