The Youngest Lieutenant Colonel

Eric Gordon Bowden was killed on 22nd July 1918. At the time of his death he was Lieutenant Colonel of the 11th Battalion The Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment), aged just 24. His Commonwealth War Graves Commission entry reads “Lt. Col. Bowden’s headstone is engraved as a special layout containing the following additional information : “Age 24. Born 12th May 1894. Promoted on the field of action from 2nd Lieutenant, he was one of the youngest Colonels in the British Army.” He has at all times set a fine example” (Gazette).”

Eric was born and lived in Nunhead. He attended Alleyn’s school, leaving in 1909 to become a clerk for a civil engineer. He served from November 1914 to February 1915 in the Alleyn Volunteer Training Corps, which was then disbanded. In July 1915 he applied for a commission, and left Aldershot with his battalion on 3rd May 1916, arriving in France two days later. Their first action was consolidating the position around Flers after the successes of 15th September, and they saw further action around Mametz Wood. He was promoted to Acting Captain in September, with a further promotion to Major in August 1917. In the meantime the battalion had seen action at St. Eloi and Westoutre, and on 24th March 1917 he had been presented with the Military Cross by the Divisional General, Major General Lawford. His citation in the London Gazette (02/03/17, p.2192) reads “Temp. Lt. (actg. Capt.) Eric Gordon Bowden, R.W. Surr. R. For conspicuous gallantry in action. He led a successful raid against the enemy’s trenches with great gallantry, and inflicted many casualties. He has at all times set a fine example.”

In November 1917 the battalion moved to Italy, returning to France at the beginning of March 1918. At the onset of the German March offensive the battalion was in the Somme area, and suffered nearly 380 casualties over the following two days. On 5th April they moved to Ypres, where Eric took over command of the battalion. However, his command was not to last long, and the battalion war diary records his death on 23rd July (as opposed to 22nd on CWGC): “Batt front very quiet during the day…Major E.G. Bowden MC killed about 12 noon riding through Steenvoorde.” Steenvoorde lies about 16 miles west of Ypres, well behind the lines, so the cause of death can presumably be attributed to shell fire. His grave was likely to be one of those moved after the Armistice, as he was originally buried in Steenvoorde Military Hospital Cemetery, at Hazebrouck.

Although just 24, Eric Bowden was not in fact the youngest Lieutenant Colonel to lose his life in the war. A check of the CWGC database reveals this to be Lieutenant Colonel John Hay Maitland Hardyman, killed on 24th August 1918 aged 23. A graduate of Edinburgh University, he served with the 8th Somerset Light Infantry and had been awarded the MC and DSO. His MC citation (London Gazette 18/07/17, p.7231) reads “For conspicuous gallantry and devotion in several dangerous reconnaissances, in one of which he was wounded. He displayed great bravery in organising the clearance of wounded from a medical aid post near an ammunition dump, which had been set on fire by a shell.” His DSO citation (London Gazette 15/10/1918, p.12054) reads: “For conspicuous gallantry, and devotion to duty. After the enemy had penetrated the line in three places he went forward through a heavy barrage to the forward posts, rallied the garrison, and encouraged them by his coolness and absolute disregard of personal danger to successfully repel repeated enemy attacks extending over two days and three nights. Thanks to his gallant leadership and endurance, the position, which was of great tactical importance, was maintained.” He was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel in May 1918, however like Eric Bowden, he was killed just three months after taking command. On 24th August the battalion attacked and captured Biefvillers, to the north west of Bapaume. However, due to heavy shelling the position had to be evacuated. John was killed by a shell whilst carrying out reconnaissance. The Divisional Commander wrote “His splendid leadership and magnificent gallantry will never be forgotten.” Hardyman was a poet and a collection of his work can be read online. Some further information about him can also be found on the Great War Forum.

Ultimately it does not matter which of the two was the youngest Lieutenant Colonel; both were undoubtedly extremely brave and took on a burden of responsibility beyond their years.

Photo of Eric Bowden courtesy of Alleyn’s School archive. The school’s First World War roll of honour can be seen here.

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