Charles Raymond Brown is one of fourteen World War One soldiers to be commemorated with a plaque at Old St Paul’s. He died exactly a century ago this week, on 1 October 1918.
Just nine months after their wedding, Jessie Brown (née Bevin) said farewell to her husband, Charles, as he boarded a troopship bound for the Great War. It was a conflict in which 100,000, or just under ten percent of New Zealand’s population served overseas and in which nearly one in five of those did not return. After an anxious year of separation, during which casualty lists filled the papers, Jessie was to learn that Charles had been killed in action in France. It was just one month before the end of the war.
Jessie Audrey Bevin and Charles Raymond Brown were married at Old St Paul’s in November 1916. She was 24 and he, 26. The wedding was described in the papers: ‘The bride wore a dainty white wedding dress and embroidered veil, and carried a bouquet of sweet peas.’
Jessie was born in Invercargill, but her father’s work for the railways department took the family to different parts of the country. When she was five, the family moved to Auckland, where they remained until Jessie was twenty. Charles and his family lived in Auckland and it seems reasonable to presume the couple met during this time.
Charles was born in Auckland. He attended Devonport Primary School on the North Shore, and later, Auckland Grammar School. He was both athletic and academic and won a number of school prizes. He studied law at Auckland University College and worked as a clerk for law firm Buddle, Richmond and Buddle.
We can only speculate about when and how Jessie and Charles may have met, but there seems little doubt that this handsome, athletic and diligent student with a promising law career ahead of him was capable of making a young woman’s heart flutter.
After Auckland, the Bevin family spent two and a half years in Greymouth, before moving to Wellington where Jessie’s father was appointed Traffic Manager of Railways for the Wellington region. Assuming the couple formed a connection while Jessie was in Auckland, the period of separation would have been an incentive for Charles to work hard, finish his study and put himself in a stable position that would allow him to marry. In August 1915, Charles was admitted as a solicitor of the Supreme Court. He found employment, with lawyer, John Alexander, in Auckland and began to build his career and experience. Just over a year later, he and Jessie married.
Two months after their wedding, Charles enlisted to serve with the army. He joined the 4th reserve battalion of the Wellington Regiment. While other young men had rushed to enlist, Charles had remained focused on his studies. But by the end of 1916, his training and qualification was complete, he had a solid career foundation and had secured the hand of the woman he loved. There was a great deal of social pressure on young men to enlist, and there is no doubt that Charles would have been feeling it. ‘Shirker’ was a dirty word, and in November 1916, the first ballot of conscripts was drawn.
Charles went into camp in February 1917. His diligent study habits and athletic aptitude doubtless served him well in the army. In July 1917 he qualified for a commission and was appointed platoon sergeant. He left New Zealand with the 29th reinforcements E Company on 13 August 1917. As well as parting from his wife, Charles also left behind a younger brother, Guy Lennox Brown. Guy was too young to serve, being just fourteen at the time of his brother’s departure.
The first stop for the Company was Glasgow, Scotland, and from there on to Sling Camp in England. It was to be only a brief stop, as men were desperately needed on the Western Front. Here Charles, along with many other fresh unbloodied recruits would enter an arena that had dragged wearily on through both small successes and appalling failures for the past year and a half.
In the autumn months of July-November, directly preceding Charles’ arrival in France, the allies had suffered through terrible conditions at Passchendaele. Heavy rain and constant shelling had turned the ground to a thick muddy pulp, artillery and tanks were unable to be brought forward. Casualties had been high and morale was low.
The New Zealand Division spent the winter, December 1917 – February 1918, south of Passchendaele. New recruits were unable to make up for the losses sustained and divisions were reorganised. The new men needed training, but were required to hold a fairly active sector along the front line. An attack on Polderhoek on 3 December gained the Allies some ground though not their objective and cost a considerable number of lives.
Charles’ military records show that he reverted to the ranks ‘at own request’ on 20 December 1917. It is possible that recent unsuccessful offensives made him feel keenly his lack of experience. Things were going poorly for the Allies and he may not have wanted the feeling of responsibility for further unavoidable loss of life for little gain. It was a tough moment to have been thrown into the breach.
But if Charles had found the situation hot before, it was about to get even hotter. Russia’s withdrawal from the war meant that German troops were redirected to the Western Front. In March 1918, the German Spring Offensive succeeded in breaking the British line and forcing a retreat. The New Zealand Division was among the forces hastily deployed to counter this attack. Fierce battle ensued.
By August, the German army was in retreat. The offensive had stretched German resources and supply of men and arms was dwindling. The Allied forces were also much depleted, though new troops were beginning to arrive from the United States. Most importantly, the Allies were able to increase production of artillery and had improved upon their earlier tank design.
Charles had arrived in France to depressed winter conditions, then faced sustained German attack. To now be part of a force gaining ground and moving swiftly, must have been a profound and wonderful relief. That he would see a victorious end to this conflict and soon return home to his wife seemed within grasp.
For Jessie at home, the news was overwhelmingly positive. Headlines declared enemy surrender and Allied success. In the paper were lists of returning soldiers, daring her to hope that Charles would soon be among them. This is the climate in which she received news of his death. To mourn a personal loss amid public celebration would have been a most difficult experience.
The Evening Post on the day that Charles died, 1 October 1918.
On 1 October 1918, Charles’ company advanced towards Crèvecoeur. They encountered enemy shelling and Charles was killed. The Allied advance continued and the following month the war was over. Thirty months on the Western Front had cost New Zealand 12,483 lives.
Charles was to the army, one man, but to his wife, Jessie, an individual most dearly beloved. The memorial plaque in Old St Paul’s reads: ‘In proud and loving memory of my husband Charles Raymond Brown, killed in action, France, October 1, 1918, aged 28. With eternal love.’
Charles’ Grave in the Anneux British Cemetery, Nord, France.
Sources: Auckland Museum Online Cenotaph records: Brown, Charles Raymond, 1889-1918; Charles Raymond Brown’s war service record, R21888478, Archives New Zealand; Wellington; Michael King, New Zealanders at war. Auckland: Penguin, 2003. Ian McGibbon, Ian, The Oxford companion to New Zealand military history. Auckland: Oxford University Press, 2000; Ministry for Culture and Heritage, ‘Western Front’, URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/western-front WW100, ‘History Guide’, URL: https://ww100.govt.nz/history-guide; New Zealand Herald, May 27, 1897, 5. New Zealand Times, January 18, 1915, 6. Evening Post, November 10, 1916, 9; October 1, 1918, 7. New Zealand Times, October 25, 1918, 3.
Images: Portrait of C. R. Brown. Auckland Grammar School chronicle. 1918, v.6, n.2. https://www.nzwargraves.org.nz/casualties/charles-raymond-brown