For duty and honour: remembering the Howell-Price brothers
Reverend John Howell-Price and his wife Isabel would farewell five of their six sons off to serve during the First World War. Only two would make it home.
The three youngest were killed in action on the Western Front: Owen at Flers in France in 1916, Richard at Bullecourt in May 1917, and Philip at Broodseinde in Belgium five months later. All three had been awarded the Military Cross.
Dr Meleah Hampton, a historian at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, first learnt of the family while researching her book about the battle of Pozieres.
“The father was born in Pembroke in South Wales and he came out to Australia when he was 14,” Dr Hampton said.
“There were ten children altogether and five of the six brothers had really distinguished military careers during the First World War.”
Long before the war began, at the age of 14, Lieutenant Commander John Howell-Price DSO DSC had run away to sea. On the outbreak of war, he was called up by the Royal Naval Reserve.
He survived the sinking of the British armed merchant cruiser, HMS Alcantara, which was sunk by the German ship, SMS Greif, in the North Sea in February 1916.
“Both ships were sunk in the engagement, and the crews were left sitting in open boats,” Dr Hampton said. “Hundreds of men died, and the survivors nearly froze to death while waiting to be rescued.”
John was awarded the Distinguished Service Cross for his actions and went on to become a sub-mariner. He was second-in-command of the British submarine C-3, which, filled with explosives, was blown up during a raid at Zeebrugge in April 1918. Its commander, Lieutenant Richard Sandford, was awarded the Victoria Cross; John was awarded the Distinguished Service Order.
His younger brother, Major Frederick Phillimore Howell-Price DSO, had enlisted as a driver in the Australian Army Service Corps shortly after the outbreak of war in 1914, and was attached to the 2nd Light Horse Brigade.
“He was a bank clerk in Sydney on the outbreak of war and enlisted shortly after,” Dr Hampton said. “These boys are all very well educated, and before he’d even finished his training and left Australia, he’d been commissioned as a second lieutenant.”
Frederick arrived on Gallipoli in September 1915 and went on to serve during the Romani, Beersheba, Jericho Valley and Syrian operations of 1916 and 1917.
“He is a really capable supply officer,” Dr Hampton said. “And he’s doing really important work there, rising through the ranks to become the commanding officer of the Anzac Mounted Divisional Train, the director of supply and transport in the Mounted Corps, and the supply officer for the entire Light Horse in the Middle East.”
In recognition of his service during the Sinai–Palestine campaign, Frederick was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and twice Mentioned in Despatches.
His brother, Lieutenant Colonel Owen Glendower Howell-Price DSO MC, served on Gallipoli and was killed on the Western Front in 1916.
“He was awarded the Military Cross at Lone Pine and Mentioned in Despatches for his ‘conspicuous gallantry’ and ‘greatest bravery’ in leading an attack against the Turkish trenches, frequently rallying his men under heavy fire and restoring order at critical moments.”
In letters to his mother and father back home, Owen wrote simply: “My luck was good again.”
Promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1916, he was given permanent command of the 3rd Battalion on the Western Front.
“It is a mistake to get too puffed up over my success which is really no fault of mine,” he wrote to his parents.
In July and August that year, Owen fought at Pozières and Mouquet Farm in France, for which he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order and again Mentioned in Despatches.
“Everyone thinks a man is a hero when he is nothing of the sort,” he wrote in his letters.
“Most people in publishing awards forget that there are always plenty of others in the same place and doing much more glorious deeds…”
Dr Hampton said he was one of Australia’s youngest senior officers at the time.
“Owen Howell-Price is only 25 when he takes command of a 1,000 men in the battalion, and his first major operation is during the capture of the French village of Pozières … He’s one of the two best battalion commanders in the field that day …
"He showed remarkable courage and devotion to duty and to his men, and on at least one occasion remained in the front line despite being wounded.”
Owen Howell-Price was killed in action near the French village of Flers in November 1916.
“He was supervising the placement of machine-guns to cover the advance near Flers when he was shot in the head,” Dr Hampton said. “He died of his wounds the following evening.”
His final words were: “Give my love to the battalion.”
“With his death, the AIF lost one of its most promising young commanding officers,” Dr Hampton said.
“He was described by Charles Bean as the ‘gentlest of men and conscientious to a fault’.
“Had he lived, I believe he would have gone on to have a very big impact in the manner in which the war was being fought. He was learning lessons very quickly, and he had a very good grasp of military tactics.
“To lose him so early in the war was a huge loss.”
His brother, Major Philip Llewellyn Howell-Price DSO MC, landed on Gallipoli with the 1st Battalion and was Mentioned in Despatches for conspicuous gallantry at Lone Pine before being wounded in the back by shrapnel from a bomb blast.
Having recovered and taken part in the evacuation of Gallipoli, he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order for leading a successful raiding party of four officers and 60 men near the French town of Armentieres during one of the 1st Battalion’s first operations on the Western Front.
“In face of heavy opposition and uncut wire he carried through his attack with great coolness and resource, and saw every officer and man back in our trenches before he returned,” the citation read.
Philip Howell-Price went on to fight on the Somme, and was awarded the Military Cross for his leadership during an operation near Flers in November 1916.
“He’s a lot like his brother Owen,” Dr Hampton said.
“In March 1917, he’s shot through the thigh at Bullecourt, but he stays in the battlefield and remains on duty.
“He just ties it up, and just gets on with it, so he’s absurdly brave, and is he just devoted to duty, and doing the right thing.
“In an endeavour to preserve his life, General Birdwood had him appointed to the staff of the 1st Anzac Division, but on hearing that his old battalion was going into action, he begged to be sent back …
“In October 1917, Philip Howell-Price is back in the trenches with his men, participating in an attack. He’s about to give the order to move when an artillery barrage comes over, and the last that is seen of him is a shell bursting.
“His body is never found. And all of that promise, and courage, and devotion to duty and service, just ends, just like that, at Broodseinde, Belgium, on 4 October 1917.”
The youngest son, Lieutenant Richmond Gordon Howell-Price MC, had enlisted with his parents’ permission in December 1915.
“He’s only 18 when he enlisted, but he is a lot like his older brothers,” Dr Hampton said.
“And he is awarded the Military Cross for his actions during an attack on a French village called Demicourt in April 1917.
“It’s very unusual for someone to be awarded a Military Cross as a platoon commander in their first attack on the Western Front, but he’s showing remarkable capability in the field, just like his brothers.”
He was mortally wounded at Bullecourt on 4 May 1917, and died later that day. His award of the Military Cross was published on 22 May.
The eldest son, David Clayton Winchcombe Howell-Price, who had served in the Boer War, was 33 years old when the First World War broke out. He remained in Australia with the Army's Administrative and Instructional Staff, and in 1917 was charged with defrauding the Commonwealth of 67,000 pounds. He was sentenced to four years jail for embezzlement, forgery and the uttering of bad cheques.
“It was deeply shameful,” Dr Hampton said.
“David is not mentioned in his father’s obituary, but it was in the national press, and I think there was just this real sense of shame to family …
“He is often left out of the story, but his story doesn’t in any way take away from that of his brothers.
“John Howell-Price and his wife Isabel had five sons who did remarkable things for duty and honour.”