18 June 2018
Man Bitten by Crocodile


Martyn Griffiths

John Griffiths wrote a series of articles about Neath’s military heroes and they appeared in the Neath Antiquarian Society Transactions between 1977 and 1983.  These may be viewed in the library at the Neath Mechanics Institute.

Yet, one name that escaped the net was that of Wilfred Russell Howell.

He was born at Outreaux, France, 13 May 1864, son of Russell Howell, MA, Chamberlain to the Pope.  His father had formerly been Vicar of St. Veep in Cornwall but had converted to the Catholic Church.  He was educated at Feldkirch College, Austria and at Fort Augustus College, Scotland. 

Wilfred was in Neath by 1895.  Why he was here, was it possibly in connection with the railway?

He took charge of the Skewen section of the 1st Glamorgan Volunteers Artillery and was promoted to Lieutenant on 1st October 1896.

His desire for action saw him raise a volunteer corps, and, in command of a composite body of gunners and the West Indian Regiment, served through the Mendi Rising in Sierra Leone in 1898-99. 

In July 1898 one of the most brutal native massacres occurred at a mission station 55 miles from the coast.  Four white missionaries had been hacked to pieces whilst one of the wives had escaped into the bush.  A rescue mission was launched but when they reached the Ribbi River they found that the natives had collected all the canoes and boats on the opposite bank. Lieutenant Howell asked for volunteers to swim the river which was 150 yards wide.  None came forward so the lieutenant took the task upon himself.  With the aid of covering fire he reached the middle of the river when his leg was seized by a crocodile which tore and lacerated his thigh.  Nevertheless he broke free and completed his swim only to find that all boats and canoes had been destroyed.  He searched the area but was obliged to swim back when confronted by the enemy.

For this bit of daring-do he was mentioned in Despatches; received the thanks of the Government and was created a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order. Lieutenant Howell was the first Volunteer Officer to receive the DSO. 

He again volunteered for active duty during the second Boer War and in about June 1900 went to serve in the Transvaal Constabulary, followed by service in the South African Constabulary under Baden-Powell and with the West Somerset Imperial Yeomanry.  He was severely wounded; received the Queen's Medal and six clasps, and the King's Medal and two clasps. 

He returned to Neath on leave towards the end of 1901.  Shortly afterwards he married Elsie, the daughter of Col. Cary of Torr Abbey, Torquay. 

He did not return to Wales and finally resigned his commission in 1910. 

Wilfred Russell Howell was Resident Engineer of the Rhodesian and Mashonaland Railways; was General Manager of the Western Railway of Havana, Southern Longitudinal and Transandian of Chilli.  He served in the European War as Major on the General Staff, 1st Canadian Contingent; in the Secret Service with the Home Office, Admiralty and Foreign Office; Lieutenant Colonel Commanding the 1st GB Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers; Colonel and Controller-in-Chief of the Baghdad Railway.  Colonel Howell was twice mentioned in Despatches.

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