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Sir Harold Howitt

Sir Harold Gibson Howitt's escape from German lines in 1918 was immortalised in the John Buchan novel 'Mr. Standfast' (1919). Read how this event was captured in the novel and in Sir Harold Gibson Howitt's later autobiography.

Sir Harold Gibson Howitt (ICAEW President 1945-46) was taken prisoner during the Spring Offensive of 1918 and in his autobiography describes the moment of his capture in great detail, including one tense moment in which he was put up against a fence and threatened with the prospect of being shot, before eventually escaping back to British lines as the Germans advanced. Later, George Nancarrow (his partner in the accountancy firm W.B. Peat & Co) recalled that a story remarkably similar to Sir Harold's had been published by John Buchan in the daily press.

On home leave after the event Sir Harold Gibson Howitt discovered that John Buchan was a friend of his brigadier and that he had called on him as he was struggling to find copy for the latest episode of his serial. The brigadier handed over a letter from his brigade major, Harold Howitt, recounting the tale of his escape. After the war John Buchan wanted to meet one of his characters and as a result they met at the House of Commons.

Sir Harold Howitt's Version

Extracts from a typescript of Sir Harold Howitt's autobiography Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt (circa 1967) held in the collection of the ICAEW Library & Information Service.

After being captured by German soldiers during the Spring Offensive of 1918 Harold was marched by his captors back to the German lines.

After a time they handed me over to two soldiers armed with revolvers and I was sent outside. There I saw the next assault being prepared, mules carrying machine guns and mortars, and all in full array. Then a gold and silver rain rocket went up all along the front, and this was obviously the signal for the advance. My escort, not knowing what else to do, made me also go forward and, as this was towards our lines, I acquiesced.

(Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, page 43)

They were soon turned back, passing German soldiers going forwards. Determined to escape if he could, Harold noticed ‘a dip in the road full of mist and smoke’ which he thought looked a ‘likely place’. Harold described what happened next:

As luck would have it, when we were at the bottom, one of our shells dropped unpleasantly close and, looking over my shoulder, I noticed that both my guards had ducked into a shell hole behind. With no plan in mind I instinctively leapt at the first man to get up … all I could do was throw one man against the other and roll them both into the ditch at the side of the road. For a moment I wondered what one does next, and even whether I ought to apologise. However, I recovered my wits and ran for it. … They were soon up and emptying their revolvers at me, but they missed.

(Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, pages 43-44)

Harold made a successful escape and headed towards a burning ammunition dump at Beauvois, dodging potshots and isolated outposts of soldiers.

I crawled as near as I dared between two posts and was just going to spring when I heard one of the men utter a well-known British oath (I always say it is the most blessed word in our language) and I knew I had got through the German patrols and had bumped up against our own rearguard line

(Reminiscences of Harold Gibson Howitt, page 45)

John Buchan's version

Extract from the e-version of Mr. Standfast by John Buchan, originally published as a serial form in the press and collected together in book form in 1919. Th e-version is now available as part of the Gutenberg project.

Mr. Standfast by John Buchan

There to my surprise I found Lefroy. The Boche had held him prisoner for precisely eight hours. During that time he had been so interested in watching the way the enemy handled an attack that he had forgotten the miseries of his position. He described with blasphemous admiration the endless wheel by which supplies and reserve troops move up, the silence, the smoothness, the perfect discipline. Then he had realized that he was a captive and unwounded, and had gone mad. Being a heavy-weight boxer of note, he had sent his two guards spinning into a ditch, dodged the ensuing shots, and found shelter in the lee of a blazing ammunition dump where his pursuers hesitated to follow. Then he had spent an anxious hour trying to get through an outpost line, which he thought was Boche. Only by overhearing an exchange of oaths in the accents of Dundee did he realize that it was our own … It was a comfort to have Lefroy back, for he was both stout-hearted and resourceful. But I found that I had a division only on paper. It was about the strength of a brigade, the brigades battalions, and the battalions companies.

Mr Standfast by John Buchan, 1919. Chapter Twenty-One: How an Exile Returned to His Own People).