The tale of a Croydon private’s life, and death, on the Somme

WE WILL REMEMBER THEM: The names on the roll of honour at Croydon Minster provide a glimpse into the lives, and deaths, of Croydon men killed in the Great War.
As we approach Remembrance Day, DAVID MORGAN has been finding out more about some of them

For every life lost in conflict, there is a life story

William Dowden was a Croydon residents in the early part of the 20th century who didn’t see their future in this country.

Like many at that time, he was excited by the prospect of moving to a country in the Commonwealth and taking up new opportunities there. He decided on Canada and ended up farming in Saskatchewan, in the broad open lands to the west of the Great Lakes.

But those hopes of a new life changed in August 1914, with the start of the Great War. Rallying to the call to help his old country, the following April Dowden joined up. We do not know the year he emigrated to Canada but we know he did have some military training and experience while still in Croydon.

His attestation papers stated that he spent five years in the 4th Queen’s Territorials, based in Surrey. The book Croydon in the Great War states that William’s parents, Felix and Sarah Dowden, lived at 93 Waddon Road, and that William attended the Parish Church School; after leaving school he began working for a gas and hot water fitter.

William Dowden went to sign up in the magnificently named Saskatchewan town of Moose Jaw. He must have been one of thousands who arrived in the area seeking a new life at the beginning of the 20th century. The population increased from 1,600 in 1901 to 17,000 by 1917. On his papers, Dowden gave his occupation as a farmer. Travelling into the town hall in Moose Jaw to sign up changed his life.

He was sent to a training camp for the Canadian Overseas Expeditionary Force with the 46th Battalion. On his pay chart, it states he was part of the Moose Jaw quota and was paid Can$15 a month from the April 1915 date until October 22, when the unit sailed for Europe. On arrival, the Canadians travelled to Dibgate Camp, Shorncliffe in Kent.

The first couple of months of training in England passed uneventfully for Dowden, but life got rather messy after Christmas 1915. Maybe it was the impending transfer to the Western Front that was playing on his mind. On January 3 1916 he was punished for being absent without leave for seven days. He forfeited eight days pay. Where did he go? Did he come back to Croydon to see his family?

Then on January 15 Dowden was found to be drunk on parade. He was put into detention for 24 hours and fined $2. Four days later, on the January 19, Dowden and his unit sailed for France. Once at the Canadian Base Camp, he and his unit were transferred to the 28th Battalion. He arrived at the French base camp on January 22 and remained there until February 2. He and his unit arrived at the front on February 4.

The service record of Pte William Dowden: born in Croydon, died on the Somme

On March 31, Dowden was given 14 days field punishment No2 for being AWOL from 6pm March 27 until 8.30pm March 27 – a whole two and a half hours. He was also charged with drunkenness. The maximum number of days a Commanding Officer in the field could give as a punishment was 28. Dowden would have been shackled both by leg and arm, but would still have been able to move around. The more serious Field Punishment No1 involved being tethered to one spot.

Nothing more appears on Dowden’s service record until his death.

He died of his wounds at the 44th Casualty Clearing Station on September 17 1916. He was 31.

This was in the area of the Somme. At that time the 44th CC St was sited at Puchevillers.

Captain Rev Leonard Pearson was a Chaplain at the 44th. He painted a grim picture of what things were like at that time. “I spent most of my time giving anaesthestics. I had no right to be doing this, of course, but we were simply so rushed. We couldn’t get the wounded into the hospital quickly enough, and the journey from the battlefield was terrible for those poor lads.

“If they had to wait their turn in the normal way, until the surgeon was able to perform an operation with another doctor giving the anaesthetic, it would have been too late for many of them. As it was, many died. We all simply had to help and do anything that was needed.

“I did a lot of stretcher-help. I also helped to strip men of their filthy uniforms. We had to cut them off with scissors, and there were some nights that we cut and cut until our fingers were simply raw. We had over a thousand beds and half the time it wasn’t enough.”

What a picture he paints of the place where William Dowden died.

He is buried in the cemetery at Puchvillers. He is simply recorded as Private W Dowden 426957, 28th Battalion Canadian Inf (Saskatchewan Regiment) 17th Sept 1916.

He suffered his wounds as the Canadians took part in the Battle of Flers-Courselet, which began on September 15. They attacked the village of Courselet, with the aid of three tanks, the first time they had ever been used on the battlefield.

We will never know the pressures that William Dowden felt under which caused him to behave in the manner he did in the days and weeks before being sent to the Western Front and once he was there. He wasn’t the only one. Iron discipline was the response from the Army to anyone who didn’t toe the line.

The boy from Croydon saw a future in the west which was snatched away from him in the mud of the Somme. He died for other peoples’ futures. His name is written on the Parish Roll of Honour inside Croydon Minster.

Read more: How ‘chums’ and Contemptibles set standards at the Minster

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News, views and analysis about the people of Croydon, their lives and political times in the diverse and most-populated borough in London. Based in Croydon and edited by Steven Downes. To contact us, please email
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