As part of their “Every Man Remembered” campaign, the British Legion are giving out cards with the names of soldiers who died on the Somme during WW1. I have previously written about Private David Thomson, the name on the card I received, and about Private Gerald Raymond, the name on a friend’s card. This post is about Private Fred Sowden the name on another card received by a friend.
A PROUD DEVONIan
Fred was born in about 1886 to Jon and Elizabeth Sowden at Cornwood in Devon. He was their second son. By the time war broke out, his father Jon was dead and Fred and his elder brother William were the primary bread-winners. Both were unmarried and worked as labourers in one of Devon’s many china clay quarries, one of the area’s biggest industries. It wasn’t highly paid work, but Fred’s later pay records in the army suggest he had a good head for money. That, combined with the lack of dependents (they had a sister, Rhoda, but she was already married) likely meant it was a hard, but relatively comfortable, life.
It’s easy sometimes to think of soldiers on the Somme – particularly those who volunteered – as always being teenagers, swayed by patriotism and hoping for glory. This was by no means always the case though and Fred was one of those exceptions. He was 28 in 1914 and appears to have joined the army as part of what is known as the “K2” intake – the volunteers who signed up to “Kitchener’s Army” when Lord Kitchener put out his second call for men. Something I wrote about before in the piece on Gerald Raymond:
This was the nickname given to several calls for volunteers made by the then Minister of War Lord Kitchener, starting in 1914. The goal was to replenish the British Army, which had suffered heavy losses in the first stage of the war and also to expand it. One of the results of this call for volunteers was the Pal’s Battalions that would suffer so badly on the Somme, resulting sometimes in entire generations of young men from some villages and towns being wiped out together in a matter of hours.
What Fred’s personal motivations for signing up were, we don’t know. It’s possible that he simply felt he was the only one in his family who could “do his bit” as William was already too old. He might also have been inspired by (or felt under-pressure from) his brother in law, Fred Yates, who was serving in the Royal Marines. Whatever his reasons, he volunteered and ended up in the 8th Battalion of the Gloucestershire Regiment (“The Glorious Glosters”), who had been recruiting in nearby Exeter.
FROM BRISTOL TO BELGIUM
Initially, Fred and the rest of the 8th were stationed in Bristol, where they both trained for battle and served as a local garrison force. Further training at Penham Down followed and then, in July 1915, they arrived in France.
The 8th Gloucesters’ war diaries show that to begin with, Fred’s days would largely have involved acting in support – carrying water, food and other supplies – to the front line. This was to be the experience of many of those who had volunteered in 1914 and was seen as a good way of bedding the new troops in slowly. By March they were being rotated into the trenches and began to take part in combat operations – mostly small-scale raids and offensives. Whilst several other Battalions of the Gloucesters were heavily involved in the Battle of Loos in 1915, a brutal and bloody failure, the 8th Battalion themselves were only involved on the periphery.
Whilst we don’t know what Fred experienced directly, George Cribley, another soldier of the 8th, was interviewed by BBC radio about his experiences in the 1960s. The full recording doesn’t seem to be available online, but even from the small extract that is (below), it’s possible to build up a bit of a picture of the Battalion’s experience by that point – a mixture of close combat and intense training.
PREPARING FOR THE SOMME
Fred and his fellow soldiers were no doubt highly aware of the heavy losses their sister battalions had suffered at Loos, and in some ways this may actually have served to boost their confidence rather than dent it. For it meant that in addition to their combat experience, they seemed be in possession of an even more valuable resource – luck. Certainly they were in high spirits in April 1916, when they were moved to the reserve to rest, train and resupply ahead of the Somme offensive.
For this period of Fred’s time at the front, we are lucky enough to have a unique witness who can help fill in some of the vivid details that are (naturally) missing from the unit’s war diaries. This is because in June 1916 Fred and the other soldiers of the 8th got a new commander – Major Carton de Wiart.
As his portrait perhaps suggests, de Wiart was no run-of-the-mill officer. A Dragoons Officer, he had been in Africa when was declared and was swiftly seconded into the Somaliland Camel Corps. He lost an eye (and part of his ear) in the fighting there and was invalided home. Desperate to return to service, in 1915 he had discovered that an old friend from the Dragoons was about to lead the 19th Division (of which the 8th Gloucesters were part) to France. Donning a glass eye just long enough to pass the medical board (he threw it out of the taxi on the way home and put his eye patch back on) he joined the 19th as a staff officer. The horrific casualty rate for officers at the Battle of Loos soon saw him pushed back into direct command though. Indeed de Wiart himself did not emerge from the various battles of 1915 unharmed – by the time he joined the 8th Gloucesters, he was missing a hand as while as an eye.
Colourful as he was as a character, de Wiart was also a front-line commander of considerable skill. Fred and his fellow soldiers would no doubt have been delighted when he was appointed their temporary commander, especially as it became clearer and clearer that they had been pulled back to prepare for another massive assault. Certainly de Wiart himself (according to his autobiography) felt the unit was in good spirits:
Just before the start of the Somme offensive I was given command of the 8th Gloucesters, and I could never wish to meet a nicer lot of officers or men. They were a fine battalion and in wonderful training after their rest and preparation, like the whole of the division.
The first day
However wonderful Fred’s training had been, nothing could have prepared him for the experience that was to come. Initially, as at Loos, it must have seemed like their luck had held. The 19th Division, of which the 8th Gloucesters were part, had been assigned to the reserve for the upcoming battle. Their role wasn’t to be part of the initial attack on the 1st July, but to follow behind it and – once the Germans broke – to move through and exploit any gaps as they appeared in the German lines.
