Little was known in our family about Mick Howard. My mother told me that her uncle, Mick Howard from Cappamore, had emigrated to Australia with two of his sisters, had served in WW1 where his health suffered as a result of exposure to gas, that he had “drifted away” from the family, and died at an early age.
I wanted to find out more about him and spoke to Australian descendants of his two sisters. They were able to provide some background information but confirmed that his sisters knew nothing about his post war life. When I obtained his military records, a more complex story began to emerge.
Mick Howard was born in 1887 on a farm at Portnarde, near Cappamore, County Limerick. He was the first child of John and Kate Howard. Kate was originally a Fitzgerald from nearby Toomaline, Doon. Mick was the eldest of ten Howard children which included my grandmother, Catherine Ryan (Howard). During the first decade of the twentieth century, the Howards moved from Portnarde to a small farm at Convent View, Cappamore.
Mick Howard, together with his younger sisters, Johanna and Lillian, sailed for Australia in 1910. They first went to their aunt, Mary Bowers (formerly Fitzgerald) at Thursday Island, Queensland. Bad news awaited them. Their mother Kate, who was in her early forties, had died suddenly in Cappamore while they were at sea.
The three Howards had a photograph professionally taken in Australia and sent it back to the family in Cappamore. Mick was then about twenty-three but his receding hairline makes him look slightly older as he sits in front of his two younger, attractive and determined sisters.
The two Howards met their future husbands while still on Thursday Island. Mick seems to have been a loner and, over the following years, gradually lost contact with his two sisters. He was employed as a stockman before he enlisted in the Australian army in February 1915. The unit he joined was D Company, 20th Battalion 5th Brigade. On his enlistment form, he gave his Cappamore address and was described as 5 ft. 5 1/2 inches tall with blue eyes and brown hair and was aged 27. He listed his aunt Mary Bowers as next-of-kin.
It is possible that Mick’s decision to enlist was influenced by another aunt. Johanna Fitzgerald, sister of Mary Bowers, was living in Queensland at this time and had married a Scot named James MacGregor. James also enlisted and saw service in Europe with Mick Howard.
In June 1915, just five years after he left Ireland, Mick Howard sailed again for Europe. The Australian army had gone ashore together with the British at Gallipoli in April in a costly and ultimately unsuccessful campaign against the Turks and had suffered massive losses. The 2nd Division, to which Mick Howard was assigned, landed in Gallipoli in August. There was still heavy warfare but the carnage of the previous months had subsided.
The first signs of the health problems which were to plague Mick during and after the war soon began to emerge. In September, he was suffering from diarrhoea and was evacuated from Gallipoli to a hospital ship. Over the following four months, he was in at least five different hospitals suffering from dysentery and related illnesses. At the end of January 2016, he was returned to his unit which had now relocated to Egypt and he was to remain free of illness until May 1918.
Preparations were in hand to move the Australian forces to France. On 10th March, the 2nd Pioneer Battalion was formed and assigned to provide back-up services to the Second Division of the Australian army. Mick was transferred to this new Battalion as a driver and five days later they sailed from Alexandria, Egypt. They landed at Marseilles, France on 26 March and travelled to Rue Marle, near Armentieres in north east France near the Belgian border. They were soon in action. On 27 July 1916, the Second Division, in which Mick served, relieved the First Division at Pozieres and captured the Pozieres Heights at great cost. The Division were involved in the Battle of the Somme in August and again in November.
In March 1917 a flying column of the Second Division pursued the Germans to the Hindenburg Line. At Lagnicourt on 15 April 1917, it was struck by a powerful German counterattack, which it repelled. On 3 May 1917 the Division assaulted the Hindenburg Line in the Second Battle of Bullecourt, holding the breach thus gained against furious counterattacks. During the Third Battle of Ypres, it fought with great success at Menin Road in September and again at Broodeseinde in October.
In September 1917, Mick was promoted to Lt/Cpl Driver. His health also seems to have stabilised by this time. In January, he was given time off and travelled across to England for a three-week break. Did he consider visiting his family in Cappamore during this leave period? Perhaps the conflicting passions resulting from the 1916 Rising might have persuaded him that such a visit was unwise. Or maybe he was embarrassed due to his failure to keep in contact his family since his departure.
In May 1918, Mick’s health problems recurred when he was struck down with trench fever and he was transferred to England on the hospital ship HS Brighton. He was admitted to hospital in Croydon where he was diagnosed with bronchitis. It is possible that Mick was exposed to poison gas which resulted in bronchitis in many cases. Many of the soldiers who, like Mick, fought at Ypres later suffered from the effects of poison gas. He spent time convalescing in England before he rejoined his battallion on 14th August.
