Genealogical Ponderings

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Professional Family History Blog
  1. Remembering Cyril Frank Cowling (1892-1916)

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    As today is the 100th anniversary of the start of the First World War it seems an appropriate time to remember my great x2 uncle on my paternal grandmother’s side: Cyril Frank Cowling.

    Cyril was born on 18th March 1892 in Sawston, Cambridgeshire, the son of John Cowling, a printer’s compositor, and Agnes Mary Cowling formerly Cornwell. Cyril is recorded in the Cowling family Bible as having died at “High Wood”, France in 1916.

    Cyril Cowling's death recorded in the Cowling Family Bible

    Cyril Cowling’s death recorded in the Cowling Family Bible

    At the time of the 1911 census, Cyril was single, working as a clerical assistant at a postal engineering branch and living in Birmingham.

    Service records for Cyril Frank Cowling have not survived but it has been possible to piece together information regarding Cyril’s military career using a number of documentary sources including the records of the CWGC, military memorials, Soldiers died in the Great War 1914-1919, GRO death records, medal records, WFA pension records, soldiers’ wills, war diaries, published regimental histories and newspaper reports.

    In fact, prior to joining the army, Cyril Frank Cowling had worked for the Civil Service in London, Birmingham and Cambridge. At the time of the outbreak of the First World War Cyril was working at the Post Office Engineering Office in Hills Road, Cambridge. He enlisted in London with the 15th Prince of Wales Own Civil Service Rifles with a group of friends, during or shortly after June 1915, as Private 4110 in the 1/15th battalion.

    When Cyril enlisted he would have gone to Hazeley Down near Winchester for thirteen weeks training before being liable for overseas service. At some point Cyril was stationed at Chelsea Barracks and, whilst there, became a Signalling Instructor. When he returned to Winchester he discovered that his friends had been drafted to France and Cyril put in a request to also be sent to France. On arrival in France Cyril would have undergone final training at a divisional base before going “up the line”.

    The 1/15th Battalion spent the first part of September 1916 on training at Franvillers, France and suffered no casualties between the 1st and the 14th September 1916. At 6pm on 14th September 1916 the 1/15th Battalion relieved two companies of the 21st London Regiment at High Wood. On the same day Cyril, mindful of the fact that his battalion were going to the frontline, wrote a brief will in which he left all of his possessions to his mother, Agnes Mary Cowling.

    On 15th September 1916 the Battalion took part in the “Battle of Flers-Courcelette”, a general attack by the IV Army on High Wood. By 11am the IV Army were in possession of the whole of High Wood and Switch Line. However, at 6pm the 21st London Regiment were attacked from High Wood and were “practically annihilated by artillery and machine gun fire”. The severe losses observed at High Wood have been attributed in part to the fact that the battle was the first use of British tanks and the tanks were unable to move forward as intended due to the terrain and conditions.

    At some point during the 15th September Cyril was with others in a captured German trench and was sending a message to the rear when he was hit in the neck by shrapnel. An artery was severed and the wound proved fatal. He left behind a girlfriend, a Miss N. Parker of Birmingham.

    Cyril was awarded the British War and Victory medals for his active service. He has no known grave but is remembered at the Thiepval Memorial, also known as the Memorial to the Missing of the Somme on pier 13, face C. The information recorded in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC)’s Register of War Dead is as follows:

    CWGC record for Cyril Frank Cowling (

    CWGC record for Cyril Frank Cowling (

    Cyril’s name is also included on the war memorial in Sawston, Cambridgeshire and on the memorials within St Mary’s Church, Sawston and St Paul’s Church, Cambridge.

    War Memorial, Sawston, Cambridgeshire (author's photograph)

    War Memorial, Sawston, Cambridgeshire (author’s photograph)

    Cyril’s mother died shortly after his death but a dependents’ war pension was claimed for a time by his father, John Cowling. Cyril’s death was recorded in the local Cambridge newspapers, from which the following photograph was taken:

    Cyril Cowling (taken from the Cambridge Independent Press, 15th December 1916)

    Cyril Cowling (taken from the Cambridge Independent Press, 15th December 1916)


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