An out-of-the-blue telephone call to Mike Welland, chairman of the Fakenham History Society, has opened up a mystery trail into the short life of one of the town’s First World War servicemen who is honoured each year in a small French village cemetery.
Cecil Henry Bowles, an apprentice draper to his draper father, Henry Bowles senior, died in 1917 and his name is on Fakenham’s war memorial in the Market Square.
In the cemetery of St Jean Cap Ferrat, on the French Riviera, he rests in a well-tended grave where this small fishing village hold a special ceremony at his graveside each year on November 1.
The headstone inscription reads, in part: In loving memory of Sergi Cecil Henry, dearly beloved son of Henry and Edith Anne Bowles. Fakenham, Norfolk, England.
The village lies less than four miles from Nice on one side and just over five miles from the principality of Monaco on the other, part of a small piece of land jutting out into the Mediterranean Sea. He is the only British serviceman buried in the cemetery.
November 1 is a French national holiday to remember the fallen. In St Jean Cap Ferrat the mayor and council, together with members of the French forces and the local branch of the Royal British Legion, headed by Commander Michael Healy MBE, take part in a ceremony which includes the French national anthem followed by a minute’s silence. The party then move to the British grave where flowers are laid, another minute’s silence is observed followed by the British national anthem.
Cecil Henry was a sergeant ambulance driver in the 906 Motor Transport Company of the Royal Army Service Corps.
He left the UK in a convoy and drove through France to the port of Marseilles.
On May 3, he boarded the British troop carrier, HMT Transylvania.
The ship, with 3,000 troops on board, was bound for the Egyptian port of Alexandria but the following morning tragedy struck off the Italian coast when it was struck by two torpedoes from a German submarine. A total of 404 crew and army personnel died, the rest saved by nearby Japanese destroyers.
Prevailing currents carried Cecil Henry’s body 50 miles away to wash up ashore at St Jean Cap Ferrat.
Others were found along the coast from Monaco to St Tropez.
Henry was born in 1895 and before he enlisted, according to the 1911 census, lived with his father, born in Redgrave, Suffolk, his mother Edith Anne, originally from Brentwood, Essex, and year-old sister, Doris Anne.
There were three live-in draper’s assistants, Edith Emily Smith, from Norwich, Eleanor Maria Knights, from Watton and Rose Ella Faux from Sutton, in Cambridgeshire, together with cook Edith Bacon from Snoring and housemaid Alice Florence Palmer from Foulsham.
The shop was on the south side of the Market Square on the site of the present NatWest Bank and was obviously a major business yet research has so far failed to trace any descendants.
The man who contacted Mr Welland was Cap Ferrat resident and British ex-pat, former merchant navy captain, Andy Pearson, now master of a luxury yacht. This year he organised a special individual ceremony on May 4, the 100th anniversary of disaster.
Despite the passage of time the importance of the sacrifice made by this young soldier from Norfolk to the village was obvious. Flowers from the mayor and town council were laid at the grave, which is set against a stone wall.
In attendance, alongside Andy Pearson, were Cdr Healy, the town mayor and assistant mayor, a member of the French armed forces and a town councillor.
Capt Pearson said the story of Cecil Bowles had been intriguing him for several years and he was hoping the town’s history society might be able to flesh out the research.
He added: “I would just like to let Cecil Bowles family know that he is not forgotten and is resting in one of the most beautiful parts of France.”
The grave is looked after by the War Grave Association, less well-known than the War Graves Commission. It was set up in 1919 to lobby to bring British dead home but sheer numbers meant many like Cecil Bowles remained in foreign soil.