Of course as history has shown the reality of the battle didn’t match the plan. There are a vast array of factors that combined to make the Battle of the Somme so horrific, particularly on that first day – starting with the fact that the Germans knew the British and French were coming, thanks to an ill-judged ‘good luck’ signal sent en clair on a front-line phone line which the Germans happened to have tapped. This, combined with an over-estimation of the damage that the initial artillery barrage would inflict, meant that by the time the allied armies went “over the top” the Germans were already back at their posts, armed and waiting for the attack. That attack itself was also starting too late in the day – the British had wanted to start the attack under the cover of darkness but the French insisted on delaying until 7:30am.
All these and more factors conspired to make the first day of the Somme one of the bloodiest in European military history. By the end of the day, the British army alone had suffered almost 60,000 casualties.
It was after this that Fred’s luck finally ran out. Out of all the sectors of fighting on day one, the area around the Albert–Bapaume – which the 8th were in reserve behind – was the bloodiest. Not only did it suffer from all the failings and problems experienced elsewhere, but British troops there also suffered due to unending fire from the heavily-fortified ruins of the village of La Boisselle, which dominated a section of the line. Elsewhere along the line, significant gains had been made (albeit at enormous cost) but here the attack had almost stalled and the 34th Division, which had spearheaded the attack, had all but ceased to exist as an effective fighting force.
On the 2nd July, in a desperate effort to renew the assault (or at least prevent retreat) before the Germans themselves could recover, the 19th Division were thrown into the fight. Throughout the 2nd they moved through the trench lines, under German fire, taking over from the crumbling 34th. By nightfall the 8th Gloucesters and the other units of the 19th had taken over the line almost completely and were standing ready to go over the top themselves. Their orders were to support other elements of the 19th in an assault on La Boisselle – because if the fortified village couldn’t be taken and held then the situation would only worsen.
Over the top
In his autobiography, de Wiart describes the scene that day as Fred and the rest of the 8th prepared to go over the top:
La Boisselle was one of the strongest positions the Germans held on the Somme, and there had already been two unsuccessful attacks. No-man’s-land presented a ghastly sight, for it was strewn with British corpses in those grotesque attitudes peculiar to the dead on a battlefield.
Even by this point in the battle though, the British had realised they desperately needed to adapt their tactics. A series of small barrages was to be used and at least this time the attack would begin at night.
It’s impossible to know what Fred and the other men of the 8th must have thought about that night as they waited to attack. They can have had few illusions about the situation they were walking into, having passed through the wounded and dying streaming back from the front as they advanced towards it. The war diary entries for that night are typically sparse, but it’s impossible not to feel the weight of a thousand individual moments of bravery, violence, pain and loss that lurk behind them:
1:30am – Moved forward to attack via St Andrews trench
3:15am – Attacked LA BOISSELLE & consolidated position – remained there all day and night.
What actually happened to the 8th that day is obviously far more complex than the description above. Under heavy bombardment and machine gun fire the lead elements of the British attack advanced into the outskirts of the village, but German resistance was heavy and casualties high. Initially, the 8th were in support once again but soon they found themselves in the thick of the fighting. De Wiart picks up the story:
The battalion we were supporting soon advanced into a heavy German barrage, and in the noise and confusion imagined they had received the order to retire. This battalion were retiring through my men, and as retirement is the most infectious disease there was a desperate moment of chaos, when the issue hung in the balance. The officers of the 8th Gloucesters were truly magnificent, and the men rallied and responded to them. They advanced regardless of their appalling casualties until they had fulfilled their appointed task and captured La Boisselle.
Even de Wiart undersells the actions of the 8th that day. With their own commanding officers dead, de Wiert took over command of three other shattered battalions that had been part of the attack and their remnants rallied round the 8th as they pushed on through to capture La Boisselle. Then, as heavy rain fell and the battlefield turned to mud, the Germans counterattacked in a desperate attempt to force the 8th back. Somehow they held the line until nightfall though, when reinforcements arrived.
De Wiert describes aftermath:
La Boisselle was a truly bloody scene. The casualties had been appalling; there were dead everywhere, not a house standing, and the ground flattened as if the very soul had been blasted out of the earth and turned into a void. At one moment I sat down on a waterproof sheet to write some orders, only to find when I got up that I had been sitting on a dead body.
Missing in action
One of the dead that day was Fred. We’ll never know for certain how and when he died. His entry in the record books at Warwick, where his family went to close out his account and pick up his belongings, carries that most heartbreaking of statements: ‘Death presumed’. Perhaps he was blown up by the heavy barrage in that initial advance. Maybe he was buried by German bombs fighting alongside de Wiert during that desperate fight to hold on to La Boisselle. Whatever happened, today Fred doesn’t even have a tombstone. He survives simply as a name on the Thiepval memorial but also, rather curiously, somewhere else – if you know where to look.
Because in the aftermath of the Battle of the Somme, it was announced that de Wiert’s actions that day had earned him the highest military honour a soldier can be awarded – the Victoria Cross.
This is something that de Wiert himself doesn’t mention in his own autobiography, which might seem incredible at first glance. But this is because de Wiert himself always insisted that he hadn’t earned that VC, not individually at least. As far as he was concerned, it had been earned by all of the men of the 8th Gloucesters that day, the living and the dead. He just happened to have been one of the lucky ones that survived to accept it on the Battalion’s behalf.
That Victoria Cross is now in the collection of the National Army Museum, but until November 2016 it is actually on public display in the Soldiers of Gloucestershire museum. If you visit it there, then remember that the legendary soldier whose name is on it isn’t the only person it belongs to.
It also belongs to Fred Sowden, a 30 year old clay labourer from Devon, who died on the Somme.