A tale of two brothers in war

A poster for Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project's Two Brothers: One War presentation.
A poster for Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project's Two Brothers: One War presentation.

A hundred years ago the population at home had lost any enthusiasm for the war.

The government, when censoring soldiers’ letters, was more concerned to get a feel for the morale of the troops than checking whether military information was being transmitted contrary to regulations.

The outlook was uncertain and not optimistic. Russia had withdrawn from the war and German troops were being transferred west at an increasing rate.

In February 1918 a book of verse by the Church of England chaplain Gerald Studdert-Kennedy – ‘Woodbine Willie’ to the troops because of his being commonly seen at the front handing out cigarettes to wounded and dying men – was printed.

Studdert-Kennedy penned one of his most famous poems, The Spirit, which sums up the attitude he tried to infuse within the frontline troops, reflecting the conditions he knew they experienced and encouraging them to stick it out.

It was this perseverance that distinguished the ‘Tommy’ from his counterparts on both sides.

Two verses will suffice to convey the essence of the poem: “When the broken battered trenches, are like bloody butcher’s benches, And the air is thick with stenches – Carry on.

“Carry on, though your pals are pale and wan, And the hope of life is gone, Carry on.

“For to do more than you can, Is to be a British man, Not a rotten ‘also ran’, Carry on.”

The next in our series of free talks features Thomas Baker Brown and George Brown of North Shields, two ordinary men who were willing, if apprehensive, volunteers. Their stories will be told in a talk at the Low Lights Tavern, Brewhouse Bank, on the Fish Quay, at 7.30pm, on Tuesday, January 16.

Both brothers committed their experiences to paper. Thomas, as the war went along and later, while George set down a detailed and acerbic account of his day-to-day wartime experiences in the late 1920s.

Both memoirs lay for almost 100 years when Malcolm Brown, Thomas’ son, set about transcribing the large amount of materials he had inherited from his father and George’s memoir.

The memoirs are unusual. Thomas was captured on March 21, 1918, in the German spring offensive. He spent nine harsh months as a prisoner, being forced to work in a coal mine.

After walking into neutral Holland in November 1918, Thomas was repatriated and looked set to resume his life as an articled clerk (trainee solicitor). Unfortunately, the effects of the war and his incarceration took a toll on his ability to concentrate and in the 1930s he suffered a prolonged, but temporary loss of eyesight. His career aspirations would be cut short and he fell on hard times.

Two Brothers – One War, by Alan Fidler, will be illustrated with examples of their wartime service and observations of what they believed they were fighting for, definitely not unalloyed patriotism, but certain of the rightness of their cause and the sacrifice they were all being called upon to make.

New volunteers are welcome to join the project. To find out more email tommy@northumbriaworldwarone.co.uk or call into the workroom at Linskill, North Shields, open from 10am to 4pm each weekday for enquiries and to bring information.

The Memorial Garden is open for public visits from 8am to 5pm daily.