For the sword outwears its sheath,
And the soul outwears the breast,
And the heart must pause to breathe,
And love itself have rest.
Attrib. Lord Byron
This account of the life of William A. Browne, a former student of the
Royal Hibernian Military School (1765-1924), Phoenix Park, Dublin, is
based on Browne's hand written memoir dated 1937. This extraordinary
record of crimes, courts-martial and dishonorable discharges from the
Army stretches belief to the elastic limit. William Browne wrote this
memoir of his life from memory at a time when dates, places and occurrences
referenced were not easy to check. Peter Goble has checked and verified
every factual reference of the Browne's story and found only one minor
error: the date of an action that occurred during the Anglo-Boer War,
which was out by one day. To Mr. John Barrett Browne, a great-grand nephew
of the writer, is attributed copyright ownership of his relative's memoir
and it is with his permission the William A. Browne's memoir has been
edited for publication.
William A. Browne (1875-1962) was born in Rangoon, Burma, 23 February
1875, where his father, a musician in the 45th Foot (The Nottinghamshire
and Derbyshire Regiment), was stationed. The Brownes were a military
family. The mother of William Browne's great-great-grandfather was a
camp follower and gave birth to him the year of the Battle of Dettingen
(1743). He became a career soldier. Browne's great-grandfather, a trooper
in the Light Dragoons, enlisted in the late 1700s and served throughout
the French Wars (1793-1815). His grandfather, regimental trumpeter of
the 17th Lancers, sounded 'the charge' to set the Light Brigade into
the valley of death on 25 October, 1854, and survived to take part in
the 1875 Sepoy Mutiny. Trumpeter Browne was present at the execution
of Tantia Topee, the most daring of Nana Sahib's lieutenants. On William
Browne's mother's side, his grandfather was a Captain in the Indian Army
Supply Department. His forebears, therefore, gave William Browne a military
pedigree that should have guaranteed him a distinguished military career.
The reality was different.
The Browne family returned
to England from Rangoon in 1878 for William's father to attend Kneller Hall,
Twickenham, home of the Royal Military School of Music. On graduation, he was
appointed bandmaster of The Royal Dublin Fusiliers. The following year, the
regiment moved to Gibraltar where it remained for the year. When the battalion
embarked for active service in Egypt the following year, the wives and children
returned to the depot in Dublin. Families had long since stopped their battalions
on active service. In Dublin, arrangements were made through the regiment for
the admission of William Browne to the Royal Hibernian Military School, Phoenix
Park, Dublin. He was ten years of age.
He reacted badly to
life at the school from the start. He loathed the discipline, the regimentation,
confinement and loss of freedom. He ran home to his mother to say that he could
not stay there a moment longer. His mother escorted him back to school and
told him to buckle down. He bolted again to be returned a second time by the
police. He made a third attempt to fly the coop and was once again seized by
the Dublin constabulary. It was his last chance. One more attempt and he would
be expelled in disgrace as incorrigible. This brought him to his senses and
he resolved to behave with a show of decency for the remaining period of his
'prison' sentence. His mother and sister meanwhile had left to rejoin the regiment
overseas, it having been returned to normal peacetime duties. His mother's
departure probably explains why the second and third times he absconded the
police returned him to the Phoenix Park.
In February 1890, at
age 14, at the expiration of his five years of 'captivity', he enlisted in
the Royal Dublin Fusiliers as a bandboy. He joined the 1st Battalion stationed
at Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare. The following September, he was included in a
draft shipped to India to join the 2nd Battalion. The draft joined the regiment
at Nasirabad, Rajputana, where Browne his family for the first time in five
years. Under his father's baton, he played the cornet and spent a contented
two years with his family. Browne records that he earned his first good conduct
regiment was still at Nasirabad when Browne's father retired on pension and
moved with his wife and daughter to Jamalore, Bengal, where he had been appointed
bandmaster of a volunteer unit in the Indian local forces. Browne, now age
16, clashed with the new bandmaster whom he described as a man of 'peculiar
temperament'. The bandmaster accused him of interrupting the choir during church
service. The accusation put Browne in a fury because, he said, the charge was
false. He buckled his cornet beyond repair. For this destructive behaviour,
he was confined to barracks and ordered to pay for a replacement. Humiliated,
he applied for a transfer to regimental duties, but this was refused. Determined
to get his way, he destroyed a number of musical instruments including a French
horn and five cornets, flattening them with an empty shell casing. For this
grave offence he was court-martialled, sentenced to 56 days in prison, and
fined 741 Rupees (£46-10.0 or about £100 in new currency).
