Not yet 20 years old, Harry Brown was a Canadian Private in the First World War. His determination to deliver an important message gave new meaning to the word bravery.
At the young and fearless age of 18, Harry W. Brown (also known as John Harry Brown) left his calm life as a single farmer in Gananoque, Ontario in 1916 to join the Alberta Regiment of the 10th Canadian Infantry Battalion. The troops were soon shipped overseas to fight the German invasion in France.
Canadian Battalion in battle with Trench Foot, Mustard Gas and Artillery
The Canadian battalion stepped into a war theatre that was a gory, bloody, muddy tragedy. Trenches dug to keep soldiers hidden and safe filled with water and muck. Traversing fields was no better – flooded ground softened into a thick mire that soldiers could barely get through, let alone surreptitiously cross. Constantly soggy, feet became infected with Trench Foot, a horrible, painful state that rotted skin and tissue, meaning the loss of toes and feet for many. All the while, the enemy was relentless in battle, blasting the allies with Mustard Gas and high explosives at every opportunity.
Capturing Hill 70 near Béthune, France, the allies found themselves once again under attack. The radio wires were cut and there was no signal connection to let Headquarters know of the fresh battle. Harry Brown and a fellow soldier volunteered for the urgent mission of relaying the information. They were to “deliver it at all costs.” The two men took the words with great seriousness.
Private Harry Brown injured but still moving to complete his mission
Caught in an inundation of intense shelling, Brown’s companion was killed. Brown’s arm was shattered in an artillery blast, but he managed still to go forward. Legion Magazine described the frightening journey to deliver the message:
“Although aching and weak from blood loss, Brown pressed on alternately staggering and crawling, occasionally lying down to gather his strength. Pale, dirty, haggard and bloodied, he finally reached the dugout and stumbled into the arms of an officer.”
Wounded, Private Brown delivered the urgent message
Tumbling down the stairs but unwavering from his duty, the wounded soldier managed to utter, “Important Message”. He handed over the paper and fell into unconsciousness. Harry Brown died a few hours later at the Dressing Station, on August 17, 1917.
On the delivery of the urgent communication to Headquarters, new orders were given. Because of Harry Brown’s valour, the gain of Hill 70 was kept for a while longer and most importantly, the lives of his fellow soldiers in three battalions were spared. As it was, the battle for the hill claimed thousands of casualties.
For “most conspicuous bravery, courage and devotion to duty,” Private Harry Brown was posthumously honoured with the British Commonwealth’s highest award for bravery, the Victoria Cross. He is buried in France at Noeux-les-Mines Communal Cemetery. His Victoria Cross may usually be viewed at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, Ontario, but for the month of August 2007, the town of Gananoque will be hosting the medal at the Royal Canadian Legion to mark the 90th anniversary of the award.
Unimaginable devotion and bravery indeed, from a young Canadian soldier.
Sources and information about Private Harry Brown and the Battle for Hill 70:
This article was first published on Suite101.com in 2007. Copyright Susanna McLeod