When the national census was taken in 1901, Thomas and Mary Brown were living at 9 Longson Street, Stockport with their two children; William (then aged 7) and Nellie (6). Thomas was working as a hatter. Nothing else is known of the family, except that they later moved to 1 Bentley Street in the Lancashire Hill area of town. When William enlisted, on 26 May 1915, he left his job as a printer and was assigned to the Royal Field Artillery and given 5033 as his service number. However, this was a nominal assignment for the purposes of his initial training and, before he went overseas on active service, he was transferred to the Durham Light Infantry, on 9 January 1917 – the day he left for France. Whilst still in training at Rugeley Camp in Staffordshire, he found himself in trouble for overstaying his leave pass and was fined a day’s pay.
The attack which would take William’s life would later be called the Battle of Messines. The British advance would start with the explosion of 19 mines under the German front line. Messines is some miles to the south of the Belgian town of Ypres (now Ieper) and was situated on a ridge which, in this flat landscape, dominated the surrounding area. It was vital for the planned later attack towards Passchendaele that the ground be captured. The flanks of the attack would be from just south of Ypres itself, to a few miles south of Messines. Zero hour would be at 3.10am on 7 June.
The day before, William and his mates were in billets at the town ramparts in Ypres and, at 7pm, marched off to take up positions at Zillebeke, almost on the northern flank of the attack. The Battalion’s War Diary, held at the National Archives, takes up the story. “At 3am, all was peaceful- everyone lay out in the open waiting for the mines to explode. Promptly at 3.10am, “up” went the mines, when the most intense bombardment of the enemy’s line commenced – the enemy’s barrage also opening out immediately.”
The men continued to lie out in the open, without the benefit of the protection of the trench from the shelling, until 4.30, when they moved forward to their attack position. The Diary makes little reference to the actual dash across No Man’s Land, recording only that their objective had been secured by 7am, with the only 15 casualties.
“We consolidated our position and, about 12 noon, the enemy aeroplanes spotted our new position, consequently, shells of all calibres fell on our new trench. Our casualties were totalling up very rapidly and, by 6pm, our casualties had amounted to over 200, not including about 50 men missing. The guns which were causing our casualties came from our left front. This was reported to Brigade but the severe shelling never ceased.”
The Durhams held on to their gains until they were relieved at 4am on the 8th. Although they had taken heavy losses, the attack across the whole Messines battlefield had been a complete success.