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Third Battle of Ypres centenary: ‘Distinguished’ East End soldier survived horrors of Passchendaele

PUBLISHED: 09:00 31 July 2017 | UPDATED: 09:14 31 July 2017

Harold Brown (standing) served in the First World War, including at Passchendaele, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. Harold was commended by his superiors for his bravery, and received the Military Medal for gallantry. Picture: Imperial War Museums/Lives of the First World War

Harold Brown (standing) served in the First World War, including at Passchendaele, which is marking its 100th anniversary this year. Harold was commended by his superiors for his bravery, and received the Military Medal for gallantry. Picture: Imperial War Museums/Lives of the First World War

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“I died in hell – (They called it Passchendaele).”

Battle of Pilckem Ridge (opening attack of the Third Battle of Ypres). British troops loading a pack horse with wiring staples. Note the horse's gas mask. Near Pilckem, Belgium, July 31, 1917. Picture: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia CommonsBattle of Pilckem Ridge (opening attack of the Third Battle of Ypres). British troops loading a pack horse with wiring staples. Note the horse's gas mask. Near Pilckem, Belgium, July 31, 1917. Picture: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Words which must have recalled dark memories for veterans who fought in the West Flanders village, referenced by Siegfried Sassoon in his poem Memorial Tablet.

Passchendaele was the scene of two battles in the latter months of the Third Battle of Ypres – which marks its centenary this year – and the suffering of soldiers knew no bounds in the mud which became the graves of so many.

One of the soldiers to survive was Harold Brown, who was commended by superiors for his bravery. The private’s story is shared in Lives of the First World War, an Imperial War Museums digital archive featuring the tales of thousands of men and women who served or worked on the home front.

Harold was born in 1899 in Poplar to Elizabeth and John Benjamin Brown. His father was a West Indian seaman and his mother a Londoner, with the family expanded by the arrival of two more children, Ada and Gordon.

The 1901 census reveals the family were living at 49 Oban Street, Poplar, but by 1911 had moved to 4 Watford Road, Tidal Basin, Victoria Docks.

Harold served with 3/4 Battalion and 6 Battalion of the Royal West Surrey Regiment.

In October 1917, his unit was ordered to advance north-eastwards from Polygon Wood, with the eventual aim of taking the high ground along Passchendaele Ridge.

An extract from the 62nd Infantry Brigade Narrative of Operations, from October 2-7, 1917, tells of difficult to negotiate mud and tangled wire, and the “offensive spirit of the 3/4 ‘Queen’s’ in their first fight”, which was “beyond all praise”.

Men of the 4th Battalion, Coldstream Guards sitting on a captured German howitzer (possibly 10.5 cm Feldhaubitze M.12) outside a German concrete blockhouse on the outskirts of Houlthulst Forest during the Battle of Poelcappelle, October 9, 1917. Picture: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia CommonsMen of the 4th Battalion, Coldstream Guards sitting on a captured German howitzer (possibly 10.5 cm Feldhaubitze M.12) outside a German concrete blockhouse on the outskirts of Houlthulst Forest during the Battle of Poelcappelle, October 9, 1917. Picture: Imperial War Museum/Wikimedia Commons

Harold received the divisional commander’s card of honour for setting “a fine example of physical endurance carrying on throughout the whole of October 4th although severely wounded at the outset”.

He gained another commendation card for “distinguishing himself in the field”, and in 1918, was awarded the Military Medal for gallantry.

The private was demobilised in 1919. After two years as a Royal Mail seaman, he was employed at the Royal Albert Docks until his death in 1955.

Explore the experiences of thousands of other soldiers at livesofthefirstworldwar.org.

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