Frederick John Boyce
Frederick Boyce was born in the Essex Village of High Easter where his father, John, who had joined the Essex Constabulary in 1890, was serving at the time. John Boyce was later posted to Braintree, where Fred, his eldest son, found employment with Lake and Elliot, who made bicycle parts, and, later, with Joseph Bradbury & Sons. In his spare time, he pursued his keen interest in sport, playing for the football and cricket teams drawn from the bible class at St Michael's church. Off the field he served as the honorary secretary for both teams. Fred was said to have been 'a very popular and esteemed young fellow', and when his father moved on again, this time to Southend, the bible class showed their appreciation of Fred's service by presenting him with a Gladstone bag as a leaving present.
Fred worked as a tram driver for Southend Corporation before he finally followed in his father's footsteps, albeit some twenty-three years later, by joining the Essex Constabulary on April 1, 1914. He was a policeman for just over a year, until May 24, 1915, when he enlisted at Hornchurch as Private SPTS/1881. His love of sport was reflected in his choice of Battalion: the 23rd Battalion Royal Fusiliers, which was known as the 1st Sportsman's Battalion. He was nicknamed 'Billy' by his army comrades.
The 23rd and 24th Battalions of the Royal Fusiliers were raised in early 1915 and owed their origin to Mrs Cunliffe-Owen. Challenged to raise a battalion she asked Lord Kitchener "Will you accept complete battalion of upper and middle class men, physically fit, up to the age of forty five?" The reply was "Lord Kitchener gratefully accepts complete battalion." In the event she raised two battalions, which were known as the Sportsman's Battalions, recruits included trappers, planters and big game hunters from all over the world. Each man was required to confirm his good health and his ability to ride and shoot. Mrs Cunliffe-Owen continued to follow the fortunes of the battalions after their departure for France and wrote to every sick and wounded man, visiting many of the wounded in hospital.
The 23rd Battalion of the Royal Fusiliers had an Essex connection in that 'Grey Towers', the home of the late Colonel Holmes, with its beautiful Park, in the ancient village of Hornchurch was selected as the Headquarters of the battalion.
The following verses were written to commemorate the arrival of the battalion:
Welcome to the Sportsman's Battalion.
We've waited for you - "Hard as Nails" - and now at last you've come,
We saw you march through London Town, we heard the fife and drum,
We heard the tramp of martial feet, we saw the bunting fly,
We heard the Lord Mayor's greeting as your ranks went swinging by,
We saw the throng of cheering folk, we heard their mighty shout,
And then we heard your answering cry; - "We won't be bothered about!"
And now Our village welcomes you, yes every mother's son,
From the buck "Officially" - forty-five to the lad not twenty-one,
We love you , and we're proud of you, for answering the Call
Of King and Home and Country - Soldiers and Sportsmen all,
And well we know you'll play the game when guns and cannon roar,
And, like true Sportsmen, do your bit to make a winning score.
Fame have you won in times of peace on many a playing field,
Where mimic battles bravely fought but barren victories yield,
But now a sterner fight is yours, where you will show your grit,
And prove what manly sport can do to make a nation fit.
And when you make your final stand against the German Huns,
Just keep your wickets up, lads, while they make all the "runs."
Chas. Thos. Perfect.
In July, 1915, the two battalions raised by Mrs Cunliffe-Owen were formally handed over to the War Office forming part of the 99th Brigade of the 33rd Division and on completion of training embarked for France on November 17 when the 99th Brigade was transferred to the 2nd Division which had been part of the Expeditionary Force in 1914 but needed reforming following the heavy losses that had been sustained.
The 99th Brigade comprised - 22nd Royal Fusiliers, 23rd Royal Fusiliers, 1st Royal Berks, 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps.
Fred and his fellow soldiers in the 1st Sportsman's Battalion (23rd Royal Fusiliers) saw little front line action in the early part of 1916 and spent much of their time in training and battle preparation. The 2nd Division moved to the Somme region in readiness for the major offensive that was to commence on July 1, that year.
Just prior to July 27 the 99th Brigade moved up from Fricourt having been told to draw extra rounds and bombs in order to make the final assault to clear the enemy from Delville Wood where there had been continuous fighting since July 15, when the South African Brigade, part of the 9th Division, had been ordered to attack the wood. Following fierce fighting and heavy shelling, that had reduced the wood to tree stumps with fallen and splintered branches, Colonel Thackery had left the wood on July 20, leading out two injured officers and 140 other ranks, the remains of nine and a half companies, a total of 1,500 men. It is not surprising that the wood was aptly named 'Devil's Wood' by the soldiers who fought there.
