Ordinary brothers in war

Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project's Two Brothers: One War talk.
Northumbria World War One Commemoration Project's Two Brothers: One War talk.

Thomas Baker Brown and George Brown, of North Shields, two ordinary men, enlisted into the army in the period up to December 1915, alongside two million others.

They were willing, if apprehensive, volunteers.

Their stories will be told in a remembrance weekend talk at the Old Low Light Heritage Centre at Clifford’s Fort on the Fish Quay, at 2pm, on Friday, November 10.

Both brothers committed their experiences to paper. Thomas Baker Brown as the war went along, and later, while his brother 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 until 2014 when Malcolm Brown, the son of Thomas, set about transcribing the large amount of material he had inherited from his father.

He had also been passed the memoir of George Brown, who had died many years earlier in the Shetland Islands, where his 40-page typescript had lain in a tin box, undisturbed perhaps since being typed.

Both memoirs are unusual.

Thomas, awarded the Military Medal in 1917, was captured on March 21, 1918, in the great German spring offensive. He spent nine harsh months as a prisoner, being forced to work in a coal mine, before escaping to freedom on November 14, 1918, when the guards simply drifted away.

After walking into neutral Holland, Thomas was repatriated to Britain in December 1918 and looked set to resume life as an articled Ccerk (trainee solicitor) in the town clerk’s office.

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, probably attributable to his meagre diet as a prisoner. His career aspirations would be cut short and he fell on hard times for many years.

George’s commentary is missing the first page and the last page ends mid-sentence, as if he was disturbed and never went back to finish the account. It ends abruptly when he has just been posted to a coveted ‘cushy number’ in a divisional HQ, behind the front lines. There he would see out the rest of the war in relative comfort, unlike his younger brother.

Both memoirs offer a fascinating insight to the thoughts and experiences of two ordinary men who experienced the horrors of the war, yet could relate the light-hearted, comic and inspiring aspects of the greatest conflict the world had seen.

The talk, by Alan Fidler, will be illustrated with examples of their 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.

The next talk at the Low Lights Tavern, on Tuesday, November 21, at 7.30pm, will be given by Professor Ian Buxton, of Newcastle University, an expert in naval architecture. His talk, Tyne-built Battleships of World War I is already attracting great interest.

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