John Young Brown
John Young Brown
| They Fell With Their Faces To The Foe
When I was writing a report on the discovery of two soldiers' bodies near Loos, for the January 2002 issue of 'Stand To!', little did I think that, three years later, I would find myself attempting to recount the research leading to the identification of one of them.
It had all begun in July 2001, with an email received from Isabelle Pilarowski of the 'association sur les traces de la Grande Guerre' in Loos, which said "Francis Roger, another member of the association, an archaeology expert, found two bodies near the shopping centre Cora. They were both Cameron Highlanders but not identified. It was very exciting and moving at the same time."
Francis had carefully recorded the position and condition of the two
bodies, and had also listed everything found with them, including 'Cameron'
shoulder-titles, rifles, ammunition and many other items, the most interesting
of which were a ring and a fountain-pen discovered on one of the men.
The ring had been made from a lightweight, silver-coloured metal and had a 'home-made' look about it. It was engraved with two saltires, or St.Andrew's crosses, which flanked the main design of a raised four-leaf clover, presumably intended to act as a good-luck charm for the wearer. The pen was made of a black Bakelite type of material, and was apparently quite unaffected by its 86 years in the ground. Interestingly, it was embossed with the words 'Postman's Gazette Pen', which I guessed was possibly the manufacturers model name.
Disappointingly, no identity discs were found on either soldier, nor any personal items displaying names or regimental numbers. So the prospects for identification did not look good.
A subsequent telephone conversation with Roy Hemington of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Arras, gave me the exact location of the discovery, and he added that, of the five Cameron Highlanders battalions involved in The Battle Of Loos, the 6th Battalion was the one known to have been involved in heavy fighting in the area where the bodies were found.
The 6th Battalion was part of 45th Brigade of the 15th (Scottish) Division which, despite only being formed in September 1914, had been entrusted with the most daunting series of divisional objectives on the southern half of the six-mile battle front. After piercing the German frontline, the 15th Division was to capture the fortified village of Loos in the valley behind, followed by Hill 70 with its redoubt and ridge, then the German Second Line, and then the mining commune of Cite St.Auguste behind that! The most important factor for them to keep in mind throughout the assault, was that they must maintain the direction due east.
The 6th Camerons, with the rest of 45th Brigade, were initially to be kept in reserve while the 44th on the right, and the 46th on the left, were to lead the assault.
At 5.50 a.m. on 25 September 1915, in its first ever use by the British Army, chlorine gas was released from hundreds of cylinders located in their front line. Unfortunately, the languid 'breeze' meant that the gas was to, arguably, cause as many casualties to the attackers as it did the defenders. Despite this, at 6.30 a.m., the Scots had quickly crossed no man's land and broken through the German front line, despite heavy machine-gun fire from two large redoubts which left many prone kilted figures in their wake. Pouring down the exposed slopes in front of Loos, the attackers had then encountered a completely different kind of fighting in the narrow streets and closely-packed houses, from which German soldiers emerged to be met by Scottish bayonets. The result was that, with the 47th (London) Division on their right capturing the south-west corner of the village, Loos was effectively in British hands by 8 a.m.
However, as small groups made their way through the rubble-strewn streets, they had merged into a milling throng of men from different battalions, urgently in need of leadership and further direction. Eager to press on, and before the few uninjured officers available had a chance to organise them into a coherent attack formation, some men headed towards the slopes behind the village, drawn by the sight of German soldiers fleeing in that direction.
It was at this point, when the optimism of the attackers was at its highest, that things started to go irrecoverably wrong.
There are a number of very plausible reasons why it might have happened, but the fact remains that, as the 15th Division continued their advance, they started to drift to the right, i.e. to the south-east. Hence, when they reached the ridge, it was the left flank of the 44th Brigade which had captured Hill 70 redoubt and not the right flank, as planned. This deviation was to have literally fatal consequences, not only for these impassioned men now unwittingly advancing into a 'pocket' of defenders, but also for the 6th Battalion of the Cameron Highlanders, now energetically digging communication trenches linking the two old front lines together.
