A Great-Uncle Still in Belgium

I might as well tell readers a couple of things about me that will become obvious by the end of this article. Firstly, I'm not much of family historian. And, secondly, there are times when my inability to notice the glaringly obvious is embarrassing.

A few years ago, I researched my grandfather's war service with 17/Manchester Regiment. Since then, I don't know how many times I've looked at pages 90 & 91 of the Manchester Battalions' Book of Honour. Page 91 is a photograph of XVII platoon, "E" Company, 17th Battalion and it shows my grandfather, Thomas Brough, sitting cross-legged on the extreme right of the group. A framed copy of the photo hangs on the wall above my computer. It's a daily reminder of why I have an interest in the Great War. Page 90 of the book lists all the men in the photograph but doesn't indicate where each man sits or stands.


Several months ago, I was at a meeting of my local branch of the Western Front Association and another member said to me "Hey, John. You're looking for Broughs in the Manchesters, aren't you? I've found a few for you in the Book of Honour". I wasn't, but I took the list and casually started to look them up when I got home. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial feather when I realised that there were two on page 90. I knew that 9210 Private Thomas Brough was there, but I had never noticed that, only eight names later, there was also 9220 Private R Brough. This was worthy of some research. This man might be relative of granddad's. I think I see a resemblance between Tom Brough and the man sitting cross-legged, fourth from the left. I hope it's not a fanciful thought.


Using the information from the CD "Soldiers Died in the Great War" and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, I quickly established that Robert Brough had been killed in action whilst serving with the Border Regiment in September 1918. Further information from the 1901 Census showed that Tom did have a younger brother called Robert who would have been the same age as the dead soldier. I decided that, for now, I might have found a great uncle.


In 1901, Robert, then aged 11, was living at the family home - 62 Taylor Street, in the Gorton area of Manchester. His father, John Brough, worked as a general labourer, as did his eldest brother, James. My grandfather, Tom, was aged 13 and not yet working. His younger siblings were Ernest, 8; Florence, 6 and Peter, 3.

On 30 July 1910, Robert, now aged 21, got married at the parish church of St Jude's in Ancoats, Manchester. His bride was Catherine Connor, a woman six years older than him and the daughter of a packing case maker. Over the coming years, they would have three sons. Ernest was born in 1911, Robert in 1912 and Harry in April 1914.


They lived at 26 Nelson Street, in the Bradford area of the City. The photograph of the street dates from 1964, just before the houses were demolished.

Many of the residents were miners, working in the pit that overlooked the street. Others worked for major local employers like Clayton Aniline, dye manufacturers. Robert worked for Manchester Corporation Gas Department at the Bradford Road Station, as did Tom Brough. J Brough, who might have been their older brother, James, is also listed in the Manchester Battalions' Book of Honour as working there. Nearly 700 local men would serve in the armed forces from just these three workforces. Most of them would live in the east Manchester areas of Beswick, Bradford and Gorton.

At this point in my research, I enlisted the help of an "internet pal". She was able to find that some of Robert's service papers had survived at the National Archives in London. These provided the basis for confirming much of Robert's story. I owe my friend many thanks for this help and also for listening when I needed to test whether my conclusions were right.

Robert enlisted into the army at Manchester on 21 January 1915, three days after his older brother. Tom was quite tall and Robert was significantly shorter at 5 foot 6 inches and had a full expanded chest measurement of only 35 inches. He was a month short of his twenty fifth birthday. During training, the Manchesters' reduced their companies to four and Tom was allocated to "A" Company. As 17/Manchester was a "Pals Battalion", it is likely that Robert was also assigned to that Company.


I've told the story of 17/Manchester in my Hellfire Corner article about Tom which you can read by clicking on the link at the end of this present one. Suffice to say that Robert came through two and a half years of fighting unscathed, having seen action on the Somme, at Arras and at the Third Battle of Ypres. His records show that, in late August 1916, he was hospitalised for two weeks with influenza. In late October, he was in hospital again, for a few days, with a minor injury. Sometime after that, he was granted 14 days home leave. It's the only period of leave he received between arriving on the Western Front in November 1915 and October 1918

In spite of being an experienced soldier, Robert was never promoted from being a private. The Battalion suffered many casualties during the German attacks of March and April 1918 and, in mid-May, it was effectively disbanded. Robert was transferred to 1/Border Regiment with effect from 6 June and was allocated 29690 as his new service number. Interestingly, the Borders' Regimental Museum considers the number to be one assigned in late 1916, but Robert's service papers are quite clear on this point.

For the next few weeks, Robert and his new mates were in and out of the front line trenches. It was a relatively quiet period but the men often undertook raids on the enemy trenches opposite.

By mid August, it was clear the Allies were starting to win the War. There would be no further defeats but German Army would continue to fight hard and would cause many casualties. On the night of 31 August, the Battalion received orders for an attack towards the village of Steenwercke in northern France. Supported by troops from the Corps Cyclist Company, the Borders were able to make a rapid and successful advance. Between 10am and 6pm, they moved forward about 5000 yards and suffered only 10 casualties.

A month later, on 28 September, they were back in the attack; this time east of the Belgian town of Ypres. Robert and his comrades attacked at 5.30am, in drizzling rain. Three hours later, they had captured their final objective, Inverness Copse. The Copse will have been well known to Robert. He had been here before, while with the Manchesters. On 31 July 1917, the Manchesters' objective had been a German trench which protected the Copse. They failed to take it and had to dig in just short, before withdrawing. This time, there was little opposition and the War Diary notes that "A" Company captured the Headquarters of the 12th Bavarian Regiment, including its commanding officer and about 110 other troops.

The next day was quiet but at 6.30am on the 30th, patrols reported that the Germans appeared to have withdrawn. Orders were given to move forward. The Regimental History records that "the advance was pressed all morning, the enemy falling back until, about 4.15, he began to stand once more and the fighting was severe, the defence by his machine gunners being very stubborn". Unusually, the Brigadier, General Jackson, had personally led the right half of the Borders and "greatly inspired all ranks with his gallantry". The men had advanced so far, that it was not possible to bring supplies up to them and they had to eat their iron rations.


On 1 October, 1/Border was withdrawn, for rest and re-organisation, to billets back in Ypres. Over the coming days, the Allied armies continued to push the Germans back across France but, in Belgium, there was a lull in the fighting. On 14 October, Robert was back in the front line near the hamlet of Barraken, to the north east of the town of Courtrai (now Kortrijk). The Borders had advanced here the previous day, through thick fog. At midday, the Battalion was ordered to move forward, in artillery formation, to act as cover for the whole Divisional advance. Their position was between Olivia Farm and Sovereign Wood. I visited the area in April 2005. Before I went, I compared trench maps of the time and a modern map and have been able to pinpoint the locations.


Olivia Farm in the background, Sovereign Wood to the left, behind the nearer buildings

The advance started about 2.30pm, without artillery support. "A" and "B" Companies were on the right and "C" and "D" on the left, all with scouts out in front. They quickly came under machine gun fire and were ordered to fall back to the area between the Farm and the Wood.

Robert's last night was quiet and it had been decided that the next morning the troops would attack again following closely behind a creeping artillery barrage. At 8.15am, the Battalion, with 2/South Wales Borderers on their left, started to move forward to the "start line". The Regimental History records

"The enemy appears to have at once noticed the movement and fired bursts from numerous machine guns, while his aeroplanes flying over in formation directed a certain amount of artillery fire on the assembly area, but happily very few casualties resulted."

The area of the German first and second lines

The Regimental History continues :

"The Battalion came at once under heavy fire of all kinds, but pressed on, and carried the enemy's first line of resistance; a second line in rear of a broad belt of wire gave more trouble, but this was overcome and this line carried by about 9.35am, while 10 minutes later "A" Company reported being in possession of the village of Salines. There was now a slight check owing to opposition from the enemy holding Gulleghem, but by about 10.40 this village was also cleared, touch established with 36th Division and the advance went on , the front line companies attacking the buildings and enclosures in Heule where the left hand company managed to get a footing; but the Bois d'Heule had not yet been taken and enfilade fire being experienced on the left , "C" Company under Capt Durlacher formed a defensive flank facing north towards this wood, which was captured soon after noon, and some half hour later the Courtrai-Inglemunster railway was also in our possession."

Other units continued to push forward and the Borders went into billets for the night, being relieved back to Salines on the 16th.

Using contemporary and modern maps, I had hoped to be able to closely follow the route Robert may have taken. But the area looks very different to how it would have been in 1918. After the first few hundred yards, you come to a large modern industrial estate. The hamlet of Salines has been replaced by modern housing as has the neighbouring larger village of Gullegem. Heule is a couple of minutes drive further on and is now a northern suburb of the town of Kortrijk. I was disappointed to find that there is now nothing to tell you of the events of nearly 90 years ago.

The story of the attack is concluded in the Regimental History as follows

"During this attack the Battalion captured 150 prisoners, 1 howitzer and 5 machine guns; throughout the enemy resisted with considerable vigour, causing a continuous running fight. His artillery fire was never very severe and was chiefly from "whizzbangs" and 4.5s and for defence he relied mainly on a large number of heavy machine guns which were difficult to locate owing to the enclosed nature of the country and the number of farms and cottages. The advance was across land traversed by many streams, the banks of which were sodden and spongy.

The 1st Battalion Border Regiment had thus in an action lasting for three hours, advanced 4,500 yards on a front of 750 yards capturing the village of Salines and the northern half of that of Heule.  During the action 14 non-commissioned officers and men were killed.

Lieutenant G E H Slater, 2nd Lieutenants G E H Blackburn, C H Davies and M N Clayton and 80 other ranks were wounded and 10 men were missing."

Several of the men originally posted as missing had, in fact, been killed, bringing the death toll to 18, including Robert. Robert will have been buried originally near to where he was killed, possibly at Salines. After the war, many of these small front line burial areas were closed as the land was returned to civilian use. The bodies of Robert and his comrades were then moved to their final resting place at Dadizeele New British Cemetery, a few miles away, where their graves are now tended by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. It is a quiet peaceful place, next to the village cemetery. Catherine paid for an additional inscription on his headstone. It reads simply "R.I.P."



Throughout this article, I've regarded Robert as my great uncle. But is there proof that confirms this with 100% certainty? No, there isn't.

I know that Robert Brough, the man and soldier, shares the name, age, and father's name with my grandfather's brother. He lived in the same area of the City as my grandfather. He worked at the same place. And he was a member of the same platoon in a Pals Battalion. So, was Robert my great uncle? Of course he was!

By the time that the War Graves Commission was collating its casualty information, in the early 1920s, his widow, Catherine had remarried (to a Mr Carter) and was living at 34 Carlisle Street in the Beswick area of East Manchester.

My mother was born on 2 January 1916. She died on 21 March 1981. Not long before she died, she told me that Tom and Sarah Brough (the people I had always called granddad and grandma) were not her real parents. She wouldn't tell me any more, but hinted that there had been a "family matter" that resulted in Tom and Sarah unofficially adopting her, from within the family, when she was about 8 or 9.

At the beginning of this article I wrote that I am not a family historian and for nearly 25 years I had not wanted to pursue that matter. Tom and Sarah were my grandparents and that was an end to it. But, as I researched Robert's story, I started to wonder. Could my mother have been Robert and Catherine's daughter? Could the "family matter" have been something to do with Catherine's second husband? Was there a resentment that forced Catherine to give up her daughter to her otherwise childless brother-in-law?

There was nothing else to do but obtain a copy of mother's birth certificate. I still wasn't sure I was doing the right thing (and am still unsure). It arrived a couple of weeks later and I opened the envelope with some trepidation. Catherine was not my real grandmother. Robert was not my real grandfather.

But my real grandmother was Florence Brough - the younger sister of Robert and Tom. And my grandfather? Your guess is as good as mine. There's no name on the birth certificate. Perhaps he was Florence's fiancé, who went to War and never came back. Perhaps he never knew that he had a daughter. Perhaps, he didn't care.

To contact the author of this article, email John Hartley

To read John Hartley's article about his Grandfather, Tom Brough, CLICK HERE

Copyright © John Hartley, April, 2005

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