Gilbert Brown

Gilbert Brown was born at Wickham in 1887, the fourth son of Henry and Elizabeth Annie, née Webb.  Henry worked as a gardener at the Rectory, and the family lived at the Rectory Cottage and also at Ark Cottage on Church Hill.

The Browns were a large extended family, one of the longest established in the parish, who could trace their roots back to tenant farmers at Welford in the late 1600s.  In Gilbert’s time, various relatives kept the shop and bakery at Welford and the Post Office at Wickham, and held the positions of Parish Clerk at both the Parish Church and St Swithin’s chapel. 

The Browns were also very much involved with many aspects of the social life of the parish, such as Welford Park Cricket Club, the Royal Berkshire Friendly Society, the Welford Brass Band and Choir, and the Weston Club House.

The 1911 census shows Gilbert, age 21, living at home at Wickham.  His occupation is given as ‘gardening domestic’, like his father and brother Walter.

Gilbert enlisted for service at Reading at the outbreak of war; he was still living at Wickham at the time, and his name appears on the very first Roll of Honour (i.e. list of men on active service) for the parish, published by the Newbury Weekly News.  He became a Private in the Royal Berkshire Regiment, Regimental number 10721, joining what was at first called the 1st Reserve Battalion, and then afterwards the 5th (Service) Battalion.

Gilbert’s brother Walter also served in the war, enlisting as a Driver in the Army Service Corps at Newbury in December 1914.  He served in Salonika and Egypt, survived the war, and lived at Benham Burslet.

The 5th Royal Berks was formed at Shorncliffe Camp, Kent, with drafts of recruits arriving through late August and early September 1914 bringing it up to full strength.  They were accommodated in tents and huts and like many of the New Army units suffered for some time from a shortage of arms, uniforms, equipment and NCOs.

Intensive training followed for the next two months, with plenty of drill and route marching, followed by musketry and entrenching practice.  In March 1915 they were moved to Malplaquet Barracks in Aldershot, where Brigade training commenced, followed by exercises at Divisional level.

On 30th May the 5th Royal Berks, Gilbert Brown amongst them, left Aldershot by train for Folkestone, arriving at Boulogne at 2am the following morning.

From Boulogne they journeyed on to billets in Armentières, and after a week here marched to bivouac in Ploegsteert Wood, where they received a course of practical instruction in the art of trench warfare.

On 4th July, the Battalion began its first turn of duty in the trenches on its own account.  The rest of July and the whole of August were spent in the Ploegsteert Wood area, adjusting to the normal routine of trench life, including their first casualties.  This continued until 26th September, when they were relieved by a Canadian Battalion and went into billets.

The Battle of Loos had opened on 25th September, and the 5th Royal Berks were now called upon to make their contribution.  On the 29th they joined the Brigade and marched with it to Sailly Labourse, just behind the Front Line north-east of Loos.  On the night of 30th September – 1st October the Guards Division were relieved and the Royal Berks moved into support trenches 1,200 yards north of the town.  Here, in positions completely overlooked by the German troops, they set about their task of preparing new trenches, roads and positions in readiness for the next stage of the offensive, heavy shelling causing many casualties among the working parties.

On Wednesday 13th October the British offensive was renewed, the Royal Berks taking part in the attack on the Hulluch Quarries.  They were asked to provide urgent reinforcement to the 7th Norfolks who (they were informed) had managed to get some men into the German trench in front of the Quarries, during which most of their own number had become casualties.  However, as they moved forward the Berkshires were met by heavy machine gun fire which indicated very clearly that the trench was still strongly held by the Germans, and it was not deemed advisable to continue the advance.  A bombing attack was also made by the Battalion that day which cost the lives of several of their number, and the total Battalion casualties for the 13th October were: Officers, two killed, one wounded, seven missing; other ranks, 37 killed, 91 wounded, 22 missing.  Most of the night was spent in clearing the dead from the trenches, retrieving the wounded, and repairing the parapets.

Gilbert Brown managed to survive this dreadful day, and as far as can be known, was still fit for active service.

The next three days were relatively quiet ones in the support trenches for the Berkshires.  However, on the 17th there was steady shelling of the British positions as retaliation for a bombing attack carried out by the Guards on their left, causing further casualties, and the 18th brought a similar story.  The following day the Battalion was relieved and moved back to Béthune, where they were engaged in refitting until the 25th, then returning to the trenches at Gordon Alley near Hulluch.

The routine pattern of trench life continued, with the troops maintaining and repairing their trenches, taking their turn in the line for a few days and then changing places with another Battalion and moving into billets; and with most days, even the so-called ‘quiet’ ones, bringing new casualties amongst them.

Not long afterwards, Henry and Elizabeth Annie received a letter from Quartermaster Sergeant Goddard of ‘B’ Company:

“In the trenches, November 1st, 1915. – I am sorry to have to inform you that Gilbert Brown of my Company was killed by a shell on the 29th of October.  His death was instantaneous, so that he did not suffer any pain.  I am very sorry to have lost him as he was a very steady man and a good and reliable soldier.  I found your letter to him in his pay book, and thought you would like to know how he died.  He was doing his duty as a guide bringing into the trenches another Regiment to relieve us when the shell burst in the trench, wounding several others at the same time. All the men of his Platoon and Company send messages of deepest sympathy in your loss of a noble son…

Official notification of Gilbert’s death from the War Office was received by his parents shortly afterwards, accompanied by the Royal message of sympathy.

The 5th Battalion War Diary records that on 28th October 1915 ‘B’ Company, in which Gilbert Brown was serving, together with ‘A’ Company, was moved to the support line, and that the following morning the Battalion relieved the Norfolks, with one man – presumably Gilbert – killed, and three others wounded.

Gilbert Brown is commemorated on the Loos Memorial, Dud Corner Cemetery, one of over 20,000 officers and men who fell in this part of the Front between 25th September 1915 and the Armistice and have no known grave.