Following his return to France, the Second Division fought in the Battle of Amiens in August. In September, it took Mont Saint Quentin in what is described as “one of the finest feats of fighting of the war”. It fought on to the Hindenburg Line and beyond before becoming the last division to be withdrawn when the Armistice was declared.
In early 1919, Mick was sent to England in readiness for his return to Australia. On 13 February, he was given leave and was due to report back by midnight on 3rd March. He did not return and was adjudged absent without leave. This was the sole trace of insubordination in his army files. He finally returned at 8pm on 10th March and informed his superiors that he was a married man.
We can only assume that he met Annie Isabel Neal during his convalescence in England the previous year or during his leave in 1917. Nancy, as she was known, was a waitress in a cafe at Warburton Road, London and lived nearby with her parents.
The couple had a Roman Catholic marriage at the Church of Saint Peter in Chains, Stroud Green not far from where Nancy lived. Nancy was 33 and Mick was 30. Upon Mick’s return to duty a week later than agreed, he was charged with being AWOL. On 11th March, he was reverted to the rank of driver and fined a weeks pay.
On 13th April, Mick sailed from Devonport near Plymouth to Australia on the “Castalia”. He disembarked on 1st June and was discharged from the army on 1st August 1919. He was awarded the 1914/15 Star Medal, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal.
Information about the life of Mick Howard after the war was quite sketchy. His new wife is unlikely to have travelled with him and probably sailed to join her husband on another ship. In any event, the 1921 Electoral Roll verifies that Michael Howard and Annie Isabel Howard were living at Crase Street, Fortitude Valley, Brisbane. Mick was working as a quarryman and his wife was described as doing “home duties”.
They were still in the Fortitude Valley area in 1933 when Mick completed a sworn declaration that he had lost his Army Discharge papers in the Brisbane flood of 1931. Perhaps his application for replacement papers was an indication that he was getting his affairs in order. In any event, Mick died in 1933 according to the Queensland death records. He was aged just 45. His death was caused by various bronchial complications including bilateral pulmonary tuberculosis and spontaneous pneumo thorax. Many of the veterans who died in the years following the Great War suffered from similar illnesses. Mick Howard was buried at Lutwyche Cemetery in Brisbane.
I had resigned myself to the reality that my search to find out more about Mick Howard was ended when another avenue presented itself. I was contacted by an Australian descendant of the Fitzgeralds of Toomaline who was enquiring about the Howards. We exchanged information and some very old photographs. Some of the photos I received were taken at the home of Johanna MacGregor, Mick Howard’s aunt. Her husband had gone to war with Mick Howard and his death shortly after he returned home was attributed to exposure to gas during wartime. One photo, which included a young girl, was captioned “Mick, Nancy, Joan Howard & Johanna MacGregor”. This was my first indication that the Howards had a child and led me to the discovery that a baby girl named Joan was born to Mick and Nancy Howard in 1922. She was their only child and was just eleven years old when her father died.
In the photograph, Joan seems to be aged about ten or eleven. This indicates that it was taken shortly before her father’s death. Mick Howard, although instantly recognisable, looks very thin and considerably older than his forty-five years. His shrunken appearance is accentuated by his jacket and trousers which hang loosely about him.
Nancy Howard lived in the Brisbane area for the remainder of her life. She is sometimes described in the Electoral Rolls as an office cleaner. She passed away in 1957, aged 72, and was buried beside Mick Howard at Lutwyche Cemetary. In her final years, she was cared for by her daughter Joan who had married Selby Moore. Joan and Selby, who had five children, have many descendants living in Australia today.
I suspect that the information about Mick Howard’s death reached his family through his aunts Johanna MacGregor or Mary Bowers. It is not clear why the wider family were not informed of the existence of his wife and daughter. Perhaps this was Mick’s wish. He had not told his sisters or his father back in Cappamore about his family while he was alive.
So my search for Mick Howard comes to an end. He endured a terrible war and suffered from bad health resulting in his early death. But clearly, some joy was provided in his short life by his wife and daughter. I prefer to think of him as he is portrayed in another group photograph taken at the MacGregor house in the 1920s. Looking strong and healthy, Mick is crouched in front of the group, a half-smiling, enquiring expression of his face with his arm around a greyhound. The photo is reminiscent of many taken in Cappamore of his nephew, my uncle Mick Joe Ryan(Howard) as he showed off his greyhounds to the camera. It is a image which looks as if it could have been taken on a summer day in Cappamore and Mick Howard looks peaceful, contented and at home.