Brave Sunderland soldier died in battle 100 years ago today

editorial image
Have your say

A Wearside sportsman who lost his life in battle 100 years ago is to be remembered on a club’s roll of honour.

John Corbet Browne played for the 1st XI of Sunderland’s hockey team, based at Ashbrooke Sports Club, during the 1907/8 season. He perished in France just seven years later.

John’s story is a remarkable one, yet typical of the kind of bravery shown by many young men from Sunderland in the war.

Ashbrooke Sports Club archivist and historian Keith Gregson.

“His story is a remarkable one, yet typical of the kind of bravery shown by many young men from Sunderland in the war,” said club archivist and historian Keith Gregson.

“I have been researching the WWI deaths of all our Ashbrooke members, but initially missed John because he was not in a local regiment. Now I can ensure his memory lives on.”

John, son of ship broker and steamship owner John Laing Browne and his wife Elizabeth, was born in February 1885, one of seven siblings to share a privileged upbringing at 15 Thornhill Gardens.

By the age of six he was a boarder at prestigious Pocklington School in Yorkshire but, during the holidays, John honed his sporting skills at Ashbrooke Club - just minutes from his home.

Studies in mathematics and engineering at Armstrong College – now known as Newcastle University –then followed, with John’s leisure hours spent playing sport for Sunderland.

And, by the time of the 1911 census, he was working as an estimating engineer for the British Westinghouse Electric and Manufacturing Company in Lancashire.

“John was boarding at Barton-upon-Irwell at the time and Preston Horan, a Sunderland rugby player, shared the same digs and was similarly employed,” said Keith.

“Two years later, in 1913, John had moved south and was living in London’s Russell Square. He still worked for the same firm, but had also joined the Territorial Army.”

The 6ft 1in sportsman was mobilised just one day after war broke out on August 4, 1914, signing up to fight for King and Country with Britain’s oldest army regiment, the Honourable Artillery Company.

As a member of the infantry arm of the HAC’s First Battalion, John arrived in France on September 18, 1914, destined to play a key role in the British Expeditionary Force.

Tragically, news of the loss of both parents would reach him within a month.

Elizabeth died aged 67 on October 10, after “a day’s illness”, while John Laing died aged 72 just four days later – after “slowly declining in recent months”.

“John junior would have had little time to grieve for his mother and father,” said Keith. “The war raged on and he spent months in the trenches at Spanbroekmolen, in the Ypres Salient on the Western Front in Belgium.

“The men repeatedly came under heavy fire and by mid-January numbers had fallen so low that it became difficult to hold the line. Reinforcements had to be sent for – but John still fought on.”

Action at the Second Battle of Ypres followed in April 1915, which saw the first mass use by Germany of poison gas on the Western Front.

Conditions were terrible, with John forced to fight in trenches which were “little more than ditches with liquid mud”.

His battlefield bravery, however, resulted in promotion from private to sergeant and by May 1915 he was Acting Company Sergeant Major.

But on June 2, while serving near Ypres, John was killed in action. He was buried in the grounds of a nearby chateau, but later transferred to Voormezeele Enclosure No. 3.

“John was posthumously awarded the 1914 campaign medal, as well as the Victory and British War medals – which were sold at auction for more than £1,000 several years ago,” said Keith.

“Diaries and drawings he kept during his time at war were also auctioned off, but he is today remembered on several rolls of honour, including the one at Ashbrooke Sports Club.

“A great many brave Ashbrooke men fought in World War One. It is only right that we pay tribute to courage, and help keep the memory of them alive.”

• John’s younger brother, Leonard Foster Browne, also fought in World War One, serving as a captain in the Royal Army Medical Corps.

He went on to work as a psychologist/doctor in Harley Street , and also served as vice-chairman of London County Council.

At least one of their older brothers, Harold Montague Browne, was also a military man, serving in India in 1902.