78. Pozieres: 2 Division, 28 July- early August – H C HOW & R H NEBBITT

Harold Christopher HOW 367
24 Battalion KIA 28/7/16

Harold Christopher How was born in Greenwich, England. When his father (George How) supplied the information for the (National) Roll of Honour, he wrote that his son came to Australia at the age of twenty. However, at the time of enlistment in the AIF, the son’s age was recorded as 19 yo. Accepting the inconsistency, Harold How could not have been in Australia very long before enlisting.

Even though Harold How enlisted at Yarram – 19/2/15 – and his father identified Alberton West as the town in Australia with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’, the name is not included on either the Shire of Alberton Roll of Honor or the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. Yet Harold How was definitely one of the many young, single, English immigrants working in the local area who enlisted when the War broke out.

Harold How’s occupation was given as ‘farm laborer’ on his enlistment papers, ‘labourer’ on the embarkation roll and his father described his work as ‘land worker’. Interestingly, the father recorded that Harold had attended ‘higher grade’ schooling in England and that his ‘calling’ before coming to Australia was ‘printers reader’. The father was the Divisional Inspector of the Tilbury Docks Police, London.

When he enlisted in early 1915 Private How joined 23 Battalion, B Company. The unit left Melbourne for Egypt on 10/5/15 and was engaged at Gallipoli, from late August until the end of 1915. 23 Battalion left Alexandria for the Western Front on 19/3/16 and disembarked in Marseilles on 26/3/16.

Prior to Pozieres, Private How’s service file shows that he … took part in a raid on enemy’s trenches on night of 29/30 June 1916.  The war diary for 23 Battalion for the same action gives some idea of how violent such raids were. It was a raiding party of 252 men drawn from 4 battalions, including 23 Battalion. The raiding party was only in the enemy trenches for 8 minutes but in that time 80 enemy soldiers were killed and 5 were taken prisoner.

23 Battalion was in the line at Pozieres from 26/7/16. B Company, Private How’s company, was in the first wave of the second major offensive at Pozieres that began just after midnight on the morning of the 29 July. Private How was listed as missing on 28/7/16 but, presumably, he went missing in the early morning of 29/7/16. The war diary of 23 Battalion reveals the level of casualties sustained over the period of late July at Pozieres. The Battalion’s strength at the start of the fighting on 28/7/16 was 36 officers and 968 other ranks but just 3 days later (31/7/16) it had been reduced to 32 officers and 645 other ranks. This amounted to more than 300 casualties.

Even though he was listed as missing on 28/7/16, it was not until 17/12/17, nearly seventeen months later, that Private How was determined to have been killed in the same action; and the formal Report of Death of a Soldier was only issued on 15/1/1918. The length of time involved was greater than for others missing at Pozieres, and this particular case certainly highlighted the degree of confusion that could apply. The correspondence in the relevant Red Cross Society file is extensive and it is clear that the family, and others acting on behalf of the family, pursued the case vigorously. However it is also clear that several of the ‘leads’ pursued involved confusion over names: Private CH Howell 2798 was from the same battalion and there was also Private WJ Howe 3148 of 28 Battalion who was taken prisoner by the Germans at Pozieres on 29 July 1916.

The most significant complication was the conviction by officers in 24 Battalion that Private How had been taken prisoner. The following two letters set out this scenario. The first was written to Private How’s father on 10/9/16 by then current commanding officer of B Company, Captain J. Briscoe. The original CO of B Company – Major Brind – had also been reported as missing after 28/7/16. The typed letter did not come via the Red Cross but was sent directly to the father. It is in Private How’s service file. It appears to have been dictated in haste.

