Within the Collection at Glamorgan Archives are the family papers of the Reverend Henry Bowen, parish priest at St. Catherine’s Church, Canton, Cardiff . The extensive archive covers the lifetime of Henry Bowen and his wife Annie. This period of the 20th century witnessed two world wars, the depression of the inter-war years, and the major social changes enacted during the move from Victorian Britain to the Swinging Sixties.
Henry Bowen served throughout the First World War. He attended Oxford University and was a parish priest in Cardiff during the Second World War. This short article cannot hope to do justice to this remarkable and interesting collection, so will briefly focus on Henry Bowen’s life during the First World War.
Henry enlisted in the Royal Welsh Fusiliers in autumn of 1914. As was the case with so many volunteers, he joined up with a number of friends from Llantrisant. The main source of this article are love letters that Henry sent to Annie throughout the war years, which number well in excess of one hundred. The letters written during 1914 and up until July 1915 cover the period when Henry was stationed at Park House Camp on Salisbury Plain, prior to being posted to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).
Henry’s letter of 9 August 1915 describes the section of the frontline where he was stationed but, due to military regulations, he wasn’t permitted to divulge any details of his actual location, apart from:
…the area has cobbles and the church bells that sound like home.
At the end of his letter he explains that, due to the demands of secrecy. his letter is placed within a military envelope where he is required to make a declaration on his honour that he is not divulging any military matters or location.
As Henry’s son points out in a separate set of notes, his early letters are limited in content, but gradually interesting facts creep in: sightings of aircraft bombing, his first contact with real conflict, and one of his friends, who became an airman, being shot down over Holland in 1915. Of course, the correspondence with Annie should not be viewed as eye witness history of the conflict at the trenches, but rather as a series of love letters.
On 10 March 1916, Henry apologizes for not having written before:
…only it is so awkward the trenches we are in… Perhaps you will understand when I tell you it is impossible to move twenty yards in the daytime.
On 24 April 1916, once again Henry apologises for not having written:
Many a time during the last four weeks… I have been on the point of sitting down to write a decent letter but we have been on the move every day.
There were many letters between June and November where the strong affection Henry feels for Annie is the central theme. It should be appreciated that these letters were written against the backdrop of the Battle of the Somme, where Henry was witness to the horrific physical conditions of the trenches, which became a quagmire of mud, with appalling death and injury. Henry’s daughter Dorothy has added a set of excellent notes based on conversations she had with her father after the war, stating his vivid recollection of the tremendous barrage which preceded the battle during the week leading up to the start of the main offensive on 1 July 1916. This day saw the greatest number of causalities in one day in the history of the British Army, some 60,000, including 20,000 killed. Reading the letters for these 5 months there is no indication of the momentous carnage associated with the battle being so fiercely fought.
Henry spent the greater part of 1917 attending officer infantry training in Scotland. Included within the collection are a number of Military Training manuals, which are more applicable to battlefield conditions prior to 1914. However, reprints had addressed the changes, reflecting the static nature of trench warfare. One feature, which was still looked upon as of paramount importance in officer training, was the emphasis on drill and discipline.
1918 witnessed Henry returning to active duty at the front; once again we have to speculate where he was stationed. The general tone of his letters suggests it may have been the period of a major German counter offensive during the opening months of 1918, when British forces were driven back some miles.
On 31 March 1918, he writes:
It’s been a deuce of a time but thank God I’m quite well. All my kit has gone I have only what I stand up in… I could not get any writing matter away as everything has been topsey turvey.
Included in the papers for this period is a leaflet depicting the brutal nature of the First World War, describing the procedure to be followed when using a box respirator (gas mask) when poison gas was being used in an attack. As his daughter observes, no mention is made by Henry of many Llantisant men who had become casualties. But in the gloom and widespread sadness of 1918 one significant happy event occurred; Henry and Annie got married in August. The other major event which featured in Henry’s letters of 1918 was the surrender of Germany and the signing of the Armistice on 11 November 1918. His letter of that date describes his emotions and relief at having survived a catastrophic war which claimed the lives of 17,000,000.
This short piece gives only a small insight into the experiences of Henry and Annie during 1914-1918. The collection contains many documents relating to the full and interesting life of Henry and Annie after their marriage: his time at Oxford, starting a family, and becoming parish priest at St. Catherine’s Church in Canton. One interesting item is Henry’s diary for 1941, an important year in the Second World War. 1941 saw bombing raids bringing the Blitz to Cardiff, major desert battles fought in North Africa, the German attack on Russia, and the attack on Pearl Harbour by Japan which saw the USA join the Allies; all are described. Henry’s military background as a soldier is evident by the glee he expresses at British successes and German setbacks, which are not tempered by his position as a local parish priest. To anyone wishing to look in more detail at the lives of Henry and Annie Bowen please do contact Glamorgan Archives, where staff will be happy to assist interested members of the public in their research.
John Arnold, Glamorgan Archives Volunteer