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John Douglas Bowley

Lance-Corporal 9544 John Douglas Bowley, 1st Battalion Royal Berkshire Regiment

John BowleyJohn Douglas Bowley
John was born in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1893, the only son of Henry (Harry) Douglas Bowley and his wife Anna (Johanna) Catherine née Geysler. Harry was from Fosbury/Vernham Dean and was in South Africa serving in the Army Service Corps, he met and married Anna in 1891, while stationed at Aldershot. He had signed on with the ASC in 1889 for a 12 year period of service that was to consist of 3 years with the colours followed by 9 years in the Reserve.  Harry completed his 3 year term he returned to civilian life, though remaining on the Reserve.  In 1899 he was recalled to the colours to serve in the South African campaign (2nd Boer War) where he served from April 1900 to January 1901. His 12 year term ended in 1901 but it was not until 1902 that he was discharged – at some stage he must have agreed to a one year extension (possibly adding a 4th year to his original period with the colours).

Although Harry had returned to England by the time of the 1901 census 7 year old John was a boarder in the home of Charles White at Malvern Cottage, Park Lane, Newbury.


Sadly his mother had died the previous year, while Harry was in South Africa, as a result of complications following the birth of a daughter (Johanna Kathleen) who also died. The movements of the family at this time are a mystery, the two Johannas died in the Whitchurch registration district just south of Newbury while Harry’s home patch was around Vernham Dean, Hampshire and neighbouring Fosbury, Wiltshire, both to the south west of Newbury.  Two years later, Harry died in the Basingstoke district, to the east of Whitchurch, leaving John an orphan. However, Harry’s brother George Samuel Bowley lived at Vicarage Cottage in Speen and appears to have become very attached to his nephew, it seems probable that he and his wife took over his parenting following Harry’s death.

Harry attended Speenhamland School where he would have received a basic education up until the age of 13. He then appears to have taken up work on one of the local farms.

The 1911 census is the obvious place to look to find out if George had given him a home, but 17 year-old John is not in Speen, instead he is enumerated at Brock Barracks in Reading as an unemployed farm labourer at the barracks as a ‘recruit awaiting attestation’.  Attestation is the process of volunteering for service.  John was accepted into the Royal Berkshire Regiment and served with their 1st Battalion which was on home service, based at Aldershot – he was really following in his father’s footsteps.

When war was declared on 4 August 1914 the troops in England earmarked to form the rapid response expeditionary force to wherever needed, were immediately mobilised for war. On 13 August the 1st Royal Berks were shipped across the Channel as part of the British Expeditionary Force, the pitifully small force of 6 Divisions (approx 120,000 men) who earn the nickname of the Old Contemptibles after the German Kaiser referred to the BEF as General French’s contemptible little army.  

Berkshire Regiment badge

The regimental badge of the Berkshire Regiment, as used on CWGC headstones.

John survived the initial phases of the war: the Battle of Mons and the subsequent retreat almost to Paris; then the Battle of the Marne, where the German advance was finally halted and then pushed back into Belgium where, during the 1st Battle of Ypres, the entrenched warfare of the infamous Western Front took shape.

In the autumn of 1915 the BEF, still under the command of Sir John French, determined to hit back at the Germans and break the deadlock of the trenches and push the Germans out of French territory they still held to the south of the Belgian border. Thus, on 25 September 1915, the offensive known as the Battle of Loos commenced.

The 1st Royal Berks went forward on 28 September, into an area near Hulloch, north of Loos-en-Gohelle, where the initial British attack had penetrated about half a mile into the German lines. Their objective was the Fosse 8 mine. However, they were spotted in the moonlight 400 yards short of Fosse 8, before they had even reached the British forward positions. Under heavy fire they pressed on through the front line and halfway up a slag heap that stood out above the surrounding ground. Eventually they were forced back to the British line 150 yards from the slag heap. This effort cost them 288 casualties, many of them lost in the confusion and recorded on the official return as ‘missing’.

John was among the missing; for months his uncle and family must have hoped for news from the Red Cross that he was a prisoner of war; perhaps John himself might send a postcard from captivity.  But it wasn’t to be, eventually, almost a year after the battle they heard from the War Office that John was ‘presumed dead’.

George placed a notice in the local paper – for some unknown reason they printed it in their Family Notices column as one of several under the heading Died of Wounds, despite there also being a section for those killed in action:

Newbury Weekly News, 14 September 1916 – Died of Wounds
BOWLEY – Sept 28, 1915, killed in action, Lce Corpl John Douglas Bowley, Royal Berks Regt the dearly loved and only son of the late Harry Douglas and Anna Bowley, late of Vernham, and dearly loved nephew of George Samuel Bowley, of the Vicarage Cottage, Speen, Newbury, aged 22. – His life was short.

Name on Newbury War Memorial

John's name on Newbury War Memorial


John’s body was never identified; perhaps he lies in one of the many graves of unidentified soldiers in the war cemeteries around the battle area, his grave simply marked as Known unto God. His name is recorded on panel 93 of the Loos Memorial surrounding the Dud Corner Cemetery just outside Loos-en-Gohelle.

Locally he is remembered on tablet 2 of the Newbury Town War Memorial, the Speenhamland Shrine [088], now in St Nicolas Church, Newbury and the village memorial in Speen. He was also remembered on the memorial board in Speenhamland School (now lost).

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 Died this day:
25 July 1945
S W A Hawker

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