Tuesday August 26, 2014

A boy among the men

Letters preserved at Kamloops Museum reveal wartime life of a teenager named Bob Brown

On Sunday morning, many Kamloops residents will attend Remembrance Day ceremonies in Riverside Park and St. Mary's Church to honour the lives of Canadian servicemen and women.

They will wear a poppy, placed respectfully on the left and closest to their heart, and will stand quietly, reverently, as they listen to a homily about war and sacrifice, about bravery and death.

During two minutes of silence, many will lower their gaze and, as the quietness washes over the moment, let their minds wander to the oldest veterans in the crowd, noticing how few of them there are, how deeply their numbers have dwindled over the past decade.

With each passing year, we are losing our oldest veterans and, with them, an appreciation and understanding of what their sacrifices truly meant.

There are no more First World War vets, few Second World War vets. Indeed, even the Korean War veterans' numbers are shrinking, as peacekeepers from numerous world missions and soldiers from the Gulf War and Afghanistan assume their place.

And we are left to wonder about those who were long lost on the battlefield.

Almost 100 years ago, a boy named Robert Brown left his home in Kamloops and went to war on one of the bloodiest, most unforgiving settings in history. He wrote numerous letters home between the summer of 1916 and the fall of 1917 and they are all that remain of him now.

As the community prepares to honour its soldiers past and present, we take a look at the life of one young soldier who fought in the trenches of France and Belgium — a boy in a man's war.


France, Aug. 5, 1917

... Three German prisoners walked over to our lines a couple of days ago and gave themselves up. . . . (One) said something about our next big push being our last because, there, the Germans would quit.

It's hard to believe all this old stuff and I, for one, don't count much on it. But I have my own opinions of the war and its conclusion. . . .

Your son, Bob"

The world was at war in the summer of 1916 when Robert Roy Poole Brown arrived at a military training camp in Vernon, a newly enlisted recruit with the 172nd Battalion–Rocky Mountain Rangers.

He was 17. Barely. The Kamloops boy had just celebrated his birthday and was only a few weeks into a post-high school job as a bank clerk when he volunteered to go to war.

The First World War was entering its third year and casualties were mounting on all sides.

Canada had already sent three divisions — more than a dozen battalions in each — to Europe to fight alongside Britain, Russia, Serbia, France and Italy against the invading forces of Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. And the battlefield had claimed many.

Earlier that year, Canadian Prime Minister Robert Borden pledged in his 1916 New Year's speech to boost Canada's commitment by sending another 200,000 Canadian soldiers to Europe – his words enveloping the country in renewed patriotism and sweeping up dozens of young men in Kamloops in the process; among them, Bob Brown.

Brown, the eldest of three boys, was by all accounts patriotic, brave and as naive as any small-town kid could be — especially when it came to the horrors of war.

Between the summer of 1916 and the fall of 1917, Brown wrote dozens of letters home to his father, Alex, and brother, Gordon (nicknamed Shindy). The letters remain preserved in a file cabinet in Kamloops Museum's Mary Balf Archives, yellowed and faded from age, some torn and stained, but still readable, their words still emotionally stirring. In short, a compelling portrait of one boy's journey from a swelteringly hot training base in B.C. to the mud-and-blood-soaked trenches of Europe.

Aug. 29, 1916, (172nd Battalion training camp) Vernon

Dear Dad & Shindy:

. . . Talk about heat. Say, you should have been up here last Saturday when the colours of the 172nd Battalion were presented. Every soldier was dressed in full uniform and carrying a rifle. It was 96 in the shade and we stood at attention for nearly two hours. Only two men dropped out though. On the march back to camp we had to climb Mission Hill, which is every bit as steep as the hill at Prior's Store only about ten times as long. It was so darn hot that the badges on the collars of our coats burned our necks. . . .

In August 1916, Canada was preparing to send its fourth contingent of soldiers to Europe's Western Front.

Across the country, military training camps were preparing scores of newly created battalions, each containing about 1,000 infantry soldiers. They were to be deployed that fall to replenish the battle-drained 1st, 2nd and 3rd Canadian Divisions already on the frontlines of France and Belgium.

