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Australian Dictionary of Biography

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Brown, Walter Ernest (1885–1942)

by K. R. White

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

Walter Ernest Brown (1885-1942), by Lemaire Studios

Walter Ernest Brown (1885-1942), by Lemaire Studios

Australian War Memorial, A02600

Walter Ernest Brown (1885-1942), soldier, grocer, brass-finisher and water-bailiff, was born on 3 July 1885 at New Norfolk, Tasmania, son of Sidney Francis Brown, miller, and his wife Agnes Mary, née Carney. He was brought up at New Norfolk and on leaving school worked as a grocer in Hobart until 1911 and at Petersham, New South Wales, until World War I.

On 26 July 1915 Brown enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as an infantryman, then hoping to see action more quickly transferred to the light horse. He embarked for Egypt in October and joined the 1st Light Horse Regiment on 14 January 1916; he later transferred to the Imperial Camel Corps. In July, having determined to reach the infantry in France, he contrived (on a plea of having lost his false teeth) to be sent to Cairo where he obtained a transfer to the 20th Battalion reinforcements. He sailed for France in October and after serving for a month with the 55th Battalion and for six months with the 1st and 2nd Australian Field Butcheries, joined the 20th Battalion at St Omer in July 1917. In September and October he fought at Passchendaele and was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for attending wounded under heavy fire, and later, after his sergeant had been disabled, taking charge of the section, giving 'a fine example of courage and leadership'. He was promoted lance corporal on 19 October and was wounded in November.

Early in 1918 the 20th Battalion fought at Morlancourt and then moved into the Villers-Bretonneux sector; Brown was promoted corporal on 7 April. On 6 July he was with an advance party which took over some newly captured trenches near Accroche Wood and, on being told that a sniper's post was causing trouble, he located the spot, picked up two Mills bombs and ran towards it under fire. His first bomb fell short, but on reaching the post he knocked one German down with his fist and threatened the others with his remaining grenade; when they surrendered, Brown ordered them back to the Australian lines. He had captured thirteen men, including one officer. He was awarded the Victoria Cross. He remained on the Somme until the Armistice and was wounded in action in August and promoted sergeant on 13 September.

Brown was discharged from the A.I.F. in February 1920. In 1920-30 he worked in Sydney as a brass-finisher and in 1931-40 at Leeton as a water-bailiff with the New South Wales Water Conservation and Irrigation Commission. He married Maude Dillon, an Irishwoman, in Christ Church, Bexley, on 4 June 1932. In June 1940, by giving his age as 40 instead of 54, Brown enlisted in the 2nd A.I.F. His real age and record were soon discovered, and he was promoted lance sergeant and posted to the 2/15th Field Regiment, but he reverted to gunner at his own request. The regiment, part of the ill-fated 8th Division, reached Malaya in August 1941. Brown was last seen on 14 February 1942, the night before the Allied surrender at Singapore. Picking up some grenades he said to his comrades, 'No surrender for me', and walked towards the enemy lines. He was presumed to have died while trying to escape on 28 February. He was survived by his wife, a son and a daughter.

Brown was regarded by those who served with him as 'a born soldier, quiet, friendly and loyal beyond measure'. His portrait by John Longstaff is in the Australian War Memorial collection.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1918 (Syd, 1942)
  • L. Wigmore (ed), They Dared Mightily (Canb, 1963)
  • London Gazette, 3 June, 17 Aug 1918
  • Reveille (Sydney), July 1946, Jan 1968
  • Sydney Mail, 28 Aug 1918
  • Bulletin, 12, 26 June, 3, 24 July 1946
  • War Diary of the 20th Battalion (Australian War Memorial)
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

K. R. White, 'Brown, Walter Ernest (1885–1942)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1979, accessed online 31 October 2020.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 7, (MUP), 1979

View the front pages for Volume 7

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2020

Walter Ernest Brown (1885-1942), by Lemaire Studios

Walter Ernest Brown (1885-1942), by Lemaire Studios

Australian War Memorial, A02600