Sevenoaks men at the Somme: stories from the first day

Five men from Sevenoaks died on the first day of the Battle of the Somme – 1st July 1916. Although the anniversary of the battle is still a few weeks away, July will be a month filled with similar stories and I thought that it would be nice to write about each man in the days leading up to the centenary.

Three officers were killed on that day – Second Lieutenant Geoffrey Harrison of the Machine Gun Corps, Captain George Henry Heslop of the Middlesex Regiment, and Lieutenant Edouard H A Goss. The two ordinary soldiers who died were near neighbours from the St John’s area of the town.

Private Leonard Bowles, G/2217, 7th Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Leonard Bowles was born in 1888,  the son of William, recorded as a gardener in the 1891 census and his wife, Alice. The Bowles family had lived variously at 6, Cobden Road, on Hartsland Road and at 11, Bethel Road, where, like his late father, he was recorded as a gardener in the 1911 census. Leonard had returned to the Front from leave a fortnight before his death.

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Three of his other brothers,Lawrence, Clifford and Reginald, were also serving in the 7th Battalion of the West Kents, as was their one-time neighbour Jack Lewis. Lawrence Bowles was killed two weeks after his brother on 13th July.

Private Jack Lewis,  G/3418, 7th Battalion, The Queen’s Own Royal West Kent Regiment

Jack Lewis was born in 1895, the son of Jack, a plumber and his wife, Maria, and grew up at 5, Cobden Road. By 1911, Jack was working as a plumber’s assistant, most likely with his father. Jack enlisted in September 1914 and served with the Royal West Kents, being sent to France in August 1915.

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Private Jack Lewis

Fred Gilks his friend and neighbour from Sevenoaks, also from Cobden Road (who was killed only two weeks later on 13th July), wrote home describing what had happened

‘Jack and I both got over safely on the day of the attack. Next day, which was Sunday July 2nd, the Germans shelled the trenches we had captured. Poor old Jack was standing near me when a piece of shell hit him. He turned to me and said: ‘I am done, Fred’ and then dropped. I am thankful to say that he did not suffer at all, but passed away quietly…he was a chap to make a lot of friends as he was always so lively and good natured’.

Second Lieutenant Arthur Hogg wrote to his parents

‘As his platoon commander I can say that he was always cheerful and good natured and very popular with all the platoon. He is a great loss to us and we are all sorry he is gone. He lost his life in a battle which is probably the greatest in our country’s history and he did his duty’.

Despite Fred Gilks’s account, all official records give Jack Lewis’s death as 1st rather than 2nd July. Both Leonard Bowles and Jack Lewis are remembered on the Thiepval Memorial.

A further eleven Sevenoaks men died that July, including, Fred Gilks among them,  another four from Cobden Road.

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