In order to maintain contact with the 44th Brigade on its right, the 46th Brigade had been pulled so far to the south-east that it had become very stretched, because its left flank was still trying to keep to its original objective, in order to link up with the division advancing on its left. To make matters worse, this division (the 1st) had been badly held up, which meant that the under-manned left flank of the 46th Brigade was completely exposed.
The worried 46th Brigade commander called for support and the 6th Cameron Highlanders were quickly transferred to his command and ordered forward to form defensive positions at the end of two elongated woods just the other side of the Lens/La Bassee Road, Bois Hugo and Chalet Wood. Fortunately, these appeared to be free of the enemy but, during the night, large numbers of German soldiers began to move forward through the woods, from which they emerged, the following morning, to drive the surprised Camerons, and other units, back across the road.
Despite this terrifying introduction to war, the Camerons quickly reorganised and, as described in the Official British History, they made repeated efforts to recapture the western end of the wood, and desperate hand-to-hand fighting took place. Finally, only some fifty of the Camerons remained, and these the battalion commander, Lieut.-Colonel A.F.Douglas-Hamilton, rallied once more to check the German advance through the thick undergrowth. But the odds against them were too heavy, the party was annihilated, Lieut.-Colonel Douglas-Hamilton killed and the wood finally lost.(1)
Having re-taken the two woods, and the adjacent Puits 14bis mine-buildings, the northern flank of the crucial Hill 70 position was now securely in German hands, and would remain so for nearly two more years - as would the bodies of the 100 Cameron Highlanders which had been left there. When this area of the battlefield was eventually searched for bodies, none of the Camerons were found and identified and their names were added to the walls of The Loos Memorial to the Missing. (2)
However, two bodies had been missed by the search-parties, which is not altogether surprising as Francis Roger's diagram showing their irregular positions, when discovered, suggests that they had died where they had fallen, and then been covered by earth from a nearby explosion. There they had remained concealed for nearly 86 years until Francis visited the site and discovered them, thus triggering another search - this time for the soldiers' names.
Despite the unpromising prospects for naming the soldiers, I thought
it was worth trying to publicise the discovery in the hope that someone
might just be able to identify the ring or pen. A press-agent friend managed
to arouse some interest, but only with one newspaper, which was fortunately
the biggest-selling Scottish publication, The Daily Record. After being
interviewed by one of their journalists, I was assured that there would
be an article of at least 500 words, plus photographs, in the following
mornings paper. However, this was not to be - thanks to Jeffrey Archer!
Needless to say, there was no response to the news of the discovery of the soldiers' remains, nor to the artefacts shown in the photograph. This was just one of many frustrations I was to encounter as I was somehow drawn remorselessly into a quest to identify these men. My somewhat passive role, up to this point, changed to a more active one while I was writing an article on the discovery for 'Stand To!' I had already written a hasty report for my local, Essex, monthly newsletter and, wishing to update this, I emailed the C.W.G.C. in Arras, to see if the bodies had yet been scientifically examined.
The reply stated that Margaret Cox, Professor of Forensic Archaeology at Bournemouth University, had indeed carried out a detailed examination, and a report had been sent to The Ministry of Defence, to whom she was contracted for this purpose. The message went on to say "It would be useful if you could use your sources to discover if any pre September 1915, 6th Bn. photographs can be found, as one of the casualties had some strong facial features, which might be identifiable in a photo." Somewhat flattered, I decided that I must respond positively to this unexpected request. So I set about contacting my "sources" - in other words, W.F.A. members I knew, or knew of. These discussions, and well-meaning referrals, plus separate initiatives of my own, were to lead me down many very long avenues which, frustratingly, usually turned out to be cul-de-sacs.
Within a few days of the C.W.G.C. request for photographs, and in the continuing hope of identifying the ring, I decided that the best chance of success lay with what I hoped was the local newspaper of the descendants of the Cameron Highlanders - but it was to turn out to be the wrong one! In my ignorance of the history of the 6th Battalion, I thought that it had probably been raised in the area of the regimental 'home', so I contacted The Inverness Courier, who were very interested in the story and agreed to publish it on 25th September, the anniversary of the Battle of Loos.