It was a war of attrition, and replacements couldn't be trained fast enough.

Sept. 26, 1916, (172nd Battalion training camp) Vernon

Dear Dad & Shindy:

. . . Sorry I didn't answer your letter sooner but they have kept us so darn busy lately working at night practising signaling, bomb throwing and bayonet fighting that we haven't had much time for anything. In fact we are going out tonight for bayonet fighting so I am writing this before breakfast as that is the only chance I'll get. . . .

Though they had yet to leave B.C., word was spreading about the Rocky Mountain Ranger battalion, and Brown proudly noted this in a letter home.

". . . The 172nd are regarded as the best battalion," he wrote. "It has the best Colonel and is the only one overstrength."

It would need to be. Its soldiers were heading to two of the deadliest battlegrounds of the First World War, where the losses would be devastating.

Oct. 15, 1916, (172nd Battalion training camp) Vernon

Dear Dad & Shindy:

Just a line to say that we expect to leave here on Wednesday night at 8 o'clock, so the latest reports have it. We are going pretty soon anyway because we packed the machine guns yesterday and all rifles are packed ready for shipping. C and D Companys along with the machine gun are leaving first and the others are leaving a couple of hours later. . . .

Within two weeks, Brown was writing home from Camp Bramshott, a military training site in Hampshire, England.

One of the largest gathering points for Canadian recruits during the First World War, Bramshott served as a base for training while battalions were regrouped, amalgamated or splintered into new formations before being sent to replenish the front lines.

Brown's arrival in England, and his resulting letters, reveal the youthful wonderment of a 17-year-old boy experiencing his first glimpse of the world.

Nov. 16, 1916, (Bramshott Camp)

Dear Dad & Shindy:

We arrived back in camp yesterday after a week in London. Some place believe me. . . . The buses are sure some fancy rig. There is two stories to them (the same as the train cars only the train has a roof over it). You can either sit on top or inside. The buses run on the main street and the trains further out. The buses are autos.

We were staying at the YMCA at London Bridge and every morning we would sit and watch the crowds coming over until we got tired and then we'd go out and see the sights.

We visited St. Paul's Cathedral, Westminister Abbey, Tower of London, Tower Bridge, Parliament buildings, Buckingham Palace and numerous other places. . . .

Back at Camp Bramshott, the young soldiers may have wished they were still in London, as an arduous schedule of training began.

The recruits drilled from 8:15 a.m. to 4:15 p.m.

Every third night, they marched with full packs on routes up to 13 kilometres long. "Fine life over here," wrote Brown.

But the rigorous training was the least of the Kamloops boy's troubles. He learned that the military was gathering all the underage soldiers and sending them straight back to Canada.

"Yesterday I picked up the paper and saw a paragraph headed 'Canadian Joy Boys,' " Brown wrote to his father.

"It said that all Canadian boys under 18 were to be sent back to Canada. It said that it had been decided by some committee or other that they had to go and that a detachment of them were leaving shortly for Canada. Ernie Batch [Batchelor] and I have to go before a board of enquirers because we were crazy enough to say we were 17. We might be in the detachment."

But there was no need to caution his father.

When it came time for the hearing, Brown and Kamloops pal Ernie Batchelor told quite a tale, managing to convince the military doctor they were both over 18.

And so the duo settled into camp life, an ensuing mix of homesickness and restlessness settling in with them.

Dec. 11, 1916 (Camp Bramshott)

Dear Dad & Shindy:

Your welcome letter received a day or so ago. I thought for a while that you had forgotten my address or something because I hadn't heard from you for nearly three weeks. It doesn't matter how many times I change camp always address my letters to the Army or General P.O. London. That is the only way that they are sure to reach me. . . .

. . . the second draft is supposed to leave in a day or so. The first draft left here nearly two weeks ago for France.. . .

Christmas passed with most of the battalion quarantined due to a measles outbreak. Confined to their barracks, Brown and his mates ate a disappointing meal of fatty pork and plum pudding on Dec. 25.

"If it wasn't for the few parcels we got we would have had a mighty bum time," he wrote.

