On 29th August 1917 City of London soldier Noel Bowater received the Military Cross for gallantry in France during the First World War.
A hundred years on William Mills looks back at his grandfather’s achievements.
Noel Vansittart Bowater was born on Christmas Day, 1892 in Victorian England.
Educated at Rugby School, which one wonders how similar it still was in 1907 to that described by Thomas Hughes in Tom Brown’s Schooldays set in the 1840’s.
Instead of attending university he was given a gap year abroad on the Continent.
This was brought abruptly short after his German hostess sent his father some letters from his French sweetheart discovered in Noel’s room by her daughters.
“They weren’t pleasing to the eye,” Noel smiled as he recounted his story many years later.
Summoned home, he was sent to work by his father in the family business, W.V. Bowaters & Sons, paper merchants, then of Queen Victoria Street London EC4.
Noel commuted to the City of London daily and was expected to work Saturdays as well.
Noel, like many of his contemporaries, took an interest in the civic life of the City of London, and this included joining the City’s Honorary Artillery Company.
And so in August 1914, aged 22, and joined by his father Frank, he set out for France at the beginning of The First World War.
I’m confused here as I was led to understand that the H.A.C. has the unique distinction of being the only regular British Army unit manned by civilian part timers, who usually fill the ranks of the Territorial Army.
Yet on his citation for the Military Cross it refers to R.F.A.T.F. which stands for Royal Field Artillery ? ? . It also refers to the 281st Brigade being attached to the 56th London Division.
In Goodbye to All That, published in 1929, author Robert Graves complains that officers in regular regiments were passed over for promotion due to adherence to peacetime traditions resulting in Lieutenants commanding large formations, whereas Territorial Army officers often reached much higher rank.
This may have happened to Noel, still only a Lieutenant with the war in its fourth year. However he did get promoted as he was known as Capt. Bowater in the interwar years.
Noel won his medal on the 3rd May 1917 at Heninel, a village near Arras.
The British Army was attacking the Germans.
The field guns were placed behind the British lines and an artillery officer was sent forward to an observation post.
From there he could spot the enemy and direct the artillery fire via a phone line in the days before two way radios and mobile phones.
Every enemy sniper would target the luckless young man and after he’d been shot, another officer would be told;
‘It’s your turn’.
The phone lines would also be a target as every time they were broken a repair party would have to gingerly crawl out and fix them.
In his own words, Sir Noel takes up the story writing in 1980, some 63 years later;
‘Incidentally, after I arose from my seat in the Forward Observation Post at Heninel on the 3rd May, 1917, I discovered I had been sitting on a sandbag full of fuse hand grenades which fortunately has missed all the shot and shell and had also escaped me, or I should not be here to tell the tale.
In passing, perhaps I should say that it was pure luck and the protection of providence that I escaped damage during this dreadful day, which was a preliminary to the Battle of Somme in which more than 30,000 British soldiers lost their lives.
Another stroke of my good fortune about this time was this: that after being invalided back to England with an attack of jaundice, I was sent out again to join my Battery in 1917, and when I arrived at H.Q. in Arras, I was told by the Colonel of the Brigade that I was to take charge of the Battery.
He did not know where it was, there had been a fight along the front, and it was my job to go and find where the Battery was. I therefore took my batman with me ( and he was subsequently awarded the Military Medal) and we walked along the military road between Arras and Cambrai for about two miles without a shot being fired at us from any enemy position, and when we thought we had gone far enough we jumped down into a trench full of very surprised infantrymen who asked who we were, but were very happy when we told them we were looking for a battery which were supposed to cover them.
After a short rest and sojourn with them, we got out of the back of their trench and ran like blazes until we reached the cover of some wooded land out of sight of the German trenches.
The enemy soldiers potted at us most of the way, but fortunately missed us.
This particular battle was the only time I ever saw the British cavalry in action.
I think the barbed wire prevented them getting any distance, and that all they did was to ride up as near as they dare to the enemy position and then send their horses back to the rear, and more or less act as infantry.
However, this is not in any way to disparage their courage in going into the valley of the Somme covered in barbed wire, on horse-back, which I should think would have doomed to disaster, reminiscent of the Charge of The Light Brigade.
Suffice it to say I remained in charge of the 281st Battery R.F.A.T.F. 56th London Division without a single casualty from the battle of the Somme until we crossed Belgium to the French border with Germany, and finished up near Mons.
I was then demobbed, and with others dispatched to a Channel port in a cattle truck with straw for our bed.
A question was asked in the House of Commons about this treatment of officers of the victorious British Army, and the then Secretary of State for War denied all knowledge of it.’
At the end of both the First and Second World Wars many complained bitterly at the treatment they received by the Treasury anxious to demob the troops as quickly as possible and return to peacetime levels of expenditure.
Former RAF Gulf War pilot John Nichol has written extensively about the experiences of returning servicemen in the aftermath of war.
Noel rejoined his family firm, married, had children, (and grandchildren) and went on to become alderman of Castle Baynard ward, and Lord Mayor in 1953/54 as Sir Noel V Bowater Bt., G.B.E., M.C.
He died in 1984 at the age of 91.