Despite a sizeable article, and a colour photograph of the ring, my hopes of a positive response were to be dashed by two errors. Firstly, I had told the journalist that I was making the appeal for photographs on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. However, and unbeknown to me, the cautious News Editor decided to contact the C.W.G.C. to verify my request but, unfortunately, he rang their head-office in Maidenhead, where nobody knew anything about it. So, instead of getting back to me, so that I could have referred him to the Arras office, he simply decided to omit the request for photographs! This exclusion was to become somewhat academic, soon after publication, when I discovered that, although the commanding-officer of the 6th Battalion had come from the vicinity of Inverness, his men had not. In fact, this battalion had been formed many miles away in Glasgow, and most of its men had lived in, or had links with, that area.
With the trail now taking me back to Glasgow, I was pleased to discover via the internet, that the Queen's Own Highlanders, formed in 1961 after a merger of the Cameron and Seaforth Highlanders, had a regimental association with a branch in Strathclyde. I initially received an encouraging response from the chairman there but, after a brief flurry of exchanged emails, I received no actual productive help at all, which I had rather been banking on, bearing in mind the dual links with regimental history and the Glasgow area.
As I live so far away from Inverness and Glasgow, I had really been hoping to find some local assistance in Scotland which would help the search for both of the soldiers' identities simultaneously, by trying to obtain photographs for one, and by tracing the owner of the ring for the other. However, the only assistance that I received from north of the border, at this time, was from the WFA South of Scotland branch chairman, John Cameron, who very kindly furnished me with names and addresses of the major Glasgow newspapers and local archives. He also provided me with two potential sources of photographs when he advised me that a company of the 6th Camerons had been formed from students at the University of Glasgow, and also that it should be possible for me to obtain access to wartime Scottish newspapers at the British Library Newspaper Library in north London.
Even with these 'leads', I was slowly beginning to realise the enormity of the task I had undertaken in attempting to obtain photographs of 100 dead soldiers. However, as I began to correspond with the suggested organisations, my luck was about to take a significant turn for the better. I had been speaking to a neighbour about my research, when I remembered that her father had worked for the Post Office for most of his life. Referring to the fountain-pen and its embossed wording, I asked her if he used to receive 'in-house' magazines. Although she was fairly certain that he did, she was unable to recall their titles. The obvious person to ask if one of these magazines was the Postman's Gazette, was a friend and fellow-WFA member, Peter Boalch, who held a senior position with Consignia plc, then the latest name for the Post Office. He advised me that staff currently received two publications - The Courier and the Gazette - and added that he would ask the Post Office Heritage Unit if they had any record of a magazine called 'The Postman's Gazette'.
I later received an email from Heritage Services which said that there had, indeed, been a Postman's Gazette, which had been the official journal of The Postmen's Federation. This had been published fortnightly from May 1892 to December 1919 and, during the Great War, every issue had included a Roll of Honour. As they knew I had a list of 6th Camerons casualties for the 26th September 1915, they kindly offered to compare their lists with mine, to see if any of these soldiers had worked for the Post Office.
A few days later, a remarkably calm Peter Boalch rang to tell me that, when the two sets of names had been compared, just one name appeared on both! The man in question was S/12807 Lance-Corporal John Young Brown who had, apparently, been a postman at Giffnock, near Glasgow. Peter also told me that, whilst going through the magazines, the Heritage Unit had come across a photograph of Brown, and also one of the Editor who, coincidentally, had the same surname, and added that these were both being be posted to me.
In the meantime, I visited the Public Record Office at Kew, where I was fortunate enough to find that John Brown's papers had survived the Second World War bombing, albeit rather singed! His Attestation Papers showed that he had volunteered on 8th September 1914, the first day on which the 6th Battalion was formed, in Pollokshaws, Glasgow. Against the question relating to his 'Trade or Calling', Brown had written 'Postman'. I was very interested to note that he had given his address 'for three years continuously' as 117 Woodstock Avenue, Shawlands, Glasgow, whereas his C.W.G.C. certificate stated 'Son of Mr. and Mrs. Thomas Brown, of Heathdale, Elvanfoot, Lanarkshire.' Curiously, his papers listed his Aunt Jane as his next-of-kin; his personal property and scroll had been sent to his sister, Catherine, both living at Elvanfoot, and his medals were assigned to his brother William, serving with the Royal Engineers. Being the father of two sons who had left home to live and work in London, I wondered if John Young Brown had also been attracted to life in a big city, in preference to his family home in the country. Driving back from Kew, I also pondered why his parents had virtually been excluded from his papers. The only reference to them that I could find, was a memorandum dated December 11th, 1915, from a Record Office in Perth to the Commanding-Officer of the 6th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders, B.E.F., France.
