Memories of Passchendaele

John Bowsher

Memories from Passchendaele

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John Bowsher

Walter John Bowsher (known as Jack) was called up for service 18 January 1917 at the age of 19. He was one of thousands of men aged 18 - 41 who were conscripted to serve their country after the heavy losses at the Somme.

John BowsherJack’s records, along with those of almost 60% of British soldiers who served during the First World War, were destroyed in The Blitz on London, the following has been pieced together by his family using a handful of stories that he shared and the few records that survived.

His granddaughter described him as being a gentle and quiet man who taught himself to play the piano by ear to play songs from the War. It is hard to imagine the dreadful conditions he experienced at Passchendaele; the mud and the maggots, and the hardships of fighting and losing his friends under the most horrendous circumstances. His daughter Dorothy has recorded his service history using extracts from his diaries and the battalion field diary. Dorothy notes that 10th Platoon, 9th Devon’s is particularly notable because of the fierce fighting in which they were involved.   

“Went into the line at Ypres Oct 3. Had a dreadful time over the top on 4 very heavy losses.”

“Staying at Dicky Hurst. Jerry (Germany) still shelling us. Waiting to go into the line again.”

The field diary for the 9th Devonshire’s records for 6 October “severely shelled during day. Lieutenant Colonel R.T. Morris D.S.O. and Adjutant-Lieutenant J.H. Barrett shelled in dug out. Both officers sent down the line with shell shock.”

“Going into the line tonight Oct 23, went over Oct 26 at 5a.m. dreadful losses both Maurice and Len killed beside me, only 306 men left in the Battalion and 4 officers.” 

On 26-27 October, the field diary recorded that “mud and water was so bad that all rifles and Lewis guns had got clogged with mud and were no use without being cleaned.”

“Arrived at St Pol Oct 28 leaving for Italy feeling very pleased to leave this hell of a place.”

The official battalion field diary mostly records movement from place to place but at some point it would seem that Jack was wounded as his diary mentions a stay at a hospital in Bordighera, Italy. It is assumed that from there, he was transferred to a hospital in Eastbourne with shrapnel in his foot. During his recovery, the nurses tried to brighten the spirits of their patients by having wheelchair races, unfortunately during one of these races John was thrown out of his chair and damaged his foot further. This accident prevented him from being discharged and returning to his unit and therefore lead to him missing the second battle of the Somme. 

After the war

Jack served in the Army during the Allied Occupation of the Rhineland and whilst in Cologne, he stayed in civilian quarters. Later in life Jack often joked about the time he gave his landlady his breakfast ration of porridge oats and a kipper, which she served in the form of the kipper cooked in the porridge!

Jack refused to join the Black and Tans in Ireland and turned down the offer of a commission in the Royal Flying Corps. He was demobilised in Exeter 23 October 1919 and transferred to the Army Class Z Reserve. His medical category was A1, he was 21 and a half years old and a Lance Sergeant.

He married his wife Sarah, who was known as Molly, 18 November 1922. They bought a little farm on outskirts of Lacock in Wiltshire around 1925 where they remained until 1939 when ill health led them to give up farming and open a guest house in Bournemouth. Unfortunately, due to the war, this did not thrive so they moved to Oxford where Walter worked as a clerk in the steel works until 1958. He then retired and bought a smallholding, returning to a village very close to his childhood home in Wiltshire. Here they remained, frequently visited by their children and grandchildren. This is where Jack  later died in 1975 from lung cancer likely to be caused from smoking which he started during the war.

Jack’s daughter Dorothy, now aged 93, still lives in the village Jack and Molly retired to with her bungalow on their smallholding. It is thanks to her and her desire to discover more about the family history that these diary entries were found and used to recount and share his life.