Gone without a trace

One of the most moving sites I have visited commemorating the First World War is the Thiepval Memorial in Picardy, Northern France.

This huge structure was built between 1928 and 1932 and bears the names of more than 72,000 officers and men of the United Kingdom and South African forces who died in the Somme region before 20 March 1918 and have no known grave[1]. Almost 65,000 of those commemorated died in just four months between July and November 1916 during the Battle of the Somme.

Designed by architect Sir Edwyn Lutyens, whose best-known monument is the Cenotaph in London’s Whitehall, the red brick and limestone memorial consists of a massive 45m-high arch resting on sixteen separate pillars and is located on a ridge of high ground.  The top of the memorial can be clearly seen from various points of high ground in the centre and northern sectors of the 1916 Somme battlefields.   

The Thiepval Memorial also serves as an Anglo-French battle memorial to commemorate the joint nature of the 1916 offensive and a small cemetery, containing 300 British Commonwealth and 300 French mostly unidentified graves, lies at the foot of the memorial.

Thiepval Memorial in 2014| from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

The names of the 72,331 missing are recorded on separate panels arranged by regiment, then within each regiment by rank and within that alphabetically[2]. At the time of the unveiling in 1932 there were 73,357 names commemorated, however bodies are occasionally discovered on former battlefields and sometimes identified through various means. The inscription of their name is removed from the memorial by filling in the inscription with cement and their remains are reinterred with full military honours at a cemetery close to the location where they were discovered. Some additional names have also been added and are listed on addenda panels on the side near the cemetery.

When I first visited Thiepval in 2014, I was looking for the name of a cousin, Edward Henry Bovill, who I knew was commemorated on Pier 13 and Face C and, although I found him, I was completely unprepared for how overwhelmed I would be by the sheer size of the memorial and the quantity of names recorded thereon, along with the devastating realisation that so many thousands and thousands of young men had simply ceased to exist.

Edward, known as Teddy to friends and family, was born in Betchworth, Surrey, on 13th April 1887 to Henry Bovill, a wealthy corn merchant, and his wife Mary Constance (nee Brock)[i].  The Bovills already had three daughters, Mabel, Evelyne and Norah[ii], and they must have been delighted to welcome a son to join their growing family.  Seven years later, in 1894, Teddy’s younger brother Eric was born, and in 1906 the Bovills would welcome their orphaned nieces Lilian and Constance Brock into their home.      

Teddy was educated at Summerfields School Oxford, where he was boarding at the time of the 1901 census[iii], and Harrow public school, before went up to Pembroke College, one of the oldest colleges in Cambridge, and graduated as a Batchelor of Arts in Law in January 1910.

Caption: Teddy Bovill at Harrow in 1901[iv]

Shortly after graduating, Teddy entered business as a corn merchant in the long-established family firm of Bovill and Sons trading from the London Corn Exchange in Mark Lane, City of London.  As a corn merchant, he would been responsible for the bulk purchase of wheat, barley, and other corn crops, which would then be sold on.  A farmer would sell, and a merchant would buy, based upon a small sample, and once a deal had been struck, an order for thousands of sacks would be placed for delivery to a warehouse for onward distribution to millers, bakers, or retailers.  Much of the trade was based on futures and forward contracts, whereby two parties agree to buy or sell a specific product at a set price by a certain date in the future. By locking into a purchase/sale price in advance, buyers and sellers could mitigate risks associated with price movements in the future.  As with the trading of stock and shares today, a lot of money could be made or lost very quickly.

Benjamin Bovill, Teddy’s great grandfather, had founded Bovill and Sons some 100 years previously.  The firm had been very successful over the years and Teddy’s grandfather, father and several uncles had enjoyed very lucrative positions on the board.

Despite the threat of war, Teddy chose to continue his career as a merchant and was elected a member of the Baltic Mercantile and Shipping Exchange in 1914[v]  when he was described as ‘a wealthy corn merchant’.  His younger brother Eric, then aged 20, joined the wave of nearly half a million young men who volunteered in the first weeks after war was declared.  Eric was gazetted as 2nd Lieutenant to the 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers), a cavalry regiment, and, after just three months’ training, left for France in November 1914.

However, less than a year after war had been declared, although a million men had been encouraged to enlist by Lord Kitchener’s “Your Country Needs You” campaign, it became clear that it would not be possible for the British to continue fighting by relying on voluntary recruits.  The government saw no alternative but to increase numbers by conscription – compulsory active service – on all single men aged between 18 and 41, but exempted the medically unfit, clergymen, teachers, and certain classes of industrial worker.   Perhaps Teddy decided it would be better to offer his services before he was called up as he joined the 16th Battalion (Queen’s Westminster Rifles) of the London Regiment as a 2nd Lieutenant in July 1915.[vi]

Edward Henry Bovill[vii]

In January 1916, the Bovill family received the devastating news that their younger son Eric had been killed whilst serving dismounted in the trenches. He had jumped up to have a look over the parapet and been shot through the head by a sniper[viii].

Two months after his brother’s death, Teddy left for France and joined the Queen’s Westminsters as a reinforcement officer on 12th March 1916.  The battalion’s war diaries[ix] contain brief one-line entries noting day after day of seemingly tedious training and church parades, until their success in the Brigade sports day on 2nd May 1916 is proudly recorded in a detailed three-page report, before returning to the mundane routine of training and church parades.  In early June the battalion, which consisted of just under 1,000 men organised in four companies of up to 250 men, transferred to Hebuterne where they were employed in shifts improving existing trenches during the day and digging new ones at night.  By the end of June, the battalion was engaged in practice attacks on dummy trenches constructed to represent the enemy trenches which would be the objective of a forthcoming Brigade attack on the Gommecourt Salient. 

