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    HOVELL, H. De B., (Hugh de Berdt)

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    HOVELL, H. De B., (Hugh de Berdt)

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    Hugh De Berdt Hovell was born in Hackney, London in 1863, third son of Dennis De Berdt Hovell a Surgeon & General Practitioner, of Elstree Holt, Boreham, Hertfordshire, a family of ancient lineage. Hugh Hovell was educated at Winchester College, where he was a student of electricity, and the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, and commissioned in to the Worcestershire Regiment in 1884.

    In his Who's Who entry, Hovell claims to have originated the use of telephones on rifle ranges (1886) and the use of field telephones (1888).

    In 1892 he was awarded the Royal Humane Society's medal for rescuing, at great personal risk, a private soldier from drowning in a lake at Poona, in India.

    During his early years as an officer he studied the welfare and comfort of his men and the best methods of making them efficient soldiers. In 1895, when a captain on leave from India from the 1st Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment, he disguised himself as a private soldier and served as such with the 2nd Battalion of the Worcestershire Regiment through the New Forest manoeuvres. This was done simply with the object of learning the life, the duties, the difficulties, and the troubles of a soldier on service, so that when in the future he came to command men on active service he should be in a position to know through what his men were going, to appreciate their troubles, to help them through their difficulties, and to make them contented. In this way he felt that he could get the best out of his men, and the country the best value for its money.

    He was the author of two manuals, "Soldiers' Shooting" (London: Gale & Polden, 1888) and " Soldiers' Training and Other Notes" (London: Gale & Polden, 1900).

    As a Captain he was posted to the 2nd Battalion at Malta in 1896. He took command of "A" Company on the island of Gozo. He was a very strong swimmer and one of his feats was to swim round the island, comparable to swimming the Channel. Every man of his company had to be able to swim a mile, play water polo, march well, be a marksman, do semaphore and know the Morse code, as well as handle a pick and shovel efficiently.

    At 5ft. 10ins. he was powerfully built with fine facial features; he had large, piercing eyes and a quiet cultured voice. He was abstemious in his habits—only drank ale and ate only one course, meat and vegetables, at dinner. He always smoked a clay pipe. He wrote a good hand and was expert on the typewriter.

    He served with the 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment throughout the South African War of 1899-1902, being mentioned in despatches and awarded an immediate D.S.O. for gallantry.

    At the battle of Sligersfontein, 12th February, 1900, he took command and throughout the 24 hours he led the singing to keep the men cheerful. The song was " Oh ! Lucky Jim." During the South African war he had the heavy field glasses issued to companies replaced at his own expense by Zeiss binoculars, and bought for the scouts the Zeiss monocular.

    When the South African War closed he was posted home as Second-in-command of the 4th Battalion.

    Lieut.-Colonel Hugh De Berdt Hovell commanded the 1st Battalion Worcestershire Regiment at Portobello Barracks, Dublin, Ireland in 1907.

    ]In 1908 he rejoined the 2nd Battalion to command it at Ahmednagar, India. His first effort was to abolish the physical drill and introduce the Muller system. All ranks joined in heartily and it produced a fine body of men. Next he set about eliminating V.D. He gave weekly talks to all ranks in the gymnasium, and insisted on every man having in his kit a packet of "Before and After." His efforts were rewarded by a clean bill of health.

    The spine pad was the next thing to be abolished. This cumbersome piece of cloth had been worn for years in India. It weighed several pounds, and he substituted a two ounce strip of coloured linen, which he personally demonstrated and it was taken into use. Each company wore a different coloured strip.

    He always encouraged singing on the march as he said it expanded the lungs and kept men fit. He also encouraged reading and wrote several books himself, his best known being " Duffers Drift."

    His methods were always "in advance of the times." He first, as a company officer in India, instituted precautions for his men against disease. He started the idea of distinctive marks on his men's coats, so that after a charge and "mix up" the men could be quickly distinguished and re-formation of units carried out without delay. This was adopted generally throughout the Army in France. He trained every man of his company to know and use the semaphore code of signalling and to move noiselessly by night like Indian scouts. He specially trained his officers and men to use their own initiative, and though in 1914 he had long since given up command of his battalion, this training proved valuable at Gheluvelt, when the same battalion, through the individual initiative of officers and men, saved the situation, to the glory of the Worcester Regiment.

    He completed his four years in command of the 2nd Battalion in 1912. The C-in-C. India came and inspected the battalion on parade. His remarks were : "I have never in all my soldiering seen a finer and better set-up body of men ; your hospital is closed ; your men are free from venereal disease, and your general efficiency is excellent. That should be good enough for any battalion commander."

