150 Years of Memories
This year naval history enthusiast Richard Taylor found a nondescript-looking notebook at a Harrogate antiques fair. It proved to be an historical gem in which Whitby man Arthur Brown recorded his harrowing experiences in the First World War. Through the Whitby Gazette, the author of this article made contact with Marjorie Miller, one of Arthur's nieces. With her help, backed up by further research at The National Archives at Kew, it is now possible to fell Arthur's story.
When war broke out in 1914, Arthur Brown was an innocent 22-year-old grocer's assistant leading a peaceful life in Whitby, dedicated to his local church and a keen St John Ambulance first-aider.
He was soon to draw more deeply than he could ever have imagined on both his deeply held religious beliefs and his medical skills. He experienced the horrors of the war against the formidable Turks at Gallipoli and against the equally determined Germans on the Western Front.
These were years during which he lost close friends, hovered dangerously on the brink himself with enteric fever, surviving only to be shot up by a strafing Seaman-aircraft when, as a newly com¬missioned officer, he was leading a company of men from the Royal Naval Division, sailors fighting ashore like soldiers.
It all began so differently, as he recorded in a notebook which, in his neat hand, he filled with an account of his experiences of the war. Arthur, the son of Scottish-born blacksmith Archibald Brown, was living with his family in Benson's Yard, off Church Street, when war was declared on 4 August 1914, a day which he described as "the most eventful in the history of the world".
He was then a member of the Whitby brigade of the St John - Ambulance, Association "little realising the instruction I was then receiving would be of great value so very soon". With other Whitby first-aiders keen to join up, he was told not to enlist in the Army or Navy, but to wait until he was called on to do so by the association.
He later wrote: "Time dragged on slowly
until 30 October 1914 when the hospital ship Rohilla came ashore during
a terrific storm on the most dangerous part of the rock between Saltwick
Nab and Whitby Pier.
Here our local brigade did grand work and
saved many lives by means of artificial respiration. This went on for
three or four days ..."
Then, in March 1915, the call came to the brigade's first-aiders to volunteer. Arthur and two of his friends passed the medical at York, were immediately sworn in and told to report to the commanding officer of the training establishment at Crystal Palace.
Arthur, number 3584, was now in the Royal
Marines and about to join a medical unit that would soon place him in
the thick of the fighting.
Zig-zagging to avoid enemy submarines, the Tunisian arrived at Alexandria before sailing for the Greek island of Lemnos, the final stepping stone to Gallipoli where he and his comrades landed in total darkness filled with the sound of gunfire and rifles.
They arrived alongside the SS River Clyde, the converted merchant ship that, loaded with troops, had spearheaded the first landing when British troops suffered severe casualties.
Daylight brought new sights.
"We could see the keel of HMS Majestic (a battleship) which had turned turtle after an attack by submarine and in the distance, to my amazement, a small steamer called Whitby Abbey, most probably the one we came in from Lemnos in the darkness. Several warships were firing over our heads at the enemy..."
Arthur's notes describe the conditions in which he and his comrades lived: "Our dugout .was in the form of a present day grave, with a waterproof sheet over the top and sprinkled with earth in what had been a lovely garden with olive and walnut trees still trying to look bright."
The British troops faced appalling conditions. The climate meant that the least effort proved exhausting which meant that the life of a stretcher party was "not all honey.” Apart from the growing numbers of wounded, the toll of men taken sick was devastating, but Arthur was still able to write:
"When one considers the disadvantage of an army so long in one position, with almost every yard dug over for latrine purposes, burials for men and horses, the terrific heat, hundreds of flies, it might easily have been worse."
It was here that Arthur's Whitby friend Tom Cooper, .with whom he had enlisted, went down with dysentery.
"Really it is indescribable to see anyone suffer so - weak, helpless and almost pining away. "I got permission to see my chum right down to the beach and see him embark on his ship. "He kept really good heart and we parted with the hope of meeting each other again soon."
But Tom died at Malta on 5 August 1915. Arthur mourned his loss when he eventually heard the news: "I felt this very much. He had proved himself to be a real true, faithful companion in some of my most needful times." Yet it was not all gloom. Arthur came across another Whitby man, Able Seaman Burnett. "We met a number of tunes and studied the Whitby Gazette and shared the good things that come from Whitby."
Following a number of other adventures, Arthur himself went "down with enteric fever and was carried with a raging temperature to the beach where he was put on board a hospital ship headed for Malta. After he had recuperated he was eventually given a commission as a temporary sub-lieutenant in the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve and was sent out to the Western Front where he came under fire a number of times in actions around the Nord canal.
Losses were heavy but Arthur continued to lead his men until they were attacked by German aircraft flying so low they could see the pilots. "The Germans peppered along the line with machine gun fire and small bombs. "Unfortunately I became a casualty. Here, and in the previous stunt, my petty officer, PO J Watson, proved himself to be a really good, sound man and he was thus rewarded with a well-earned Military Medal and bar.
"So the Boche had caught me with a machine
gun bullet in the right buttock. "My orderly, one of the best,
had me carried away by stretcher bearers to a dressing station, then
to a cellar of a house in the village of Cantigneul, which we had only
just taken." He was later invalided home. His successor in the
line, Sub-Lieut L H Card, led Arthur's men for only three hours before
he was killed. It was then 2 October 1918.
Arthur himself was demobbed in May 1919. A proud moment came for him a few weeks later when he was granted the honour of leading the Whitby men in procession around the town during the peace celebrations on 19 July 1919.
Perhaps even as he did that he was forming in his mind some of the final words for the personal account of the war which he wrote later: "... the wonderful spirit of endurance, patience and hardship which all ranks displayed in sacrificing their lives as, alas, so many brave men did for the one great cause the Peace and Liberty of the Whole, World."
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