RFA West Lancs Bdes
681595 SGT. W. BOWDLER. R.F.A.
William (Billy) Bowdler was born in 1881 in Wolverhampton. His father was Joseph Bowdler (b. 1841 in Wolverhampton), a horse dealer. His mother was Keziah Hodgkiss (b. 1844 in Wolverhampton). Joseph was in trouble with the law when he was jailed for six months for horse theft in 1863. That year he also had a daughter by Keziah though the couple were not yet married. They married in 1864 and had 8 children: Sarah Ann (b. 1863), Maria (b. 1866), Joseph (b. 1868), Thomas (b. 1872), Harriet (b. 1878), then Billy, then Fanny (b. 1881) and finally Benjamin (b. 1882). Keziah died in 1901 and Joseph died in 1903.
Billy was originally a coal carter but by 1911 he had become a horse dealer, like his father. By this time he was also married. In 1898, he married Mary Ann (Molly) Wright (b. 1880 in Wolverhampton) and the couple had nine children: Nancy (b. 1900), Joseph (b. 1901), Beatrice (b. 1904), Sally (b. 1906), William (1907-1909), Charles (1910-1911), Cyril (b. 1912), Jack (b. 1913) and finally Kathleen (b. 1916). In 1911, the family lived at 24 Deanery Row, Charles Street, Wolverhampton.
Billy enlisted in the West Lancashire Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery in Wolverhampton in 1915. Billy was 34 when he enlisted and he would not have been expected to serve, given his age and his family commitments, but his expertise with horses would no doubt have been valuable to the Artillery. He was given service number 681595 and posted to “B” Battery of 286 Brigade. I’m not sure what the Brigade’s connection with Wolverhampton is, but there are about 30 men with service numbers 681595-681625 who all lived in Wolverhampton and enlisted there. At some point, Billy was promoted to Sergeant.
After training, the Brigades left for France in early 1917 and were involved in the heavy fighting to defend the town of Armentières, on the French-Belgian border. In July 1917 they suffered their first attack by the new mustard gas. In late September the Brigade was relieved from the front line and withdrew for a period of training, and returned to the line at Langemark about 35km north of Armentières, not far from the small village of Passchendaele, which would be the scene of some of the bloodiest battles of the War. On 9 October 286 Brigade returned to action engaging in harassing and destructive fire on enemy strongpoints, but also suffering their heaviest losses of the war so far, with many soldiers being gassed. On 27 October, 285 and 286 Brigades were placed under temporary command of the Canadians as they began the final attack on the village of Passchendaele. On 28 October, the War Diary reports: “Bombardment and barrage against enemy strong-points and harassing fire by 57th Divisional Artillery Group on front of the XVIII Corps. … 11th Bde RFA (the old name for 286Bde) took part in barrage and bombardment of enemy strong-points on our own front. 1 Other Rank killed in action. 5 Other Ranks wounded.” These operations were repeated on the following day, and 5 Other Ranks were wounded in action, 11 Other Ranks were gassed and 1 Other Rank was missing (later confirmed dead). Billie was this “Other Rank”. He was 36 years old and left a widow and 7 children.
286 Brigade was to lose over 300 men before the end of the month, killed and wounded – almost half their full complement.
Service No: 681595
Date of Death: 29/10/1917
Regiment/Service: Royal Field Artillery, "B" Bty. 286th Bde.
Grave Reference: III. E. 48.
Cemetery: CANADA FARM CEMETERY
Additional Information: Husband of Mary Ann Bowdler,
of 24 Deanery Row, Wolverhampton.
According to a family member who supplied the photograph, Billie Bowdler is seated left. Seated next to him is Ebby North. Standing is a man she only knows as Jubilee. Ebby (Ebenezer) North was the husband of Billy’s sister-in-law; ie. Billy’s wife Molly had a sister, Leah, who was married to Ebby. Ebby was born in Wolverhampton (c. 1891) so was 10 years younger than Billy. Ebby had served in the Territorials from 1909-13 and had also enlisted in the 3rd Hussars Southern Cavalry in early 1914, but he then bought himself out, on payment of £10 within the regulation 3 months. After the outbreak of War, in 1915, Ebby enlisted with Billy in the West Lancashire Brigades of the Royal Field Artillery but his service number, 687076, indicates he was initially posted to either 277 or 287 Brigade. Both of these Brigades were subject to much reorganisation during the fighting and 287 Brigade was disbanded in February 1917. It’s possible, indeed likely, that Ebby was moved to 286 Brigade and was probably in the same Brigade as Billy at the time of his death. Ebby survived the War but his wife Leah died in 1924. In 1928 Ebby re-married, to Helen McShea (b. 1887 in Wolverhampton).