Love lost. Life gained.
The wedding invitation held a name not known,
a name repeated on the later telegram;
four months from blessing to bereavement.
A love she hid from her loves to come
Creating the Centena.
My friend David and his mother were cleaning his recently deceased grandmother’s attic. They found an old pocket book. Inside, in his grandmother’s writing, was an inscription, a love poem to a fallen soldier. There were three documents hidden in the book. The first was a wedding invitation, no bigger than a business card. The invitation was to her wedding to a man whom they did not know, Second Lieutenant Robert Bowran. The wedding date: July 28th 1917. The second was a black and white, passport-size photo of a young First World War army officer. The third was a War Office Telegram, informing her that her husband, Robert Bowran, was missing in action, presumed dead. The date: October 9th 1917. No one in the family had ever heard of Robert Bowran. His grandmother had never told her children about her first great love and loss. They could only speculate whether she had told the husband she later married and who had pre-deceased her. Maybe she had, maybe she hadn’t. Intrigued by the story, David contacted Bob Findlay who organised personalised tours of the World War I battlefields. Bob promised that, if you could tell him the name of the battalion in which a relative served and the date on which they died, he could give you a detailed military record and take you to the place they died, explaining the battle plans and movements that would have led to the moment of death. Robert Bowran had served in the West Yorkshire Regiment.
I travelled with David as we took a three-day tour of the battlefields near Ypres, including Passchendaele, one of the bloodiest battles in military history. We reached the field where Robert Bowran fell. The battalion record for the day described the advance they had made across an open field from which later they had to retreat. Second Lieutenant Bowran was among the few who did not return. Robert’s body was never recovered. The endless shelling that turned many bodies into human compost would have destroyed it. The quagmire that the combination of heavy autumnal rains and the Ypres high water table caused would then have consumed it. Bob took us to the memorial near the battlesite on which Robert Bowran’s name was carved along with tens of thousands of others whose bodies have never been found. David stood in front of the memorial, took from his pocket the wedding invitation and held it alongside Robert Bowran’s name. David wanted to reunite his grandmother and Robert symbolically. But he also had another reason to honour him. Had Robert Bowran lived, David would never have existed. Nor would his mother, her siblings, their children, his children, their grandchildren and many more generations to come. Sadly Bob Findlay passed away in November 2017, but there are other companies who offer similar service. It’s a remarkable journey to go on, walking in the steps of people who served and sacrificed themselves. It is more revelation than research.
Lives of the First World War.
You can find out more about Second Lieutenant Robert Orton Bowran here at Lives of the First World War.
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