A Black Poppy: Pte Harold Brown, of the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment
Black History Month
October is Black History Month and Surrey Heritage has marked this international campaign for many years. For centuries Black people have lived and worked in Surrey, or passed through it en-route to London or the coast. The Black History theme pages on our Exploring Surrey’s Past website feature stories that cover all aspects of Black History in Surrey, from slavery and abolition, to industry and literature. The stories are accompanied by research resources and a Black History bibliography, and they can be found online.
This year, to tie in with our Heritage Lottery Fund First World War commemoration project, ‘Surrey in the Great War: A County Remembers’, we are featuring Pte Harold Brown, who served with the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment (QRWS).
Pte Harold Brown (1899-1955), Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) RegimentFormer Tottenham Hotspur player Walter Tull, who achieved the rank of Lieutenant, is probably the most celebrated Black British soldier of the First World War but relatively little is known about other Black British soldiers who served in the war. Among them was Harold Brown of the 3/4th Battalion, Queen’s (Royal West Surrey) Regiment (QRWS).
Harold Brown was born on 23 May 1899, in Bromley-by-Bow, East London, to parents John Benjamin Brown, a West Indian seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma (née Cross), a white Londoner, who had married in Poplar in 1898. His address is given as 49 Oban Street, Poplar (East India Docks), and two years later the 1901 census records young Harold living with his mother and baby sister, Ada, at the same address. Ten years on, the 1911 census records him as a schoolboy in Canning Town, at 4 Watford Road, Tidal Basin, Victoria Docks, living with his mother, sister Ada, five year-old brother Gordon, and a boarder, Joseph Reid, who was a Jamaican seaman.About 60% of First World War soldiers’ service records were irretrievably damaged or lost completely as a result of enemy bombing in 1940 and it seems that Harold’s papers were among these as they do not appear to have survived. Neither do all the enlistment registers for the eastern recruiting grounds of the QRWS but we do know that Harold enlisted at Canning Town, was given a general army number G/24948, and served initially with the 3/4th Battalion QRWS up to 1917.
The 3/4th QRWS was initially a Territorial battalion officially formed in April 1915, engaged in home service and training. From October 1915 to July 1916, the battalion was billeted in Reigate, and amongst other duties, carried out training marches to Godstone, and musketry training at Rye, East Sussex. Following transfers-in from the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry in April 1916, the 3/4th Battalion reached full strength (1200) and in August 300 men were sent overseas to join The London Regiment. It was not until May 1917 that the remainder of the unit sailed from Southampton to France. Once in France, it was attached to the 21st Division and in July fought at Arras; by September it had moved to Zillebeke Lake, Ypres. On 2 October, the men joined the 8th Battalion Leicestershire Regiment on the front line, just east of Polygon Wood, where Harold’s first Certificate of Gallantry was earned. The conditions here were not good: the war diary reports that
‘this ground had been churned by the continuous shelling to an almost impenetrable morass’;
the whole area was also covered with barbed wire and concrete block houses manned with machine guns.
In this action, the 3/4th helped capture a German concrete fortress occupied by soldiers recently arrived from the Eastern Front. Fighting was fierce and intense, with severe losses: three officers and 61 men were killed, 17 officers and 241 men were wounded, and 21 men missing – over one third of the battalion. The war diary for 8 October (Appendix 12) records that a number of awards for conspicuous gallantry were made, including seven Divisional Commander’s Cards of Honour from Major H C Cannon MC, Commanding Officer of the unit. One of these cards was received by Harold Brown, who
‘set a fine example of physical endurance carrying on throughout the whole of October 4th although severely wounded at the outset’.
The card was sent from the Twenty First Division British Expeditionary Force and reads
‘Your Commanding Officer and Brigade Commander have informed me that you distinguished yourself in the Field between the 2nd and 7th October 1917. I congratulate you on your fine work’.
The War Office Weekly Casualty List for 8 November 1917 reports Harold wounded along with a number of Queen’s men.
There is no mention of Harold being sent home for hospital treatment and the 3/4th remained in the area, their strength a little over 600 men. Christmas was spent at Heudicourt, and in January 1918 the unit moved north of Peronne. By mid-February the 3/4th was disbanded and the men posted to other battalions; Harold became part of the 1/6th Battalion QRWS, which was attached to the 12th Division and based in northern France. From the documentation at the Imperial War Museum, it seems that at some point his regimental number changed to 207431.
A small collection of material relating to Harold is held at the Imperial War Museum and he was featured in their 2008 exhibition ‘From War to Windrush’. Harold’s papers include a second Divisional Certificate of Gallantry signed by Sir Henry Rawlinson (General Officer Commanding, Fourth Army), along with printed Army Orders issued from the Fourth Army Headquarters awarding him the Military Medal, in December 1919. The war diaries of 1/6th for that date show the battalion based in Auberchicourt, northern France, engaged in daily routines of salvage work, church parades, and recreational training but they do not cite a specific action for which the medal was awarded. Harold’s previous bravery may have been a factor. The Supplement to the London Gazette1 for 11 February 1919 lists Harold as being awarded the Military Medal. Click on the images below to see larger versions.
