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…[1]

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.[2]

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.[3]

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.

Saturday 22/9/1917

It is very evident that in order to establish one’s self at this game one has got to ‘make good’ at the first opportunity. By that I mean that I, who have no previous active service and have only a theoretical knowledge of machine gunning, will in the forthcoming ‘stunt’ have to prove to the O.C., to the company and to the Brigadier that I am good enough for my position. That is my position Darling and though it is a fairly stiff proposition I feel quite confident that I shall do my part of the show and that you, Dearest, will not have any cause to be ashamed of me.[4]

His unit was held in reserve for the Battle of Broodseinde on 4 October 1917, so Howden’s baptism of fire came eight days later during the New Zealand Division’s disastrous attack on Bellevue Spur. Badly gassed on 15 October, Howden remained with his section until the following day, when he was ordered back to a dressing station. By this stage, he was already blind. In his field notebook was an unfinished letter to Rhoda.

Pill Box, France

Oct 15/1917

Dearest Old Love,

Aren’t I the biggest rabbit for forgetting things; I have already forgotten whether I numbered my last letter 51 or 52. However ‘cela ne fait rien’. As I told you in my last letter I am now back in the line again though I do not know for how long, probably only three or four days this time. I was a bit sick and sorry for myself when I started back yesterday but things have turned out much more agreeably than I had anticipated … I had to take my guns, or rather take over guns from another company, right under Fritz’s nose in some dirty wet muddy shell holes in the front ‘line’. Of course there is no such thing as a ‘line’ these days except a line of shell holes with a few men in each. It was not by any means bon there I can tell you as we were being well strafed by some of our own guns which were firing behind us and the shots falling short. They have some bright youths in the artillery. If a machine gunner shot some of his own Infantry there would be the very devil to pay but the artillery can do as they like. Fortunately for us we got orders to withdraw our guns a few hours later to a point further back and though we cursed at having to lump them through a mile and a half of mud and at having to dig in all over again yet on the whole we were well pleased. It was a bitterly cold night so sleep was impossible though that did not matter much as we had to spend the greater part of the night digging which kept us fairly warm. Today has been a gorgeous day, quite warm so we had been sunning ourselves and meditating all day.[5]

Admitted to No. 5 British Red Cross Hospital (Lady Hadfield's Hospital) at Wimereux on 17 October, Peter Howden died four days later and was buried in Wimereux Communal Cemetery.

A friend of Howden's, Captain James Kirk, wrote to Rhoda shortly after his death.


27 October 1917

My dear Mrs. Howden,

It was with the most profound sorrow that I learned today that your husband had succumbed to the injuries he received in the Field. When I left him, I had hopes that he had turned the corner: his eyes were opened, and it seemed to me that he was much better. It must have been the effect which your telegram had upon him that I saw – his delight, his light heart and high spirits, expelling and excluding every other thought and dulling pain. Poor fellow, he has made the supreme sacrifice, and my heart is sore for you today. I pray that you may have strength to bear up courageously, and that when grief would envelop you the remembrance of his noble death, the fact that in it he could show no greater love, will assuage the tears and give you a quiet content. I know it will be hard – as hard for you as for the thousands of others, unfortunately, similarly afflicted; but may God in his great mercy reveal to you that though weeping may endure for a night, joy cometh in the morning. I am so glad that I was able to tell you how you controlled and filled every thought of your brave husband as he lay in the Hospital, and I feel that it would be with your picture in his memory, your name on his lips, that, breathing a last blessing for you he would slip away. I hope that the remembrance of this will be frequent and will give you joy. If he had one wish it was for you, and just as the author of the following lines himself fell in battle after addressing them to his wife, I feel that in a measure they are applicable for you:

What if I bring you nothing, sweet,
Nor, maybe, come home at all?
Ah, but you’ll know, Brave Heart; you’ll know
Two things I’ll have kept to send:
Mine honour, for which you made me go,
And my love – my love to the end.

Yes, dear Mrs. Howden, he has left you his honour, not only untarnished, but brightened and burnished, and you know that you retain, as he sent it – his love.

Lieutenant Colonel Mitchell has asked me to try to arrange for a photograph of your husband’s grave. I shall endeavour to visit it and place some flowers on it for you, and in due course – it may take some little time – I hope you will receive the photo.

I send you my dearest wishes and assure you of my deep sympathy.

Yours faithfully,

J.R. Kirk, Captain[6]

Rhoda remarried in 1921. She changed her son’s name to Peter in memory of the man to whom his birth had meant so much. Like many sons of men who had fought in the First World War, Peter James Huia Howden served in the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force during the Second World War.

Primary Sources

Further Information

  • Peter Howden's record on the Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph Database
  • Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack and E.P. Malone (eds), The great adventure: New Zealand soldiers describe the First World War, Allen & Unwin / Port Nicholson Press, Wellington, 1988


[1] Jock Phillips, Nicholas Boyack and E.P. Malone (eds), The great adventure: New Zealand soldiers describe the First World War, p. 164

[2] Phillips et al., p. 170

[3] Phillips et al., pp. 172-3

[4] Phillips et al., p. 182

[5] Phillips et al., pp. 189–90

[6] Phillips et al., pp. 192-3

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