Leonard was born on 12th June 1896, the fifth of seven children born to Thomas and Alice Bowler. He was baptised at All Saints’, Banstead, on 30th August of that year.
The Bowlers lived at 24 Oatlands Road (originally numbered 12), on the south side of the street (the houses on the north side are post-war), and Thomas worked as a carter for Percy Russell, Burgh Heath’s corn merchant.
The children attended the Wesleyan School on the Green, joining at a young age. Leonard left school in 1910, two days before his 14th birthday. He would have been taught gardening and woodwork in addition to the usual Three Rs and he found work as a gardener’s assistant.
The peak of voluntary enlistment came early on in the war, in August and September 1914, and the number of volunteers fell dramatically after that. The Derby Scheme was introduced in 1915 in order to increase the number of recruits. Men who were eligible for service were visited by canvassers and asked whether or not they were willing to join the Army. If the canvasser managed to persuade the man to attest then he visited a recruiting office and could choose whether to join immediately or defer his service until it was deemed absolutely necessary. If he chose deferred service then he was given a day’s pay and an armband to wear showing that he had pledged to serve his country if called. These men were promised that they would only be mobilised if their whole age group was called up. Conscription was looming and it was a last chance to volunteer. Leonard attested under the Derby Scheme in December 1915, choosing to defer his service, and was posted to the Army Reserve.
The younger Derby Scheme men were called up almost immediately. Leonard’s age group were notified just a few days after he attested and they were mobilised on 20th January 1916. Leonard’s older brother, Bertie, was in the East Surrey Regiment and so Leonard joined the East Surreys too. After training with the 10th (Reserve) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment at Shoreham, Sussex, he was posted to the 9th (Service) Battalion.
The phosgene and chlorine gas attack at Wulverghem, on 30th April 1916, claimed the lives of many men of the 8th (Service) Battalion of The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment, including Leonard’s neighbour George Mitchell (40 Oatlands Road). The 9th East Surreys were in the same brigade as the 8th Queen’s and a draft of 174 men of the 7th and 9th East Surreys, including Leonard, joined them on attachment on 2nd June 1916 near Dranoutre. Leonard’s service records have not survived but from other sources it seems that he remained on attachment and did not return to the East Surrey Regiment.
After a quiet first week in the trenches, the Germans tried a cloud gas attack again. It started at 12:20am on 17th June and lasted until 1:45am. This time, the Germans did not leave their trenches. The 8th Queen’s suffered 83 casualties. Many of the men affected by the gas were wearing their gas masks but the phosgene mixture was too potent for the gas helmets of the day to resist.
It wasn’t long before the men of the Queen’s got their own back. At 11:50pm on 28th June, while the massive preliminary bombardment was underway on the Somme to the south, 70 men of the Queen’s took part in a trench raid on the German line north of Mortar Farm. Gas preceded the raid and they moved under cover of smoke, carrying explosives with them to blow up the German wire but found it so well cut by their artillery already that they didn’t need to use them. The smoke concealed them but the gas had not done its job and may not even have reached this part of the line as there were German soldiers without gas masks still able to fight. Both sides hurled grenades at each other (grenades, bayonets and clubs were the weapons of choice for trench fighting as the twists and turns of the firing line provided few opportunities for shooting) and two parties of bombers entered the trenches, one heading left and the other right, bombing any dugouts that offered a sign of resistance and throwing grenades ahead of them to clear the next trench bay along. A third bombing party was supposed to go down a communications trench that led towards the support line but they couldn’t even get into the German firing line due to prisoners and wounded being passed back through the hole in the wire. More men, supposed to enter the trenches to search dugouts, could not get in and had to lie out in No Man’s Land providing cover with their grenades when necessary.
At 12:10am, they withdrew across 120 yards of No Man’s Land, back to British trenches. 6 wounded prisoners were taken and it was estimated that they killed at least 20 soldiers for the price of 1 man seriously wounded and 5 slightly injured. Although the raid was a partial success, they were really hoping to capture a German gas cylinder, presumably so that the gas could be analysed, but there were none to be found.
The Battle of the Somme had been raging for nearly six weeks before the 8th Queen’s arrived on the scene. On 10th August, they moved into trenches at Arrow Head Copse, between Trones Wood and Guillemont. 165th Brigade attacked towards Guillemont from the south and the men of the Queen’s were waiting to join the British trenches up with the defences that the 165th were supposed to capture. The German trenches here stuck out southeastwards from Guillemont along a sunken road, like a finger pointing towards the apex of a corner in the British line. At the fingertip was a strongpoint made of concrete and iron rails and it was this point that the Queen’s were to dig a new trench to once it was in British hands. 165th Brigade had too much open ground to cover before they reached the machine-guns of the strongpoint and the attack failed.
On 16th August, it was the turn of Leonard’s original unit, the 9th East Surreys, to try. At 5:10pm, they attacked, from the east this time, with the same result. The guns assigned to the task of bombarding the strongpoint were just not powerful enough, the machine-guns were firing as the men left their trenches and the protective creeping barrage was in disarray. A few men made it into the German lines, “never to be seen again.” The survivors found cover and waited for night. The Queen’s had been waiting in reserve, ready – again – to get digging and join up the two trench systems but it was not to be.
The 8th Queen’s took over the trenches from the 9th East Surreys in the early morning following the attack. That day, 17th August 1916, or the next, Leonard was killed in action, one more victim of everyday life in the trenches. He was 20 years old.
Leonard was buried in Casement Trench Cemetery, Maricourt, as one of four men of the 8th Queen’s to have died on the 18th. In 1924, he was reburied in Peronne Road Cemetery, Maricourt, as one of two men of the 9th East Surreys to have been killed on the 17th. The latter date is his official date of death. It is likely that he was still serving with the 8th Queen’s at the time of his death. His headstone inscription, chosen by his mother, was “Thy memory will be cherished.”
Leonard is commemorated on memorial panels in St Mary’s and the War Memorial Hall, Burgh Heath, and at All Saints’ Banstead. His name is inscribed in All Saints’ Book of Men Who Served Overseas.
The Bowlers were soon to lose another son: Bertie was killed in February 1917.
Leonard was commemorated on the 100th anniversary of his death, on 17th August 2016, at All Saints’, Banstead. A service of remembrance was held and a bell was tolled 100 times. Longer versions of the stories of the men being commemorated by Banstead and Burgh Heath’s remembrance project are available on request. If you are a relative of any of the men and have information or photographs of them then we’d love to hear from you in the Comments section below!