I regret to say I can but give you very little information concerning your son. On the date referred to Major Brind was O.C. B Copy, and unfortunately he is missing together with your son and several others. …. From circumstances Sir I am led to hope that your son may be a prisoner. This is borne out from the fact that your sons pay-book was found in a dead Huns pocket, who was shot just outside our trench. We think this same Hun lost his way and walked towards our trenches. As the shell fire at the time was intense, we think your son and others lost their way and wandered towards the enemy lines. To a certain extent to find your sons pay-book so soon afterwards on a German justifies the belief that he was taken prisoner and at once searched for papers etc, and sent to the rear of the enemy trenches.

Beyond this Sir I am sorry to say I cannot enlighten you further, other than we know for certain that a Officer who was on his left on that night is reported a prisoner. …  I understand how you feel as his parents. He is well spoken of by his Officers and his platoon feel that they have lost a comrade and a pal.

I am pleased to say Sir that your Sons Battalion and Company were not forced back, they gained their objective and held it, and from there further successes have been gained.

Major Brind (Eric T.) the former CO of B Company referred to in the statement was in fact killed at Pozieres, as is graphically evident from the following witness statement supplied on 5/9/16 by one of his men, Private Chalmers 3798.

This officer was an exceedingly brave man. He was missing on the 28th July during the attack at Pozieres, on the other side of the Cemetery which was where we were at the time. Since that [time] a body has been found without a head and with no mark of identity except a crown on the shoulder to mark his rank. I did not see the body myself but everyone was full of it at the time. They thought it must be his body because it was lying very near where he was last seen and it is therefore generally believed that Major Brind is dead. Another Regiment found the body and notified us. He was one of the best men in the world and we were very sorry to lose him.

The second letter – also in the service file of Private How – to support the claim that Private How had been taken prisoner was written by the Chaplain of 23 Battalion, Percy Bladen. He wrote it on 19/9/16 and it was addressed to a J W Dowdeswell of London who was, presumably, a relative or family friend of Private How. The letter was probably written under pressure and there are some contradictions evident.

Your letter… reached me today. I am the Chaplain attached to the 23rd Batt. … I wish I could send you some good news about private How, he was reported missing on July 28th too often that means that the one so reported will not return, in the case of private How, however there is some hope that he may still be living as a wounded prisoner in the hand of the Germans; that hope is based upon the fact that his identity disc was found on a German whom we took as a prisoner. The German said that the man to whom the disc belonged and he remembered him because of his extraordinary height was wounded and taken prisoner, that is all that we know. it would perhaps be unwise to conclude that the statement is quite correct and that private How is safe, and in the absence of any evidence of his death it certainly gives ground for some hope. I deeply sympathise with his people who must suffer terribly while they do not know their boy’s fate. he was a good lad and a fine brave Soldier and all the better Soldier because he was an earnest Christian. I very earnestly hope that it may yet be found that he is alive and that he will ultimately be restored to his loved ones. Again please convey to them my sincere sympathy and my wish, one thing we do know that whether he is in Germany or whether he died he is in the safe keeping of the good Father of all whose love will never let him go.

The possibility that both letters hold out is that Private How had been taken prisoner. The problem is that the items claimed to have been recovered from German soldiers could just as easily have been removed from the body of a dead Private How. Further, it is possible, given that a Private Howe of 28 Battalion was taken prisoner in the same general area at the same time, that the items recovered from German soldiers did not even belong to Private How. The reference to Private How being, according to the German prisoner, of ‘extraordinary height’ does not really help: Private Harold How (23 Battalion) was described as 6’ on his enlistment papers and Private William Howe (28 Battalion) was described as 5’10¼” on his. The case for mistaken identity was definitely put by the AIF’s Wounded and Missing Department in response to inquiries from the British Red Cross Society. The following was written on 12/10/16,

…we beg to inform you that we have no information respecting No. 367. Pte Harold Christopher How, 23rd Battn, A.I.F than that he is officially missing since July 28th. Yours is the first intimation that we have had that he may be a prisoner as his name has not appeared on any lists of prisoners. We have on our list of prisoners No. 3148 Pte. William John Howe, 28th Battn. A.I.F. who was captured on July 29th and we think that possibly it may have been his pay-book and disc that were found and in some way confused with those of Pte. H.C.How.