Following his term in
prison, which he served in full, he was transferred to regimental duty. He
admitted that his behaviour was disgraceful, but it got him out of the band
and away from the enmity of the bandmaster. He soldiered with contentment for
the next seven months and was promoted to lance-corporal. His Hibernian school
education stood him in good stead. Being able to read and write with fair proficiency
earned him a transfer to clerical duties in the office of the Assistant Adjutant-General
in Quetta. By 1892 he had paid the fine for destruction of the musical instruments
and things were looking up. Then he was charged with being drunk 'in charge
of a vehicle' (riding a bicycle) and lost his L/Cpl stripe.
The battalion moved
to Bombay on 'change of station' and, from there, D Company of which Browne
was a member, was sent to Peesa on detachment. Once in Peesa, Browne was given
his lance corporal stripe again and sent as a bugler to Mount Abu Sanatorium
in the Aravulli Range. This duty not being to his liking, he applied to return
to Peesa, but the officer commanding the detachment denied his application.
It is indicative of Browne's lack of maturity that he deserted his post and
set out on foot for the Abu Road Station. Notified by telegraph from the detachment
office of his absence, the civil police arrested him and escorted him
back to the detachment. There he was stripped of his L/Cpl stripe and sent
to the cells to cool his heels for 96 hours. Released from close confinement,
he treated the Sanatorium to a 'general assembly' bugle call at 22.30 hrs.
The response was prompt and immediate as it should have been, arousing those
convalescing in the hospital including a general as well the attendant staff
the detachment. The grim experience of the 1857 Sepoy Mutiny being well within
living memory, a fast reaction to the call was understandable. Retribution
for this performance came in the form of ten days confinement to barracks and
an order to return to Peesa.
He got into more serious
trouble the following October (1896) when he came to blows with the provost
sergeant and was taken to hospital with a dislocated shoulder. On release from
hospital, he was court-martialled for violently resisting arrest and striking
a 'superior officer'. This brought him a sentence of 90 days in the military
prison at Poona. When released from prison, he was posted to regimental headquarters
in Bombay in the nick of time to embark with the regiment for Durban, South
Africa, where trouble with the Boers had been brewing for some time. The battalion
was ordered to Pietermaritzburg where it spent the next two years under canvas.
On 19 September 1899, it entrained under orders for Ladysmith and from there
to Dundee, a rich coal centre in the KwaZulu-Natal region.
According to John Browne,
the Boers fired the first shell of the war. It landed among the King's Royal
Rifles, camped next to the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which immediately went
into action, advancing on Talana Hill from which the enemy had launched the
attack. Skirmishing with the enemy lasted until four in the afternoon
when the Boers broke of the action and trekked to Dalhousie, some miles away.
John records that his brother-in-law, Sergeant-major John Burke, suffered a
serious hip wound in this first battle.2
The action became more
serious when units in the area including the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were ordered
to take-up defensive positions in the surrounding hills to protect the Dundee
coal mines. During this disposition, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers were sent to
clear a position at Glencoe, a short marching distance south-west of Dundee,
and the point reached by the railway line from Durban to Johannesburg. From
Glencoe, the battalion returned to its hill position, but that same night at
2200 hours all everyone was ordered to retired to Ladysmith and to leave the
wounded behind in the hospital along with the stores. The Boers, taking advantage
of the moment, seized and removed the stores to Pretoria along with the wounded
prisoners fallen into their hands, Sergeant Major BurKe among them.
In Ladysmith, the Royal
Dublin Fusiliers were took part in the Battle of Lombard's Kop 3 (30
October 1899), returning to Ladysmith the same day and entraining to arrive
at Colenso the following morning. He writes of an incident on 15 November 1899
that demonstrated the fighting qualities of the Boers that came as a shock
to the British. 'A' company of the Cameron Highlanders was sent by train to
reconnoitre, Winston Churchill accompanying them as a war correspondent and
Lieutenant Frankland of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers on detachment as an observer.
