Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (The 2/4th Battalion)

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1917, APRIL 26th – BEING BRIEFED FOR A RAID AND RELIEVING THE 2/1st BUCKS NEAR FAYET

By G. K. Rose

By G. K. Rose

The Battalion relieved the 2/1st Bucks in the front line during the night; H.Q. at Fayet; 4 men wounded.

 From The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, by Captain G. K. Rose M.C. (Oxford: B.H. Blackwell, 1920

 The 184th Brigade had been warned to carry out an ‘enterprise’ against the enemy. During the morning of April 26 I was sent for by the Colonel. I found Headquarters in their new position, an oblong greenhouse over whose frame, destitute of glass, was stretched a large ‘trench shelter.’ They had passed a shell-ridden night. Bennett just now had narrowly eluded a 5.9. This morning shells were falling as usual in Holnon, and pieces occasionally came humming down to earth close by. I listened to the plan of a large raid which with two companies I was soon to perform. Moore was here to outline the scheme and also Colonel Cotton of the R.F.A., whose guns were to support the operation.

The Battalion was mostly fortunate in the opportunity of its reliefs. One always prayed that the time spent in moving up and changing places with troops in the front line would coincide with a period quiet in regard to shelling. One hoped still more that no hostile attack would clash with the relief.

Such prayers and hopes on April 26, when a quiet, easy relief was specially desired, came near to being falsified. At dusk, just as our companies were starting towards Fayet, the enemy commenced an operation against Cepy Farm, a ruined building near the front line, predestined by its position to be an object of contention. The attack was ably dealt with by Tubbs’ company of the Bucks and had proved abortive for the enemy. The circumstance was accompanied by much erratic shelling from both sides. Orders to stand-to were issued rather broadcast, and as the relief was now in progress a degree of confusion resulted everywhere. The destination of my company and half of C was the sunken road leading down into Fayet, but that I found already crowded with troops. Almost all units of the Brigade seemed to be trying to relieve or support each other, and the front line itself was in quite a ferment, nobody actually knowing what the enemy had done, was doing, or was expected to do. Under these conditions it became impossible for me to send patrols to learn the ground from which the impending raid was to be launched. It happened, in fact, that when the time to move forward had arrived, I alone of all the five platoons about to be engaged knew the route to the ‘position of assembly,’ that is to say, the place where the attacking troops were to collect immediately before the raid. That most severe risk–for had I been a casualty the entire enterprise would have miscarried—was owing partly to the accident of the confused relief, but more to the short notice at which the work was to be carried out. Instead of that thorough reconnaissance which was so desirable I had to be content with a visit, shared by my officers and a few N.C.O.’s, to an advanced observation post from which a view was possible of those trenches and woods we were under orders to raid.

The sunken road proved anything but a pleasant waiting place. The shelling of Fayet–fresh-scattered bricks across whose roads showed it an unhealthy place–was now taken up in earnest by the enemy. Partly perhaps from their own affection for such places, but more probably because it was our most likely route to reach the village, the Germans seldom allowed an hour to pass without sending several salvoes of 5.9s into the sunken road. My men were densely packed in holes under the banks. I was expecting large supplies of flares and bombs and all those things one carried on a raid, and had, of course, orders and explanations of their duties to give to many different parties.

Died  of Wounds April 26th 1917

 33451 Private James Owen Wooster

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Sir Harold Gibson Howitt, D.S.O., M.C.

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

September 1917
“When George Moore left in September, 1917, to take command of a Battalion, the third Brigade Major who makes a figure in my history appeared, H. G. Howitt. In the sequence fortune continued to favour the Brigade. Howitt was a Territorial whose prowess had been proved in the Somme fighting. In place of a long staff training he brought business powers. He was indulgent of everythlng save fear, laziness, and inefficiency. Stout-hearted himself, he expected stoutness in others; this was the right attitude of a staff officer. Though a business man by training, he did not negotiate with the war; in him everything was better than his writing. Of these three, Gepp, Moore, Howitt, it would be difficult to name the best Brigade Major; the I84th Brigade was happy in the trio.”

