Leonard Howell: blinded on the Somme, saved by St Dunstan’s

St Dunstan's Hostel (TNA PIN 15/1061)

Title: St Dunstan's Hostel (TNA PIN 15/1061)
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Leonard Howell was one of the many thousand blinded servicemen who were given hope and the tools to rebuild their lives by St Dunstan’s (now Blind Veterans UK), the charity founded by Sir Arthur Pearson in 1915.

Leonard was born in Iford, near Lewes in East Sussex in 1895.  His father was head gardener for Mr Charlesworth, whose nursery outside Haywards Heath was famed for its orchids.  Leonard began work in the nursery, before moving to Ashtead Park in Surrey to broaden his experience.  In his memoirs he recalls with poignant and passionate vividness the beauty of the park and the Surrey landscape in the golden summer days of July 1914.  When war was declared he wrestled with his Christian conscience before deciding he should enlist at the newly opened recruiting office in Epsom.  He was sent to the depot of the Queen’s Royal West Surreys at Stoughton in Guildford and then to the 3rd Battalion at Chatham for training.  After an additional six week training course as a machine gunner he sailed for France and joined the 2nd Battalion, taking part in the battles of Aubers Ridge, Festubert and Loos, at the last of which he was wounded on 25 September.  He did not rejoin his battalion until March 1916, by which time machine gunners were being extracted from their infantry battalions and formed into a separate Corps; Leonard, by now a Lance Corporal, was transferred to the newly formed 91st Machine Gun Corps.  On 1 July his gun team went over the top near Mametz Village and in the following days participated in attacks on Mametz Wood and High Wood.  On 17 July, forced to retreat from an exposed position near High Wood, Leonard was hit by a shell and blinded.  His head swathed in bandages, he was conveyed to a Red Cross hospital in Rouen where he was initially (and mistakenly) told that the sight of his right eye might be saved.  Back in England he was sent to St Mark’s Hospital in Chelsea. Shrapnel was removed from his eye sockets though fragments of metal and flint remained in his lips and gums; his broken teeth were removed although the stumps were left.

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Leonard Howell (seated second left)

Leonard was invited to attend St Dunstan’s Hostel in Regent’s Park, established by Sir Arthur Pearson in 1915, which aimed to equip blinded ex-servicemen to re-enter the world and live fulfilling and productive lives.  At St Dunstan’s, he learned typewriting, Braille reading and writing and massage (physiotherapy). He also acquired a wife, marrying Martha Bennett, a nursing sister at St Dunstan’s, in 1921.  He formally trained as a masseur in Glasgow, passing the examination of the Incorporated Society of Trained Masseurs and afterwards qualified to give electrotherapy treatments, finally becoming a Chartered Physiotherapist. He and Martha settled in Haywards Heath where he worked at Chailey Heritage and established his own physiotherapy practice. His son later took over the business, followed by his granddaughter; his great-grandson works there today, together with other family members.

A committed Congregationalist, Leonard Howell retained his profound Christian faith throughout his life.  He expressed his faith, optimism, love of nature and his enduring memories of a physical world he had last seen in July 1916 in many poems.  He remained full of gratitude for what St Dunstan’s had given him.

Leonard Howell died on 6 September 1982.


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