The warmth of the sun is a welcome reprieve on this typical, bitter Remembrance Day. The crowd is surprisingly large for a small farming community and the cenotaph has an inordinate number of names engraved on it. A large tractor is chugging toward us, but stops and pulls over before it reaches the crowd. Respect remains high for Remembrance Day ceremonies around the tiny province.
I am standing alongside my mother and her cousin; the three of us hold the same little pamphlet in our hands. The handsome, very young looking face of my great uncle, Edward Brown, is radiating from the front cover. The family resemblance is unmistakable in the deep set eyes, and the square of his jaw.
I am surprised by the flood of emotions threatening to overwhelm me: his life was snuffed out before I was born. And, like thousands of other Canadian’s killed in action, Edward’s story begins in a small, rural community.
It is February, 1916 and WW1 is raging in Europe. The Browns, as with many New Brunswick families, live on a subsistence farm. With war rations and so many men now overseas, life on the farm is difficult, and resources are in short supply. Milton, one of seven children, has serious vision problems, and without glasses he cannot attend school. With money as scarce as food, Edward’s father, John Brown must sign up at the local army recruitment office. This will furnish the much needed funds to purchase a pair of glasses for Milton.
By March 31s, John is approved for battle overseas and is off to Europe for training. “I’ll be back in six months, Mary”, John tries to reassure his wife. “You’ll fare just fine. Edward’s an able young man.” John is confident of his oldest son’s abilities to run the family farm, but the eldest Brown offspring has ideas of his own.
Edward will be sixteen on his birthday, and as with many young men of his time, he has romantic notions of life on the frontlines. In his youthful innocence, he sees volunteering for the draft as part of being a man. “Mom, I’m going to join up” Edward is emphatic.
“Edward, you know you’re too young! Besides, your father has put you in charge of the farm. How would I manage with five young children?” Mary Brown is a competent woman, but has already lost three children to sickness, and she is not about to risk losing her firstborn.
“You could sign for me. I’ll be seventeen next year. What difference will one year make?” he protests.
“I won’t do it, Edward!” Mary is adamant, but her refusal falls on deaf ears.
Edward’s first attempt at joining the army is rejected. He’s recognized at the local recruitment office by a neighbour. Undeterred, Edward and a few of his buddies hatch a plan to hop a train in Sussex. With an older man to act as their guardian, the boys jump on a boxcar headed for Quebec.
The Montreal office is teeming with hundreds of baby-faced recruits just like Edward. Even his stature is more that of a thirteen year old boy than a man. Nevertheless the recruitment officer approves the teenager for enlistment. On May 18, 1916, the 199th battalion of the Irish Canadian Rangers is now the young farm boy’s new family.
In a few short months, Edward boards the RMS Olympic. The ship was pressed into service not long after the war broke out and had been carrying troops from Halifax, NS, to Liverpool, England. The RMS Olympic was touted as the Queen of the Ocean, a sister ship to the doomed Titanic. In 1916, the cruise ship still has much of her opulence intact, but the new recruits of the 199th will be bunking with nearly six thousand other troops in hammocks hung below deck. They will have to dress on their hammocks and crawl under the airborne beds to navigate the makeshift barracks. Only the officers will have the luxury of first class, private quarters.[i]
On December 16th, Edward walks up the gangplank, and is assigned his bunk and mess hall seating arrangements. First order of duty will be to find his hammock, and situate his duffel bag. With space at a premium, he will have to sleep with his belongings. He makes out a little better in the mess hall. The food is plentiful, but you have to be on the ball getting to your allocated deck. If you lose your way in the labyrinth of passageways you go without or have to purchase an expensive meal from the canteen.
The first night on board is filled with nervous excitement, but delays keep the ship in port for four more days. The improvised quarters reek of sweat and other repulsive body odours. Finally, the ship makes the mandatory zigzagging out of Halifax harbour. This proves to be too much for some of the men. Below deck, the putrid smell of vomit accentuates the oppressive atmosphere. Like the fog the ship is piloting through, misgivings creep into the mind of the adolescent boy from New Brunswick.
The excitement of making land overshadows the unpleasant memories of the journey. The Olympic is docked in Liverpool, on December 26, 1916. Here the troops are transferred to a waiting train bound for Witly Military base. Edward will be trained as a bugle boy here before being installed in France.
Just days before deployment, Edward has a little R & R in London. As the passenger coach pulls into the bustling London train station, he is unaware his father, John, is also there on leave. Edward makes his way from the train station and recognizes the physique and gait of the man coming toward him “Dad!” Edward’s shout startles John, who cannot believe his eyes.
John had received the frantic letter from Mary telling him of his son’s enrolment in the Irish Canadian Rangers. She begged him to try to find Edward and bring him home. All attempts by John had been thwarted, but now it would seem fate was on his side.
“Edward! I’ve been trying to find you. Your mother’s letter didn’t reach me until it was too late.” John won’t let go of the boy, but nothing his father says can persuade the young soldier to go home.
The day Edward has been trained for finally arrives. He has no idea of the magnitude of the conflict he is about to partake in. The Battle of Arras will prove to be an historical victory for the allies..
On August 25th, Edward the bugle boy takes up his position on the battlefield. The Canadian troops are fearless in the face of the German horde. Nine days of fierce, single-mindedness of 100,000 Canadian infantry men has struck terror into the hearts of the enemy. The Germans are caught off guard by the cunning and tenacity of the Canadians. The allied troops plunge through five defensive lines, literally turning the main German position on the Western Front. [ii]
On September 2, 1918, one day before victory, and one month before his 18th birthday, Edward’s battalion is in the thick of combat. Some time that morning, while bayoneted rifles and bombs inflict horrific losses on both sides, Edward’s adolescent frame is savagely torn apart by shrapnel. News of his death will not reach the family for months, and the sorrow of that day will reverberate for decades in the family that had already lost so much. It will be 2011 before the first family member visits Edward’s grave in Dury Mill, France.
Almost a century later in the cold morning sun, I wait my turn to lay a wreath— the second one placed in Edward’s memory. It’s my attempt at honouring the blue-eyed bugle boy. I give my emotions permission, unashamed to weep for an uncle I never met and for the many lives that unwittingly impacted the future of Europe that fateful September.
Edward Frank Brown
Died in the Battle of Arras, September 2, 1918, age 17
Buried at Dury Mill British Cemetery, Dury, France
[i] Carrying Canadian Troops The Story of RMS Olympic as First World War Troopship, by David Gray
[ii] The Canadians at Arras 1918, by Norm Christie