Family letters tell tragically short tale of one soldier's First World War

Former Journal reporter Charles Bowden tells the family letters that shine a light onto the suffering caused by the Great War

Telegram saying Cliffe has died
Telegram saying Cliffe has died

A hundred years ago in May 1915 my grandfather, Thomas Bowden, met staff at Newcastle’s St Nicolas Cathedral to finalise arrangements for a memorial service in honour of his son Lt Cliffe Bowden, who had died of wounds sustained in Flanders earlier in the year.

Also on the agenda that day was a debate over where to put a grey marble plaque given by Mr Bowden, a church warden at St Nicolas. It was my grandfather’s grief-stricken response to the loss of his beloved son.

The sea had been calm the evening that Cliffe had embarked on a troop ship from Blyth. Along with his colleagues in L Platoon, 6th company, Northumberland Fusiliers, he was bound for the battlefields in what had been optimistically termed “the war to end all wars”.

On arriving at Boulogne, Cliffe wrote blithely to his wife, who he had married just a fortnight before: “The countryside is charming and the weather beautiful”.

It was the last time he was in touch. Within a week the young officer’s participation in the conflict was over. Severely wounded in an attack on enemy positions in the bloody battle of St. Julien, near Ypres, Cliffe was rescued by colleagues and transported to a military hospital behind the lines.

Doctors fought for hours to save him, but their efforts were in vain. He died on April 28 1915 at 9.30 in the evening. It was his 26th birthday.

To the generals commanding the guns and the infantry, and to the War Cabinet far away in London, Cliffe’s death would have been just another statistic. But to the Bowdens – as it was to countless other families whose fathers, sons, brothers and uncles who gave their all for King and Country – Cliffe’s loss was devastating.

An old photo of Cliffe Bowden, left, and Cliffe's father Thomas Bowden
An old photo of Cliffe Bowden, left, and Cliffe's father Thomas Bowden

He had been born in 1889 at Sherriff Mount, a rambling Victorian mansion on Sherriff Hill, Gateshead. He was the second youngest of the six children of Thomas Bowden, a Northumberland cartwright and wheelwright whose family’s roots go back to the 16th century.

In March 1863 Thomas had left behind his family’s forge at Pegswood near Morpeth, and after working as an articled clerk, had set himself up as a chartered accountant at 42 Mosley Street, Newcastle, a fine Georgian office building overlooking the statue of Queen Victoria. Within a couple of decades Thomas had become one of the city’s senior figures, a JP and councillor who managed to combine his role as an auditor of the City Council with work as an agent at auction sales of property and land.

He was proud of his family and periodically took them to the photographic studios of James Baron and Sons at 81 Northumberland Street to have their picture taken. A 1894 photograph shows Cliffe with his younger sister Dorothy, posing in a white smock.

The upwardly mobile Thomas Bowden wanted his family to have the best he could afford. At the age of seven the boy was sent to one of the area’s best preparatory schools, Corchester Towers, near Corbridge. He later went to Sedbergh School near Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumberland and thence to Pembroke College, Cambridge.

At Cambridge, his interest in military matters was rekindled. He joined the university’s Officer Training Corps and sent his sister a postcard from OTC summer camp at Bulford in Wiltshire which depicted lines of tents in front of which stand rows of soldiers in battle dress.

Back from university Cliffe joined the family firm of accountants, which was renamed Thomas Bowden, Son and Nephew in recognition of the young arrival’s role in the business. But he kept an eye on events in Europe, expecting that war was in the offing and that his OTC training would be needed by his country if hostilities began.

The Officer Training Camp
The Officer Training Camp

War was declared on August 4th 1914. Cliffe joined the Sixth Battalion, Northumberland Fusiliers, quartered at Byth, and on August 26th wrote home to say that the countdown for conflict had begun:

“Dear Father,” he wrote.

“Just a line to let you know I have been selected for foreign service. One major, two captains and six subalterns have been taken from the battalion to form a composite foreign unit. Some other officers who volunteered and have not been selected are very fed up so on the whole I may count myself as lucky..”

Seemingly oblivious to the real conditions experienced by men who were holed up in the trenches over in Flanders, Cliffe displayed a kind of innocence in the details of his preparation.

“These things must come first as they directly affect one’s efficiency. I must also pay a visit to the dentist as soon as possible, as I must start with my teeth in the best of order.”

Cliffe married Ena at Harbottle on April 10, 1915. A photo of the newly weds shows a blissfully happy couple: Cliffe resplendent in his army unifom, Ena in white lace.

The Fusiliers’ time to join the troops in Flanders came soon. His last letter to his wife was sent on April 26. It began with a moving description of the short voyage made by his platoon across the English Channel.

