Tuesday, 31 March 2015

Forgotten Heroes - Corporal Walter Ernest Brown VC DCM

Corporal Walter Ernest Brown VC DCM

 Wally Brown was a grocer. He did not necessarily want to be a grocer but neither did he want to follow in the footsteps of his father as a miller. The small Tasmanian community of New Norfolk, into which he was born in 1885, was a progressive ‘postal, telegraphic and money order township'. The town boasted the New Norfolk Literary Institution complete with a library of some 1200 volumes and a 'very fine and well built lunatic asylum’. Progressive it might have been, but at 26 years of age Brown had itchy feet. In 1911 he left New Norfolk for the bustling lifestyle of Petersham in Sydney.

On 26 July 1915 the lure of adventure and, no doubt, a sense of duty, led Brown to enlist. In January 1916, he found himself in Egypt as a Light Horseman. Life could not have been any further removed from his small Tasmanian birthplace. Any romantic notions that Brown had of bringing the fight to the enemy in Egypt were quickly dispelled, particularly after he was posted to the Camel Corps. His idea of fighting the enemy would not have been arguing with some great odorous, stubborn beast of burden. He was determined to get to the Western Front, and the action.

To get to the front, first he needed to get to Cairo to obtain a transfer to a unit that would serve in France. As luck would have it, he ‘lost’ his dentures and Cairo was where he would have to go to get them replaced. History tells us little more of his dentures, but the next record we have of Brown, shows him heading to France as a reinforcement for 20th Battalion. However, by November 1916, far from serving in the front line unit of his choice, he found himself again fighting uncooperative beasts in the 1st Australian Field Butchery.

Five years after the birth of Brown, Claude Clark Hughes entered the world in Yea, '79¾ miles NNE of Melbourne', population 577. The town was replete with sub-treasury, savings bank and telegraph, a far cry from its inauspicious beginnings as 'Muddy Creek Settlement'. Later, the family moved to Whittlesea and Claude became a butcher. It was as a butcher that he enlisted in the AIF on 17 September 1915. By late August 1916 he found himself in France posted to, not surprisingly, 1 AFB.

When Brown arrived at 1 AFB in November the two men soon became great mates and Brown's infectious thirst for adventure rubbed off on Hughes. Though they were separated when Brown was transferred to 2 AFB in May 1917, they remained in touch. When Brown finally joined 20 Bn on 8 August 1917 as part of ‘A’ Company, Hughes arranged to join with him. Private Oswald McLardy from ‘A’ Company commented later that ‘Brown and Hughes were inseparable cobbers...’ Finally the two friends were going to fight the war in ‘the proper way.’

Between 5 and 10 October, 20 Bn were fighting near Passchendaele when Brown distinguished himself tending to wounded men under heavy fire. He was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal for his actions. In the same fighting, on 9 October, Hughes was killed. The previous month, Claude had written to his parents, the letter reaching them after his death. His father sent a copy to the Melbourne Argus in November 1917:

Dear Mother and Father,

I am now amongst the big noises, and under shell fire. It was very fierce at first, and I felt a bit shaky, but I slept all right last night. On my birthday I will be in the thick of it, and helping to do my bit in the proper way. What a birthday party. I know you will feel very anxious about me, but if you could only see the boys here who are with me you would feel proud that you have one to represent your family. It is fine to see the confidence and spirit of our boys, and if it happens that I get bowled over, don't feel down-hearted, feel proud you did not rear a slacker.

At Wagga Wagga, on 21 June 1940, following the outbreak of the Second World War, he re-enlisted (service number NX35492), giving his date of birth as 1900. His age was soon discovered and he was posted to 8Bn as corporal and promoted to lance sergeant on 1 July. In November he transferred to 2/15 Field Regiment and later reverted to gunner at his own request. The regiment moved to Malaya in August 1941 and was in Singapore when it fell to the Japanese on 15 February 1942.

Brown was last seen in the hours prior to the capitulation of the Allies to the Japanese disappearing toward the enemy lines saying 'No surrender for me.' He was posted as missing on 16 February 1942 and presumed dead on the 28th. His body was never recovered. His name is commemorated on the Singapore Memorial, 22 kilometres north of the city of Singapore. Brown was survived by his wife and two children though their seven year old son died of meningitis the following year.

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