The Boers laid a trap by derailing the train and taking everyone prisoner.
Churchill's escape from captivity is recorded in his own account of the incident.
The significance of
15 November 1899 was that it was another black day for Browne. He and a corporal
had been sent to bring in for questioning two Boer civilians 'loitering by
their wagon some distance away'. They had no difficulty persuading the civilians
to return with them for questioning. The Boers were friendly. Seizing the opportunity
of being out of camp, they stopped at the Bridge Hotel for a drink and sandwiches.
As the corporal was out of money, Browne bought beer for them. He didn't say
what happened to the Boers they had with them for questioning, only that he
and the corporal got into an argument. The Provost Marshall appeared on the
scene and, to save himself in a sticky situation, the corporal accused Browne
of being drunk. On their return to camp, he ordered the camp guard to take
Browne in charge. The next morning, charged with being drunk on active service,
he was brought before a District court martial and sentenced to two years in
prison to be followed by dishonorable discharge. He was sent to the Pietermaritzburg
With several other prisoners,
he was escorted to Durban to return to England to complete his sentence. The
embarkation officer conducted a roll call on the quayside and found he had
one too many. Pte Browne's name was missing. The officer called the roll again
and instructed each man to move to another place on the dock as his name was
read out. Satisfied that he had the correct number, the officer left Browne
standing where he was while he marched the rest to the tender that would convey
them to the S.S. Serbia anchored off shore. Left standing in isolation and
no one appearing interested in his fate, Browne joined the main body of homeward
troops and embarked unnoticed. Not being assigned to a 'mess' aboard the Serbia,
he attached himself to a group of seamen travelling to Cape Town and, from
them, received rations.
The ship arrived at
Cape Town 7 February and Browne watched his friends the naval ratings disembark,
but made no attempt to leave by the gangway. which was under the control of
provost personnel. Instead, he scrambled down a mooring rope in the dark and
made his escape undetected. His next problem was how to get past the Military
Police at the dock gates without a pass. He overcame this difficulty by walking
aboard a docked tramp steamer and introduced himself to two of the ship's stokers.
Making his identity known to them. In return for his uniform, which they could
sell in Cape Town, the stokers provided him with an outfit of civvies. In the
guise of a seaman, he boldly walked through the dock gates unchallenged and
made good his escape.
There followed Browne's
anabasis of survival in South Africa every bit as varied and wide-ranging as
Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Svejk. Following work as a rough carpenter
working on huts under construction for troop reinforcements en route from England,
he enlisted under the name of James O'Leary in Roberts Horse, then being raised
in Rosebank Camp, Cape Town. He was eagerly accepted and spent several weeks
in training before being transferred to the Ross Machine Gun Detachment of
In April 1900, the Ross
M/G Detachment under the command of Lord Athlulmen, a Major, was despatched
to Bloemfontein in the Orange Free State. There it was brigaded with the 14th
Mounted Infantry commanded by a Colonel Henry. In this formation, Trooper O'Leary
served in various engagements that culminated in the capture of Pretoria (6
July 1900) and the adjacent Diamond Hill. 4 In
late July, the M/G Detachment was transferred to armoured train service and
its horse taken over by the City remount depot. For the next two months, the
armoured train patrolled the railway line between Germinston and Vaal River.
In September, O'Leary
and a fellow trooper were selected for service in a police unit name the Transvaal
Constabulary, later to become known as the South African Constabulary commanded
by Major-General Baden-Powell. The men had the option of transferring to the
larger formation or remaining with the Transvaal Constabulary (the Pretoria
Town Police). The Ross M/G Detachment having by now been disbanded, O'Leary
left the Pretoria Police and travelled to Cape Town where he received his discharge
from Loch's Horse.
He next enlisted in
a newly-arrived (July 1901) unit, The Canadian Scouts, raised in Canada for
the War and stationed at Greenpoint Camp, which O'Leary as Browne had helped
construct. Disaster struck when a sergeant from his old regiment, The Royal
Dublin Fusiliers, recognized and reported him. Summoned to the orderly for
questioning, he owned up and once more was tried by a district court-martial
for making a false statement on attestation. His sentence was twelve months
incarceration in prison, but with six months ix remission for 'good behaviour'
during his service in the Colonial Service.