From a letter by Brigade-Major Harold Howitt, 183rd Brigade, 61st Division, to his wife Dorothy, 30/3/1918. Found in full in To The Last Man, Spring 1918by Lyn Macdonald, Carroll & Graf, 1998.

My Dearest of All,

I am not going to say that I have not had a stiff time for you would not believe me and it would shake your faith in my reports – I will therefore confess to the worst week I remember, with the assurance that I am perfectly fit and cheery. Till last night I had not slept at all since 20th (March 1918) and have never before been so completely tired – I literally slept while walking or riding. I have had 6 different Brigade Commanders, besides a long period when I was in command myself, and yesterday we got our new General who saw I was a bit done and made me turn in – so I had a perfect night & feel now as fit as a lark.

I could not hope to describe the events of of the past 10 days – they have been incessant battle of the fiercest king & details must just come out by degrees round our own fireside. My little diary has of course been impossible but I will try some time to collect a few notes – the one I was keeping I tactfully discarded whilst a prisoner for there were many things in it uncomplimentary to the Hun & they would have gone against me. – as it was they threatened to shoot me for throwing away a note I had in my hand which they thought was valuable information but turned out to be nothing.

Col. Wetherall got a nasty wound & I am going to boast that he owes his life to me.  An H.E. splinter got him in the throat whilst talking to me and severed one of the main arteries & cut his throat – he gushed all over me & it was a long time before I could stop it, but he was a model of self-possession & I lay with him for over an hour till a doctor could be found. All the time the Hun was attacking & I had to keep one eye on him & the other on messages that were coming in & yet not let Wetherall know. Finally the Hun was right round us for he had taken Vesle on our left & there was nothing for it but to make tracks at once – we had no stretcher so output the old Colonel on a bike and pushed him along. I hear is all right & you can look for his name in the future as one of the soldiers of our day – and I ave never met a finer fellow.

Our Casualties have of course been terrific & we practically do not exist as a Brigade – however we are hanging on & I hope to do so. The main Hun thrust is broken & if the weather does not let us down again we may get our own back yet. However I hope I shan’t shock you so soon after confirmation if I say I am either an atheist or the Diety as Ye Weather Committee wants the Hun to win – he has favoured him hourly the whole time.

One of the most pathetic sights has been the evacuation of the villages with all the refugees & their little Tonys.* I have felt ashamed of myself to see them & yet I don’t think we could have done more. As to our own little Tony I hope he is well – I often think of him & of you – we will have an even happier time together hereafter because of all this trial & rest assured I ave never been more contented in my  life nor more sure  I was in the right place. I have even felt at times that Providence is keeping me rather specially for you and him for else Heaven knows why I am still here. All is quiet now…

Love, love, love,

Harold

* ‘Little Tony” was the couple’s name for the baby Dorothy was expecting. They were hoping for a boy, but when he was born, in August, ‘he’ turned out to be a girl, Mary. However Tony Howitt did arrive two years later, in happier times.

From G. K. Rose, The Story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.

25th March 1918
“At 11 a.m. on March 25 the enemy attacked. As often during these days, when a line was held solidly in one place, it broke elsewhere. By noon the enemy had captured Nesle, and the left flank of the Brigade was turned. During the fight Colonel Wetherall was wounded in the neck by a piece of shell and owed his life to the Brigade Major, Howitt, who held the arteries.”

12th April 1918
By now Corps Headquarters, after a three years’ sojourn at Hinges, had commenced to scour the country west of Aire for a suitable remote château. Except for Howitt there was no staff officer upon the spot, and we round after passing St. Venant towards Robecq that it was everyman for himself in the task of stemming the German attack.”

