Cuckfield Brother in arms paid the ultimate price

Cecil Bowell
Cecil Bowell

The story of two brothers who fought in the Great War including the diary of one who was never to return are the focus of a new exhibition marking this year’s season of remembrance.

The Bowell family of Cuckfield dispatched its two sons, Norman and Cecil, to fight with younger brother Norman seeing the war through in the Royal Sussex Regiment and bringing home a ‘souvenir’ spiked German ‘pickelhaube’ helmet.

The helmet, which has been passed down through the family and kept in the back of a wardrobe for many years, has now been passed to Cuckfield Museum by Norman’s nephew, Tony Bowell.

Older brother, Cecil, was not so lucky, however. 

He joined the Royal Sussex Regiment, too, and was wounded at Hill 60 in Flanders in 1915.

After a recovery at home, Cecil volunteered for service again in what was then Mesopotamia, now Iraq, and joined the Royal Engineers.

From the day the 21-year-old set sail from Chatham on June 29, 1916, until March 1917 he kept a small notebook of his thoughts and impressions calling it: ‘Diary of my trip to Mesopotamia with the Expeditionary Force’.

The British were fighting the Ottoman Turks at the time with the help of Arab nationalists.

Cecil describes the ship’s doctor dying from heatstroke on one day, the steward succumbing the next and a swarm of locusts which suddenly enveloped the boat deck.

On arrival in Mesopotamia at the end of July, he sets to work wiring redoubts, securing water supplies, building the Basra-Baghdad railway, at times ‘on quarter rations, bully beef and biscuits full of weevils to last the day’. 

By September the weather had deteriorated with bitterly cold nights ‘colder than any English morning I have known’, with torrential rain at other times and ‘hailstones as big as pigeon eggs’ which ‘came right through our waterproof sheets’.

Cecil’s diary includes further insights of historical interest including one entry that records: ‘we had to make (a lamp) with the aid of some butter and rags’ and ‘we are in a trench and it’s now nearly full of water... we are bailing water out as it is coming through the roof and sides. No sleep all night as blankets are wet through’. 

But the steadfast young man who managed to write in the most difficult circumstances never returned to his Cuckfield home and family.

Cuckfield Museum curator Phillipa Malins said Cecil’s diary, which she has transcribed in part for visitors to read more easily, ends on March 17, 1917.

According to Phillipa’s research, the Mid Sussex Times reported that Cecil died in hospital in Basra of heat stroke on July 22, 1917. 

He is buried in Baghdad (North Gate) War Cemetery.  

The Armistice display at Cuckfield Musuem is entitled Brothers in Arms and can be seen until December 15.

The museum is open on Wednesdays and Fridays from 10am to 12.30pm and on Saturdays from 10am to 4pm.