The cruellest blow of all
Eric Brown. A talented and acclaimed musician, is wounded four times while leading his men into action before he succumbs to his injuries and dies on Palm Sunday, April 1, 1917 at the age of 27
ERIC is the musician of the family, a talented organist who achieves top honours at the Royal College of Music. Douglas is the sporty one, an exceptional cricketer who bats for Wiltshire.
Kenneth, the youngest, contemplates the coming years at Oxford while Gerald is drawn to the warm climes of the East and embarks on a career in the tea plantations of Ceylon.
Old Harrovians to a man. But a privileged education and socially advantaged upbringing is no protection against the horrors of the Great War.
Whenever I see Steven Spielberg’s 1998 epic Saving Private Ryan I think of the Brown Boys. In the film, Tom Hanks’ character is instructed to trace fellow soldier James Ryan in the chaotic killing fields of Normandy after the D-Day landings.
Why? Because his mother has already lost three sons in World War Two and must not be permitted to suffer a fourth tragedy.
But there is no Hanks-like figure to ease the agony of James and Primrose Brown. Their five sons leave the family home in Highworth to do their bit for king and country. Four of them die virtually within a year of each other.
As the centenary of World War One looms, the Independent on Sunday reports that close to a thousand books will be published over the coming months to mark the event.
But in terms of one family’s sacrifice for the cause it is unlikely that few if any of these publications will capture the desolation and torment of the Browns.
The boys, whose father is the local “squire,” grow up amidst comfy, well-to-do circumstances at stately Eastrop Grange in a hilltop town that Poet Laureate John Betjeman later lauds as “one of the most charming and unassuming” in the West.
The Brown boys, by and large, achieve impressive feats at Harrow and proceed to their assorted callings in life. But the “war to end all wars” ends all of that.
Almost a century on, the family’s devastation is woven into the fabric of Highworth history.
Having achieved a BA in music at Oxford, Captain Eric Brown joins the Wiltshire Battalion in 1914 and is despatched to Gallipoli, a location synonymous with the phrase ‘British military disaster.’ Wounded, he is hospitalised in Egypt but is soon back on the ravaged beaches of Gallipoli. Eric is eventually given a month’s leave but before he can reach the UK he is ordered to modern-day Iraq to further fight the Ottomans.
Eric and his company are in the thick of it and undergo “severe struggles.” Leading his men he takes an active part in some hellish fighting and is wounded in the head after his helmet is smashed.
He is soon back in the action and leading a charge when he is shot through the right hand. His Commanding Officer later writes: “But he went on and reached the final position.”
Shortly afterwards he is again hit in the right arm, above the elbow, bleeding heavily. Then he is hit again, this time through the right wrist.
His CO adds: “His great worry was that he would never use his right arm for music again. Of course, he was told that it would be alright. But to no avail. He simply could not get over the shock.”
He dies on Palm Sunday, April 1, 1917. Eric is 27.
Douglas is fruit farming in Sussex when duty calls. After a spell at the Royal Military College, Sandhurst he joins the Royal Scots at St Eloi near Ypres where trench warfare has become the norm.
Lieutenant Brown is seconded by the Machine Guns Corps and in July, 1916 is severely wounded on the Somme. He is shipped back for hospital treatment in Torquay and months later is back on the Front.
In the confusion and mayhem of combat details are scarce. He is wounded on September 12, 1917 near Zuydcoote, Northern France, and dies the next day. Douglas is 25.
Kenneth – the youngest of the Browns – intends to go to Oxford but war breaks out and instead he joins the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry.
He is awarded the Military Cross in 1916 for rescuing a wounded officer and several other men – an action which involves going “over the top” in the face of fierce enemy fire no less than four times.
An account of his valour that September night says that he ventures into no-man’s land on several occasions; first to glean information on enemy positions and then “under heavy fire” to carry home one dead and several wounded.
Months later a bar is added for “conspicuous gallantry” in leading an attack.
In March, 1918 Kenneth – known to his pals as Mitty – charges at the head of a counter attack near St Quentin. On several occasions he rallies his increasingly depleted battalion– or what is left of them – before he is shot through the lung.
He becomes unconscious through loss of blood, wakes up in a prisoner of war camp and dies of his wounds a few weeks later on April 12, 1918. Kenneth is 22.
Gerald leaves his job as a tea plantation manager in what is now Sri Lanka and sees action on the Suez Canal in Egypt before he returns to England to join the Wiltshire Regiment.
Like Kenneth, Major Brown is awarded the Military Cross though the details of his actions on the Western Front appear to have been lost.
“Brownie” as he is known, is killed in action at Bailleul near the French/Belgian border while commanding the 11th Lancashire Fusiliers on April 14, 1918 – just two days after Kenneth dies.
He is blown up by an eight inch shell and his remains are never recovered. Gerald is 31.
His Commanding Officer Lieutenant-Colonel Ogilvie writes: “I was most terribly shocked to hear the fate of dear old Brownie as he was generally called. He was one of my oldest friends in the battalion and had been one of our staunchest supports on all that terribly stiff fighting in both the early and late days.
“His cheerfulness and bravery were an example to everyone.”
l Hew Brown, James and Primrose’s oldest son, serves with the Royal Navy Voluntary Reserves from 1915-1919 and survives the war to become a wine merchant.
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