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

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Archive for the tag “Brigade Major Howitt”

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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Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall, D.S.O., M.C.

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

Late April 1917
“Colonel Bellamy’s successor, H. de R. Wetherall, was a young man whom ability and leadership had already lifted to distinction in his regiment and placed in command of an important military school. From now onwards he is the outstanding figure in the Battalion’s history. In the new Colonel a quick brain was linked with vigorous physique. In spite of his Regular training, Wetherall could appreciate and himself possessed to no small degree the peculiar virtues of the temporary officer, who based his methods on common sense and actual experience in the war rather than servile obedience to red tape and ‘Regulations.’ He had studied during the war as well as before it, with the result that military tradition – his regiment was the Gloucestershire – and his long service in the field combined to fit him for command of our Battalion.”

June 1917
“A totally different spirit characterised training in France. Colonel Wetherall was a master of the art of teaching. His emphatic direction and enthusiasm earned early reward in the increased efficiency of all ranks.”

August 1917
“The capture of this had been assigned to the 48th Division, but as a measure of abundant caution Colonel Wetherall had detailed a special Berks platoon to tackle it. This platoon, assisted by some Oxfords on the scene, captured the gun-pit and nearly seventy prisoners, but failed to garrison it.”

September 1917
“The defence of the three strongholds, Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli provided a striking example of German stubbornness and skill, but added an object-lesson in the squandering of our efforts in attack. Operations upon a general scale having failed to capture all three, it was fantastically hoped that each could be reduced separately. Iberian, Hill 35, and Gallipoli supported one another, nor was it feasible to hold any without holding all. Yet to take Hill 35 on September 9 the 2/4th Oxfords were specially selected. The spirit of A and D Companies, chosen by Colonel Wetherall for the attack, was excellent. We confidently believed that we could succeed where others failed. Optimism, so vital an ingredient in morale, was a powerful assistant to the English Army. It was fostered, perhaps unconsciously, throughout the war by the cheerful attitude preserved by our Generals and staff, but its foundation lay in our great system of supply. The A.S.C.,
which helped to win our victories, helped, too, to temper our defeats.

On September 7 Brown and myself went up through Ypres to view the scene of the attack. At Wieltje, where Colonel Wetherall and B and C Companies already were, we descended to a deep, wet dug-out and that night listened to a narrative brought by an officer who had participated in the last attempt to take the hill. He dispensed the most depressing information about the gun_pits, the machine-guns, the barrages, and last, but not least terrible (if believed), the new incendiary Verey lights used by the Germans to cremate their assailants. The description of a piece of trench, which we were to capture and block, particularly flattered our prospects. ‘Wide, shallow trench, enfiladed from Gallipoli, filled with the Division dead,’ it ran. The tale of horror becoming ludicrous, we soon afterwards clambered on to the wire bunks
and slept, dripped on, till the early morning.”

November 1917
“A series of gas projections. smoke barrages, and raids were to take place. The better to maintain secrecy from the German ‘listening-sets’ no telephones were used. The Battalion bore its share in the programme: already at Arras plans for a novel raid were under contemplation. Cuthbert had devised a scheme, which
Colonel Wetherall adopted and chose B Company,under Moberly, to carry out.”

“Now it was planned by Wetherall to fire lethal gas against the enemy for several nights. On the night of the raid and during it, non-lethal only would be used. The two gases smelt alike and the presumption was that on the night of the raid the enemy would wear gas-helmets.”

21st March 1918
“At Enghien Redoubt Battalion Headquarters had received no news of the attack having begun; the dense mist limited the view to fifty, yards. The earliest intimation received by Colonel Wetherall of what was taking place was enemy rifle and machine-gun tire sweeping the parapet.”

22nd March 1918
“Early on Match 22 Colonel Wetherall, limping and tired, arrived. He bore the tale of his adventure. During the 21st we saw him disappear from Enghien Redoubt to go on a reconnaissance. Near Holnon he was surrounded by an enemy patrol and led a prisoner towards St. Quentin but when the fire of 6-inch howitzers scared his escort into shell-holes, the Colonel escaped, and the same night, choosing his opportunity to slip between the German digging parties, contrived to reach our lines.”

