Shirley Stephenson visited the museum to tell about the story and final letters of 5444 Private George Brown, 7th battalion, Yorkshire Regiment, the youngest brother of her mother in law. George was the seventh of nine children. Three of his brothers also served in France but survived. In 1915, he left his family home in Brandon, County Durham, to live with his older sister and her family on their farm in North Cowton. Here, he worked for them and was learning the trade of butchery, his sister and husband hoping to set him up, eventually, in his own business but he was called up in May 1916. He enlisted at Croft and was sent to Babworth Camp, Retford.
At the beginning of July, he writes to his sister, Mary, and her husband, Tom, asking them to apply to his commanding officer for a month’s leave in order to assist them with haytime saying, ‘……tell him I worked for you and you can’t get anyone else…. I think you will succeed as he can’t refuse.’ Unfortunately, he could because the Regiment was posted to France; three weeks later, ‘we are going to face the foe….. we poor devils with three months’ training.’
By 25th July, George and his Company were training on the French coast ‘…… it is very hot here…… very tiresome marching around in the sand all day….. we get better food than in Retford but not much of it.’ Three weeks later his letter reads, ‘…. I am not allowed to tell you where we are or where we had been but you can guess it is rough enough…. I could write a book full… we look forward to mail coming…. send Darlington paper….’ A few days later, he is thanking his sister for the cakes ‘…. as fresh as when you baked them….’ and asking for cocoa and a little bit of sugar.
In September, he is in hospital in Lymm, Cheshire and there is a break in the letters until March 1917, when George is once again in France, in the trenches, it is wet, cold and there have been snow showers. A surprising aspect of his letters is the number of times he meets other men from North Cowton whilst in France. He learns from his sisters’ correspondence of villagers who have been killed, injured or gassed. These things bring to immediacy the effect of this global conflict on a very small village. Less surprising perhaps, is the number of times food is mentioned and how appreciative he is of the parcels his sister sends ‘…. wish I had been having supper with you instead of sitting in this barn eating dog biscuits….’ (April 1st 1917). A fortnight later, he is asking for ‘…. bread or anything substantial as we get very little bread, about a week since I saw any. We are living on biscuits and bully beef.’
They have also been involved in the Battle of the Somme. ‘I shall not forget Easter Monday for a bit (9th April 1917) the roughest night I have put in. They have taken our overcoats and blankets off us so we just have to help ourselves to keep warm as we can.’ (It has been raining and snowing).
His last letter, dated 27th April 1917, reads ‘We are at rest for a day or two after a week’s hard fighting. We had a very rough time and lost a lot of our men. I think I was lucky to come through.’ This was the advance at Arras and the River Scarpe.
On 9th May George and C Company were back in trenches north of Roeux, part of an action to move the line forward that lasted until 2.30am on 15th during which they were heavily shelled, there was a shortage of water and by the night of 13th, official reports noted that the men were ‘very tired’. When they were relieved, of the 18 officers and 436 other ranks, only 5 officers and 241 OR remained and 139 of them were wounded. George was one. He died on 14th May, 1917 and is buried in St Nicholas British Cemetery. He was 21 years old.
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