The Sunderland lad who bravely fought for his country in World War One

St Erme communal extension, the last resting place of William Brown.

St Erme communal extension, the last resting place of William Brown.

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When the Great War started there was widespread excitement and a hunger for adventure.

Sunderland was no different to other British towns and cities. But it also attracted the attention of under-age lads who wanted to sign up.

Lydia Browns letter, asking for her son to be discharged.

Lydia Browns letter, asking for her son to be discharged.

Trevor Thorne, from the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, took up the story.

Many men joined up immediately following Kitchener’s call, afraid they were going to miss the action.

For most of them this would be their only chance to experience foreign travel or even leave their village.

As queues formed at recruiting stations – like the Drill Hall near Gill Bridge – underage lads, also drawn by the mood of the country, wanted to join up.

As queues formed at recruiting stations like the Drill Hall near Gill Bridge, underage lads, also drawn by the mood of the country, wanted to join up.

Trevor Thorne

In 1914, the army did not require proof of age and recruiting sergeants were paid half-a-crown (£13 today) for each recruit taken on. While the minimum joining age was 18, a tall well-built lad who was ready to lie about his age would be accepted.

The youngest recorded and confirmed soldier during the war was Sidney Lewis, who was 12.

He fought in the Battle of the Somme aged 13, and was only sent home when his worried mother sent his birth certificate to the army. He re-enlisted in 1918 when he was still only 15 and served in post war Germany.

The fact Sidney was 6ft tall and heavily-built fooled an army hungry for recruits.

The youngest known soldier to die in the war was called John Condon. He joined up in 1913 to escape poverty in Ireland. He was only 14 when killed at the Second Battle of Ypres in 1915, at a time when poison gas was used for the first time.

William Brown of Annie Street, Fulwell, was 16 and an apprentice shipwright when he joined up in January 1918, claiming to be three years older.

After training, he left for France with the 14th Durham Light Infantry in September 1915, becoming part of a machine-gun team.

In May 1916, his worried mother wrote a letter to the army. Eventually, in September 1916, after one year at the front, he was returned home despite being only a few months from becoming 18 and qualifying for call up by conscription, which had then come into force.

Back home, he found work at Bartram and Sons shipyard on South Dock, Sunderland. Sadly, he suffered a serious injury in an accident soon after. The army eventually came looking for William and, when well enough in March 1918, he was allocated to the 7th DLI and sent back to France.

Within one month, he was reported missing and the army was notified that he was held as a prisoner of war. The family heard little of him until the end of the war in November 1918.

Early in 1919, a comrade of William’s from Sunderland called George Paxton was returning home himself.

He visited the family with sad news. In July 1918, while working on a railway at St Erme behind German lines in France, he was killed along with 17 other men as a result of ‘friendly fire’.

During an Allied aircraft bombing raid on the railway line there was a direct hit on an ammunition store nearby and shrapnel from the explosion caused William’s death.

William Brown and the other prisoners of war killed during the raid are buried at St Erme Communal Cemetery Extension which is north of Reims.

Being under-age did not prevent the full weight of military discipline being dealt out to young soldiers. At least two of the 306 men who went before the firing squad during the war, Thomas Highgate, 17, and Herbert Burden, 16, were shot for desertion.

But we must not be too quick to judge the army of over a century ago by today’s standards. The generals followed what they thought to be the correct action at that time believing that maintaining resolve and fighting spirit were served by such discipline.

The research on William Brown was carried out by Graham Brown, a descendant, and given to Sunderland Antiquarian Society for their archives.