He began serving his
sentence in August 1901 in Breakwater Prison, Cape Town, where good fortune
for once smiled on him. It being an ill wind that blows no one good, the plague
struck a district of Cape Town and Browne, the name to which he had reverted,
was chosen for work in the 'plague crew'. For the gruesome work of burying
the dead, every day counted double towards release. There were other perquisites:
a free supply of clay pipes and tobacco, and transport in 'tramcars' to and
from work. Browne earned the full reward for his service and earned three months
At the end of his time
in November 1901, Browne was handed over the Provost Marshal for transportation
to England and final discharge. He travelled to England on the SS Manchester
Merchant. On arrival at Southampton in December, Browne was sent to the Discharge
Depot at Gosport and there handed the document that severed his connection
with the British Army once and for all. His prison service had done nothing
to improve his anger management because he tore his discharge paper to pieces
and flung them at the feet of the depot adjutant he considered to have been
overbearing. The adjutant promptly summoned and escort to march the former
Private Browne to the railway station with a ticket to Dublin via Holyhead.
He spent Christmas 1901
with his sister and brother-in-law (the Sergeant Major Burke having been given
his medical discharge), but was drawn to back to his meandering military life
as a filing is drawn to a magnet. His anabasis was far from over. Responding
to an advertisement in The Irish Times for recruits for the Cape Mounted Police,
his application was accepted with direction to report to 98 Victoria Street,
London. As the authorities were liable to conduct a character check with Robert's
Horse and Loch's Horse, from both units of which he was discharged with a good
rating, he used his James O'Leary pseudonym.
His brother-in-law accompanied
him to London – and one might reasonably assume that his in-law would
be anxious to see him safely out of Dublin – where he was reimbursed
for his expenses and sent to Southampton to embark on the SS Raglan Castle
for the journey to Cape Town. Ex-Sergeant Major Burke went to see Browne make
the sailing on time. Back in the Cape, Browne was on familiar ground. He reported
to Maitland Camp to be sworn in for service in the Cape Police and undergo
six weeks training. He was soon promoted to corporal and made the drill instructor.
The Cape Police served as a cavalry unit, cooperating with the regular military
forces throughout the Colony up until the Peace of 31 May 1902. At the conclusion
of hostilities, Corporal O'Leary did patrol duty throughout the Colony until,
on the advice of the Commissioner of the force, he resigned on account of inquiries
as to his real name. He had instituted the inquiries himself in the hope of
being able to resume using his proper name. Browne offers no explanation for
his irrational confession. His wandering life continued.
Drifting into one job
after another – railway engine cleaner, road construction, farm and brewer
worker, he trekked to Durban, Pietermaritzburg, Belgowan leading an aimless
life. At Cockstad base depot of the Cape Mounted Rifles, in East Griqualand,
KwaZulu-Natal, he applied to join. When asked for references, he produced a
forged discharge certificate as from the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which gave
his correct name, described him as of a good character, and was official signed
and authenticated with the regimental orderly room stamp. A clerk in the orderly
room at regimental HQ had made it out for him in case he should ever need a
valid recommendation. A more genuine-looking document he could not hope to
possess. On the strength of it, he enlisted to serve the Mounted Rifles for
After yet another fresh
start, he did well for a few months, but ran into trouble for being absent
from stable duty afoul of authority and, charged with being drunk on duty,
he was again charged before a district court martial. His sentence, 56 days
in prison to be followed by a dishonorable discharge. Back on the road the
moment his prison term ended, Browne set out to walk 300 miles to Natal where
a native uprising had broken out. Arriving in March 1906, he applied to join
the Natal Mounted Rifles and was accepted without question. His military experience
stood him in good stead, for he was quickly singled out, promoted to sergeant
and made the deport drill instructor. A month later, Sergeant Browne joined
the regiment at Greytown where it was on active service. The rebellion lasted
seven months and ended with the capture of Dinizulu and other leaders. With
the troubles at an end by October 1906, the unit was disbanded and Browne was
out of a job, discharged with the rank of sergeant. Down but not out. He was
soon back on the road.
