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John Howlett R.S.M., Australian Imperial Force, WWI: A Soldier's Record of Service.

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Recruitment in Sydney

At 24 years of age, John Howlett was recruited into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) on an early spring day in 1914 at the Sydney Showgrounds, just one month into the first world war. He had already served three years with Australia's first conscripted National military force, the Australian Field Artillery (AFA). His prior experience led to his being taken on as Sergeant and his assignment to the 1st Divisional Ammunition Corp.[1]

By late September, 1914, John had embarked on the Rangatira at Brisbane's port-side suburb of Pinkenba and was heading toward the coastline near Albany, West Australia where the Divisional Ammunition Column would join a flotilla of craft amassing for the first sea envoy moving Australian and New Zealand troops to the war. The soldiers were led to believe they were sailing to England for training but instead, they were heading toward Egypt and service in the campaigns of the Sinai and Gallipoli Peninsulas.

John's quick response to the nationwide call for serving soldiers in 1914 had led to his early engagement with WWI. His official service records hold a collection of abbreviated notes yet no detail of his movements in those first several months of service. The entry of April 30, 1915 however indicates that John's brigade had joined the Mediterranean Expeditionary Force.

Mediterranean Expeditionary Force

ANZAC Day, an Australian commemorative day has grown to encompass the recognition of all Australians who have served and are serving in a theatre of war. It's origins lie in the earliest WWI engagements on the Gallipoli Peninsula however and whereas all Australians who served in WWI are now referred to as Anzacs, the designation was first bestowed upon the soldiers who made the bloody beach landings at Gallipoli, where so many people lost their lives on April 25, 1915. John's service record makes no note of the movements of the 1st Division Ammunition Column on the peninsula. A further twelve months passed before the next entry, dated March, 1916, reveals that his brigade was then stationed at Tel El Kebir in Egypt.

Tel El Kebir was an AIF camp, overcrowded and at times unruly. There are many black and white photographs still in the public domain documenting something of the camaraderie of fresh Australian soldiers immersed in the culture of Egyptian markets with the sandy desert and exotic Pyramids looming behind their tent cities. By that time in WWI, huge numbers of Australians were pouring into Egypt for training.

Sometime during March and April, the British High Command transferred John's Divisional Ammunition Column, on strength, to the 13th Field Artillery Brigade (FAB) in support of the newly raised 5th Division. The Egyptian campaign was relatively quiet in that moment in 1916. The newly formed Brigade was moved to Moascar, still in Egypt, and John was posted to its headquarters and promoted to Warrant Officer Class I. John was placed in an important coordinating role between troops in the field, and central command. The added responsibilities required a high degree of leadership and we can assume he demonstrated what it took - collaboration and ingenuity, strength and resilience. He joined his Company's Headquarters in mid-May at Ferry Post where the Egyptian Expeditionary Force defended the Suez Canal.

European Campaign

In June 1916, after two years on the Sinai Peninsula, the 13th FAB was dispatched to the European Campaign, sailing from Alexandria on the coast of the African continent to Marseilles in France. Could John imagine, at that point, that the war would endure for nearly two more years, and that the longest, terrifying battles, and two full northern hemisphere winters, still lay ahead? Mercifully, we see the men of the 13th FAB granted a fortnight's furlough at this juncture, and then another break in November, 1917.

Artillery service was difficult and dangerous work as the columns transported heavy ordnance and rifle artillery, and were at all times targeted by the enemy. The unit was busy before, during and after battle. The role required exacting plans to sufficiently arm the battalions as well as maintaining arsenal while under fire. They worked in extremely difficult conditions including through the night in preparation for surprise dawn attacks. Added to the coordination of hundreds of men was the coordination of horses that were pivotal in pulling carts across fields, through muddy gullies and along narrow lanes. The equine members of the brigades had been transported around the world, had been topped up by local stock and were simultaneously tactically strong while an extremely vulnerable, mode of transport.

The notes of John's service record continued to offer only scant indication of his movements and don't paint an accurate picture of the daily reality confronting the troops serving on the Continent. Historical regimental information fills in some of the gaps though with notes of the Brigade's participation in battle locations now historically infamous; Fromelles, the retreat to the Hindenburg line, Bullecourt, Polygon Wood, Passchendaele, Villiers Bretonneux, Morlancourt, Hamel, Amiens, Peronne ... It is possible to gain some idea of the conditions during some of those engagements through historical Intelligence from the various headquarters describing the weather conditions, the timing of battle, the enemy response, the victories, the defeats, the deaths, injuries and disasters.

Repatriation

By March 1918, John was halfway through his 4th year of service at a time when the European Theater of war had intensified beyond belief. An end to the conflagration and a victory over non-Allied troops was imminent but for John, the next six months unfolded unexpectedly, and away from the front. A debilitating off-field knee injury saw him invalided to England where he was reassigned while in recovery. He would not return to the front and one can only imagine the bittersweet prospect that was, having to leave his brigade when all looked darkest on the Continent. The matter was not his to decide.

John was eventually repatriated from England to Australia, where he finished his WWI service on the eve of his son Robert's fourth birthday. He had traveled a perilous circle around a world at war and was now returned to the safety of his own home in Sydney.

John Howlett was discharged from the Australian Imperial Force in August 1918 after serving 48 months in a war of the modern age. His discharge papers recorded him as RSM, Regimental Sergeant Major, the most senior of the Warrant Officer Class One ranks. Among other duties, John was responsible for maintaining battle-ready standards, as well as discipline. His was one of the most respected and coveted badges in the services, demonstrating something of the heavier responsibilities shouldered in a particularly notorious time of uncertainty.

Sources

  1. Military Service Records, The National Archives of Australia, with search reference NAA: B2455, HOWLETT J 3031. https://recordsearch.naa.gov.au/SearchNRetrieve/Interface/SearchScreens/BasicSearch.aspx




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