One member of the 9th Division who took part in a counter attack in Delville Wood on July 18 and was killed that day was Charles Gillings, 8th Battalion Black Watch, a former Southend Police Officer.
The 23rd Bn. Royal Fusiliers had an uncomfortable time near Bernafay Wood before the attack on July 27. It was hot, the ground was pitted and torn by shell fire. Dead bodies lay around, and before the troops began to move up for the attack they suffered a heavy bombardment of gas shells.
A little after 7am they formed up in a trench at the edge of the Wood with the 1st Kings Royal Rifle Corps on the right and the 1st Royal Berkshire Regiment in support. The Germans still held strong positions with machine-gun posts. As the British Artillery barrage was lifted the 23rd Bn. Royal Fusiliers led the attack driving the enemy to the further fringes of this deadly area and securing the Princes Street line, midway through the wood. The artillery barrage was lifted again allowing the men to move forward and by 9.40 am the final objective was captured and then wood secured although heavy fighting still continued and the Germans began a bombardment of the whole of the wood. During this action the 23rd Royal Fusiliers, in their first battle engagement, lost 12 officers and 276 other ranks. They had taken six machine gun posts and 160 prisoners.
Fred Boyce was a member of the battalions Lewis machine gun team and they were occupying the enemy trenches when he was hit in the stomach by a bullet. As his comrades were dressing the wound a shell burst amongst them, killing two men and practically severing Fred's feet. This happened about 10.30am, but remarkably he was found by the gun team's sergeant at 4.30pm to be still alive. However, as the Germans were counterattacking and no stretcher-bearers were available, the sergeant had to move on. He later related the incident to an officer who in turn broke the news in a letter to Fred Boyce's father, who was by then the Superintendent at Saffron Walden:
'I regret that I am unable to give you any definite information as to the present whereabouts of your son. On the morning of the 27th. whilst courageously carrying out his duties, he was wounded in the stomach. However, he still carried on in spite of his wound and a little while after he was wounded in the legs. About six hours later he was seen by one of his comrades. Though badly wounded he was still seen living and even then his thoughts were for his gun-team. It was about 4 o'clock that afternoon that he was last seen and I very much regret that we have not been able to get any news of him since. His work in the field was splendid. I cannot speak too highly of him. His loss has been keenly felt by the whole section and, in fact, by the whole battalion. It is such men as he who have brought such honour and glory to our battalion in the recent fighting and his deeds will never be forgotten...'
Superintendent Boyce also received a letter from one of Fred's friends:
' ....I regret I am unable to tell you much of Fred as I should have liked to have been able to. I was not on his team on the day we attacked so I can only tell you what I have gathered from the men who were near him at the time and those who saw him later. "Billy", as he was known to everyone in the battalion was my best pal. We had everything in common and whenever possible we got together on the same gun-team and naturally I have enquired in every direction for news of him. When we started the attack Fred did great work for which he has been recommended but his luck was out and he was hit while in the German front-line. Always cheerful he is greatly missed in our section. Our loss is great but yours is greater and in your sorrow may you be comforted by the fact that he died a hero and a credit to any army. ...'
Regrettably, in common with thousands of other brave servicemen who gave their lives, no posthumous decoration was awarded to Fred Boyce.
On July 28 Delville Wood was cleared but later the Germans mounted counter attacks and it was not till September 3 that the wood was finally secured.
Frederick Boyce was one of the many who lost their life in 'Devil's Wood.' His body, if ever recovered, was never identified and his memory is commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing on the Somme at Thiepval.
He is also commemorated on the War Memorial at Saffron Walden and on the tablet placed in the refectory at Prittlewell Priory, Priory Park, Southend-On-Sea.
On December 6, 1916 the Chief Constable reported 'Constable Boyce was killed in action on 14th July 1916. He was single.' (The date reported by the Chief Constable is wrong Boyce died on July 27, 1916).
And thus they entered Bernafay through fire and fitid fume,
While every tree atrembling stood, as if it sensed it's doom;
And in that avenue of woe they passed to count their dead.
Then, grimly on to Delville, where their path to glory led.
W A Beattie.