Just a soldier

If there is one word that could sum up the First World War, it might well be “loss”: the end of an era, the destruction of homes and livelihoods, the upheaval and trauma experienced by millions of displaced civilians, and of course the sheer number of human casualties left with long-term physical and mental injuries, killed, or missing forever with no known grave.

Some families seem to have had to cope with more than their share of heartbreak and the Bovills were hit very hard.

In 1914, at the start of the war, John Bovill, a prosperous Corn Merchant, and his wife Mary Constance (nee Brock) had five adult children.  Mabel, born 1882; Evelyne, born 1884; Norah, born 1886; Edward known as “Teddy”, born 1887; and John Eric known as “Eric”, an ‘afterthought’ baby born seven years after his elder brother, when his parents were in their forties.   John and Mary had also opened their home 1906 to two orphaned nieces, sisters Lilian, born in 1889, who died of TB the following year aged just 17, and Constance May known as “Sissie”, born in 1889.

By the end of what became known as the Great War in November 1918, both Mabel and Norah’s army officer husbands were dead, and Sissie, who married Captain Guy Napier, an Indian Army Officer and well known cricketer, was widowed just a few weeks after their wedding in 1915.  Teddy and Eric had also been killed on active service, and their mother Mary, no doubt broken-hearted, died just four months before hostilities ended. 

After the war John became a church warden, served on the Parish council, and was actively involved in the creation of the memorial cross which still stands in their home village of Buckland, near Dorking in Surrey. 

Buckland War Memorial and St Mary’s Church | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

In this story, we focus on Eric, the youngest of the Bovill children, born on 6th February 1894 and baptised on 1st April 1894 at Betchworth[i], a small village near Dorking about 20 miles south of London.

The 1901 census[ii] finds John and Mary, both in their late forties, still living in Betchworth with their eldest daughter, 19-year-old Mabel, and little Eric aged just 7, plus a governess, parlourmaid, and two housemaids.   Evelyn aged 17 and Norah aged 15 were together at boarding school in Eastbourne[iii], and 13-year-old Teddy was at boarding school in Oxford[iv].  

The family then moved to Broome Perrow, a large red-brick Victorian house in the nearby village of Buckland.  Although Eric’s sisters and brother were no longer children, they were still actively involved in village life and, one January evening in 1906, put on an evening of music and drama to a large assembly of friends and neighbours in the village hall.  Twelve-year-old Eric took the lead role of Jack in a well-received production of ‘Jack and the Beanstalk’ and the Surrey Mirror reported ‘for one so young [he] was extremely self-possessed and acted admirably.’ [v]        

#Eric Bovill aged about 14[vi]

A few months later Eric followed his older brother to Harrow School, and, after five years, he gained admission to Pembroke College, Cambridge, once again following in the footsteps of his older brother.   By the time went up to Cambridge, Teddy had already joined the family business of corn merchants, and Eric’s admission notes suggest he was interested in golf and hoped to read for an honours degree before becoming a clergyman.  Traditionally, in royal and aristocratic families, second and subsequent sons often were encouraged into a career in the Church or the military and perhaps Eric felt overshadowed by his older brother, who as expected heir to the family fortune, may have received much attention and praise.

Eric joined Pembroke College on 21st October 1913 but, when Britain declared war on Germany on August 4th the following summer, he immediately abandoned his studies and volunteered for the Army.  He was just one of almost half a million young men who joined up during the first four weeks of the war[vii] believing that Britain was powerful enough to win very quickly and the war would be over by Christmas.

His military records survive in the National Archives at Kew and reveal that, at his first medical on 14th August in Guildford, Eric was 5ft 7in tall and weighed just 8 stone, so he was quite slight for a 20-year-old young man.  Nevertheless, he was declared physically fit, and he applied to the Royal Military College at Sandhurst.  Two days later, on 16th of August 1914 – just twelve days after war had been declared – Eric was accepted on a Cavalry Cadetship.  As he was still below the age of majority, so legally still a child, a parent or guardian had to sign the application form, and Eric must have had his father’s full support as this was signed by John H Bovill.  Eric was duly accepted by the Royal Military College Sandhurst where he would have been expected to build his physical fitness and confidence, whilst learning how to control, care for, and command respect from the thirty or so men who would be under his command, many of whom would have been much older and from rougher backgrounds than his own.

