William Ewart Boulter VC
William was born in the Leicestershire village of Wigston Magna on 26h October 1892. This area was strongly associated with the hosiery industry and many of the terraced redbrick houses were home to framework knitters and textile workers. It is possible that the Boulter family named their son after the famous Liberal politician, William Ewart Gladstone, who became Prime Minister for the fourth time just months before the child was born.
Educated in the Wigston area, William enlisted at Kettering in September 1914 and was amongst the first influx of volunteers following the declaration of war against Germany. He served in a Pals Battalion, the 6th (Service) Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment and rose quickly through the ranks. Within six months he was promoted to Sergeant. This was a testament both to his leadership skills and his qualities as an infantryman, particularly given that his disciplinary record was far from ideal.
William's battalion was rapidly assigned to the 18th Eastern Division and was destined to serve the entire war on the western front. The early stages of the conflict were chaotic as there were few trained officers and NCOs to command the new volunteers. Equipment and organised billets were also scarce, however by the Spring of 1915, the Division was considered battle ready, embarking for Boulogne on May 25th.
Boulter’s Division was involved in two major offensives on the Somme, The Battle of Albert ( 1 - 13 July 1916 ) and the Battle of Bazentin ( 14 July 1916. ) He was awarded a Victoria Cross for valour shown during the capture of Trones Wood.
The following details of his actions were printed in the London Gazette, an official Government journal used to publish statutory notices.
BOULTER, No.14603, SERGEANT WILLIAM EWART.
For most conspicuous bravery. When one company and part of another were held up in the attack on a wood by a hostile machine gun, which was causing heavy casualties, Sergeant Boulter, with utter contempt of danger and in spite of being severely wounded in the shoulder, advanced alone over the open under heavy fire in front of the gun, and bombed the gun team from their position.
This very gallant act not only saved many casualties, but was of great military value, as it materially expedited the operation of clearing the enemy out of the wood, and thus covering the flank of the whole attacking force.
London Gazette, 28th October, 1916
Soldier, Albert Braithwaite's description of life in the trenches near Guillemont, Trones Wood, gives some idea of the horrors faced by William Boulter in 1916:
We went into [the] front line trenches at round about midnight. Went over the top at dawn the next day, it was sheer murder, we were mowed down like ninepins. Me and another lad dropped in a four inch shell crater, we were curled together. I was hit by a bullet on the steel helmet, they hit my rifle and bayonet, and they hit the thick part of the heel of my boot. When the daylight began to fade, I saw some of the party creeping back… I was foolish, but lucky. I ran back to the trench, I could feel the bullets rushing past me. When I reached the trench, it was a shambles, dead, wounded and dying… “
Justly proud of their military heritage, the residents of Northampton were keen to recognise an act of supreme courage by a member of their local regiment. When William Boulter was awarded the Victoria Cross on 26 October, 1916, more than 20,000 people assembled in Abington Park to cheer his return. As part of the celebrations, members of the local Corporation gave a congratulatory address and presented Sergeant Boulter with a gold watch. From that point onward her was affectionately termed the "Gallant Steelback."
In civilian life William Boulter had a successful career in the retail sector. He worked for companies such as John Lewis and Knight & Co, acting as Company Director for several prominent firms. He moved to Wimbledon in 1936 and lived at 10, The Close, a property situated just off The Downs.
William died on 1 June 1955, aged 62. His funeral took place at Putney Vale Crematorium and it is a mark of the respect with which he was regarded, that it was attended by the Mayor of Wimbledon, Alderman Withall; Sir Cyril Black, M.P for Wimbledon, plus many former comrades from the Northamptonshire Regiment.
William's ashes were scattered at a site opposite the East Lodge, near the Kingston Road entrance to Putney Vale Cemetery, where a pathway was also named Boulter’s Path in his honour.