“We had a splendid crossing. Very smooth. The sea was beautiful, covered by flecks of foam all phosphorescent and shining for miles around us. The wake of our steamer was like a long tail pale blue fire.”

The remainder of the letter was less lyrical, however, and it would have given Ena a daunting picture of the long, exhausting marches endured by the men on their way to the front.

“0n arrival on this side we had two or three miles to go to a ‘rest camp’ which was in fact a few small tents excavated in a ploughed field, the ridges of which were not yet harrowed flat.

Cliffe and his sister Dorothy
Cliffe and his sister Dorothy

“The rest camp is an amusing name to described it as after two hours sleep and a march of a few miles we entrained. The men were packed (literally) into something like cattle trucks (like meat vans). The officers had second class carriages which were not within a million miles of second class N.E.R.

“After a journey of several hours we de-trained and after waiting a couple of hours we set off (in the middle of the night) on a march over very hilly country which proved to be some eight to 10 miles. We arrived in early morning matching to the distant sound of guns. All the companies are split up and my platoon is billeted in the barn of a farmhouse. We are very comfortable as it is full of straw. We are very ready for sleep as we have had practically no rest till now.”

Some of the letters discovered in “The Cliffe Papers” were written by his sister Dorothy, who seems to have made it her duty to get as clear a picture as possible of the circumstances surrounding her brother’s death, including his rescue from the battlefield.

The Northumbrians were within 100 yards of the German trenches when Cliffe was hit in the leg by a machine gun bullet. It went into the abdomen, and he was also shot in the back of the neck and shoulder.

As the battle raged - 1900 men and 40 officers perished at St Julien that day - another colleague nursing an injury, Corporal Harry Smith, came on the scene.

He wrote shortly afterwards, in a letter to the Bowden family, of Cliffe’s courage in face of the chaos and the carnage: “He was in a ditch, in a cruel state, but kept conscious all the time. I got him up a little, not too far as the shells were dropping all about us, and put my first field dressing on his wounds as best I could.

“He pleaded to me to take him back and I told him he was all right, I would get him back safe. I got him on my shoulders and started on my way back, but I was getting very weak through loss of blood, and I can tell you I was pleased when I got further assistance.”

Dorothy, in her letters, takes up the story.

“Cliffe was brought to the Red Cross hospital at Abbeville at 5.30pm. on April 27. He was very tired when brought in, after 26 hours on a train. It is believed he got an orderly on the train to send the first wire, as it was not sent from the hospital. He was practically in no pain and when he was revived he talked to a Sgt Fuller, who was in the next bed.

“Cliffe had quite a good night and certainly didn’t suffer any pain but general discomfort. On the morning of the 28th he told Fuller it was his birthday and he talked constantly. At 11am he was taken to the French hospital to be operated on.

The Memorial Service pamphlet
The Memorial Service pamphlet

“Moving him caused some pain but the orderly who moved him told Fuller they never had such a splendid fellow in any man they had had to deal with, that he was so lucky and patient and made no fuss nor cursed nor swore as the majority of men do under the circumstances. He was brought back at 1pm. All afternoon he was tired and thirsty and the nursing staff injected him with saline to strengthen him.

“At 9pm they took him to the operating theatre. The operation was over by 9.40, at least as much as the surgeons could do. They had hoped they might pull him through and four doctors stripped to the waist fought for the nearly an hour for that brave life but it was not to be, he just drifted away absolutely free from pain.

“Had the doctors saved him I understand he would have been an invalid, or semi-invalid, for life and better 1,000 times he should have died as he died a fighting brave true soldier. As he left the ward for the operating theatre he said to Fuller ‘Well I’ll be a very different person tomorrow and we will have some good times together’, or something to that effect.”

Cliffe had a full military funeral. He was buried in Abbeville cemetery on April 30. All the streets were lined and it was the biggest funeral there had been in Abbeville. There were present about 30 officers from various regiments and 150 men.

A year later Cliffe’s grave was visited by one of his cousins, Basil Bowden, who wrote to Dorothy:

“I went up to the cemetery and after a short search found Cliffe’s grave. The cemetery before the war was for French people, but when war broke out they extended it to its highest point which was reserved for soldiers. The extension is now entirely filled with soldiers’ graves, the white crosses being French.

“Right at the top are the English whose crosses are oak, about three feet high. On one side is a number (his is 13) and on the other is an iron plate painted black, it reads Lt ER Bowden, Sixth Northumberland Fusiliers died 28th April 1915.

“Some bulbs are coming up in his grave, so I did not disturb them, but I shall wait and see what I can do when they are finished.”


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