On the night of 30th June, under cover of darkness but with artillery shells bursting in the sky above, the troops began move forwards as platoons (small groups of around 25 to 30 men) to gather in the assembly trenches to wait for the signal to attack.   As dawn was breaking, just before 6:25am the following morning, the preliminary bombardment and counter bombardment began with shells and mortar shrieking overhead in both directions landing in and near trenches on both sides.  An eyewitness describes moments of intense fear during this close bombardment when he felt that if he was blown up that would be the end of all things because the “idea of an after-life seemed ridiculous in the presence to such frightful destructive force”.[x]

At 7:30am on 1st July, with columns of black smoke and debris rising from shell holes all around, the command to fix bayonets was given, whistles blew, and the attack on Gommecourt began.  Men had to scramble out of the trenches where they could, as the ladders had been smashed or used as stretchers long before, and they assembled on the edge of the parapet before beginning to walk – not run – forwards as ordered towards the enemy lines.  Before they had reached their own front line, men began falling all around having been hit by enemy machine gun fire and shrapnel as shell holes were opening all around them[xi]

The Westminsters’ objective was to take an area behind Gommecourt village where they were to meet up with troops from the Sherwood Foresters coming from the north.   The first two German trenches were captured and a small group of men, including Teddy Bovill, who had been wounded in the face as his platoon left their trench, also reached the third trench, but a strongpoint at Nameless Farm held out despite several attacks. The German artillery fired a standing barrage along No Man’s Land and trapped the British on the far side all day as German infantry gradually recaptured the lost trenches, all attempts to send reinforcements from the British lines being costly failures[xii].   Eventually, after twelve hours of fighting, the surviving men were forced to retreat towards their own line.  Teddy was “reported as being almost if not quite the last to leave the last enemy trench and it was cruelly hard luck that he should have been killed on the very parapet of our own trench, as he was just stepping into it.”[xiii] 

During the diversionary attack at Gommecourt, the Westminsters suffered over 800 casualties, including 28 officers and 811 men, killed, wounded or missing[xiv]. Teddy’s body was never recovered and was lost in subsequent fighting in the area.

The 1st of July 1916, now remembered as the first day of the Battle of the Somme, remains the deadliest day in British military history with nearly 60,000 British casualties including 19,240 men who had been killed or had simply disappeared without a trace. It is estimated that more than three million men fought in the battle, and more than one million men were wounded or killed, making it one of the bloodiest battles in human history and the fighting devastated northern France, creating a churned-up wasteland of mud and shattered trees. Many of the missing soldiers lost during the four years of the war may be buried in a grave marked with a headstone bearing the words “A Soldier of the Great War. Known Unto God”, sometimes with their regiment and rank identified.

Shrouds of the Somme was an artwork by British artist Rob Heard created to commemorate the British Commonwealth servicemen with no known grave whose names are recorded on the Thiepval Memorial. The work comprised 72,396 small human figurines about 30cm long, each separately wrapped in a calico shroud which was cut and sewn by hand. The full installation was laid out at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in London over the centenary of the Armistice of 11 November 1918 that ended the First World War. To see these tiny figures representing the sacrifice of someone’s father, husband, son, or lover, each one with his own story and family and friends who would grieve for him, laid out across row after row after row was one simply of the most powerful and humbling sights I have ever seen.

They mingle not with their laughing comrades again; 

They sit no more at familiar tables of home;

They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;

They sleep beyond England’s foam.

Laurence Binyon (extract from For The Fallen)
Shrouds of the Somme 2018 | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

[1] The dead of other Commonwealth countries, who died on the Somme and have no known grave, are commemorated on national memorials elsewhere.

[2] To locate a particular name, you can search the CWGC website including an additional field of ‘Cemetery or Memorial = thiepval memorial’ in the search.

[i] Edward Henry Bovill’s birth certificate

[ii] 1891 England Census Class: RG12; Piece: 579; Folio 133; Page 9; GSU roll: 6095689 via ancestry.co.uk

[iii] 1901 England Census Class: RG13; Piece: 1380; Folio: 159; Page: 43 via ancestry.co.uk

[iv] Middlesex, Harrow School Photographs Of Pupils & Masters 1869-1925 Image © The Photo Place Ltd Via Findmypast.co.uk

[v] City of London Year Book and Civic Directory 1915 via ancestry.co.uk

[vi] London Gazette 6 Aug 1915 Supplement 29257 page 7877

[vii] Second Lieutenant Edward Henry Bovill from the Imperial War Museum’s Lives of the First World War website – last accessed 11 Nov 2022 

[viii] National Archives WO 95/1137/1 6 Dragoon Guards War Diaries

[ix] National Archives WO 95/29623/2 1/16th Battalion London Regiment War Diaries

[x] Attack: An Infantry Subaltern’s Impression of July 1st, 1916 by Edward George Downing Living via archive.org – last accessed 12 Nov 2022

[xi] Ibid

[xii] https://www.frontslinesandtrenches.org/gommecourt – last accessed 12 Nov 2022

[xiii] National Archives WO 95/29623/2 1/16th Battalion London Regiment War Diaries

[xiv] ibid