New Year 1917 started much the way old one had ended – in quarantine – except for one significant difference: the dissolution of the 172nd Battalion into a newly formed 24th Reserve Battalion. It seemed Brown and the boys were getting ever so close to seeing action.

However, there would be little movement in the war during the winter of 1917, as both sides held impenetrable lines across the Western Front.

The Allies needed a breakthrough.

They would get it in April of that year, thanks to a strategic, Canadian-led attack on a German stronghold at Vimy Ridge in France.

A month later, Brown – who still had not yet seen combat – wrote his father to say he had reached a Canadian Corps training school in France, just "a few miles from the line." Close enough to hear the blast of rifles and shells.

"We are at present billeted out in a barn," he wrote. "It's not a bad one as it has a fairly good roof and straw on the floor. There are a few rats but they are so scarce they are hardly worth mentioning."

During this time, Brown got his first trip to the frontline in what seemed to have been more of a defence assignment than anything. The only action he described in a letter home, dated June 8, were two air battles he saw overhead.

"When we were up the line I saw a couple of fights between our planes and Fritzies [a nickname the Allied soldiers used for Germans]. The fights broke even. We got our plane and Fritzie got the other."

Brown did, however, get a sobering taste of German firepower during that initial deployment. It came when he was manning a Lewis machine gun.

"It's pretty exciting at times because when you do much shooting Fritzie generally puts over a couple of 'whizz-bangs' to try and scare us a bit. So you can take it from me we don't shoot any more than necessary."

By July, British forces had set their sights on capturing Belgium's ports, which the Germans were using as submarine bases. But to get to those ports would require a trip through hell. They had to capture the high ground of Passchendaele Ridge, which meant slogging through the inhospitable terrain of Ypres Salient.

Constant shelling had destroyed the area's drainage system, and huge bomb holes mixed with heavy rains to create a deadly swamp of mud and water that was vulnerable to German attack from three sides. The British and Australian troops took huge losses – 100,000 casualties – during first stage of the assault and desperately needed help.

But Canadian Commander Sir Arthur Currie was reluctant to send his troops. He commanded 20,000 soldiers, 16,000 of whom he predicted would be lost at Passchendaele.

While a political debate was launched about the merits of sending Canadian men into an obvious death trap, Pte. Brown and his peers, who were now part of the 47th Battalion, continued their advance against the German lines in France.

They would have seen plenty of bloodshed by that point.

Perhaps, not wanting to worry his father, Brown's letters home during the period of July and August reveal only a hint of the dangers he faced during street skirmishes in Lens. He wrote nothing about his new rank of Lance Corporal. The descriptive passages and youthful excitement from his earlier letters had given way to matter-of-fact brevity and a disjointed, almost robotic, tone that seemed designed to downplay scenes.

"We went over the top on Aug. 21 and had a pretty warm time," he wrote about one offensive.

"We advanced about 350 yards and then went about 200 yards past our objective. The fighting was all street fighting. Two men were killed and one wounded on the gun team I was on and it left me in charge. I can tell you we had a pretty exciting time.

"Steve McKay and Porky McArthur were both wounded. I don't think the wounds are serious. I was alongside Porky when he was hit and dressed his arm. He was hit in the right arm above the elbow by a piece of shrapnel and it broke his arm. Steve was no more than 10 yards away and was hit by the same shell. He got it in the leg and jaw. I don't know how I missed it.

"Several prisoners that were captured were only boys. One was no more than 15."

The last letter in the collection is dated Oct. 16, 1917 – a short, two-page update written on small note paper. Bob Brown had been overseas for almost a year and had just returned again from the frontlines. He expressed gratitude to his father and brother for sending him their latest letter and a pair of thick socks, both of which were welcome gifts from home.

He wrote in that final note about how his battalion was staying again in a barn. "It's the best bed I've had for a long time. We are sleeping in the loft and take a bunch of hay and use it for a mattress. Oh some sleep," he wrote.

But Brown kept the letter to just a few sentences as the battalion was busy polishing brass for a general's inspection the following day. He signed off with, "Write soon. Your son, Bob."