After just three months’ basic training, Eric was gazetted as Second Lieutenant to the 6th Dragoon Guards on 15th November 1914 and left the following day for their base in Canterbury, Kent, where he received further training in basic movements in the field, weapons handling, and marksmanship, until, on 7th March 1915, he left for France to join his regiment four days later[viii]

6th Dragoon Guards[ix]

The 6th Dragoon Guards (Carabiniers) was an old cavalry regiment raised in 1685 with a long and distinguished service within the British Army.   As well as being equipped to go into battle on horseback armed with a sword or lance, cavalrymen could also fight on foot as they were trained to shoot with deadly accuracy and carried standard-issue short magazine Lee Enfield rifles.  Like other cavalry units, the men could be ‘dismounted’ to spend time in the trenches, with grooms taking care of the horses who were left in a place of relative safety a few miles behind the lines.   The soldiers would then be taken by motor bus or marched to their front-line position, where they were treated like regular infantry. 

At that beginning of the war, both mounted and dismounted ordinary soldiers wore a uniform provided by the army consisting of khaki coloured wool tunic and trousers, ankle boots with hobnail soles, ‘puttees’ made from cloth wound tightly around the lower part of the leg from ankle to knee, and soft peaked caps.  They also wore a wide belt, over-the-shoulder brace straps, pouches and other components made from cotton webbing for carrying ammunition and kit.  Officers of mounted regiments, such as Eric, wore a tailored uniform made of better-quality wool in similar colour khaki, usually with riding breeches, brown leather knee-high riding boots, and a peaked cap.  Unlike other ranks, officers were expected to pay for their own uniforms, pistol, sword, and leather Sam Browne belt which went around the waist and over the right shoulder.  Curiously, between 1860 and 1916, there was a uniform regulation for all soldiers, whether rank and file or officer, to wear a moustache ‘The hair of the head will be kept short. The chin and the under lip will be shaved, but not the upper lip…’[x]

Every officer, even one as young as Eric, was supported by a personal servant or batman to take care of his kit and other tasks such as cooking and cleaning, as well as a groom to care for his horse. These men were usually volunteers from the ranks who were paid an extra stipend by the officer, and their services would allow the officer to carry out his official duties, principally all the bureaucracy required by his superiors and Divisional HQ. 

While on active service, army units were required to keep war diaries recording daily activities, location, and a summary of events.  Eric’s unit war diary[xi] tells us that, when he arrived, they were staying in billets in the village of Bleu a few miles west of Lille in France.  After a few days of exercise, grooming, and training, including riding school, bomb gun practice, and map reading, the unit marched with their horses to new billets near Godewarsvelde, close to the Belgian border, with orders to be ready to move at a moment’s notice.  They were getting closer to the front line and the diarist noted on 23rd April that they could hear “very heavy bombardment in the direction of Ypres”.  This marked the start of what would become known as the ‘Second Battle of Ypres’, when the Germans attacked around the village of Langemark pushing the French and British front line back around 5km.   The officers and men of Eric’s regiment waited all the next day and the following night with their horses in the pouring rain ready to move northwards, but the order never came. 

After a day’s rest the men were ordered forward – this time without their horses – into the trenches to protect the French guns, however casualties were sustained when four men from the unit were hit when a shell landed where they were digging.   Eric could not have known at the time that this period of attrition in the trenches would last for over a month and would involve several dismounted cavalry units helping to plug the gap in the line following the German attack.  It was during this battle that poisoned gas was deployed for the first time by the Germany army. 

Based on examples of Eric’s handwriting, it is possible that he was responsible for recording the May 1915 entries of his unit’s war diary . On the afternoon of 2nd May, just as they were preparing to be relieved from duty and leave the trenches, they came under heavy rifle and artillery attack and “were very heavily shelled with high explosive shells full of gas”.  Fortunately, no serious casualties were sustained, and Eric and his men were evacuated from the trenches during the night.

6th Dragoon Guards War Diary May 1 & 2 image Crown Copyright [xii]
(click image to view full size – link opens in new tab)

By mid-1915, the situation in France was basically deadlock and the Western Front, which had started as a series of simple ditches, had evolved into complex networks of trenches and barbed wire meandering some 700km from the North Sea to the Swiss border.   These trenches would protect soldiers from both sides from heavy artillery firepower, however this change in military tactics resulted in an increase in serious head injuries, often caused by small pieces of shrapnel from grenades, or secondary shrapnel such as pebbles and other hazardous debris.  The dish-shaped steel combat helmets, which are today synonymous with the iconic silhouette of a British ‘Tommy’, had not yet been distributed to British and Commonwealth soldiers who were still wearing cloth caps when they came under fire in trenches.     

