Remembering the First World War fallen - Christopher Wilkinson Brown (1892-1916)
On Sunday 7th May 1916 the flag over St Mary’s Church, Embsay, was flown at half-mast – a large congregation came that day for a memorial service – conducted not by Embsay’s vicar, the Reverend Charles Vernon Brown, but by Archdeacon Cook, and Rev. Lister, the curate at Skipton Holy Trinity. The Revd. Brown was in deep mourning for his son who had been killed in action only a week before.
Charles Wilkinson Brown, born at Embsay Vicarage in 1892, was noted for his “kind and genial disposition.” He had joined up in the first rush of war fever, having only just graduated from Cambridge (he won a scholarship for St. John’s College) where he had studied history. At both school and College, he had been a member of the Debating Societies and was a keen sportsmen - enjoying tennis, cricket, rugby, football, hockey, and rowing. He also had a passionate interest in motorcycles.
He was known as a young man who put in every effort to do his best, and worked extremely hard – to the point of exhaustion - to do well at whatever he tackled - whether in sport or in his academic studies. And of course, he joined the Officer Cadet Corps while at University. He was barely out of college when war broke out in August 1914, and immediately he joined up as an officer with the Royal Scots Fusiliers. He was sent to Greenock for training (where, confusingly, there was another young officer of the same rank and the same battalion, called Christopher Wilson Brown). By November, he wrote to his brother, he was anxious to get to the front, finding life in barracks rather dull – “From all accounts”, he wrote to his brother Charles (who had joined the Royal Army Medical Corps), “the front is pretty rotten but anything to get a change from this boring hole. We have a little bridge & poker too which livens things up & occasional trips to Glasgow … forming fours & route marching is most deadly boring.” But at least it gave him the opportunity to grow a distinguished twirly moustache of which he was quite proud.
He didn’t have to wait much longer for the excitement he yearned for – early in 1915 he was sent out as a 2nd Lt to the Western Front. Attached to the 2nd Battalion he saw action at Neuve Chappelle in March, facing stiff German opposition. Christopher was one of 10 officers who were wounded, but luckily his head wounds were not too serious. He was invalided to a hospital in Cambridge, and once recovered, was returned straight back to the trenches. In May 1915, however, he was in hospital again, this time with an infection. After a month or so, having been promoted to Lieutenant, Christopher was back in the trenches, now attached to the 1st Battalion, stationed near Ypres. He experienced the full horrors of trench warfare in Flanders during the battle of Loos, under heavy bombardment at Hooge, where he was wounded again in September 1915. It was serious enough for him to be sent to hospital in England, but he was able later to enjoy a period of recuperation at the home of a family friend, who happened to be a doctor, in Pudsey, and from there visit his parents in Embsay for a few weeks, before being sent back out to the trenches yet again. At Vierstaat in April 1916, his battalion faced a unit of Prussians, who made repeated and determined efforts to raid and destroy the Scots Fusiliers’ trenches. There was at last a quiet lull in the fighting, enabling reinforcements to arrive. The unit diary reported on 30th April: “There was practically no mortar activity during the day.” The evening was quiet and uneventful. But, in the very early hours of that morning, Christopher’s luck finally ran out. “Lt. Wilkinson Brown was shot through the head and killed instantaneously.” He was presumably the victim of a sniper. He was 23 years old and had only just been promoted to the rank of Captain.
It is often forgotten that junior officers suffered higher casualty rates than the ordinary solider. As a second lieutenant, as a lieutenant and then as a captain, Christopher would have been expected to lead his men by example; to always be at the head of any attack, the first to climb over the parapet and be seen by the enemy, leading the charge across No Man’s Land. He was to maintain morale by displaying personal qualities of courage, endurance and British stiff upper lip. At the start of the war the life expectancy of a frontline junior officer was 11 days. By 1918 it was still only one month. While 12% of the British army's ordinary soldiers were killed, 17% of officers died.
Christopher Wilkinson Brown was buried in the Dickebusch New Military Cemetery, Belgium. At home in Embsay he is commemorated on the village war memorial and in St Mary’s church on the memorial brass plaque. There is also a charming wooden table, which now stands at the east end of the church, dedicated to the vicar’s son, engraved with his name. He is also commemorated in the churchyard, his name being added to the headstone over the family burial plot. His personal effects, which would have been returned to the Reverend Brown and his wife Alice, were few, but tell us much about this young man – a copy of The New Testament, a wrist watch, and a small case which contained a crucifix, and 2 little good luck charms – a miniature bugle, and a miniature revolver.
Jane Lunnon, Embsay-with-Eastby Research Group (part of Upper Wharfedale Heritage Group)