Sometime after this he was captured by the Germans. I found the following article on the Web site of the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales:

“Sir Harold Gibson Howitt
President, Institute of Chartered Accountants in England & Wales 1945-6

Sir Harold Gibson Howitt (ICAEW President 1945-46) was taken prisoner during the Spring Offensive of 1918 and in his autobiography describes the moment of his capture in great detail, including one tense moment in which he was put up against a fence and threatened with the prospect of being shot before eventually escaping back to British lines as the Germans advanced. Later, George Nancarrow (his partner in the accountancy firm W.B. Peat & Co) recalled that a story remarkably similar to Sir Harold’s had been published by John Buchan in the daily press.

On home leave after the event Sir Harold Gibson Howitt discovered that John Buchan was a friend of his brigadier and that he had called on him as he was struggling to find copy for the latest episode of his serial. The brigadier handed over a letter from his brigade major, Harold Howitt, recounting the tale of his escape. After the war John Buchan wanted to meet one of his characters and as a result they met at the House of Commons.

Sir Harold Howitt’s Version
Extracts from a typescript of Sir Harold Howitt’s autobiography ‘Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt‘ (circa 1967) held in the collection of the ICAEW Library & Information Service.

After being captured by German soldiers during the Spring Offensive of 1918 Harold was marched by his captors back to the German lines.

‘After a time they handed me over to two soldiers armed with revolvers and I was sent outside. There I saw the next assault being prepared, mules carrying machine guns and mortars, and all in full array. Then a gold and silver rain rocket went up all along the front, and this was obviously the signal for the advance. My escort, not knowing what else to do, made me also go forward and, as this was towards our lines, I acquiesced.’ (Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, page 43)

They were soon turned back, passing German soldiers going forwards. Determined to escape if he could, Harold noticed ‘a dip in the road full of mist and smoke’ which he thought looked a ‘likely place’. Harold described what happened next,

‘As luck would have it, when we were at the bottom, one of our shells dropped unpleasantly close and, looking over my shoulder, I noticed that both my guards had ducked into a shell hole behind. With no plan in mind I instinctively leapt at the first man to get up’ … ‘all I could do was throw one man against the other and roll them both into the ditch at the side of the road. For a moment I wondered what one does next, and even whether I ought to apologise. However, I recovered my wits and ran for it.’ … ‘They were soon up and emptying their revolvers at me, but they missed’. (Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, pages 43-44)

Harold made a successful escape and headed towards a burning ammunition dump at Beauvois, dodging potshots and isolated outposts of soldiers.

I crawled as near as I dared between two posts and was just going to spring when I heard one of the men utter a well-known British oath (I always say it is the most blessed word in our language) and I knew I had got through the German patrols and had bumped up against our own rearguard line’ (Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, page 45)

John Buchan’s version
Extract from the e-version of Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, originally published as a serial form in the press and collected together in book form in 1919. The e-version is now available as part of the Gutenberg project.

Mr. Standfast by John Buchan
‘There to my surprise I found Lefroy. The Boche had held him prisoner for precisely eight hours. During that time he had been so interested in watching the way the enemy handled an attack that he had forgotten the miseries of his position. He described with blasphemous admiration the endless wheel by which supplies and reserve troops move up, the silence, the smoothness, the perfect discipline. Then he had realized that he was a captive and unwounded, and had gone mad. Being a heavy-weight boxer of note, he had sent his two guards spinning into a ditch, dodged the ensuing shots, and found shelter in the lee of a blazing ammunition dump where his pursuers hesitated to follow. Then he had spent an anxious hour trying to get through an outpost line, which he thought was Boche. Only by overhearing an exchange of oaths in the accents of Dundee did he realize that it was our own … It was a comfort to have Lefroy back, for he was both stout-hearted and resourceful. But I found that I had a division only on paper. It was about the strength of a brigade, the brigades battalions, and the battalions companies.’ (Mr Standfast by John Buchan, 1919. Chapter Twenty-One: How an Exile Returned to His Own People).

There is reference to a H.G.Howitt at www.invisionzone.com
“3-8-1917 Yorkshire Regt.—Capt. C. Sproxton, M.C., to be Adjt., vice Lt. (temp. Capt.) H. G. Howitt. 12th Apr. 1917.”

There is a one page biography in British Accountants: A Biographical Sourcebook, by Robert Henry Parker.

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