Peter Howden Great War Story
Peter Howden’s letters to his wife Rhoda comprise one of the largest collections of war writing in New Zealand. The Wellington-born officer made it a rule to write to her every day they were apart, even when he was at the front. Sadly, Peter and Rhoda were never reunited. Gassed at Passchendaele, Howden died in hospital a few days later.
Peter Howden’s love letters
Peter Howden was born in Wellington on 7 February 1884. The son of a Scottish biscuit maker, he attended Wellington College and was working as an accountant for the prominent Wellington merchant firm, Levin and Co., when war broke out in August 1914.
Howden enlisted in the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) on 26 October 1915. While in training he progressed through the ranks quickly, earning a commission as a second lieutenant in December.
In February 1916, Howden married Edith Rhoda Bristow in St Mary’s Church, Karori. The couple were devoted to each other, corresponding almost every day when they were apart. When Peter was training at Featherston military camp, Rhoda rented rooms in Wairarapa. By the time he set sail for the United Kingdom in January 1917, Rhoda was pregnant with their first child.
Jan 20th 1917
How I wish you were with me and we were on our way Home together. Instead of that I have only your picture to look at.
It was a dreadful day for me, my own precious, when I had to say goodbye to you but you made it much easier for me by being so brave and cheerful. How I love you for it darling. Now that we have got the parting over we must think of the day when I shall have you again.
What a day that will be! It will be something to look forward to and live for… Howden eventually reached the United Kingdom in late March 1917, after two months at sea. He was training at Sling Camp in Wiltshire when he received the news that Rhoda had given birth to a baby boy.
Good Friday 6.4.17
A last the great event has taken place! It was only this evening darling that your Dad’s telegram reached me, twelve whole days after it reached London. I was so nervous when I saw it in the rack dearest and was almost afraid to open it. But when I did how excited and happy I was.
It is all too wonderful and beautiful for anything dearest love and I am so terribly happy. Fancy a son just yours and me, Rhoda Bristow and Peter Howden, I think it is too much altogether. Is he a very beautiful child darling? You will tell me just all about him won’t you precious? … I wish I had stayed for a still later reinforcement so that I could have been with you. I wanted so badly to stay with you till our little son arrived but felt that I had to go …
I think David Bolton Huia Howden is a very good name indeed, though a bit of a mouthful, but if you like it let us call him all that. After transferring to the New Zealand Machine Gun Corps in late June 1917, Howden arrived in France on 3 July 1917. He penned the following letter to Rhoda a few days later.
July 6th 1917
Although I have only been in France for a few days and may not be sent up to the line for perhaps some time, yet there are some things I want to say to you in case I should not have an opportunity later on. In any case what I want to tell you can be told as well now as later, as time will not make any difference to my feelings toward you and little David.
Before I go on I may as well confess my hope that I shall live through this war and that you shall not have to read this letter at all. Life has been very sweet to me since I had the great good fortune to win your love and you for my wife and I do not intend to part with it easily.
At the same time we must look things fairly in the face and consider the chances of my coming through. On the chance of my not doing so I am writing you these few lines.
And now let me say again what I have often told you and what I think you understand, and that is that you have made me very very happy, Darling, happy beyond my wildest dreams, in fact you have taught me what a real thing love is and what wonderful happiness it brings and you have been to me the sweetest and best wife there ever was. Howden eventually reached the front line in August 1917. After a short spell in the trenches near Ploegsteert Wood, his unit (4th Company, New Zealand Machine Gun Corps) was sent back to the Lumbres area, where they underwent training prior to the attack on Passchendaele. Despite his inexperience, Howden was confident of his ability to perform under fire.