Herbert Henry Bowerman was was born in Chalgrove, Oxfordshire, on 9 April 1881. In 1891 he and his siblings were living with his mother, Ann, and stepfather George Morley, an agricultural labourer. By 1901, the family had moved to St John’s, Woking where George was now a railway platelayer and Herbert a nursery labourer (and now merely described as George’s son, although the reality seems to have been more complicated).
Herbert (‘Bert’), now married to Louise and living in Worplesdon, enlisted in Guildford and joined the 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment as a Private (no. G/37600). Three letters to his mother (‘Mumsy’) and sister, Laura, from the trenches, one dated 5 May 1917, allow us a glimpse of the last few weeks of his life. His health was often poor which meant he struggled with training, and his bad chest was exacerbated by the cold and wet conditions in the spring of 1917: ‘I feel awfully weak some days but they say it is no use going to the doctor unless you are nearly dead. Life at the front was ‘something awfull (sic) mud up to one’s neck and no place to sleep in, only what you see the gipsy put up under the hedges a piece of canvas over a pole hanging down both sides’. The initially successful Battle of Arras having ground to a halt, Bert could see no end to the ‘awfull affair …. unless something unforeseen happen or it be God’s will that it should stop’. He describes his comrades as ‘fed up with this life but determined to see it through’.
In his letter to his sister he bemoans the scarcity of writing paper which prevents him writing often, the shortage of money (‘we never know when we are going to get our pay’) and again his terrible surroundings: ‘every village is blow to the level of the ground not a building standing anywhere … the life here is horrible am writing this wet through & no chance of drying my things and to make matters worse they have taken our blanket and coats away leaving us with only a waterproof sheet to lie on, and this under a piece of canvass stretched across a pole like you see Gipsys with, I might say they are not fit for a dog to lie in yet there are 6 & 7 human beings huddled in these places’.
Poignantly in one of the letters to his mother, aware of unfinished business, he makes a move to repair what seems to have been a complicated relationship with his stepfather, George, by asking to be remembered ‘to the Dad’. He goes on ‘I suppose you will be surprised to see this word but I know in my heart he has deserved this title always but I suppose it was pride that kept me from calling him this’.
Sadly he had no opportunity to pursue this tentative reconciliation in person. In a letter of 17 May, 2nd Lieutenant GA Streeter of D Company wrote to Bert’s wife Louise that her husband had been killed in action on 12 May 1917. He was part of a carrying party following a successful attack on the village of Bullecourt, south east of Arras, by British and Australian troops (163 of the 499 men of the battalion were casualties in the attack). Streeter reported that a shell had exploded nearby and that there had been no chance to recover any of Bert’s effects because the ground was swept by continuous heavy shellfire: ‘the only consolation is that he is far better off now, as I know he led a good life’.
Letters and other documents relating to Herbert H Bowerman, deposited in Surrey History Centre by his great-neice, Mrs M A Dods (SHC ref 7361)
War diary of 2nd Battalion, the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment