Apr 3, 2013

Audio recordings of tunneller, 256302 Sapper Fred Brown, 251 Tunnelling Company RE

Fred's annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC's area around Cuinchy is circled.

Fred’s annotated map showing mining areas along the British Front. 251TC’s area around Cuinchy is circled.

In May 1915 Fred Brown enlisted as a private soldier in the 18th Battalion Royal Fusiliers at the age of 17 years, 10 months. After training at Clipstone Camp, Nottinghamshire and Tidworth Camp the Battalion sailed for France in November 1915 as part of 98th Brigade, 33rd Division, soon transferring to 19th Brigade in the same Division.  After a  short time the Battalion entered trenches near Festubert north of the La Bassée Canal.

Following a hard winter spent in and out of the trenches and in hope of a six week break away from the front in Rouen Fred volunteered for a course of engineering. Sadly for Fred and his fellow volunteers the course was far from what was envisaged – they were now temporarily attached for fatigue duties to 251 Tunnelling Company, Royal Engineers, billeted in nearby Béthune.  Their role was to acts as ‘beasts of burden’, working underground removing spoil excavated from the face by more experienced miners. After a few weeks Fred applied for a transfer and was accepted into the Royal Engineers as 256302, Sapper Fred Brown.  He served with 251 Tunnelling Company for the remainder of the war. Toward the end of his life Fred recorded his wartime experiences in typed form and by tape recorder.  These were left with his second wife’s family who have been kind enough to pass them on to me. My thanks to Mary Burgess for her kindness. The photographs used in the Audioboo links are of a dapper looking Fred in later life. The recordings are not brilliant quality, being taken from old D90 cassette tapes. Over the next few weeks I will post as many of Fred’s audio recordings as possible.

1. Hear Fred describe the start of a typical working shift on the Western Front as he moves from Béthune to Cuinchy

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.gouv.fr/accueil

IGN Map extract showing the area between Bethune and Cuinchy. Reproduced from http://www.geoportail.fr/

2. Hear Fred describe the descent into 251TC’s labyrinthine tunnels at Cuinchy and how the work of spoil removal took place underground

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing line around Cuinchy and Auchy.

British trench map extract from December 1915 showing trench lines around Cuinchy and Auchy.

3. Fred describes his shift in a lone listening post spent listening for the sound of German miners

Mine workings and tunnel plans - craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred's handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work.

Mine workings and tunnel plans – craters on the Cuinchy Front. Fred’s handwritten annotations show his daily journey to work from Béthune.

Recommended reading on military mining and the underground war

  • Beneath Flanders Fields by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan Vandewalleeter Barton, Peter Doyle and Johan VandewalleBeneath Flanders Fields: The Tunnellers War 1914-1918 by Peter Barton, Peter Doyle & Johan Vandewalle
  • Underground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon JonesUnderground Warfare 1914-1918 by Simon Jones
  •  Tunnellers - Captain W. Grant Grieve and Bernard NewmanTunnellers by Captain W. Grant Grieve & Bernard Newman
  • War Underground by Alexander BarrieWar Underground: The Tunnellers of the Great War by Alexander Barrie

By

5 Responses to “Audio recordings of tunneller, 256302 Sapper Fred Brown, 251 Tunnelling Company RE”

  1. PAUL THOMAS says:

    Many thanks for your reply on the Great War Forum.

    I will listen to the recordings shortly.

    Sapper Henry Wilson Thomas’s service number was 132352.

    He died on 25/12/1917 aged 23 years.

    He was the son of Ellen Jane Thomas of Atlantic View, Trevellas, St Agnas, Scorrier, Cornwall.

    Last year, my wife & I visited Bethune, found his grave and laid flowers on it. Believe it or not, we were the first members of the family to visit the grave. Even until just before his death, my Dad’s last remaining brother….he was one of a family of 12 boys and 1 girl…refused to tell us anything about Wilson. It’s so sad that because of their Methodist roots & religion, nobody ever spoke of him because his mother was not married when he was born and so were the black sheep of the family.

    Any help you can give would be really appreciated.

    Many thanks

    PAUL THOMAS
    (BURMESECATSLAVE)

  2. […] I’ve pieced together information from a number of sources: initially the audio recordings on Jeremy Banning’s website http://jeremybanning.co.uk/2013/04/03/audio-recordings-of-tunneller-256302-sapper-fred-brown-251-tun… […]

  3. Penny Acton says:

    Jeremy,
    Just a comment say how interesting this page has been for my research into my grandfather Thomas Nuttall Halstead.He was a private in the 20th Royal Fusiliers and was based near Bethune Nov 1915 – July 1916. In a letter dated March 19 he wrote ‘Our co was in reserve & did fatigues, but such fatigues the word does small justice to the way we felt after we’d got half way through. Quite half our work was done for the engineers, either carrying stuff up for their work in the mines, or actually working in the mines themselves. We got so used to these R.E. fatigues that we began to consider ourselves REs.’
    So Fred’s recordings are another useful insight for me.
    Thank you.

  4. admin says:

    Thanks Penny – I am glad to hear they were so useful. Now I have some time free I plan on adding plenty more over the winter so do keep checking back.
    JB


Leave a Reply