One witness statement sets the scene for what most likely did happen to Private How early in the morning of the 29th July. It was provided by Corporal Jack Ritchie who was in the same B Company platoon as Private How. Corporal Ritchie had been asked if he knew what had happened to Private How and another soldier, Private A Sparks 3944. He wrote on 15/6/17,

I am sorry to say I cannot give any information about Pte. How or Pte. Sparks, they were both with us in the advance 28.7.16, but a lot of us went too far and in the morning both were missing. 367 Pte. H.C. How was tall and slim, 6 feet high and of dark complexion. Age 24 years, disposition rather reserved.

The likely version of Private How’s fate is that having gone too far ahead of his unit, he was cut off and killed. The three definite points are that his body was never recovered, and his name never appeared on any German list of prisoners or separate German list of the dead.

[The fate of the other Private Howe – the one from 28 Battalion who was definitely taken as a POW – was equally dire. He died as a POW on 17/10/17 from wounds received at Pozieres. The German death certificate states that he died of … gunshot wounds in 11th and 12th vertebrae – spine and general weakness.]

The following letter written by Private Harold How’s father on 26/5/17, ten months after he was reported as missing, indicates that the family was resigned to his fate. He was responding to the Australian Red Cross Society.

I beg to thank you for your letter of the 25th inst. respecting my missing son, Pte H.C. How. 367. 23rd Battalion and your kind expression of sympathy. As he has been missing so long I am afraid there is little hope, but any definite information about the “end” would at least be very gratifying and comforting to all, it is the uncertainty that is so trying.

The following personal items were returned to the mother in London: Devotional Book, Medallion, Letters, Scarf, Cap Comforter, Mitten.

The final, sad twist in the narrative of this young Englishman, who died as an Australian soldier, is that after the War, in 1919, the father wrote requesting the return of his son’s ‘pre-military effects’ that had been left at the ‘Luggage Office railway station, Flinders Street, Melbourne’, presumably at the time he enlisted. Subsequent checking uncovered a trunk and portmanteau in the ‘Lost Property Office, Victoria Railways’. The property was eventually returned to the father. Finally, at that point, the young man’s Australian adventure came to an end.

Private How’s name, as an Australian soldier, appears on the Villers-Bretonneux Memorial.

References

National Archives file for How Harold Christopher 367
Roll of Honour: Harold Christopher How
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Harold Christopher How
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Harold Christopher How

 

Roy Harry NEBBITT 2720
24 Battalion KIA 29/7/16

Ray Harry Nebbitt was born in Balloong and grew up in North Devon. He attended the state school there and it appears that his mother Mrs Annie Nebbitt was a teacher in the school. At the time of his enlistment both parents were still living in North Devon. The father died not long after his son enlisted.

On enlistment in Melbourne (2/8/15) Ray Nebbitt was single, 21 yo and his occupation was listed as farm labourer. He had had his initial medical in Yarram on 23/7/15. He joined 24 Battalion.

His unit of reinforcements for 24 Battalion left Melbourne on 27/10/15. He did not see service at Gallipoli. 24 Battalion left Alexandria on 20/3/16 and disembarked at Marseilles on 26/3/16.

Private Nebbitt was killed in action on 29/7/16 at Pozieres. The details of his death are very sparse. There is no Red Cross report. There is also limited information on the actual fighting involving 24 Battalion in its war diary. However, the diary states that the battalion was in the front line at the time of the second attack at Pozieres in the very early morning of 29/7/16, the day that Private Nebbitt was killed. The diary reports that from 27 July to 30 July, the battalion suffered 199 casualties, with 43 killed and 156 wounded.

