Friday 28 August 2009 by Craig Blanch. 12 comments
Personal Stories, Collection, First World War, Western Front, The Light Horse, Passchendaele (Ypres), Australian Field Butchery

The Western Front was epitomised by the brute force of men against machine and each other. Tens of thousands were lost in the maelstrom of war. In the horror, friendships were forged that endured even through death. This is the story of one such friendship...

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.

 

Walter 'Wally' Brown Walter 'Wally' Brown ART09490

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.

20 Battalion troops make their way toward Zonnebeke. Hughes was killed in the fighting that followed. 20 Battalion troops make their way toward Zonnebeke. Hughes was killed in the fighting that followed. E00838

There are conflicting reports into what Brown did following Hughes' death. What is certain is that he went to great lengths to ensure that his friend was not forgotten. One report says that Brown ‘did a fine thing. He had had leave and instead of going to England, he went to Calais and had a cross made, took it under fire to the grave of his friend, and in doing so, the cross was hit, but after righting the cross, he escaped.’ McLardy related that ‘[Brown] fashioned a beautiful cross with his own hands and this he took with him. Successful in his search he erected the cross on the grave.’ Though these stories portray an element of truth it is doubtful whether either are accurate accounts. They do, however, show the high regard to which Brown's efforts were held. The story of Brown and Hughes would have been heartfelt and keenly understood among the soldiers of the Western Front.

In early 1918, Brown did go to Calais instead of England to have a cross fashioned for his friend. He returned to the scene of the battle and erected a cross of ‘somewhat elaborate design and substantial in construction.’ The cross has been alternately reported as being made from concrete, wood and even marble. The inscription read: ‘Cross erected in loving memory of Pte. C. C. Hughes, 20th Btn., and to the memory of others of the above Btn. who lie in this neighbourhood.’  

The grave of Claude Clark Hughes erected by Walter Ernest Brown VC DCM. At the base of the cross are the initials W.E.B. The grave of Claude Clark Hughes erected by Walter Ernest Brown VC DCM. At the base of the cross are the initials W.E.B. A02288

In July 1918 Brown received the British Empire's highest accolade when he won a Victoria Cross for his actions during fighting near Hamel. For all his exceptional deeds and strength of character, Wally Brown  failed in his bid for history to remember Claude's final resting place. The area under the cross contained the remains of nine Australian soldiers and individual identification proved impossible. By 1919, the plaque referring to Hughes was missing, and the cross became simply a memorial to members of the 20th Battalion.

By 1921 moves were underway to remove private memorials from the landscape and Hughes' cross disappeared. The original location of the memorial can now only be estimated from a 1919 report that details the 'isolated grave, three-quarters of a mile North East of Zonnebeke, South of Railway, and 5 miles East North East of Ypres.' Claude Hughes eventually became one of the 54,325 names on the Menin Gate Memorial at Ypres in Belgium as having no known grave.

 

Comments

Mark McCall

A great yarn of what it means to be a cobber, a nice bloke from the Derwent Valley and a tale of the other great men in the Great War.

Michael Kelly

Hello Craig, This is an excellent post! I hope there will be a chapter two the story. It's great to se these en brought to life.

Liam O'Connor

My grandfather, John Levy O'Connor, was also in A Company of the 20th Bn. On October 9th, 1917, the day Hughes was killed, he was buried alive by a shell in the fighting near Zonnebeke and listed on the field returns as KIA. However, this was later corrected to WIA and he was back with the battalion a month later. According to family anecdotes, my grandfather and Wally Brown were mates. For some years I have been researching the lives of 20th Bn members and in particular I would like more information on Wally Brown or his descendants. During the Second World War he put his age down and joined the 2/15 Field Regiment, being posted to Malaya at age 55. He disappeared on February 14th ,1942 before the surrender to the Japanese. If any readers have information on Wally Brown, or other members of the 20th Bn, I would like to hear from them on liam3@cyllene.uwa.edu.au. Liam O'Connor

Craig Blanch says:

Thanks for the post, Liam. Your grandfather's service with 1 AFB and 20 Bn certainly adds credibility to your family's anecdotes. For more information on Brown you can visit the AWM Collection online. Accompanying Wally Brown's Victoria Cross is a more comprehensive summary of his life. Use RELAWM15391.001 in collections search and it will take you to the relevant item. The website also holds the digitised Unit War Diaries that are an invaluable source of information for researchers (Follow Collections link to Australian Army war diaries link). Just as valuable, as you are probably aware, the National Archives of Australia website gives you access to the digitised service records of Australian service personnel of WW1 (www.naa.gov.au). Best of luck, Craig

B S R Lee

It is sadly appropriate that these two mates have no known graves. I believe Brown was last reported at Singapore heading toward the Japanese lines with his rifle and a bag of hand grenades, telling his comrades that he was not going to surrender. Unfortunately I can't remember the name of the book that gave that brief account as I read it 'several' years ago.

Craig Blanch says:

Thanks for the comment B S R Lee, A summary of Wally's life is featured along with his Victoria Cross on the Memorial's website. Search the on-line Collection's database using the identifier RELAWM15391.001 Information on Australia's VC winners can also be found in, among others, Anthony Staunton's 'Victoria Cross: Australia's finest and the Battles They Fought', and Lionel Wigmore's, 'They Dared Mightily'. Both are excellent books on the subject. Cheers Craig

Judy Richmond

It is great that this special story has been recorded and therefore is now immortalised.

Judy Richmond

An Inspiring story.

charlie Cocker

As a former member New Norfolk RSL I observe that Walter Brown does not receive the acknowledgement that Percy Stretton and JJ Dwyer do. Perhaps I can influence a more prominent recognition.

Craig Blanch says:

Hi Charlie, Thanks for your comment. Wally was certainly one of the characters of the AIF and I enjoy telling his story here at the Memorial which is very well received. His actions during the Second World War mirrored the bravery of the First when he pressed forward into the face of the Japanese invasion rather than surrender. Sadly his body was never found. Wally was never short of courage.

charlie Cocker

Is it possible to get a copy of the portrait the medals and a copy of the citation. If so I could have all pieces framed together and positioned prominently in new Norfolk RSL I am willing to consider meeting cost. Cheers Charlie P.S. I am aware of the plaque in the grounds of the New Norfolk Primary School look forward to reply

Craig Blanch says:

Hi Charlie, I have passed your request onto our public enquiries curator who will be contacting you directly. Good luck with a very worthwhile project. Cheers Craig