“Colonel Wetherall had already started on the way to Languevoisin but was caught up at Matigny. He the same night (22nd) regained the Beauvoir line and took command of the Brigade.”

24th March 1918
“On the same day of which I was last speaking, March 24–the 184th Brigade, minus those Oxfords who were in action with the 20th Division. though sadly wasted in numbers, formed up again to make a stand. Colonel Wetherall, the acting Brigadier, had received orders to hold the line of the canal east and south-east of Nesle.”

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.”

“The line was driven back to Billancourt and the same night (25th) the remnants of the XVIII Çorps withdrew in darkness to Roye, a town where our hospitals were still at work, evacuating as fast as possible the streams of wounded from the battle. One of the last patients to leave by train was Wetherall, who at this crisis passed under the care of Stobie, the Oxfords’ old M.O.”

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.

“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.”

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

Mid-April 1918
“About this time Colonel Boyle, who had commanded the 6th Oxfords until their disbandment, arrived to assume command of the Battalion. He remained till Wetherall, whose wound had taken him to England, returned.”

End of May 1918
“Towards the end of May Colonel Wetherall returned to take command of the Battalion. To be his Second in Command was both a pleasure and a privilege, similar feelings were evoked towards the Brigadier, General Pagan, in whose small frame beat a lion’s heart.”

7th/8th August 1918
Throughout the night of August 7/8, when things generally were very active, a heavy gas-bombardment was kept up. The Colonel was away from his headquarters at the time. He returned after the shelling to find that gas helmets had been taken off. No harm was expected, but the next day after the sun’s heat had awakened dormant fumes, the Colonel, Symonds (the adjutant), Kirk, who had brought up the rations, and Cubbage, as well as the Regimental Sergeant-Major and many signallers and runners, all round that the were gassed. Their loss was serious. It was known that Wetherall would soon have to leave the Battalion, for he had been appointed to a command in the Machine Gun Corps; indeed alreadv his successor, Colonel Woulfe-Flanagan, had arrived to take his place. Under the present unlucky auspices (for more than half Headquarters were knocked out) the interchange took place.

Herodotus says of the kings of Sparta that the last was always regretted as the best the country had ever had. Colonel Wetherall’s merit did not depend on his being the last of a series. Phrases such as ‘he was worshipped by the men’ have become so hackneyed as to be meaningless, nor shall I use an even worse commonplace, that ‘he was sparing of his words.’ Wetherall was just a rattling good Commanding Officer, a true friend, and a fine soldier.”

Further military career:

Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall

Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall (born 1889; died 1979) was an officer in the British Army during World War I and World War II.

Lieutenant-General Wetherall commanded the 11th African Division during the East African Campaign. He was part of the “Southern Front” for this campaign. Wetherall commanded the 11th African Division during the advance from Kenya, through Italian Somaliland, and into Ethiopia.

On 23 November 1941, with the campaign all but over, the 11th African Division was disbanded. Wetherall became the acting General Officer Commanding of the East Africa Force.

In 1943, Wetherall moved on to British Ceylon.

Command history

* 1936 to 1938 Commanding Officer, 1st Battalion, York and Lancaster Regiment
* 1938 to 1940 Commanding Officer, 19th Brigade
* 1940 General Officer Commanding, 1st African Division, East Africa
* 1940 to 1941 General Officer Commanding, 11th African Division, East Africa
* 1941 Acting General Officer Commanding, East Africa Force
* 1941 to 1943 General Officer Commanding, Command Area, East Africa
* 1943 to 1945 General Officer Commanding, Ceylon
* 1945 to 1946 Commander-in-Chief, Ceylon
* 1946 Retired

Soldiers of Gloucestershire have a photograph of Lieutenant-General Sir Harry Edward de Robillard Wetherall and Major-General C.E.A. Firth. Service of Commemoration and Intercession. Gloucestershire Regiment. Gloucester Cathedral, 17th June 1951.

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