Private Jack Brooks
Aubrey Brooks was born in Newick in 1888, the third child of John Brooks, a bricklayer from Newick, and his wife Emma, who was born in Fletching. They lived in Allington Road.
Jack Brooks was born in 1889, and by 1901, the Brooks household consisted of John, Emma, Lilian, Aubrey, Jack, Arthur, Lucy and Guy were still loving at the same address. Aubrey and Jack both attended the village school between 1896 and 1902, and they both went on to attend Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School, now Brighton, Hove & Sussex Sixth Form College (BHASVIC) from 1902 to 1906.
By 1911, Aubrey was working as a school teacher at Lindfield Council School and Jack was working as a ‘Bricklayer’s Labourer’.
George Henry Gaston was born in Newick in 1891, the youngest child of William Gaston, an agricultural labourer from Newick and his wife Mary Ann, who was also from the village. By 1901, the family consisting of William, Mary Ann, William Jnr., George, and a lodger, William Wallace from Battle were living at Bullsfield Cottages near The Green. Their neighbours were the Salvage family, who would lose their son, John at Arras in 1917, and the Homewoods, who would lose a son, Harry in 1918. George attended the village school between 1898 and 1904.
By 1911 the family were living at the same address and George was working as a ‘Domestic Gardener’. According to a newspaper article published after his death (see below), George worked as a gardener for Mrs Harcourt Rose at Beechlands, Cornwells Bank (ironically later a military hospital) before the war.
Aubrey and Jack Brooks and their school friend George joined up early in the war, three of the thousands of ‘Kitchener’s Men’ who enlisted in the Autumn of 1914.
A letter dated 1st September 1914 written by Jack to his brother Arthur (known to the family by this middle name Fred, who would soon join up himself) lists the adventures he and so many other Kitchener volunteers must have had. After joining up at Lewes recruiting office on 31st August, he was sent to Brighton by train, where a group of around 40 men slept at Preston Barracks, most on the floor, supplied with one blanket and one pillow each. He complained light-heartedly that he did not get much sleep owing to the level of ‘farting’; he mentions that one man ‘kept on firing volleys all night’. After a wash, a trip to the local recruiting office and a swim in the sea, the men were then sent by train to the Royal Sussex Regiment depot at Chichester where they had a hearty dinner of bread and cheese, although they had to buy their own drink, namely lemonade. As he is writing the letter, he notes that a band is playing ‘a Long Way to Tipperary’ on the opposite side of the barrack square.
The letter includes an intriguing postscript, apparently describing some of the circumstances of Jack’s move from civilian to soldier:
‘Fred Smith came to Fletching Common about ¼ to 12 and told me to come on, so I chucked down my shovel, said so long to George, put on my jacket and toddled off.’
Fred Smith had the regimental number G1321 (Jack’s was G1320, the ‘G’ suffix given to recruits in Home Counties regiments) so they did join up together; Fred would die later in 1915. Presuming the George who Jack left working at Fletching Common was George Gaston, he did not wait long to travel down to Lewes and seems to have enlisted on the following day, the 1st September 1914. His service number was G1323 suggesting that Fred and Jack were some of the last men attested the previous day. Aubrey Brooks also joined up on the 1st September 1914. His service number was G1335, suggesting he travelled to Lewes separately to George Gaston.
Aubrey, Jack and George were eventually posted to the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment. Aubrey sailed to France on 4th January 1915. He was followed across the Channel by Jack and George a week later. Jack managed to send a postcard to the family back in Allington Road to say he had left Dover at 04.20 and arrived in Southampton at 12.00, and that he was ‘leaving this afternoon probably’.
Aubrey, Jack and George seem to have joined the 2nd Battalion at Cuinchy in northern France on 13th January 1915, and were soon involved in combat defending their trenches against determined German assaults, during which another Newick man, Henry Warton, a Boer War veteran, was fatally wounded (his story is told elsewhere on the tour). However, the three younger men survived their first few months in the front line. Jack also found time to write a undated postcard home reminding his sister Lilian to ‘feed my Gold-finch’, possibly an agreed code to outwit the military censor, or perhaps outsmart preying eyes on this side of the Channel. Aubrey and Jack both continued to be a regular correspondents with Fred and their letters offer intriguing insights into their day-to-day lives in and out of the trenches.