It is unfortunate that no other reference to Harold can be found in the regimental archives, or personal papers and photographs at Surrey History Centre. Memoirs of Black soldiers are rare and we can only wonder whether he served with other Black soldiers, or if other Black soldiers in the Surrey regiments received Gallantry awards or bravery medals?
Like many servicemen, Harold was not demobbed until April 1919. He went on to work as a seaman and a docker at the Royal Albert Docks in the East End of London until he died in 1955.
Black Tommies: the true picture
At least 10,000 Black Britons, many of African and West Indian heritage, fought in the First World War. Whilst being discouraged from active service alongside white soldiers, the enormous losses, and the influence of King George V, made this inevitable and Black recruits could be found in all branches of the armed forces, making a vital contribution.
British and French colonies in the Caribbean, Africa, Asia and elsewhere, provided a valuable source of volunteers. When war broke out West Indians donated large sums of money and resources to aid the war effort and also volunteered to fight for Britain, joining the British West India (Indies) Regiment (BWIR). Although Indian soldiers had fought in the trenches from 1914, Caribbean troops did not arrive until 1915. These troops were used as non-combatant soldiers in Egypt, Mesopotamia and parts of Europe, and assigned jobs such as loading ammunition, laying telephone wires and digging trenches. Conditions were appalling. Some Caribbean soldiers were involved in combat in France and by the end of the war over 15,000 West Indians of the BWIR had experienced military service. 60,000 native South African and 120,000 other Africans had also served in uniformed Labour Units. After the war, many Black soldiers from the colonies decided to make Britain their home and by 1918 it is estimated that the Black population here had trebled to 30,000.
Germany had colonies in Africa and included Black soldiers in their units, whilst Turkish forces comprised an African and a Muslim contingent. Entering the final phase of the war, the US army also had a large number of African Americans.
Changing racial awareness
There was growing racial tension following the end of the war. Race riots occurred in pockets across the country, as white ex-servicemen returned to find unemployment where jobs had been filled by Black workers. Unemployment led to areas of unrest, particularly in cities such as Cardiff. Race riots occurred largely around British sea ports, with memorandums issued by the government to try to protect Black workers and their families. Records held at The National Archives show an increasing racial awareness which led to the establishment of campaign groups fighting for racial equality in Britain across the British Empire.
- Marriage entry for John Benjamin Brown and Elizabeth Emma Cross, 20 June 1898, All Saints Church, Poplar.
- Baptism entry for Harold Brown, son of John Benjamin Brown, a seaman, and his wife Elizabeth Emma, of 49 Oban Street, baptised at St Michael’s church, South Bromley [Bromley-by-Bow], on 7 June 1899. Held at London Metropolitan Archives (and online via Ancestry).
- 1901 census (Ref.RG13/347/47) and 1911 census (Ref.RG14/9488/228) returns were searched by address (online via Ancestry).
- The Imperial War Museum (IWM) featured Harold Brown in their 2008 exhibition ‘From War to Windrush’ and on the ‘Lives of the First World War’ online resource https://livesofthefirstworldwar.org/lifestory/5011575. Original documents at the museum relating to him comprise: 2 Divisional Certificates of Gallantry recording his actions while serving in October 1917 in the 3/4th Battalion the Queen’s (Royal West Surrey Regiment) (attached 21st Division, signed by GOC Major General Sir David Campbell) and the 6th Battalion the Queen’s (12th Division, signed by GOC Major General H W Higginson), together with a printed certificate ‘signed’ by General Sir Henry Rawlinson (GOC Fourth Army) and printed Army Orders issued by Fourth Army Headquarters in December 1918 recording the award to him of the Military Medal, his Certificate of Demobilization (AF Z21, April 1919), his birth certificate and two photographs, including one of him in uniform. (Ref. IWM MISC 2816-5579-1-5).
- Harold’s story is featured in Stephen Bourne’s book, Britain’s Black Community and the Great War: Black Poppies (The History Press, 2014), SHC ref 940.03, p.43.
- World War One Service Medal and Award Roll (aka the Medal Index Roll), 1914-1920 (piece 0650), entries for the QRWS Regiment (online via Ancestry).
- Military Medal card for Pte Harold Brown, 1919 (online via The Genealogist).
- The London Gazette, 11 February 1919, citation for Pte Harold Brown’s award of the Military Medal (online via The Genealogist).
- QRWS Regiment 3/4th war diaries, including appendices and brief history of the battalion (SHC ref QRWS/7/1 & 3).
- QRWS Regiment 1/6th war diaries (SHC ref QRWS/14/1/2).
- The First World War diaries of the Surrey regiments can be searched on the website of the Surrey Infantry Museum.
- The War Office Weekly Casualty Lists, 8 November 1917 (No.5411, Pt 2; online via The Genealogist).
Dabydeen, David, et al, The Oxford Companion to Black British History, 2007
See an online article by Simon Rogers, ‘The Forgotten Soldiers’, The Guardian, 2008.
Read the BBC History feature ‘A White Man’s War? World War One and the West Indies’.
Read more about Black activism in Britain after the First World War on The National Archives Blog.
The London Gazette is the official paper of the government in the UK and the ‘Supplements’ section contain citations of gallantry awards and promotions, including The Victoria Cross (V.C.), the Distinguished Service Order (D.S.O.), the Military Cross (M.C.) and the Distinguished Conduct Medal (D.C.M.), and the Military Medal (M.M).