Frederick John William Bolwell
Private Frederick Bolwell, Regimental Number 2167, of the 1/4th Hampshire Regiment, died of illness on the 5th May 1916 as a Prisoner of War and is commemorated at Basra.
Frederick John William Bolwell was born in Wells, Somerset on the 23rd August 1894 and baptised on the 13th September. His parents were George Chilton Bolwell and Elizabeth (nee Hardwidge). He was the middle of three children, with an elder sister Gladys Winifred and a younger brother Edgar George. Frederick’s father, George, was born in Semington, Wiltshire to William Cheltenham Bolwell and his wife Sarah. In 1881 George was living with his two brothers and working as a farm labourer, as was his elder brother, while his younger brother was a groom. The census records for 1891 are unclear for George, but we find him again in 1901. Sometime in the intervening twenty years he has had a change of career and has succumbed to the lure of steam trains. He was now working as a fireman on the railway. He had married Elizabeth Hardwidge from Somerset in 1892. In 1901 they are living in East Terrace, South Highbridge, Somerset, a small market town on the edge of the Somerset Levels near the mouth of the river Brue. They had three children, Gladys (7), Frederick (6) and Edgar (4). By 1911 they were living in a five roomed house 12, Woodborough Rd, in Radstock, Somerset. George had progressed in his career and was now an engine driver. Gladys was a pupil teacher at the council school, while Frederick and Edgar were both still at school.
Their local school, where Frederick began his education, was Radstock Church School. We know from a report in the Wells Journal, on Friday 27th October 1916, that he continued his education at Wells Blue Schools as his death was reported in a speech on Founders Day, given by the Headmaster. Wells Blue School was founded in 1641 as one of the first free schools in the country. The name comes from the early uniforms which were blue. A second school for girls was a later addition.
When he had decided on a career in teaching he returned to Radstock to serve his apprenticeship as a pupil teacher. Frederick stayed on at Radstock as an assistant teacher, before taking the Preliminary Examination in 1913 for acceptance at a training college, where he could begin his certification training.
Photograph taken by Alwyn Ladell courtesy of flikr
Perhaps inspired by his sister’s choice of career, Frederick attended Winchester Training College from 1913. We know from the College magazine that Frederick was good at cricket and was appointed Cricket Captain in 1914. He was also a cross country runner taking part in the Harriers events. The College Harriers Club arranged races, following a trail laid earlier by someone acting as the “hare”. 1914 saw an inspection of the College. The Report on the Winchester Diocesan College 1914 says, “The Committee are able once more to state that the work of the Training College is being carried on with gratifying success…and the work has proceeded in the same happy spirit as has characterised it for so many years past.” In his report to the Principal, the Archbishop’s Inspector remarks as follows, “The College is as effective and pleasing as usual… they have been thoroughly and well taught, and treated the subjects reverently, thoughtfully, and with interest. The College quite maintains its excellence.”
During his time at College, Frederick passed courses in Elementary Science, Magnetism and Electricity, and in drawing. He also undertook and passed a course in brushwork, and was examined in other Oxford Senior Examinations in freehand, memory and model drawing. The list of examinations taken by Frederick is not as comprehensive as we see for some of the other students, and perhaps this is indicative of the disruption that was to follow at the end of his first year. The college mark book records that his average mark in the Christmas exams of his first year was 56.9%.
After the declaration of war in the summer of 1914, Winchester Training College was requisitioned for war use. Those students who had completed their first year were sent to Bede College in Durham to continue their training. Frederick however did not join his fellow students in Durham: he was mobilised on 5th August 1914, along with many others, at the training camp on Salisbury Plain that the College Battalion had been a part of. The documentary evidence that we have tells us that Frederick entered a theatre of war, in his case Mesopotamia, on 13th October 1915.
A Long Way from Home
While he was at College Frederick would have been enlisted in the Hampshire Regiment Territorial Force. With the Hampshires, and others who trained at WTC, Frederick was sent to Mesopotamia. His Regiment formed part of the 30th Infantry Brigade under Major-General Sir C. Mellis, along with elements of the Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment,24th Punjabis, 76th Punjabis, 67th Punjabis and 2nd/7th Gurkha Rifles. After landing at Basra the army advanced towards Baghdad, capturing Nasiriya and Kut-al-Amara on the way. Supplies were stockpiled at Kut prior to an anticipated advance towards Baghad. Frederick would have joined the Expeditionary Force at around this time, sent as a reinforcement from India.
The poorly planned advance came to a halt at Ctesiphon, with neither side gaining an advantage but both sides claiming victory. The British forces, under the leadership of Major-General Townshend, decided to withdraw to Kut, which they did pursued by the Turkish army. Once they arrived at Kut, having covered a lot of ground in a very short time, Major-General Townshend decide to make a stand there and defend the town, believing that help would arrive quickly.
So began the Siege of Kut-al-Amara. From early December 1915 until late April 1916 Kut was besieged. During that time the forces under siege, plus the large number of civilians who chose to remain, were subjected to intermittent attacks on frontline defences, aerial bombardment and sniper fire. Physical conditions were dreadful, parts of the town were regularly flooded during the winter season and when the warmer weather arrived it brought with it different challenges. The men were starving and suffering from a multitude of diseases. Despite the initial optimism, help did not manage to get through to them and Townshend made the decision to surrender to the Turkish Commander.
