Robert Brown

robert brownAble Seaman, Tyneside Z/8608, 8th (Anson) Battalion, Royal Naval Division, died 26th October 1917, aged 21.

Born at Derrythorpe on 10th February 1896 (his service record mistakenly makes him a year younger) Robert was the youngest of the six children of Robert Chatterton and Elizabeth Harsley Brown (also nee Brown). His father, born at East Butterwick, was a travelling salesman for the New Trent Brewery and died tragically on Christmas Day 1895, two months before Robert’s birth. Travelling home the previous evening, Christmas Eve, his dog cart ‘came into collision with a lamp-post awkwardly situated at a bend in the road, the lamp not being lighted’ in Wharf Road. The cart turned over and he was thrown out and knocked unconscious. Taken home he relapsed and passed away from ‘concussion of the brain’ on Christmas morning.

The family were living in Godnow Road in 1891 and reportedly at Crowle Wharf when Robert Snr died in 1895. Presumably his mother was staying with her parents in Althorpe when Robert was born hence his birthplace being Derrythorpe? It is uncertain when they moved to the New Trent Hotel, but Elizabeth was certainly the owner in 1901. Aged 15 in 1911 Robert was working as a groom for his mother, but shortly afterwards moved to Rotherham where he worked as a butcher.

Robert enlisted in the Royal Navy in August 1915. Not required onboard a ship on 17th November 1915 he was sent instead to the Royal Naval Division Training Camp at Blandford, Dorset. The Royal Naval Division had been formed at the outbreak of the war from the surplus of men required to man the actual ships, serving most notably at Gallipoli. The battalions of the Division were named after famous admirals; Anson, Drake, Hawke, Hood, Howe and Nelson, and on 26th September 1916 Robert was posted to join 8th (Anson) Battalion in France where they had recently suffered casualties on The Somme.

Robert’s first action with Anson Battalion was on the Ancre between January and March 1917. Although he spent some time in hospital during February, this was probably just routine sickness as he is not recorded as being wounded. Rejoining his unit on 1st March in time for their participation in the capture and defence of Gavrelle and Oppy Wood in April, the action in which Tom Checkley lost his life. He spent another period sick, this time at the 1st Army Rest Camp in early July, but was back with Anson Battalion on 19th July.

Not involved in the early actions of the Third Battle of Ypres they were called forward in October to participate in what would be it’s final action the Second Battle of Passchendaele. The main attack at Passchendaele was to be carried out by four Canadian Divisions with the Royal Naval Division covering their left flank. The specific objective allocated to Anson Battalion was Varlet Farm, theoretically a fortified farmstead situated midway between Poelcapelle and Passchendaele, although sources say all that remained of the farm buildings at the time were a few bricks and the name.

The ground conditions over which Anson Battalion were due to attack were truly appalling. With the flooded Paddebeek stream running through the low-lying ground, the swamp-like mud was in places simply impassable and an already difficult attack was made considerably worse.

The attack began at 5.40am on 26th October as Anson Battalion followed the infantry barrage through the mud towards Varlet Farm. The defenders put up a stiff fight, causing the battalion a number of casualties, but by 7.20am it was reported that they had captured the strongpoint, along with fifty prisoners. Shortly afterwards the reserve troops, Howe Battalion, caught up with them and around 9.00am a decision was made to push on across the Paddebeek towards the German front line at Source Trench. Here they were met by heavy rifle and machine gun fire and after suffering heavy casualties, retreated back to Varlet Farm.

In the attack on Varlet Farm and Source Trench, Anson Battalion suffered 270 casualties. Among them was Robert Brown who was acting as a runner for his platoon commander. Initially recorded as missing, his death was confirmed to his family in November. Like many who died that day Robert has no known grave and is commemorated on the Tyne Cot Memorial.

A memorial service was held for him in St Oswald’s Church on 24th November 1917.