A letter from Jack to Fred dated 2nd February 1915, includes details of frontline life in the bitter winter of 1914-15:
‘We had five days and five nights in the trenches last week and as it freezed (sic) like blazes I didn’t get a sleep all the time I was glad when we were relieved.
On the Monday night we did a bayonet charge, and it was hot I can tell you. You quite forget yourself after a few bullets have whizzed round your ear, but it was hell and no mistake.
It is fine to see the shells burst when they don’t come too close, and the coal-boxes (larger calibre German shells) kick up a dust.
The snipers they have are damned hot stuff. They shoot smack through a round post-hole about the size of an orange, and it is certain death to show them a bit of your head.’
Jack also mentioned that Aubrey had been promoted to Lance Corporal for ‘distinguished conduct’ and was acting as a sniper and bomb thrower.
Aubrey wrote to Fred himself on 10th February 1915:
‘It is all right here in sunny France. We are resting now in billets. We are in a cowstall but it is very comfortable here with electric light.
We get plenty of fags and tobacco here so if you send anything please send a couple of envelopes and sheets of writing paper and ask father if he will do the same. Also send a tin of bug powder as we have so many lice here we cannot help.
You will see I have been promoted for mopping up a few Germans with handbombs (grenades). When they attack us they come on in hundreds. It is like knocking bottles over at the fair. By the way I want be home in time for that.
I had a narrow escape; a bullet went right through my cap comforter and hit my head without drawing blood…. George had a chip knocked out of his beak. Bar those little things all our mob are alright. Jack is A1,’
A separate letter written home by Jack was published in The East Sussex News on Friday 5th March 1915, and shows that he had retained a sense of humour despite his circumstances; ‘the worst of being in the trenches is that these confounded Germans insist on sending shells over at meal times to jar dirt into your food and tea.’
Jack wrote a chatty letter to Fred dated April 1915, while Fred was in camp at Shoreham-By-Sea awaiting the completion of his own training. Jack reminisces about ‘the frogs in old Cambridge’s well’ and going down to the coast to watch Brighton play Crystal Palace on the previous Good Friday.
‘I am afraid I shan’t see you this Easter, as I am spending my holidays in sunny France. To-day is Good Friday, and the weather is glorious. We happen to be out of the trenches for a few days, and I am sitting on my waterproof sheet in a ploughed field writing this letter to you.
Our weather seems to have settled down a bit. The grass stands high and steady, there is not a cloud in the sky, and though we get a frost every night, the sun shines brilliantly all day. Yesterday I saw some cowslips out in bloom.
I suppose one of these mornings however, we shall wake up and find we are for it. Our last spell or two of trenches have been quite decent, and the last time especially would have been a picnic if it hadn’t been so deuced cold.’
And a more heart-rending passage:
‘Christmas I had away from home, now Easter, and I wonder if the third time I’ll be lucky and I shall get home for Whitsun ….. I shall have a few decent yarns saved up by the time I do get home.’
Jack then encourages Fred to follow him and Aubrey to France as soon as he can, and urges him to ‘buck up old chap and come out, or you will miss all the fun.’
Aubrey wrote to one ‘Mrs Mackwood’ on 13th April 1915, his last surviving correspondence. He thanks her for sending cigarettes and continues:
‘We came out the trenches again last night. It was awful to see dead Germans and English lying unburied in front of the trenches as it is impossible to go out and bury them - it would be suicide.
We have had a lively time the last few days. The “Allemands” have shelled us several times. Yesterday a shell hit the parapet just in front of us and sent the sandbags flying. A big piece of earth knocked a canteen of tea over, which I had been a long time making. Then as it was getting dusk they turned a maxim on our corner. The bullets buzzed like bees.
