The Australian Boer War Memorial
Anzac Parade Canberra

 
 
Captain (later Major General Sir) Neville Howse VC

Neville Reginald Howse was born at Stogursey, Somerset, England on 26 October 1863, the second surviving son of Alfred Howse, a surgeon. He was educated at Fullard House School, Taunton and studied medicine and surgery at the London Hospital, passing his Residential Surgical Certificate on 17 April 1884 and becoming a Member of the Royal College of Surgeons (MRCS) in 1886. In 1887 he became a licentiate of the Royal College of Practitioners (LCRP). (All three of his brothers also became doctors.)

Neville Howse emigrated to Australia in 1889 to become a country doctor at the Manning River Hospital in Taree, New South Wales, but returned to England in 1896 for professional development. He worked in what would now be called Casualty at London Hospital while studying to become a Fellow of the Royal College of Surgeons (FRCS), to which he was admitted in 1897.  He returned to Taree again in 1898 but moved to Orange, New South Wales in 1899.

In January 1900 he was commissioned an Lieutenant in the New South Wales Medical Corps and sailed for South Africa.

General Christiaan de Wet was the most wily of the Boer commanders, a former businessman who perfected the art of guerrilla a warfare,

By July 1900 the Imperial High Command so concerned about his activities- which were fast making him a foik hero to the Dutch inhabitants of the Cape that it sent a mounted infantry brigade under Brigadier-General C P Ridicy to pursue and neutralise De Wet and his mobile band-

Attached to Ridley's force were members of the New South Wales Army Medical Corps, led by Captain Neville Reginald Howse,

On July 22, news reached Ridley that De Wet had derailed and looted a train at Rhenoster Poort, before moving towards the Orange Free State village of Vredefort. less than 15 kilometres away, The British general immediately sent part of his force, accompanied by members of the Medical Corps, to investigate. As the Imperial troops rode into range, De Wet opened fire - with deadly effect.

Among the first to fall in the forward line was a young trumpeter, who lay shot through the bladder and bleeding severely as his comrades were forced to retreat.

Lieutenant Howse did not hesitate. Digging his spurs into his horse, he charged through literally a hail of bullets to the wounded man. The Boer Mausers soon found their target and the brave doctor's horse dropped dead under him. Undaunted Howse grabbed his medical bag and ran forward on foot. Reaching the trumpeter, he dressed his wound and while bullets flew round him, lifted the man onto his shoulders and carried him to safety.

For his courage, Lieutenant Howse was awarded the Victoria Cross - the first ever awarded to someone in an Australian unit, and the only one ever awarded to an Australian medical officer. Howse was promoted to Captain on 15 October 1900. The Victoria Cross was only the first of many awards and decorations won by the later Major General Sir Neville Howse during his outstanding military career.

Howse returned to Australia on 8 January 1901. His award was presented to him in a ceremony by the Chief Justice of New South Wales, Sir Frederick Darley, and Howse shook hands with two men who had won the Victoria Cross in the Indian Mutiny and since immigrated to New South Wales.

In 1902 Howse volunteered for service in South Africa again and departed again on 12 February 1902, with the rank of Major. He was in charge of a stretcher bearer company who served in Western Transvaal. He returned to Australia via England, arriving back on 7 November 1902. 

After being mentioned in dispatches, he returned to his practice in Orange. He was mayor of the town when World War 1 broke out in 1914, and immediately volunteered for active service. 

On 14 August 1914, Howse was appointed to the Australian Naval and Military Expeditionary Force (AN&MEF) as Principal Medical Officer, with the rank of lieutenant colonel. He sailed for Townsville, Queensland on board the Berrima on 19 August 1914. Howse procured quinine on his own initiative and arranged for a daily issue. Rabaul was captured on 12 September and Colonel W. Holmes raised the Australian flag. The action in New Guinea was concluded without serious illnesses.

Howse left New Guinea to return to Australia on 4 October 1914. He travelled to Melbourne where he met with Colonel WD Williams, the DMS AIF, who arranged for Howse to join the AIF as an unallotted medical officer. Howse sailed with on the Orvieto along with Williams, Major General WT Bridges, Colonel VCM Sellheim, Lieutenant Colonel CBB White and other members of the 1st Division Headquarters staff on 21 October 1914. Howse was appointed ADMS of the 1st Division, with the rank of full colonel on 28 December 1914.

Howse landed at Hell Spit with the rest of 1st Division Headquarters at around 0730 on 25 April 1915. Already the results of the complete bungling of medical and administrative arrangements were becoming evident. Triage broke down and seriously wounded men were put on board transports with no more than skeleton medical facilities while lightly wounded men were given beds on board hospital ships. The beach was jammed with wounded men and eventually Howse determined to evacuate the lot, sending off 1,200 men in two days.

Many senior officers of the AIF took needless risks, including Howse, who made a point of ignoring shelling and sniper fire. On 15 May 1915, Major General WT Bridges was mortally wounded by a sniper in Monash Valley. Howse personally brought Bridges on board the hospital ship Gascon on 18 May 1915. After Bridges died, Howse filled in the death certificate and accompanied his body to Egypt. He stayed there for a few days attempting to sort out administrative matters.

When Howse returned to Anzac on 23 May 1915, the most pressing medical matter was the disposal of the bodies of the thousands of Turks killed in the Turkish counterattack of 19 May 1915. Howse helped supervise the disposal of the dead during a truce on 24 May 1915. Howse was also slowly becoming aware of the dangers of poor sanitation at Anzac, caused in the main by each unit being responsible for its own area, detaching part of the 3rd Field Ambulance for sanitation work in the division area. On 3 July 1915, Howse himself became ill with dysentery and was evacuated to Egypt. He returned to Anzac on 22 July. Following the attack on Lone Pine on 7 August 1915, Howse worked 12 hours straight, dealing with some 700 wounded. The next day he was himself lightly wounded in the shoulder.