During the second half of 1915, Eric and his regiment spent their days in relative safety behind the lines undertaking more training, drilling, grooming, and trench digging.  Although they continued with their traditional sword and bayonet practice, the men were also becoming proficient in bomb-throwing with the new cast-iron bodied egg-shaped hand grenades, known as Mills bombs, which were quickly becoming an essential defensive tool in trench warfare. Eric learned how to lead a team of eight men consisting of throwers, carriers, and rifle bombers, who inserted one end of a metal rod into the bottom of a grenade and the other end into the barrel of a rifle to launch the grenades up out of their trench and back down into the enemy’s trench.

On the night of 5th January 1916, they returned to a network of trenches known as the Quarries, close to the Hohenzollern Redoubt (Hohenzollernwerk) which was a strongpoint of the German 6th Army about a mile north of the coal mining town of Loos in Northern France. 

The Quarries was a typical network of trenches, with a “front-line trench” closest to No Man’s Land, backed up with a “support trench” and “reserve trench.  These three rows covered around 300m of ground and communications trenches were dug at an angle to the front-line trench to allow men to run up and down between the lines with messages, equipment, and food supplies.  Trenches were often given names like street names to help soldiers find their way around, and these routes could also be used to transport wounded men back to safety for onward transmission to casualty clearing stations for treatment. 

The men spent several nights concentrating on trench digging and repairs, during which they endured a light shelling and some sniper fire, until they were relieved by the 12th Lancers, another dismounted cavalry regiment, and were able to return at 6am on the 8th of January to their billets in Noyelles for some rest.  The following day, Eric led a working party closer to the frontline for more digging and repairs where they spent a week working on the Stafford Lane and Fosse Way trenches.

British troops holding a front line trench, near the Hairpin Quarries, Loos, 19th January, 1916 [xiii]

At last, on the night of 21st January, they moved forwards to Sector CII in the front-line trench to begin work on the Hairpin which, as the name suggests, was a long looping trench just a few metres away from the German trenches.  The company bombers, led by Eric as Bombing Officer, became involved in an exchange of grenades with the enemy lasting for two nights, culminating with an exchange of bombs in the left leg of the Hairpin at 4:30am followed at 6am by a mine exploding just to the left of the battalion[xiv].   Presumably things went quiet for a time because, at 7:30am on Sunday 23rd January, Eric jumped up to have a look over the parapet but was killed by a single rifle bullet from a sniper[xv].

Eric’s body would have been carried back via communications trenches to the nearest dressing station in the ruins of Vermelles Chateau.

The ruins of Vermelles Chateau and a Communication Trench[xvi]

Eric, aged just 21, was buried two days later nearby in what would become Vermelles British Cemetery.  The following Sunday the parish church at his home village of Buckland was filled for a memorial service in his honour concluding with the ‘Dead March’ from German composer George Frideric Handel’s oratorio ‘Saul’[xvii].

Eric’s Colonel wrote to his parents: “He had just jumped up to have a look over the parapet, when he was immediately shot through the head by a sniper; death was instantaneous.  I had known your son, Eric, since the day he joined us here and had become very fond of him.  He was one of the nicest natured boys I have met for a very long time, always cheerful, and never downhearted.  He will be greatly missed by the Regiment.”[xviii] 

His batman also wrote:“It upset me very much, as I have been a servant to Mr Bovill at Canterbury, and ever since he has been out here.  He was always very good and kind to me, and every soldier in our Regiment liked him.  I can tell you, sir, we have lost a good, brave, Officer.”[xix]

The mass deaths of thousands upon thousands of British and Commonwealth soldiers during the First World War created a commemoration crisis.  A decision had been taken in 1915 not to return any human remains home for burial by their families. But how could the bereaved come to terms with their losses when their loved ones were buried so far from home, or had disappeared completely?  

The Imperial War Graves Commission was set up in 1917 to establish permanent burial grounds for British and Empire soldiers, and mark, record and maintain their graves and places of commemoration. The IWGC sought to impose a common solution by honouring the war dead uniformly and equally, irrespective of rank, race, or creed.  However, many people resented what they perceived as state-controlled bereavement and their inability to make personal decisions about how and where their loved ones would be commemorated.   

Vermelles British Cemetery around 1918 and today
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About ten years ago, I visited Eric’s grave in a relatively small cemetery now cared for by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. His last resting place is marked with a simple white Portland stone lozenge shaped headstone bearing a regimental badge, rank, initials and surname, regiment name, and date of death, identical in shape and size to those of the more than 2,000 other young men buried in impeccable rows in that cemetery, a sight repeated in thousands of CWGC cemeteries across Europe and beyond.