I don’t expect I will get much cricket this year but throwing the cricket ball has come in useful to me as I am one of our platoon bomb throwers. The principal bomb we use is a small heavy thing which as to be lit and thrown quickly for it goes off in four seconds.
I shall be very glad to get out of this lot safely. After four days and nights in the trenches we had a march of about 10 miles to billets. Talk about being tired. When we halted we all lay down on the road and fell asleep immediately. We got to billets about 6 in the morning.
It was very amusing to see the Ghurkhas who relieved us last night. When a starshell went up they all bobbed up and looked over as if they work on a spring.’
Sadly neither Aubrey, Jack or George (and his wounded nose) would ‘get out of this lot safely’.
Although the British army had failed to make any great impression on the German front line at Neuve Chapelle during an assault in March 1915, it was decided that another attack would be mounted in the same area of northern France in May of the same year, in order to support continuing French attacks to the south. The plan was for a classic military pincer move of two simultaneous attacks north and south of Neuve Chapelle, with the aim of the two attacking forces linking in the rear of the German lines.
Unfortunately the earlier assault on Neuve Chapelle had highlighted potential weaknesses in the German positions and the Kaiser’s army quickly set about strengthening their lines in the area. Owing to the waterlogged countryside in this part of the front line, the ‘trenches’ of both armies were actually shallow ditches with heaps of sandbags to the front and rear (parapet and parados) giving protection to the troops. The German positions were strengthened in April 1915 with higher parapets, machine gun positions and extra barbed wire.
According to their War Diary, orders were received on the 7th May that the battalion was to be involved in an assault on German positions opposite Richebourg L’Avoué on the following day in the southern sector of the planned pincer movement. They had been in billets at Allouagne on the 5th and had moved to Les Facons on the 6th. The battalion was about to march to the front when news came that the attack had been postponed until the 9th. The men subsequently moved up to Richebourg and then on to the front line on the evening of the 8th, and were given bombs (grenades) and wooden bridges to cross a flooded ditch in front of the British lines. The Sussex men were joined by five sappers from the Royal Engineers, who would deactivate any booby traps encountered in the German positions. Tea and rum were issued to the men at 3.30am.
At 5.00am on the morning of the 9th May 1915, six hundred guns began a barrage aimed to destroy the German front line and cut holes in the barbed wire entanglements in No-Man’s-Land. Unfortunately the bombardment proved ineffective, and the large number of shells that fell short proved hazardous to British troops waiting in the front line for ‘Zero Hour’. The first men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment climbed out of their positions at 5.30am under cover of the continuing bombardment that was due to lift at 5.40am. Sadly the Germans had been alerted by the bombardment and began firing on them as soon as they emerged from behind the relative safety of the sandbags of their parapet.
The battalion’s War Diary gives a highly detailed account of the assault, but in essence it was a complete disaster, as the Sussex men advanced towards uncut barbed wire and undamaged machine gun positions. Few of the men of the 2nd Battalion got more than halfway across the 300 yards of No-Man’s-Land, a handful got within forty yards of the German positions and the War Diary suggests that only one man actually got to the German front line before he was killed. The Diary states that the ‘casualties were due to machine gun fire, shrapnel and high explosive shells’. At 6.30am orders were given for the battalion to withdraw, and the surviving Sussex men took up positions to the rear of the front line to await stragglers pinned down in No-Man’s-Land.
By 7.30pm the battalion had marched to billets in Les Choquaux where the full ‘butcher’s bill’ for the day was calculated. The battalion had lost 14 officers and 548 men killed, wounded or missing, the vast majority in the hour between 5.30am and 6.30am. Lance Corporal Aubrey Brooks (aged 26), Private Jack Brooks (aged 25) and Private George Gaston (aged 24) were among them, three of many in a battle that would cost the British army 11,500 casualties for no discernible gain of ground.
