Saturday, 18 February 2012
I see from my notes that I interviewed Bill Howell at his home in Hanwell, West London, in November 1986 when he was then aged 92. Back in 1914 he was working as a telegraph boy for the Post Office and here he describes the situation in August 1914.
"The balloon went up on 4th August 1914 and ninety per cent of postmen were reservists. The only way you could get in as a postman in those days was through being a reservist or being a telegraph boy. No civvies could get in. Well the order came for all reservists to rejoin the colours immediately and out they went leaving the office empty bar eight of us telegraph boys. So the old man said, "Well go on then, you've got to take all this stuff out. Go and get wheelbarrows, stay out all night delivering it if you have to. These men are going out to fight for you and your country."
"The eight of us got in a corner and we said, "well what about it?" We'd heard that the Post Office Rifles wanted two hundred to make up their full strength so we all marched out of the office and left him there swearing at us. We marched up to Bunhill Row and the place was absolutely packed tight. Everybody was on the streets and there was a corporal trying to make this two hundred up. I thought I'd never get in. He counted off twenty and he was marching them in when he saw me with a telegraph uniform on and my hand on my pouch and he thought I'd got a telegram in there. He beckoned me over and I said, "tell them I want to join the 1st Battalion." I didn't want no 2nd Battalion."
[Bill Howell refers to the 1/8th and the 2/8th Battalions here. When Britain went to war in August 1914 the battalion was designated the 8th (City of London) Battalion, The London Regiment (Post Office Rifles). It only became the 1/8th Battalion in September 1914 when a second-line Territorial Force battalion, the 2/8th London Regiment, was formed. Bill's original number, recorded on his medal index card, was 2518 and this number certainly dates to around the 8th or 9th September 1914 rather than the early days of August 1914 as might be implied from his narrative. In Bill's defence, he was recalling events that had happened over seventy years earlier.]
"I goes in there, peels off my uniform and bungs it in the kit bag that was there and never sees it again. I goes over to the doctor and he said, "You're a very fit man, you are, but you want to put on a bit of weight and height. Go and get measured." So I went over to the scales and got measured and the corporal said, "sorry son, you're half an inch under. It's five foot two and you're only five foot one and a half." Well, he could see the tears in my eyes. "Well", he said, "perhaps I made a mistake. Get on again. Now" he said, whispering because they were all watching you, "stand on tip-toe you bloody little fool." So I stood on tip-toe and got the extra half inch. He said, "Now you're in" and that's how I got in.
"After two days a uniform came. I went home in a shocking affair: a hat two sizes too big and an old coat. I goes upstairs and there's my mother with the old corrugated washing tub. She saw me and she said, "What are you doing here? Who told you to come here? Get out, I'll call the police." I took my hat off and said, "it's me, your Willy." She fainted. After we got her round she said, " you go and get that shilling back." I said, "I never had it, just this bit of paper. It's no good, nothing can take me out."
Bill Howell died in July 1991 aged 96. His account of the Battle of Loos is here. I'll continue with some of his other recollections in future posts.
The photo above dates to 1977 and appears in Charles Messenger's book Terriers in the trenches: The Post Office Rifles at War 1914-1918. Bill Howell is seated third from left. Chelsea Pensioner, ex sergeant Jim Nunn, seated to Bill's left, wears the MM & Bar.