    No notes about Colonel Hovell would be complete without mention of his bicycle. It was a specially strong machine and only he could ride it. He used it day and night, visiting the cookhouses and the institutes daily. He was nearly always present at the men's teas. He mounted and dismounted by the step and when dismounting from a horse he used to throw his right leg forward and jump off.

    Hovell trained 2nd Battalion, according to his own account, 'on Sir John Moore's and Sir Charles Napier's methods of command'. His Who's Who entry attributes the success of the Worcesters' famous charge at Gheluvelt on 31st October 1914 to these training methods!

    When First World War broke out in 1914 Hovell was on the retired list, but he soon found himself in command of the 13th (Reserve) Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, formed at Plymouth in November 1914. He also quickly found himself in trouble. His behaviour became the source of rumour among the rank and file, two of whom complained about him. The Times' account of the libel case, on 6th May 1920, reported that:

    "Early in December, 1914, rumours were rife that private soldiers were making indecent suggestions about the conduct of the plaintiff, and these rumours continued. A court of inquiry was ordered, and of the two private soldiers who gave evidence one tried to commit suicide."

    The President of the Court was Colonel Percy Holland. The conclusion of his report was as follows:

    "The Court having most carefully considered the evidence brought before them are of opinion that although they do not consider there is any ground for specific charges such as suggested by the allegations made by Privates Fletcher and Baugh regarding Colonel Hovell, at the same time they are of opinion that Colonel Hovell is undoubtedly eccentric in his manner and methods in dealing with his men, and that these peculiarities of his in conjunction with the treatment rendered necessary to his back are liable to misconstruction."

    As a result of the report, Hovell was removed from his command and returned to the retired list. He sought to retrieve his reputation and in 1915, at the age of 52, he enlisting secretly under an assumed name as a private soldier in his old battalion (2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment). He served with his 'old comrades' in France for five months until his health broke down.

    In May 1920 Hovell's claim that Colonel Percy Holland had libelled him in the report of the inquiry came to trial. Holland's counsel, the Attorney-General, successfully argued that a Court of Inquiry was privileged and that Hovell had suffered no real harm, being stripped neither of his rank, nor his DSO, nor his pension. The judge found for the defendant with costs.

    Lieutenant-Colonel Hugh De Berdt Hovell, D.S.O., died from broncho-pneumonia on the 27th November 1923, aged 60.

    The Worcestershire Regiment history describes him as a remarkable soldier whose versatile eccentricity has inspired countless legends in the Regiment, he became known as "Mad Jack" . However, he was a gallant soldier and a true patriot.

    From the Diary of No.4399 Private Thomas Ford, 2nd Battalion Worcestershire Regiment.

    February, 1900

    Took part in operations round Colesberg, culminating in the attack on British outposts, Monday, Feb. 12th.
    ]Casualties – Officers:

    Lt.-Col. Coningham.
    Bt. Major A. K. Stubbs.

    Captain B. H. Thomas (died).
    Lieut. C. F. Ruxton.
    2/Lieut. M. R. Carr.

    Casualties - Other ranks:

    Sgts. Watkins, Carter; Cpl. Pritchard, L/Cpl. Allen, Ptes. Mason, Carrington, McNaughton, Parton, Danks, Pinner, Parker, Lammas, Weissner, Morris, Deverill, Turley.

    28 (1 died of wounds); missing and prisoners, 19 (2 died of wounds).

    The following notes are from Mr. A. Bradish who served with the battalion in the South African War. His Company Commander was Captain C. M. Edwards.

    12th February 1900

    The action of Sligersfontein, named after the farm there, was our first engagement exactly one month after landing in South Africa. This successful engagement with the Boers brought the first honours to the battalion—two D.S.O.'s, immediate awards to Captain H. de B. Hovell, O.C. "A" Coy., and Lieutenant H. V. Bartholomew, O.C. "E" Coy.

    Three companies bore the weight of the attack, "A," "E," "C." "A" and "E" held the Kopjes, with "C" in support. Lieut.-Colonel Conningham went from the H.Q. Camp immediately he heard the Boer attack was in force. He was leading the supporting company, commanded by Captain Thomas, " C " Coy. Both fell very early, the Colonel killed and Captain Thomas severely wounded, afterwards died. The Colonel had been in command of the battalion only two months. Major Stubbs, O.C. "E" Coy., was killed and Lieutenant Bartholomew took command of the company. Captain Hovell immediately assumed command of the three companies, and the position was held against great odds without one yard of ground being yielded. Severe casualties were inflicted on the Boers. This outpost line, of which Sligersfontein was the extreme right flank, was 20 miles in length and held by four battalions of infantry, the 12th Brigade commanded by General Clements.