There is an entry in Private Nebbitt’s file that states that he was ‘buried in the vicinity of Pozieres’ and there is a map reference. However when the Report of Death of a Soldier was issued there was no identification of any grave site or burial details, and his name is recorded on the memorial at Villers-Bretonneux. Possibly, after he had been killed his unit buried him in a temporary grave and subsequently this grave site was lost and never relocated, despite the availability of the general map reference. The fact that there is no Red Cross Society report tends to support this scenario. It suggests that he was never ‘missing’ in the sense that no one knew what had happened to him. His unit knew he had been killed and they had buried the body; but the grave itself had become lost. Other strong evidence to suggest that he had been killed in action and was not missing comes from the promptness of the completion of the Report of Death of a Soldier. The necessary corroborating evidence was supplied on 5/8/16, just a week after the death, and the form itself was completed on 4/1/16. The family was advised by cable on 29/8/16 and the confirmation by mail was sent from London on 4/9/16.

Even though the processing of Private Nebbitt’s death, incorporating the transmission of information to the family, was discharged promptly there was still confusion, anxiety and a dearth of vital information for the family back in Gippsland. Incredibly, on August 14, 1916 the mother wrote the following letter to the Defence Department. This was just 2 weeks after her son’s death, not, of course, that she knew he had been killed.

I got no official word but I have been told that my son is returning wounded so I am writing to know if it is true he is
No 2720 Pte R. H. Nebbitt D Company 24th Battalion 6th Inf. Brigade. France

There is no indication as to the source of the information or when or how it was received and no other details about the nature or severity of the wound(s) or where in France her son was wounded and so on. Base Records responded immediately – 16/8/16 – and, given that it was still some two weeks before they were to receive the cable of Private Nebbitt’s death, they obviously denied the claim. They were also keen to know the source of the information:

In reply to your inquiry dated 14th instant, I beg to inform you no official report that he is wounded, or to any other effect, has been received here concerning your son No. 2720 Private R. H. Nebbitt, 24th Battalion.

If you are in possession of a letter, or other documentary evidence to the contrary, upon receipt of same if such action is warranted, inquiries will be instituted, and the result communicated to you.

If your informant is a member of the Australian Imperial Force it will be necessary to furnish his name, regimental number and rank, together with the unit to which he is attached.

There is no indication that the mother responded and the episode does not appear to have been pursued. It is a curious episode because while no doubt there were those in the 24th Battalion who had connections with friends and family back in Gippsland and who did know at that point that Private Nebbitt was, at the very least, missing, it was simply not possible for them to have communicated, within such a short period of time, with people back home. Only a cable could have provided information within that time frame.

As indicated, the official cable to Australia advising of the death came on 29/8/16, roughly two weeks after the false report. The following letter from the mother, written nearly a year later on 28/5/17 indicates that she received the news in September 1916. It also shows how the Post Master could act in the place of the local clergyman in delivering the sad news. However, most pointedly, it reveals the despair that weighed on parents when they did not know how their son had died. And even in death there was no fairness, because while some families were able to find out details of their son’s death, other families, like hers, were left with nothing, other than the knowledge he was dead.

I am writing to ask if you could tell me how my son’s death occurred, if he was killed outright or wounded and died or anything about it. … All that I was told was that he was killed in action on the 29th of July. I was told by the post master. I did not even get a telegram or anything. I was told last Sept. and I have been thinking I would hear particulars any time [?] neighbours get particulars of their friends causalities that have taken place since then, and I know nothing and have heard nothing of an only son that was my great comfort.

The obviously heartfelt letter elicited only a formal, detached reply,

In reply to your communication of 28th ultimo, I have to state the only information received at this Office [Base Records, Melbourne] to date regarding your son … is that he was killed in action, in France, on 29/7/16. The report of burial has not yet come to hand, but on receipt, will be promptly communicated to next-of-kin, and will be made available to you on application.

But there was never to be any ‘report of burial’.

References

National Archives file for Nebbitt Roy Harry 2720
Roll of Honour: Roy Harry Nebbitt
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Roy Harry Nebbitt (Nebbit)

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