William Howie enlisted on 20 August 1914. He was 22 years old and had been working as a clerk for the Department of Defence. Howie was allocated the service number 768. On 23 August he was promoted to staff sergeant. He embarked from Melbourne with 3 Company, 1 Divisional Train, Australian Army Service Corps on 19 October 1914 aboard HMAS Benalla.
Howie served at Gallipoli, where he collected this flechette. He found it embedded in a case of ration biscuits at the 1st Australian Division Supply Depot, after a shower of flechettes had been dropped over Victoria Gully by an enemy aircraft. Howie was not aware of any casualties inflicted in this attack. He later noted; 'Passing through the air they [the flechettes] made a [illegible] buzzing sound caused no doubt by the spiral nature of the shaft.'
Howie was later commissioned, and served on the Western Front. He disembarked in Australia on 25 April 1919 and his appointment in the AIF was terminated on 6 July.
Flechettes, or aerial darts, are essentially short steel rods with a sharp point at one end, and fins at the other. Originally invented by the Italians in 1911-1912, during the First World War they were first said to have been used by the French in 1914, although they were also later used by the British and Germans. The Germans took the opportunity to make a point about the development of the use of flechettes by stamping some of their flechettes (that were the same in style to the French ones), 'INVENTION FRANCAIS, FABRICATION ALLEMANDE' [French invention, German made] in French for their enemy to read.
Flechettes were dropped from aeroplanes or airships in great numbers, each canister holding between twenty and 250 flechettes. One French airman in March 1915 dropped 18,000 in one day over the German lines. The idea was that by dropping them from great heights they would acquire sufficient momentum (like a bullet) to allow them to pierce the heads, or bodies of enemy soldiers or civilians. The canisters were attached under the aircraft fuselage. A wire was pulled to open the bottom of the canister, which released the flechettes.
Flechettes were also used by the British to try and down German airships by dropping them from aircraft flying above. This failed to work, much in the same way firing normal ammunition at airships failed to work - they may have been able to penetrate the envelope of the airship, but did not cause much damage. Incendiary weapons were generally more successful. Against troops and civilians their success was variable. There are accounts of men being killed by flechettes, which were recorded as making thin, but deep wounds. Flechettes were primarily used early in the war, although some were still being as late as January 1917. The British found them to be unsatisfactory - to work they had to score a direct hit, but there was no opportunity to direct them once they had been released from the aircraft. They were regarded as less formidable or effective than a bomb dropped by aircraft, which could inflict a broader range of damage.