Ambulance Man

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Ford Model T Military Field Ambulance

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accident

Having just written up the story of Joe Wyler recently it was time to tackle the other 1930 addition on the St Mary’s Church war memorial, the man in the bottom right corner, Albert Frederick Brown. He has a very special place in the Summerstown182, as he is almost certainly the last of them to perish, on 12th September 1920. I knew he had been classified as a war death as I’d preserved a screenshot from the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website a few years ago. However, when I went to check again a few weeks ago, he was gone. I queried it on social media and someone very helpfully responded with a ‘grave registration document’ which stated that he was a civilian not a soldier at the time of his death. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission confirmed that he had in fact been ‘re-classified as a non-war grave’.

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We were due to visit his grave at Duisans and I did wonder for a moment if his headstone might also have disappeared as a result of his new status. We feared the worst when we couldn’t locate him and there appeared to be a blank space where he should have been. As so often we had mis-read the cemetery plan and he was there all right, in a neat row of six graves near the war stone. Duisans is an odd-shaped bleak cemetery on the edge of a stretch of open rolling country to the west of Arras. Apparently there was fierce fighting here in the Second World War and the entrance is peppered with some very nasty looking bullet holes. On 21st May 1940, in the prelude to the Dunkirk evacuation, 100 German soldiers were cornered in the cemetery and were raked with fire from a French tank. Only 18 of them survived. Twenty years before that, Albert Brown would have been here clearing up the mess of another conflict, one which he participated in from the start. Perhaps it was the sparse, windswept nature of the area, a sense that a lot of bad things had happened here, but we felt uneasy. Albert’s grave contained only his name and date of death, it wasn’t quite the right colour. Things didn’t feel right. We needed to know more about his re-classification and when I enquired, the Commonwealth War Graves Commission very promptly explained how this happened.

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ReClassification
‘The Army’s Graves Registration Report Form in our archive denotes that Albert Brown was a civilian (ex-army), working with the 11th Motor Ambulance Corps when he was accidently killed on 12th September 1920 and buried in Duisans British Cemetery. As a civilian, his accidental death in 1920 meant that he was not a ‘war casualty’ in terms of the Commission’s remit to commemorate servicemen and women who died in service and those who died up to 31st August 1921, of illness or injury caused by or exacerbated by their service during the war. As he had been buried in the cemetery amongst war casualties however, it was conducive for the Commission to erect a headstone and maintain his grave in order to preserve the appearance and uniformity of the site. As you have seen, the headstone is simply inscribed with his name, date of death, age and a religious emblem. When the paper cemetery records were used to create our computer database in 1997, Albert Brown was mistakenly entered under the classification of a war casualty with the information known about his military service. It was not until 2014 that the error came to light however, and so up until then, his details, although inaccurate, were available to view on our on-line casualty database. There are numerous other cases of the CWGC maintaining ‘non war’ graves on an ‘incidental and conducive’ basis but details about these are not included on our website as this lists the Commonwealth war dead, WWII civilians who died as a result of enemy action and some non-Commonwealth nationals whose graves are maintained on behalf of their government on a repayment or reciprocal basis’.

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Albert may no longer be on the CWGC database but he has his war grave and how he deserves it. He joined the Royal Horse & Field Artillery in Kingston on 21st October 1911 and served throughout the war. Albert’s father Hugh Brown was born in Warminster, Wiltshire in 1865 and like his father was a railway signalman. By 1887 he was in Hammersmith, west London and it was here on June 4th that he married Kate Eliza Churcher from Worthing. In 1891 the couple had settled at 32 Cambridge Road and they had two small children, Fanny and Charles Henry. Hugh’s widowed father was with him along with three children of his own. The golden age of rail had apparently pulled them all into the teeming metropolis. From at least 1900 the Brown family were in Summerstown at 20 Burtop Road. In the following year’s census there were five children, Frank Churcher Brown was born in 1892 and Albert Frederick two years later, both in Hammersmith. Only the youngest boy Edgar was born in Wandsworth, indicating that the family moved to the area in 1898. Just a few doors away from the Browns were the Warmans and its very likely Albert knew William, the Summerstown182 stretcher bearing hero.

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It would seem that in 1906 the Browns shifted two streets along and alighted at 11 Maskell Road where they would reside for the next three decades. This is one of what I have dubbed ‘The Lost Streets of Earlsfield’, wiped off the map after the River Wandle burst its banks in September 1968. Maskell Road does of course live on in name only but its neighbours have disappeared beneath the Burtop estate. Only two of the boys were present on the 1911 census and it looks like the 17 year old Frederick was in fact Albert. If so, he was working as a builder’s labourer.

loststreets

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In any case, just a few months later Albert Frederick Brown joined the army in Kingston, he gave his age as 18 though I think he was probably a year younger. He was a tall lad, at five feet nine and a half inches, blessed with hazel eyes and a fresh complexion. He told the military authorities that his occupation was a carman. Whatever he did over the next few years, Gunner Brown of the 26th Brigade Royal Field Artillery went into action on 16th August 1914, less than two weeks after the start of the war. Various medal rolls indicate that Albert also served with 116th Battery Royal Field Artillery and at Maricourt on the Somme he transfered to the Royal Army Service Corps. He was at some stage promoted to the rank of Lance Corporal. We can only speculate at what his being ‘accidentally killed’ on 12th September might mean. Did he step on an unexploded bomb? Was he hit by a truck or a lorry? The words on the graves registration form stating he was a civilian working for the 11th Motor Ambulance Corps might suggest some kind of battlefield clearance work. Obviously there were no more live casualties to be evacuated by such transport but undoubtedly plenty of dead. This would have been hard, dirty work, prone to all sorts of disease and infection. Influenza and pneumonia would have been rife and from the autumn of 1918 to late 1920, army medical facilities remained stationed in the area.

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Albert’s death at the age of 26 was part two of a double tragedy for his family as two years previously, on 24th April 1918, his older brother Frank Churcher Brown also serving with the Royal Field Artillery died of his wounds in a Birmingham hospital. He is buried in Magdalen Road Cemetery. Thankfully Edgar Brown survived the war. He was in the Royal Engineers and is indicated on the 1911 Absent Voters list. On the 1920 electoral roll he’s there alongside Albert and his parents. The war memorial in St Mary’s Church was unveiled in November 1919 bearing 180 names. At some stage over the next few years, the vicar was notified by the Brown family that Albert had died as a result of the Great War. Whether he was a civilian or a soldier was of no consequence.

Brown AF(2014)
Albert Frederick Brown can sadly no longer be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission database, as per the above image. Whilst the organisation clearly have their criteria, its a shame his listing couldn’t somehow have been maintained, perhaps with a foot-note to explain his unusual status. Thankfully he was there four years ago when we started this project and because of that we were able to place him on our poppy map at Maskell Road. That has eventually lead to us visiting his grave and through writing this short account of him, at least leave some sort of public recognition of his lengthy war-time military service. If he hadn’t been on that database we would have had to add him to the three other Summerstown182 that we have been unable to identify. Albert, we are so glad you slipped through the net.

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