For his work, Howse was appointed a Companion of the Bath (CB) in July 1915. On 11 September 1915, Howse became acting DDMS of ANZAC. The Director General of Medical Services, Colonel RH Fetherston, toured Egypt and Anzac and was appalled at the situation. On 10 November 1915, he cabled Melbourne with his recommendation that Howse be appointed as DMS AIF. This was accepted and Howse officially took over the position on 22 November 1915.

Howse's returned to Egypt on 28 December 1915 following the evacuation of Anzac. He promptly recommended that all medical officers that had served in the AIF as captains for 12 months or more be promoted to major. With the expansion of the AIF in early 1916, Howse had to create new medical staffs for three new divisions. New field ambulances were created by reorganising the existing ones on the basis of two sections instead of three, a plan that Willams had described on board the Orvieto. After a few months, British authorities forced Howse to conform with their organisation, but the AIF readopted it in September 1918.

Howse also reorganised the Dental Corps in Egypt. His experiences in New Guinea and Gallipoli had convinced him of the value of dentists. He created four man dental units, attaching one to each field ambulance. Howse, as a doctor, was reluctant to accept dentists as equals, and more reluctant still when it came to dealing with pharmacists, nurses and physiotherapists.

Howse could be misogynistic. He refused to give Dr Janet Greig a commission in the AIF despite a recommendation from Fetherston, and was uncomfortable about the fact that he had over 1200 nurses under his command. Australian policy with regard to the employment of female staff was driven by the desire to free male medical personnel for combat units, and they employed a higher percentage of nurses than their British counterparts.

Howse moved his medical staff to the AIF Headquarters at Horseferry Road in London in April 1916.From here, Howse administered the medical services of the whole AIF, including those stationed in Egypt and Salonika but Howse's focus was always on the Western Front, sometimes to the detriment of the other theatres or war. The tremendous casualties in France warranted a large medical organisation in the United Kingdom, and there was constant pressure on the medical authorities to return men to the front.

Howse was generous with promotions, taking the view that his doctors and nurses had given up a great deal to serve with the AIF. On 1 January 1917, Howse himself was promoted, to major general and appointed a Knight Companion of the Bath (KCB).

British authorities seeking to divert Australian medical staff to British hospitals could expect nothing but the most hostile response from Howse and the AIF's Deputy Adjutant General, Colonel T. H. Dodds. But when the German Offensive broke on March 1918, Howse took immediate steps to reinfoce the medical establishment in France. Continuing his experiment with small, cellular units, he created six surgical teams, each consisting of a surgeon, an anaesthetist, a theatre sister and two orderlies. These were attached to the three Australian general hospitals but available for use by British hospitals when required.

In September 1918, Prime Minister Hughes granted six months leave in Australia to all members of the AIF who had served continuously since 1914. Howse was one such, and returned to Australia with the Commandant of the Administrative Headquarters in London, Brigadier General T. Griffiths, arriving in Sydney on 11 November 1918.

Howse arrived back in England on 24 February 1919 to take charge of the repatriation of the sick and wounded. He also arranged with the British authorities for his doctors and nurses to take up what for many was the opportunity of a lifetime; free postgraduate study in British universities and hospitals. Howse was gazetted a Knight of St John of Jerusalem (KStJ) on 3 June 1919 and Knight Commander of St Michael and St George (KCMG) on 9 June. He finally returned to Australia on 1 January 1920.

In January 1921, Howse chaired a committee on the future organisation of the Army Medical Services. He was appointed part time Director General of Medical Services (DGMS) in July 1921 with the rank of major general but retired on 7 November 1922 to contest the Federal seat of Calare, which includes Orange, as a Nationalist candidate. He won, and was duly reappointed DGMS, serving until January 1925.

From January 1925 to April 1927, Howse was Minister of Defence and Health, and Minister for Repatriation. In February 1928, he again became Minister for Health and Repatriation, and also for Territories. As Minister for Health, Howse strove to improve the treatment of cancer and veneral disease. He purchased 100,000 of radium for medical purposes, establishing one of the first radium banks in the world. He assisted in the creation of the Australian College of Surgeons and the Institute of Anatomy. Howse, a smoker, always maintained that smoking was good for the health. As Minister for Repatriation, Howse championed the cause of ex servicemen, particularly disabled ones, and was involved in setting up the Australian War Memorial. As Minister for Defence, he attempted unsuccessfully to amalgamate the medical services of the three services. As Minister for Territories, Howse was an advocate of the White Australia Policy. He also pushed the development of the new capital in Canberra.

In October 1929, Howse lost his seat in the Labor landslide against Prime Minister Bruce. He decided to returned to medical practice, electing to return to England for a few months to refresh his surgical skills. While there he was diagnosed with gallstones. An operation revealed pancreatic cancer. He died on 19 September 1930 and was buried at London's Kensal Green Cemetery, next to his father.

Today Howse is best remembered as Australia's first Victoria Cross winner; his portrait hangs in the Australian War Memorial's Hall of Valour, where his medals are on display. As wartime Director of Medical Services, he was a sound and ambitious administrator .

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Sources: Australian Dictionary of Biography, 1899-1939, Vol 9, pp. 384-385; Tyquin, Michael B., Neville Howse: Australia's First Victoria Cross Winner created by Ross Mallett


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