Eric’s grave in 2010 | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew

When offered the opportunity within strict guidelines to contribute to the inscription on the headstone, Eric’s father chose only the symbol of a Christian cross but did not include his youngest son’s age of just 21, nor any personal inscription.  Eric’s older brother Teddy had been killed just six months later at the Battle of the Somme and, as his body was never found, he has no known grave. This distressing fact may have influenced the family’s decision not to engage with an official commemoration.

After the war, many wealthier families took the opportunity to create memorials to their loved ones on plaques and stained-glass windows across the UK, as well as on local rolls of honour and community memorials.  Inside the church of St Mary the Virgin Church in Buckland there is a very beautiful memorial made of intricately carved stone featuring a coloured mosaic of a crusader and the emblems of the brothers’ regiments.  The inscription is brief but comprehensive and includes a phrase from the Bible: “When I fall I shall arise”.  The full verse in the King James version reads “Rejoice not against me, O mine enemy: when I fall, I shall arise; when I sit in darkness, the Lord shall be a light unto me.”, and no doubt this design and wording was carefully chosen by the Bovill family.

The Bovill brothers’ memoral in Buckland | from the private collection of Natalie Mayhew
Detail from a “Roll of Honour”[xx]

Approximately one million British and Commonwealth servicemen died as a result of First World War, including Indian, Chinese, native South African, Egyptian and other overseas labourers, as well as thousands of women who were volunteering as nurses or for female branches of the armed services.

For Britain, the human cost of the First World War has never been surpassed in any subsequent conflict.

Like so many of his peers, Eric never had a chance to grow as a person and find his path in life. I look at his image and see a young man who lost any chance of a future the day he signed up to fight. Whoever he could have become vanished forever during that time of danger, fear, hatred, and horror, that no-one could ever have foreseen.

In late 2022, I took part in an off-road battlefield tour following the line of the Western Front from Ypres in Belgium to Arras in Northern France[xxi].  On the second day of the self-drive tour, the group stopped on a stony track by an area overgrown with brambles at the edge of a recently ploughed field.  The guide explained this was the site of the Hairpin trench where Eric had died on that January morning in 1916, and I was invited to place a small wooden cross in his memory. For me, in this desolate place on a bitterly cold December morning, I felt more of a connection with my lost cousin and his own sacrifice than I had felt at his graveside in Vermelles, or in front of any of the memorials bearing his name. 

The author laying a memorial cross at the site of what was the Hairpin trench[xxii]

If I should die, think only this of me:
That there’s some corner of a foreign field
That is forever England. There shall be
In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,
Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,
A body of England’s, breathing English air,
Washed by the rivers, blest by the suns of home

extract from The Soldier by Rupert Brooke

[i] John Eric Bovill baptism

[ii] 1901 England Census Class: RG13; Piece: 624; Folio: 11; Page: 13 via ancestry.co.uk

[iii] 1901 England Census Class: RG13; Piece: 880; Folio: 63; Page: 12 via ancestry.co.uk

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

[v] Surrey Mirror Fri 26 Jan 1906 via British Newspaper Archive

[vi] Harrow School Photographs of Pupils & Masters 1869-1925 Image © The Photo Place Ltd via Findmypast.co.uk

[vii] Voluntary Recruiting in Britain 1914-1915 via the British Library last accessed 20 Feb 2023

[viii] WO 339/23642 held in The National Archives, Kew

[ix] A Dangerous Path by Henry Joseph ‘Harry’ Payne National Army Museum https://collection.nam.ac.uk/detail.php?acc=1972-05-6-8 last accessed 26 Mar 2023

[x] Command No. 1,696 of the King’s Regulations and Orders for the Army 1912. Reprinted with Amendments published in Army Orders up to 1st August, 1914 via archive.org

[xi] WO 95-1137-1-1 held in The National Archives, Kew

[xii] WO 95-1137-1-2 held in The National Archives, Kew

[xiii] Imperial War Museum © Q 29052 last accessed 16 Feb 2023

[xiv] WO 95-1137-1-3 held in The National Archives, Kew

[xv] Ibid

[xvi] Via Paul Reed @sommecourt on Twitter

[xvii] Surrey Mirror 11 Feb 1916 via British Newspaper Archive

[xviii] Harrow School Roll of Honour last visited 09 Feb 2023

[xix] Ibid

[xx] The Graphic 4 Mar 1916 via British Newspaper Archive

[xxi] Organised by Battlefields by 4×4

[xxii] Photo (c) Battlefields by 4×4