Headed "No.12807, Pte (LC) J.Y.Brown, missing 25/26.9.15", it conveyed the poignant enquiry - "The father of the above man reports that he is receiving letters marked "wounded" for the above soldier, and requests that special enquiries be made. Will you please say whether there is any further news in this case." The somewhat fire-damaged reply stated "no further information on him has been forthcoming." Date-stamped 21st December in Perth, this very disappointing news would possibly have reached his family by Christmas Day. I would, in time, discover the reason for his parents' omission from his papers, and his relocation to Glasgow - but it would not be for another two years. (3)
The following morning, I received the promised photographs. The one of the Editor, James Cuthbert Brown, appeared on the front-cover of the July 10th, 1915 issue. This announced the news that he had just retired, after being Editor from 1st January, 1896 to 30th June, 1915. The photograph of the soldier appeared in the November 27th publication, under the heading 'Missing Comrade'. The text beneath stated that 'Lance-Corporal John Y.Brown (No.12807) "C" Company., 6th Cameron Highlanders (late auxiliary postman at Giffnock) has been reported missing since 26th September 1915. Any information regarding him will be gratefully received by Mr.Jas.C.Brown, late Editor "Postman's Gazette', 117 Woodstock Avenue, Shawlands, Glasgow.' On comparing this address with the Attestation Papers, I was thrilled to see that it was the same as the one written by the young volunteer!
In order to further explore the link between the pen and the named soldier, I felt that it would be helpful to try to establish just how common, or rare, a fountain-pen embossed with 'Postman's Gazette Pen' was. I, therefore, contacted or visited fountain-pen dealers in London, and elsewhere, including one who was reputed to be the most knowledgeable in the country, but none of them had come across a pen with this, or any other, embossing related to the Post Office. I also contacted the vintage pens customer service department of the Waterman Company to see if they had any knowledge of supplying embossed pens to the Post Office, but they also said that they had never heard of it. I did learn, however, that black pens with a similar herring-bone pattern had been manufactured under the names of Waterman, Swan and Blackbird and were called eye-dropper, fount pens and fountain pens. These employed different systems for containing ink, which could be made up, as and when required, by mixing water with small tablets kept in a tube. Presumably, this was a lighter and safer way to transport ink than in a glass bottle.
Meanwhile, the Post Office Heritage Unit were busily searching through numerous issues of the Postman's Gazette for any reference to the pen, either in the editorial sections or the advertisements but, despite spending many hours on the task, they found no mention of it. I believe this was a strong indication that the pen had never been produced in commercial quantities as, if it had been, it would surely have been advertised for sale in the very magazine which was named on it. In addition, the Heritage Unit considered it most unlikely that a fountain pen, retailing at 5 shillings plus, would have been given by The Post Office to a regular postman, let alone an auxiliary. This, perhaps, made it more probable that it had once been the personal property of the man who had, for almost twenty years, been Editor of the magazine named on the pen. Having personally handled it, I can also say that the amount of wear, made on the body by the push-on cap, suggested that it was certainly not new and had most probably been used many times. The now-retired Editor's personal appeal in the November issue of the magazine, plus the fact that John Young Brown was 'family' and had been lodging with him for some time, would tend to suggest that there was a strong bond between them. Could the Editor have given the pen to his young relative, as a farewell gift, on his last leave prior to embarkation for France in July?