Ten days later, Canada was pulled into the battle of Passchendaele.

Next to Vimy Ridge, Passchendaele would go down in history as a defining battle of the war.

British troops were exhausted after three months in the field, yet their commander insisted on one more push toward Passchendaele. Canadian commander Currie's objections were overruled and on Oct. 26, Canada's four divisions began their advance, inching across a swamp of waist-deep mud and water-filled shell holes so huge they were a drowning hazard.

If the constant barrage of bullets and shells from the Germans didn't get them, the landscape would. One veteran later described the setting in an interview preserved by Library and Archives Canada.

"It was the most ghastly attack in which I ever participated because of the conditions and the fact that men who were wounded didn't have much of a chance to get out and if they tried to get out, in many cases they just were drowned."

We'll never know what unspeakable horrors Bob Brown saw on that muddy, blood-soaked field. He was severely injured by gunfire on the first day of the offensive, on Oct. 26, 1917, and died later of his wounds.

Commander Currie's prediction of 16,000 casualties was eerily on target. By the time the Canadians had captured the ridge on Nov. 10, their hard-won success was tempered by the realization that some 15,000 soldiers were killed or injured.

And as word of the victory swept through Kamloops, so did the shocking news that one of the city's own was among the dead.

The Brown family's mailbox, which had delivered so many of Bob's letters home to his dad and brothers, became a mournful portal for condolences.

Dear Mr. Brown:

On behalf of the Society of Wives and Mothers of British Soldiers, I extend sincere sympathy to you and your family in the great loss you have sustained in the death of your son Robert at the Front.

We can only say the brave boy gave his life in a good and noble cause . . .

Yours Sincerely,

Adelaide Johnstone, Secretary

* * *

Dear Alex:

Just heard about poor Bob. It must have been a great blow to you as it has been to the rest of us. The best fellows always seem to go. Bob was the first of us to make the supreme sacrifice, and if something doesn't happen soon there will be a good many of us who will never come back. . . .

. . . I can assure you, Alex, that you have the deepest sympathy of the boys, as Bob was a fine chap and well liked by all who knew him.

Sincerely yours. "Porky" (McArthur)

The Kamloops Sentinel carried a story on Nov. 6 under the headline, "Bob" Brown Dies of Gun Shot Wounds.

The article mentioned how well-liked he was, how Bob was "a mere lad in high school" when the war began but that "he seemed to appreciate the significance of war" even then and spoke about going as soon as he could. The article ended with a reminder of how the war had, thus far, exacted its price on Kamloops.

During the past few months nearly all of the young boys in Kamloops have been wounded, some seriously and some barely touched, but the death of Robert Brown is the first reported among the bright young boys who left here in khaki more than a year ago.

Bob Brown was buried in a war grave at Nine Elms British Cemetery in Belgium -- Plot VII.B.9.

Today, not much is known about Brown beyond his letters that are stored in the archives. There are no known photos of him.

Almost a century has passed since he was killed and there are no First World War veterans alive to share his story or to remind us why we hold two minutes of silence on Nov. 11 for 18-year-old boys who died decades before we were born.

Time has an inevitable way of fading the significance of events and of lives lived. Heroes live and die in every generation and their accomplishments slowly, sadly and unstoppably drift into obscurity as new heroes and wars take their place.

Bob Brown was a hero. He was also just a boy who died an untimely death on a godforsaken battleground of mud and misery.

It was there, at Passchendaele, where fear collided with courage a thousand times over in a tangle of bayonets and bullets — where the living and the dead were separated, perhaps, not by destiny or a divine hand, but by a mere luck of the draw, as seemingly random as that street battle in Lens. Bob Brown dodged shrapnel then, as his buddies on either side got hit. At Passchendaele, the gunfire found him and left others unharmed.

As Alex Brown grieved his son's death, Adelaide Johnstone gave him a poem to think about. She hoped it might provide some comfort, some perspective, maybe, that Bob was in a better place:

"His day has come, not gone;

His sun has risen, not set;

His life is now beyond

The reach of death; or chance,

Not ended, but begun"

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