The People Behind the Names – William John Cowler (1897-1916)

William John Cowler was born in 1897 to John and Ellen Cowler (nee Hewitt). The family lived in Woolacombe at Holmesdale House, where they took in summer boarders and his father John worked as a Carriage Driver. William was an aspiring postal worker, first working in Mortehoe, then Barnstaple as a telegraphist, followed by Weston-super-Mare and finally in London. Whilst working in Whitechapel, London as a clerk with the Post Office, William would enlist for active war service, he was assigned to the Royal Engineers, regimental number 1388. Whilst sailing with the 29th Division, through the Gallipoli campaign, Sapper Cowler was admitted to military hospital and was invalided home with dysentery, but made a good recovery and continued to France. After spending some time at the base he was sent to The Front on special duty. Sadly on his second day at the front he fell victim to a German bomb. he had been at work in a dug out when an enemy bomb dropped on the roof, death would have been instantaneous. One of the officers wrote a touching letter of condolence to the relatives, this being accompanied by a cheerful letter written by Sapper Cowler, but which he himself had not time to post, shortly before his death. His friends and fellow comrades described him as a brave and gallant young solider. Mr and Mrs Cowler received several touching letters. All gave tribute to the happy disposition and ability of the deceased. The Sergeant Major expressed deep sorrow and heart felt sympathy. He says Sapper Cowler was killed by shell fire while on duty on June 26th, and states that a cross will be placed over the grave. The seargent major adds “Your son was a man of very pleasant disposition.”

A letter sent back to his old school in Woolacombe detailed William’s time at war:

Dear Mr. Slee; We’ve had a very hot time out here, and there’s plenty of fighting in front of us, but we are here to stay. When one looks at the cliffs and splendid natural cover here for defensive purposes, one wonders how a landing was ever affected. The only answer to a question as to how it was done would be to say that the landing was forced by the finest then existing regiments in the world. The Infantry fought splendidly, marvellously. Our Company was split up for the landing, and I, with four others, was transferred to the “River Clyde” which as you have read was purposely run aground to facilitate the landing of the troops. This landing- V Beach- was truly termed the most terrible of all. As we were only about 20 yards from the foreshores we had an excellent view of everything that occurred. Perhaps you would be interested to hear our general mode of living. Being under shell fire every day more or less, we have to live in dug-outs with a bomb proof roof, if possible. We get plenty of wholesome grub. Menu for day: Breakfast- bacon, bread, and tea; dinner-Bully beef stew (a mixture of bully beef, dried potatoes and carrots boiled up); tea- biscuits, jam and tea; Supper-cheese and biscuits. A daily repetition of this gets a bit monotonous, although it is possible to vary it a trifle. For instance, instead of biscuits and cheese for supper we are allowed to have cheese and biscuits. Would take too long to give a detailed account of our stay at Alexandria. Even by the time I’ve finished this, you will require an occasional reviver to wade through it. We sailed on April 8th. We were established in the gymnasium, sleeping on deck. Reached the Island of Lemnos in the Aegean sea on 12th. We lay anchored in a splendid natural harbour there until the 23rd. Was lucky enough about a dozen times, and had a chance of going through one or two of the villages near. The people were dressed like Greeks. The climate there was something similar to that of North Devon. All the wild flowers could have been found in the hedges and fields around Morte-Hoe. Fire broke out in the gymnasium on the 14th. Four of our fellows had caught German measles, so bedding had to be fumigated to prevent the disease from spreading. Fumigation candle set light to a blanket, and the whole room was soon blazing away right merrily. Several fellows’ kits were destroyed. Reached Tenedos on the 24th, and were transferred to the “River Clyde”. Landing took place on 25th April, Sunday morning. Shall never forget it. Please remember to all friends at Morte-Hoe Sincerely yours, W. J. Cowler

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