Once prisoners of the Turks they were forced to march out of Kut towards destinations within Iraq and Turkey. Many worked on the Baghdad railway. By the time the siege ended many of the men were sick and starving or wounded. They were certainly in no fit state to embark upon a long, forced march, with insufficient food and water and under the control of guards who treated them with cruelty or indifference. Some of the sickest men were evacuated at the end of the siege and taken back to Basra. The Turks were reluctant to allow many of the British sick to be evacuated, preferring instead to exchange more of the Indian prisoners.
Frederick died of illness very soon after the end of the siege. According to Mrs Bowker’s Ledger Frederick died in Baghdad. This seems unlikely given the time frame that we have. He may have been one of the sick who were exchanged and evacuated to Basra, although we have no record of this. On April 30th the men were marched the eight miles from Kut to Shumran.
A small number of the prisoners were transported by boat, but the majority were forced to march despite their weakened state. Once they arrived in Sherman they were taken to an open space by the river, without any form of shelter or bedding. They were issued two and a half Turkish biscuits each. The hard biscuits seemed to be made out of husks and earth and were totally inedible for starving men. Many soaked their biscuits in the polluted river water. Within the first twenty four hours of captivity the death toll exceeded 100. Cholera and dysentery were rife among the prisoners.
From here the Officers and men were separated. Most of the Officers were moved from Shumran to Baghdad by boat on the 5th May 1916, while the other ranks had to march setting off the following day. Frederick’s date of death is given as 5th May 1916. Some of the men who were noted as being particularly sick were allowed to remain at Shumran. It is possible that Frederick died at Shumran and then was later commemorated on the Basra Memorial. Had he died in Baghdad as Mrs Bowker supposed it would be more likely that he would have been buried at the cemetery in Baghdad. Mrs Bowker had arranged for the Hill family of 84, Adelaide Rd, South Hampstead to “adopt” Frederick for his time in captivity and to pay for the parcels to be sent to him, but Frederick died before ever receiving one.
Photograph of the Basra Memorial courtesy of The Royal Hampshire Regimental Museum
Frederick had asked for his effects to be sent to his father. He is commemorated on the Basra Memorial and at Radstock in Somerset. Until 1997 the Basra Memorial was located on the main quay of the naval dockyard at Maqil on the west bank of the Shatt al Arab about 8 km north of Basra. Because of the sensitivity of the site the memorial was moved by Presidential decree (the President being Saddam Hussein). The move, carried out by the authorities in Iraq, involved a considerable amount of manpower, transport, cost and sheer engineering on their part. The Memorial is now located 32km along the road to Nasiriya, in the middle of what was a major battleground in the first Gulf War.
Researcher and Author: Dee Sayers
Alwyn Ladell photography. (2018). Home page. [online] Available at: www.flickr.com/photos/alwyn_ladell/ [Accessed 2018]
Ancestry (2018) Home page. [online] Available at: www.ancestry.co.uk [Accessed 2018]
Britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk. (2019). Wells Journal – Friday 27 October 1916. [online] Available at: https://www.britishnewspaperarchive.co.uk/viewer/bl/0000308/19161027/040/0003 [Accessed 8 Jul. 2019].
Commonwealth War Graves Commission, (2018). Home page. [online] Available at www.cwgc.org/ [Accessed 2018]
Crowley, P. (2016). Kut 1916: the forgotten British disaster in Iraq. Stroud: The History Press
En.wikipedia.org. (2019). The Blue School, Wells. [online] Available at: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Blue_School,_Wells [Accessed 8 Jul. 2019].
The Royal Hampshire Regimental Museum archives, Serles House, Southgate St, Winchester SO23 9EG. Mrs Bowker’s Ledger
Vickers, J. The University of Winchester Chapel Memorial Rail image
Winkleighonline.com. (2019). The Campaign in Mesopotamia. [online] Available at: https://winkleighonline.com/wmc/level3/kut.htm [Accessed 8 Jul. 2019].
|University of Winchester Archive – Hampshire Record Office|
|47M91W/||P2/4||The Wintonian 1899-1900|
|47M91W/||P2/5||The Wintonian 1901-1902|
|47M91W/||P2/6||The Wintonian 1903-1904|
|47M91W/||P2/7||The Wintonian 1904-1906|
|47M91W/||P2/8||The Wintonian 1905-1907|
|47M91W/||P2/10||The Wintonian 1908-1910|
|47M91W/||P2/11||The Wintonian 1910-1914|
|47M91W/||P2/12||The Wintonian 1920-1925|
|47M91W/||D1/2||The Student Register|
|47M91W/||S5//5/10||Photograph of 5 alumni in Mesopotamia|
|47M91W/||Q3/6||A Khaki Diary|
|47M91W/||B1/2||Reports of Training College 1913-1914|
|47M91W/||Q1/5||Report and Balance Sheets 1904- 1949|
|47M91W/||R2/5||History of the Volunteers Company 1910|
|47M91W/||L1/2||College Rules 1920|
|Hampshire Record Office archive|
|71M88W/6||List of Prisoners at Kut|
|55M81W/PJ1||Managers’ Minute Book 1876-1903|
|All material referenced as 47M91W/ is the copyright of The University of Winchester. Permission to reproduce photographs and other material for this narrative has been agreed by the University and Hampshire Record Office.|