All of the information I had accumulated was emailed to the Commonwealth War Graves Commission in Arras, who forwarded it to the Ministry of Defence department responsible for identification of all casualty remains. Some time later, I was asked to contact the investigating officer at the MoD and a meeting was arranged in London, at which we were both a little nervous. I guessed that he was not used to a member of the public accumulating research on recovered soldiers' remains any more than I was used to providing it! I was anxious to establish a level of trust between us so that the six pages of research I was to pass to him would be assessed on its merits and not on its source. I already knew that he would have received the report on the forensic examinations which, among other things, would have given estimates of the age and height of both soldiers. These were key pieces of information because, if they did not tie in with the statistics shown on Brown's attestation papers, the remains could not have been his. I asked the obvious question at the meeting, and received an answer in the affirmative, which I had already anticipated as I knew that this gentleman would not have travelled all the way to London to see me, if the two sets of figures had not been within acceptable tolerances!
I also asked him whether he thought that the remains were Brown's, to which he replied that he believed they were, but added that the final decision would not be his.
In answer to another question, I was told that it was MoD policy not to contact the family of a soldier until they had finally decided the remains were his, in order to avoid causing unnecessary suffering in the event of a negative decision. While I could understand this, I could also see that the weakness with this policy was that a 'borderline' identification could be turned down for want of evidence which only the family might be able to provide. For example, if the descendants of Brown's family could be traced, they might just possess letters to and/or from him, referring to the pen or ring.
Therefore, I decided to make some tentative enquiries into at least tracing the family. Never having attempted anything like this before, I made numerous telephone calls to archives, museums and other organisations in Scotland. I tried consulting genealogy books and experts but found that everything seemed to be geared towards going back in time - jumping back 90 years and trying to come forward would apparently be much more difficult. Attempts to obtain information from the new 1901 Census Returns were thwarted by the crash of the Public Record Office computer system - although I later found out that Scottish records were not entered on this anyway.
Feeling pretty discouraged by the lack of progress of my attempted research, I decided to see for myself whether the Brown family home 'Heathdale' still existed. Looking at a map of Elvanfoot on the internet, I could see that it comprised very few houses and, about a year after the remains were discovered, I found myself standing in front of two imposing stone buildings; one divided into four dwellings, the other into a pair of semi-detached homes. Walking along the road, I was disappointed to discover that none were named 'Heathdale' - but my luck was about to take another turn for the better!
After speaking to a young home-owner who had never heard of the house I was looking for, I was introduced to the oldest resident, a Mrs.Goodfellow, who told me that the two semi-detached homes had, in fact, once been a single detached residence - named 'Heathdale'. What was more, although she had never heard of a family named Brown living there, she did volunteer that the house had once served as the local sub post-office!
Before the significance of this news could sink in, she offered to make a telephone call to a lady whose mother had once run the post-office from Heathdale. Following a brief conversation with this lady, Mrs.Ena Wilson, my wife and I headed further north to interview her but, as we left Elvanfoot, I couldn't help noticing the local postbox and telephone kiosk - both standing directly outside what had once been 'Heathdale'.
Arriving that evening at her home in the town of Biggar, we were warmly received by Ena and her husband, Callum. Ena showed us dozens of old photographs of Elvanfoot, including Heathdale, and explained that her mother had managed the post-office until she had retired in 1990. Ena added that her mother had run this post-office for 71 years, after working as a young assistant to the previous incumbent, who had died suddenly. Ena recalled that his surname was 'Brown'!
I explained that I had been researching a soldier called John Young Brown and was anxious to trace his family, but Ena was unable to tell me where they had moved to. Fortunately, Callum had some experience of tracing ancestors, and he kindly offered to try to obtain a copy of the 1901 Census for Heathdale and also to see if he could find out any more about the Browns from websites he used.
My wife and I were planning to spend the night in Glasgow before driving all the way to the Cameron Highlanders museum at Fort George, outside of Inverness, following which we would drive to our holiday hotel east of Edinburgh. Callum said that he would try to send a copy of the Census to that hotel for me, which he duly did, but, in addition, his letter told me that Ena had remembered something of great interest. She had recalled that, in the 1940's and early 50's, the long building next to Heathdale had been run as a guesthouse, by a lady named Catherine Johnston, whose maiden name had been Brown. She apparently had had one son, Ian, who now lived in Dumfries, and Ena was now trying to make contact with him.
