“There’s something rather odd about Augustus”- Arras North – Page 245

That was the title of one of three songs written by lyricist, C.H. BOVILL for Jerome Kern’s 1908 show, ‘Fluffy Ruffles’, which was played on Broadway in 1908. When I came across Bovill’s grave at Duisans British Cemetery I knew nothing of his career as a successful writer for stage musicals, or of his close friendship with Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, or P.G. Wodehouse, as he is often better known. What really intrigued me was Bovill’s presence there. I was aware that the Guards Division had spent some months near Arras during the early part of 1918, but I also knew that on the day he died, he and his unit were well behind Arras and were moving south. It was also quite obvious that he was one of very few men from that division buried there.

When it comes to researching officers from the Guards Division I’ve often found it pays to do a bit of digging, but I could find very little on Bovill from military sources. Elsewhere, I did come across a C.H. Bovill, an established and well respected writer of stage lyrics, but was he the same person that was buried at Duisans? I was able to discover quite a lot about Bovill, the lyricist, but nowhere could I find any reference to him serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the 1st Coldstream Guards. I had a really strong feeling that these two lives were part of the same story, but I wasn’t prepared to make that assumption based on what I had. One day, with a bit of time to spare after a day of research at the British Library, I decided, to thumb through a collection of copies of “The Stage”. In an edition dated shortly after his death, there it was, the link I’d been looking for; a very short obituary of C.H. Bovill, lyricist, who died of wounds on the 24th March 1918 while serving as a 2nd Lieutenant with the Coldstream Guards. It was one of those days that every researcher will recognize, a day that ends in the discovery of a tiny gold nugget after hours of fruitless panning.

It may well have been his friendship with P.G. Wodehouse that prompted him to prefix his own surname by his initials, or perhaps it was vice versa, I don’t know. Not only did the two men share accommodation whilst working for the “Globe” in London, they also collaborated on a series of short stories that were published in this country in 1914 in the “Strand”, and in America in the “Pictorial Review”, under the title, “A Man of Means”. Back in 1907, he had also worked closely with Wodehouse on a number of songs for the musical comedy, “The Gay Gordons”, which was staged at the Aldwych Theatre before playing in Australia, though never in the United States.

Somehow, I find Bovill a fascinating character, and yet, in many ways, he was no different to countless other individuals whose lives before the war had seemed so full of promise. Bovill, however, had accomplished something which I suspect was, and still is, quite a difficult thing to achieve. Making it as a songwriter in Britain is one thing, making it on the other side of the Atlantic is quite another. He had begun to earn international recognition for his work, and in all probability could have looked forward to making a very good living from his talents. However, shortly after achieving that success, his life took a very different turn when he accepted his commission and exchanged Broadway for another kind of ‘theatre’, that of the Western Front. Although I’m never sentimental about such things, I always pause to reflect on a sense of unfulfilled promise whenever I visit his grave.

These days, “Meet her with a taximeter”, “There’s something rather odd about Augustus”, “Won’t you let me carry your parcel” and, “I can’t say you’re the only one” may not be songs on everyone’s lips or i-pod, but they are part of a hidden legacy left to us by a man who was clearly a very talented writer.

It’s also a story that serves to illustrate the wide variety of sources I had to turn to in order to gather material for the books. In the bibliography for “Visiting the Fallen” I mention that the publications listed are merely the framework around which I built my research. That bibliography is by no means exhaustive; in fact, it completely ignores the countless almanacs, obscure gardening, legal, ornithological, medical, scientific, not to mention, biographical publications, whose covers I had to dust off before consulting. For that, I have the reference section of the British Library to thank.