Sunday, 11 September 2011
9732 Pte Stan Brown, 1st Leics, later 32526 1st South Staffs
Stan Brown was the second Great War veteran I ever interviewed. I met him in 1981 and visited him many times until his death in 1987. A South Londoner, Stan had moved to my home town of Chelmsford in Essex and was an active member of the Chelmsford branch of The Old Contemptibles Association. He was also its youngest member and perhaps, not surprisingly, the last of that band to "fade away". Writing on behalf of the Chelmsford branch in the last ever issue of The Old Contemptible magazine, "the official organ of the Old Contemptible Association" in December 1975, Stan wrote,
"I am delighted to say we are going to carry on as a branch, after attending a full Area Committee meeting and finding the other branches with the Area are going to, we could not let them down and will soldier on. There are only six of us..."
Stan Brown was born David Stanley Brown in Dulwich on the 31st March 1897. I always knew him as Stan, and all of his surviving military records record him as Stanley Brown. Interestingly though, he signed off his editorial in the 1975 Old Contemptible magazine as DSB. He told me,
"I was christened David Stanley Brown but my mother never allowed me to be called David. As far as she was concerned, the name was like ditch water. I found out afterwards that my father's eldest brother was called David and he'd died in a bloomin' inebriate zone in Streatham."
On joining the army he told me,
"In 1913 I was apprenticed to a dentist. One day he accused me of making a false plate. I said I hadn't and I slung the thing at him. I knew I'd be in hot water so I ran away and slept on a park bench that night. I enlisted at Herne Hill the next day and became attached to the East Surreys."
A surviving entry in the Surrey Recruitment Registers notes that Stan joined the 4th (Extra Reserve) Battalion of the East Surrey Regiment at Kingston-on-Thames on the 16th May 1913. He would have been 16 years old, although he is recorded as being 17 years and 10 months. In Stan's words,
"I first joined the East Surrey militia [it would have been the militia before 1908 when it became the Special Reserve and Extra Reserve] after telling them I was eighteen. They didn't believe me but said if I stayed for four months they'd make me eighteen."
His papers note that he stood five feet, five and three quarter inches tall, weighed 116 pounds, had blue eyes and brown hair and a distinctive mole (which I personally don't recall). His trade was noted not as a dental technician but as an electrician's fitter, employed by W A Wilson of 150 Norwood Road, Norwood.
"When I joined the East Surreys," Stan explained, "the Commanding Officer asked if anyone liked gymnastics. Like a fool I said I did and I became the sparring partner for the battalion's boxing champion. This chap had a cauliflower ear and I must have clouted it because he whacked me about so much that he broke my nose and landed me up in hospital. The East Surrey Regiment had a bad reputation as a regiment and were known as the drunken half-hundred. After the boxer clouted me I think they were quite worried because he could have done me serious injury and I was still only young. Anyway, after the four months I joined the Leicesters as an eighteen year-old as my brother [Ewart Gladstone Brown] was already in the regiment and was well-liked."
Actually, as the records show, Stan's time with the East Surrey's amounted to a little over two months. He joined the Leicestershire Regiment on the 23rd July 1913 and was given the number 9732. His brother, who had joined the regiment in 1911 and would be invalided out of the army in 1915 with a bullet wound to his head, picked up at Neuve Chapelle, was 9302. Again, the Surrey Recruitment Registers noted Stan's particulars: eighteen years old (he was still only sixteen), five feet six inches tall, 119 pounds with a fresh complexion.
Fast forward a year and Stan is in France, having arrived with the 1st Battalion on the 9th September 1914. He was seventeen years and five months old and must have been one of the youngest soldiers of the BEF. His brother Ewart, (known to Stan as 'Glad) was serving with the 2nd Battalion in India and wouldn't arrive in France until December 1914. Therefore, although it was Glad who had seen more service with the Leicesters, it was Stan who would end up being the Old Contemptible.
"I saw fighting on the Aisne, in the caves on the heights above the Aisne. We went through a place called Vailley and we went three months without pay, cigarettes or anything else. By the time we got to Vailley our shoes had got holes and I remember Captain [W. C.] Wilson, my Company Commander, wearing a bloomin' sailor's overcoat and I was wearing a pair of German boots and a pair of short corduroy knickers. We never went out to France with our best uniform; that was supposed to be sent to Paris for when we got there. But we never got them and never found a bloke who had his either."
Stan also took part in the Christmas truce on Christmas Day 1914 when the battalion was at Chapelle Armentieres.
"At Christmas 1914 we had a kind of armistice if you like, to say there'd be no firing on Christmas Day, but it didn;t happen just like that. On Christmas Eve, as far as we were concerned, we was still at war, but in the evening on sentry-go we heard singing from Jerry. He was only fifty yards away and they was saxons to the best of my recollection. We had the Stand-To because we didn't know what all the singing was about to start off with. On Jerry's wire there were bits of paper, bits of rag, and all sorts of things saying "Happy Christmas", some in German, some in English because a lot of the Germans had worked in England. They held up a bottle of wine and I know our bloke shot at it. Well it all got quiet. I don't know if we had breakfast that morning, I suppose we did; we had a drink. Everything was peaceful and eventually one of the Germans held up a card with "Merry Christmas" written on it, and come on over the top.
"Everybody was dubious in our trench, saying kind of, should we or shouldn't we and all of this bloomin' caper, and then one or two more Germans come up. Then eventually we decided, well they haven't got any rifles on 'em and we went over. And our Buchanan-Dunlop who come to us as Battalion Commander, he kind of led the singing!
"We didn't all group in one place, we was spread along an area about a hundred yards and we mixed in with some others and they give us a bottle of wine and cigars and we thought to ourselves, well they must be bloomin' well-off in Jerry-land. All we got was a tin of Tickler's jam and we went back into the trench and brought out a couple or three tins of jam to give to these Jerries."