Alfred Allan Sowry

Alfred Allan Sowry

Second Lieutenant Alfred Allan Sowry,
17th (Service) Battalion (2nd Leeds), The West Yorkshire Regiment

Royal Naval Division Recruiting Poster (© IWM Art.IWM PST 0960)

Alfred Sowry was the middle child of five born the marriage of John Percy and Annie Maria Sowry. He was the only son in the family John Sowry was a partner in the Jowett and Sowry company, which was a printer and stationer based in Albion Street, Leeds. The company is still trading but has moved to Wetherby and now specialises in office furniture.

Alfred Sowry was born in Barwick on 12th August 1897 and was baptised in the parish church of All Saints the following month. The procession to the church, from the Sowry home at Ings House, next to the Black Swan pub at The Cross was no more than fifty yards, door to door. The family later moved to ‘The Limes’, on Potterton Lane, but before the 1911 census was taken, they had further moved to 25 Well Close Place, between Blenheim Square, and Carlton Barracks.

After leaving school, Alfred Sowry took up employment as an Accountant’s Clerk, but at the age of 18, and with the Great War now seven months old in May 1915, he joined the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve as an Ordinary Seaman, in the Mersey Division. He was sent to the Royal Naval Division Depot at Perham Down, near Tidworth, in Wiltshire for his training. Following his training, he was posted from the depot’s 3rd Battalion to the 1st Reserve Battalion at Blandford. Here, he applied for a commission in the Army, and was discharged for commission on 22nd January 1916, the commission being notified through the London Gazette and dated 17 February 1916. The Royal Naval Division was created to serve on land from officers and men of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve for whom there was no place aboard ships of the fleet. In the early part of the war, the men retained their blue naval uniforms, but as the war progressed, they adopted Army khaki, upon which they wore their navy badges of rank and distinctions. The officers, curiously, wore both naval rank on their sleeve cuffs, and the equivalent army rank badges on their epaulettes. While the men wore distinctive battalion cap badges on army caps, which replaced their sailors' caps and tallies, the officers continued to wear the Royal Navy officers cap badge.

A wounded Bantam being helped by a captured German (© IWM Q 11329)

His commission was granted for the West Yorkshire Regiment, and he was posted to the 17th (Service) Battalion of the regiment, which was also known as the 2nd Leeds Pals, or the Leeds Bantams. Bantam battalions were recruited from men who were below the regulation army height limit of 5’3” tall, and who were previously rejected for service solely due to their short stature. There can be no doubt that many of these shorter soldiers were every bit as good as their taller counterparts in the rest of the Army, indeed if illustration of this fact is needed, two Leeds Bantam soldiers amply fulfil that need. Sergeant Albert Mountain from Harehills, and Private William Boynton Butler from Hunslet, were both soldiers of the 17th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment. Both men stood only 5’1” tall, and both men were rewarded for exceptional personal bravery with an award of the Victoria Cross. Private Butler’s VC was awarded for his bravery in getting rid of a live mortar bomb from his trench mortar bay, when he held the bomb close to his body to shield the men who were rushing past in case it went off before they were clear. As they passed, he flung the bomb on to the parados of the trench, where it exploded almost immediately, but instead of causing many casualties, as it undoubtedly would have if he had thrown it when the men were passing, only one was slightly injured by the blast. Private Butler’s VC exploit took place at Lempire, east of the 1916 Somme Battlefields in early August 1917, and the Lempire area is the same area as the battalion was fighting in when the now Second Lieutenant Alfred Sowry died.
The Knoll area where Alfred Sowry was killed (National Library of Scotland)

On 31st August 1917, the 17th Battalion West Yorkshire Regiment was holding a position called ‘The Knoll’, which looked out over the Macquincourt Valley towards the major German defensive line called the Hindenburg Line, near the small town of Vendhuille. This area was particularly important to both the British and the German armies. This part of the line was just west of the St Quentin Canal, which, for the most part, lay in a deep open cutting which had steep sides and posed a major obstacle for attacking forces to cross. Just south of this area, the canal went into a tunnel and there was no such obstacle, and so it the German Army had ensured that defences and fortifications here were formidable. Because ‘The Knoll’ offered good observation of German positions, the Germans were determined to throw the British Army off it. For the entire period, the Leeds Bantams were in occupation of the position, the Germans shelled it and mortared it. ‘The Knoll’ was attacked by the Germans at 4:45 am following about 36 hours of hostile shelling. The morning was misty, and the Germans benefitted from this and their own smoke barrage. Such was the level of confusion in the fighting that ensued, that no formation higher than the Battalion Headquarters knew what was happening at ‘The Knoll’. The best that could be done was for Brigade Headquarters to contact other battalions to find out from them if they were being attacked, and when they reported that were not under attack, the artillery that was assigned to cover their positions could be redirected to fire on where they thought the Germans were attacking.

The Thiepval Memorial

The Germans gained a foothold into ‘The Knoll’ and overcame two of the Bantam companies holding it, but a third company continued to offer a determined resistance. The survivors were eventually compelled to withdraw into and create blocks in trenches leading to ‘The Knoll’ where they continued to fight and hold off the Germans as best, they could. By 7:55 am, the situation was well enough understood to allow the Brigade Commander, Brigadier General Pollard, to order forward all available troops to conduct a counterattack to retake what they had lost to the German attackers. Despite a heavy supporting barrage, the British troops were stopped eighty yards short of their objective and forced to retire. The Divisional Commander, Major General Franks, commanding 35th Division, ordered that no more attacks should be made until further orders.

Alfred Sowry's name on the Thiepval Memorial

During the Great War, there was an enormous flow of information from the belligerent nations to the Red Cross, based in Geneva in neutral Switzerland. Notifications were made of the prisoners of war each side captured, and any of the prisoners who died in captivity, and this information would then be passed to the opposing Armies. As far as the British were aware, Second Lieutenant Alfred Sowry had been killed in his position during the fighting, but the Germans notified the Red Cross that they had buried him at Lempire. It appears that Second Lieutenant Sowry’s parents were told that he had been killed at Le Catelet, a short distance from where the fighting had been taking place, as they had a memorial tablet created and placed in All Saints’ Church to that effect. It seems likely that, in that event, that he was wounded in the fighting, and captured alive, and evacuated to Le Catelet, where he later died. Despite the high probability of the Germans marking and recording the location of the grave, and any others with it, the area was fought over on numerous occasions, and therefore the grave is now lost.

Second Lieutenant Alfred Allan Sowry is now commemorated on the Thiepval Memorial at the heart of the Somme Battlefields of 1916.

Alfred Sowry's Memorial Plaque at All Saints Church in Barwick