Various reports in The East Sussex News note the deaths of both George Gaston and the Brooks brothers. The earliest appeared on Friday 4th June 1915, and reported the demise of George Gaston as a ‘result of a desperate encounter on the 9th May’. It was reported that a muffled peel of bells had been sounded at the church the previous Sunday in his honour as he had been a member of the church choir before the war, and that ‘he was greatly liked by all those who knew him, being of a very agreeable and cheerful disposition.’
An article published in The East Sussex News on Friday 25th June 1915, reported the death of Jack Brooks, and referred to him as a Lance Corporal (although all military records list him as a Private). The news of Jack’s death had clearly been in circulation earlier as a letter dated 19th June 1915 survives written by James Baden Powell of High Hurst offering his condolences to the family.
Aubrey’s death is reported in the paper on Friday 24th September 1915, which also records that he had won a scholarship to Brighton Grammar School in 1902 and had gone on to become a school master before the war. The article notes his contribution to the Newick first XI as a fast bowler and ‘strong thrower’, and that a muffled peel of bells had been heard at the church in his honour as he had also been a member of the choir. He was reportedly also on the brink of promotion to full corporal at the time of his death.
Local legend (reproduced in the booklet ‘Newick Cricket Club 1884-1984 A Centenary Celebration’) has it that Aubrey was last seen on the roof of a building hurling grenades towards the Germans shouting ‘give me another bucketful, I’m getting hundreds of the buggers!’. It is possible that this was actually an account of the action at Cuinchy in February which led to his promotion to Lance Corporal.
None of the men has a known grave. All three are commemorated at both the church and school memorials, in the village’s Roll of Honour and Book of Remembrance, at The Green, on panels and at St. George’s Chapel in Chichester Cathedral. Their names are also recorded on Le Touret Memorial close to where they fell, along with the names of over 13,000 Commonwealth troops (excluding those from Canada and India who are commemorated elsewhere) who fell in the area between the outbreak of the war and 25th September 1915, and who have no known grave. The memorial, which has an adjacent cemetery containing over 900 burials, was designed by J. R. Truelove and was inaugurated in March 1930.
A form was sent to John Brooks in 1928 showing the entries to be placed in the official register at the Le Touret Memorial requesting corrections, and offering a copy of the register for the sum of three shillings. The form gives Jack’s rank as Private in keeping with all other military records. The form survives complete, so was not returned to the War Office. Jack’s rank remains as Private on the memorial, and subsequently he is listed on a different panel to Aubrey, given the Imperial War Graves Commission’s strict adherence to separating ranks on official memorials.
However, the Brooks brothers are commemorated together on their parents’ gravestone in the village churchyard, and on the Brighton, Hove and Sussex Grammar School (now BHASVIC) War Memorial which was inaugurated on 9th February 1923.
Each of the men was entitled to the 1914/15 Star, the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. George’s medals, and the so-called ‘Widow’s Penny’, a medallion sent to the deceased’s next of kin. were for a while in the safe keeping of his nephew, the late Bill Holmes, who kindly showed them to the author.
The Great War was not kind to either of the families. George Gaston’s brother William was killed in 1918 while serving with the Royal Garrison Artillery. Aubrey and Jack Brooks’ elder brother Edward (known to the family by his middle name, Charlie) was invalided home, having returned from America to enlist. Younger brothers Guy and Arthur (the ‘Fred’ of the letters) were both wounded in August 1916. Arthur returned to the Western Front, and was taken prisoner in March 1918. He was able to send a postcard (apparently with text limited to name, rank, number and battalion) to his sister Lillian at Allington Road in September 1918 from his Kriegsgefangenlager (POW camp). The German censor appears to have scratched out the number and location of the camp.
All of the Brooks brothers served with the Royal Sussex Regiment. Pictures of all five of them were published in The East Sussex News on Friday 10th December 1915, which the following caption:
‘We publish photographs of the five patriotic brothers, and we feel sure we may convey to the father the congratulations of our readers on having established a local record in providing so many sons prepared to face danger and death in defence of their country.’
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