The butcher and the grocer: A Western Front story.
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.
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.
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.’
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.