Two days later, leaving my wife playing golf with friends in East Lothian, I headed back to Biggar to collect Callum and Ena before driving on to Elvanfoot, where Ena had arranged for me to meet a lady who exchanged Christmas cards every year - with Ian Johnston. Arriving at a house in Elvanfoot, we were conducted into a room where I met this lady, now confined to her bed, and, after exchanging memories with Ena, she gave me Ian Johnston's address. I later telephoned him and he confirmed that his mother, Catherine, had had a brother John who had been killed in the First World War! Enquiring after John's brother William, I was told that he had fathered a son and three daughters, two of whom were still living in the Glasgow area. He then gave me their telephone numbers but, on checking with my contact at the MoD, I was politely asked not to contact them.
Many more months were to pass by, with no news from the Ministry of Defence, until I became sufficiently concerned to write to them again. Some time later, I received a reply and, following a telephone discussion with my contact there, during which I ran through the evidence linking John Brown with the pen, the 'Postman's Gazette' and his Post Office connections, via his home and relatives, I was told that he would be presenting the case to his superiors for a final decision to be made on the identification.
A few days later, I received the promised phone-call which, to my enormous relief, advised me that it had been decided that one of the soldiers found near Loos was John Young Brown!
The next stage was for me to hand over the names and addresses of Brown's living relatives, following which I received a very kind letter from one of his nieces and her husband. They had always known of the loss of John Young Brown and had often wondered what had happened to him, so much so that they had previously travelled all the way to Loos to pay their respects beneath his name, etched on the Loos Memorial to the Missing.
For various reasons, the funeral was delayed for some time, but eventually, the two soldiers were buried with full military honours, on 20 October 2004 at Loos British Cemetery in the presence of John's nieces, Flora Brown and Wilma Steven, together with Wilma's husband Maxwell and daughter Fiona. The burial ceremony was performed quite superbly by men from the Highlanders Regiment before the British Consul-General for Northern France, Clive Alderton, and senior representatives of the British Army. The Mayor of Loos, Monsieur Jean-Francois Caron, together with a large contingent of French dignitaries and local people, attended to pay their respects to these two men, who had died fighting to defend their village, less than a mile from where they were finally laid to rest. (4)
Peter Boalch, and Vicky Parkinson from Royal Mail Heritage Services, both laid wreaths before the gravestone engraved with the name of a young man who had worked as a postman but died a soldier. I'm also pleased to say that Callum and Ena Wilson had journeyed from Scotland, as it seemed only right that all of these kind people, who had helped so much in tracing the soldier and his family, were present to experience this very sad, but very memorable, occasion.
With a piper playing the lament, 'The Flowers of the Forest' in the background, the most rewarding part of the occasion for me was to stand in front of the two graves, flanked by my two French friends, Isabelle Pilarowski and Francis Roger. Without their passionate interest in preserving the memory of the men who had fought and died trying to liberate their land, and their conscientiousness and dedication in obtaining and providing so much information on the two soldiers, it is quite possible that neither man would ever have been identified.
I was, therefore, very proud to share and lay a wreath with them. Although this incorporated an enlarged version of what is still the only photograph available of John Young Brown, the verse on the card which accompanied it could have been written for all of the men of the 6th Battalion, Cameron Highlanders who had died in front of Chalet Wood. From what I have read of these men in different books and private papers, the first two lines seem to reflect their youthful exuberance, the third line somehow anticipates that they were outnumbered, and the last line describes their last moments on earth - and also provides the title to this article.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young
I used the word 'anticipates' as this verse from Lawrence Binyon's 'For The Fallen' was written in September 1914 - the month the 6th Camerons were formed.
September had always been a significant month for John Young Brown as it was then that he celebrated his birthday. Unfortunately, this date in September 1915 would be remembered by his family in later years not only because it was the day on which he had been born, but also because it was the day on which he had died, for the 26th was his birthday - his twentieth.
(1) The 52 year-old Lieut.-Colonel Angus Douglas-Hamilton was awarded
a posthumous V.C. for his courage and leadership in this action. He also
has no known grave.
téléphone : 0033 3 21 78 31 29
(0033: from England)
fax : 0033 3 21 69 88 79
email : firstname.lastname@example.org
for further information please contact the association "sur les traces de la grande guerre"