    On 13th February the whole brigade retired to Rensburg and then on to Arundel, closely followed by the Boer General, De La Ray, and his commandoes, a distance of 30 miles. At Arundel reinforcements arrived and the Boers were halted.

    On the 12th February 1900, the right flank of the British at Slingersfontein came under a strong attacked by the Boers commanded by General De la Rey's. The key of the British position at this point was a kopje held by three companies of the 2nd Worcester Regiment. Upon this the Boers made a fierce onslaught, but were as fiercely repelled. They came up in the dark between the set of moon and rise of sun, as they had done at the great assault of Ladysmith, and the first dim light saw them in the advanced sangars. The Boer generals do not favour night attacks, but they are exceedingly fond of using darkness for taking up a good position and pushing onwards as soon as it is possible to see. This is what they did upon this occasion, and the first intimation which the outposts had of their presence was the rush of feet and loom of figures in the cold misty light of dawn

    The occupants of the sangars were killed to a man, and the assailants rushed onwards. As the sun topped the line of the veldt half the kopje was in their possession. Shouting and firing, they pressed onwards. But the Worcester men were steady old soldiers, and the battalion contained no less than four hundred and fifty marksmen in its ranks. Of these the companies upon the hill (later named Worcester Hill) had their due proportion, and their fire was so accurate that the Boers found themselves unable to advance any further. Through the long day a desperate duel was maintained between the two lines of riflemen.

    The Worcestershire Commander Lieut.-Colonel Charles Cuningham and his second in command Brevet- Major Arthur Kennedy Stubbs were killed while endeavouring to recover the ground which had been lost. Hovell and Bartholomew continued to encourage their men, and the British fire became so deadly that that of the Boers was dominated. Under the direction of Hacket Pain, who commanded the nearest post, guns of J Battery were brought out into the open and shelled the portion of the kopje which was held by the Boers. The latter were reinforced, but could make no advance against the accurate rifle fire with which they were met. The Bisley champion of the battalion, with a bullet through his thigh, expended a hundred rounds before sinking from loss of blood. It was an excellent defence, and a pleasing exception to those too frequent cases where an isolated force has lost heart in face of a numerous and persistent foe. With the coming of darkness the Boers withdrew with a loss of over two hundred killed and wounded. Orders had come from General Clements that the whole right wing should be drawn in, and in obedience to them the remains of the victorious companies were called in by Hacket Pain, who moved his force by night in the direction of Rensburg. The British loss in the action was twenty-eight killed and nearly a hundred wounded or missing, most of which was incurred when the sangars were rushed in the early morning.

    Captain Hugh de Berdt Hovell, 2nd Battalion.

    On the 21st September 1892, Private H. Hibbert of the Lancashire Fusiliers and another soldier were in a boat on a lake at Poona, India, when it sank in 8 feet 10 inches of water. Captain Hovell was driving past, saw what had happened, partially stripped and, at great personal risk, swam out sixty yards. He managed to rescue Hibbert, but the other man was drowned.

    Award: Bronze Medal (Case number 26212)

    Captain Hovell was commissioned into the 2nd Battalion in 1884 and was a totally dedicated regimental officer. He was awarded the DSO in the Boer War and commanded the 1st Battalion from 1907-08, then the 2nd Battalion from 1908-11, when he retired.

    When First World War broke out in 1914, Hovell was on the retired list, but he soon found himself in command of the 13th (Reserve) Battalion Worcestershire Regiment, formed at Plymouth in November 1914. However, he was found to be eccentric in his manner and methods in dealing with his men and was removed from command to the retired list.

    During 1915 he sought to retrieve his reputation and enlisted as a private soldier, aged 52, under an assumed name and served with the 2nd Battalion in the trenches till his health gave way. He died in 1923, aged 60.

    His RHS Bronze Medal is in the Regimental Museum. In the adjacent photo he is seen wearing the medal ribbon above the right breast pocket.

    13th Battalion Worcestershire Regiment - Formed in Plymouth in November 1914 as a Reserve Battalion of the Fifth " New Army".

    In November 1914 more "New Army" units were raised, one of which was the 13th Battalions of the Regiment command by Lieut.- Colonel H. de B. Hovell D.S.O., with Captain W. G. Robathan as Adjutant. In April 1915 Colonel Hovell was succeeded by Colonel F. M. Reid. The 13th Battalions originally formed part of the Fifth " New Army". However, before the formation of the new battalion had reached the final stages of its preparations, it was decided to convert it into training units with other new battalions (one of which was the 12th Battalion Worcestershire), to supply reinforcements to replace the anticipated casualties in the preceding Divisions of the" New Armies." So the 13th Worcestershire never went overseas, but instead sent abroad the soldiers they had trained in drafts to the other Battalions.


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