Lest we forget

Image (36)I don’t know whether many Cats have done this, but I accessed my (maternal) grandfather’s World War 1 records from the War Memorial.  These records have now been digitised.

Reading through his records – his name was Harold Hartley Browning, called Hartley – was a very interesting and emotional experience.

Seeing the signature of my great-grandmother, Elizabeth Anne Browning, on the Letter of Consent to enlist brought a tear to my eye.

Actually, Grandpa (although I hardly knew him, he died when I was 4) was nearly 20 when he enlisted.  His records say he was an Architect, which seems pretty young.  But he had been to The Tech – ie. RMIT, the name which my mother still uses.  He practised as an architect after the war, designing houses in the South-Eastern suburbs of Melbourne, some of which still stand.

While he was quite short, 5 foot 7 inches, he was very light at the time – just over 8 stones (53 kilos).  I guess lean men were common in those days.

We knew that he was a member of the Australian Flying Corps, which was part of the Australian Army.  This was prior to the establishment of the RAAF.

Flying in grown-up versions of balsa wood and rubber bands, he was shot down over France, but managed to get back to England.  He spent some months in a rehabilitation facility in Kent (it was probably a commandeered stately home by the look of the records – think Brideshead Revisited) where he recovered from his injuries and complained of tooth ache.  (Bad teeth were  pretty common in those days.)

While expressing a reluctance to return to flying – gosh, what a surprise –  he was sent back on flying duty and luckily escaped further injury.  He returned to Australia and his appointment was terminated on 25 May 1919.

What effect did his war service have on him?  Who knows, really?  He was a pretty heavy drinker and spent a lot of time with his men friends at the Savage Club.  But of course no one was encouraged to talk about their war experiences at that time.

It seemed like the right day to re-read his records.

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11 Responses to Lest we forget

  1. Nic

    My family did the same. I learnt of my Great Grandfather’s occupation as a sailmaker and where he lived. I learnt that he had been found half dead on the Western front and repatriated. His son’s war record from the next war is even more illuminating, more from the trouble he got into. Both were incredibly brave and had, as a consequence of their service, short, pain filled lives. I wish i could find an online copy of an excerpt of Phil Cleary’s book where he describes the war backgraound and suffering of a couple of men whom Brunswick locals would have seen as ‘derros’. May they and all servicemen rest in peace.

  2. Good to see the records have been digitised, Judith. Must have look through them for grandad.

  3. Frank in Perth

    A man of 5 foot 7 inches was not particularly short for those times, and the British Army relaxed rules for conscripted men to serve in “Bantam Brigades” whose men might only be 5’0″ to 5’3″

  4. manalive

    He certainly had an beautifully bold hand, a lost art nowadays.

  5. thefrollickingmole

    The Museum seems to be extremely competently run for a government type place.

    Found the maps my great-uncles men made of his jungle grave in PNG, apparently he went forward and deliberately triggered a Jap ambush saving his comrades. I was always family “legend” but the documents seemed to confirm it.
    He was reburied about 4 times before he ended up in a permanent war grave.

    WW1 saw all the males in one branch of my mothers family tree wiped out. Only the father who enlisted “to look after the boys” made it back.

    Another relative spent nearly his whole service in hospital with various diseases and as far as we know never got shot at.

  6. papachango

    it’s amazing some of the records you cvan get online, then by extension by inquiring with military museums etc. I got full records of my grandfather and great uncle’s service in WWI & WWII, also lost a great uncle in WWI, Western Front.

    Even earlier than that I had a great-great uncle who served in the 10th Royal Hussars, a British cavalry regiment. Killed in action in 1897 fighting in Ireland, but prior to that he was sent to Sudan to help the Ottoman Egyptians (largely propped up by Britian at the time), fight off an army of Sudanese Arabs, led by the Mahdi – they were described back then as ‘Islamist Jihadists’

    …plus ca change

  7. Aaron

    The National Archives and War Memorial do a great job with these records. I’ve been busy trying to piece together my great-grandfathers story. He enlisted at the age of 37 in 1940 leaving behind his small business and young family including three children under the age of 12. I’ve always been inspired by a man who willingly sacrificed all he had worked for to enlist for his country.

    Unfortunately he was never open about his experiences during the war and its been frustrating not knowing about the injuries he received and why he was mentioned in dispatches for distinguished service but hopefully more documents I’ve requested from the War Memorial may begin to answer these questions.

  8. Helen Armstrong

    I have found both my grandfathers and had their records printed and sent to my mother. They were so different, one shortish, about 5’8″ and eight stone, was a quiet man who apparently had one button undone at the races and was also reprimanded for sharing his water with his horse, the other was more out going, being overly sociable in a house of ill repute. That got him demoted. He too loved his horse, who had carried him valiantly all through, taking him up 4 times to be shot – it saddened him all his life that his horse was sold, I wish for his sake he had been a bit more resourceful and taken him off and shot him himself as many did. They were both good and kind men, hard working and generous, I am blessed to have known them both.

    The descriptions break your heart, eye colour, distinguishing marks, height and weight, it is almost as though they are standing before you, young and full of life. It used to surprise me that people I knew as older were once young, LOL, no more, me too!

  9. MT Isa Miner

    Like you, Manalive, the writing is a mark of an age of elegance I will never see.

    I look at some old bloke who looks all washed up and then from those wrinkly old fingers comes a beauty of letters that I envy. A firmness, a sense of knowing something secret , that even the 20 year olds like your grandfather had .

    Not that I want a share in their later life, as you say, best to say thanks and R.I.P.

  10. Chris M

    Yes, as Frank says 5 foot 7 inches would have been regarded as an average to tall man back then.

    I wish I could write like they did in that era.

  11. James of the Glens

    A fine and moving description, Judith.

    A relative of mine was similarly slim (it might have been the food!), though of greater height, and after a taste of the trenches in the AIF, decided to train as a pilot. He later became the 10th highest scoring Australian ‘ace’ with at least 19 ‘kills’ over northern Italy (45 Squadron).

    But there was no happy ending and during his return home (Melbourne) in 1919 as a contestant in the England-Australia Air Race was drowned along with his engineer after his Martinsyde plane crashed off the coast of Corfu.

    It is hard to imagine the grief of his parents and new bride.

    In Memoriam: Capt. Cedric Howell MM, DFC.

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