In Johannesburg, a former
major of the Royal Dublin Rifles was now Superintendent of the Johannesburg
Police. The major gave Browne temporary work as a gardener, which served until
he joined the South African Constabulary in which he served for a year but,
tiring of police life, he resigned, went to Cape Town and became a musician
and attendant at the criminal asylum on Robben Island, six miles from the mainland. 5
Browne left this job in June 1908 and returned to England aboard the SS
Geaka and enlisted in the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment, being sent
to its depot in Preston, Lancashire, where he spent a month in training. During
his time in Preston he met the woman who was later to become Mary Alice Browne.
Still a single man,
however, when he was sent to Curragh Camp, Co. Kildare, to join the 1st Battalion
of the Loyal North Lancashire Regiment. He did his duty at Curragh Camp for
the next nine months after which time the regiment embarked for its tour of
foreign duty in Mauritius in February 1909. On arrival in Mauritius, Browne
declared his true identity in hope of being able to soldier with a clean record.
Military discipline, he soon learned, knows no sympathy nor allows leniency.
He was court-martialled on the now familiar charge of 'Making a false statement
on attestation', sentenced to 35 days in prison and dishonorably discharged.
He was back in Preston by Christmas 1909.
This might be thought
to mark the end of his life as a military misfit, but there was yet more to
come. Meanwhile, he tried his hand as a miner at the Langdon Collieries and
at ship breaking in Wales. In early 1910, he signed on as a stoker on the steamer
Prestonian and married his sweetheart. His wife gave birth to their first son
in February 1912. From 1910 until 1914, the intrepid Browne was at sea, living
with his family between sailings and fathering two more children. In 1913,
he signed for service on the SS Vianna bound for Buenos Aires, Argentine, west
through the Straits of Magellan and north stopping at various Chilean ports
along the way, and arriving at San Francisco. The ship being laid up for repairs,
Brown took the option of being paid off. He used the money to pay the required
'head tax' at U.S. Immigration and took casual work.
June 1914 saw the Vera
Cruz affair 6 and the likelihood
of war with Mexico. Wishing to be in action, Browne enlisted in the U.S. Cavalry
and was sent to Fort McDowdal, San Francisco. The dispute with the U.S.A's
southern neighbour was resolved, but Trooper Browne was committed to five years
service. Applying successfully for an advertised fireman's job, Browne was
sent to Fort Beard in New Mexico where he was employed in the generating station
of a military TB sanatorium.
All was well until the
outbreak of World War One in August 1914. Fireman Browne felt he should be
back in the ranks of the British Army and so, under cover of a heavy storm,
he removed his hat and tunic and dived into the rushing torrent of the nearby
river and struck out for the farther bank. He was in luck, for the current
swept him to the opposite side where he scrambled ashore and made his way in
the dark until he came upon an old Mexican's hut. The peasant gave him shelter
for the night. The next morning, dressed in an old coat and sombrero, he set
off for the State of Texas.
En route to Texas, he
was given a lift by two officers from Fort Beard heading for the railway station.
Browne recognized them, but in his borrowed plumage of hat and sombrero he
was not suspected for being a deserter from Fort Beard. At the railway station,
he thanked the officers for the ride and set off on foot for Texas. He reached
Galveston and, having been refused help from the British Consul, he stowed
away on a ship bound for Houston and reached Newport safely. The captain of
the vessel told the British Consul of his stowaway and was given help. The
Consul advised him to get a job on the SS Corsassion, which he did, arriving
in London on 10 October 1914.
Browne lost no time
in enlisting for war service, again in the Royal Dublin Fusiliers. He was sent
to Cork to join the regiment and there promoted to corporal and made drill
instructor for officers in training. On 10 November 1914, he was sent in a
draft to France to join the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, surprisingly
posted to the same company and same section of the same battalion from which
he had been dishonorably discharged in December 1899, during the Boer War.
He rejoined D Company, No. 3 Section in his rank of corporal the winter and
spring fighting in the trenches with bouts in the rear rest areas. On 25 April,
1915, he was wounded at Ypres, near St. Julian and evacuated to Dublin for
treatment. On his discharge from hospital, he got ten days leave to visit Preston
where he saw his wife and family for the first time since leaving on his voyage
to South America on the SS Vianna. Browne writes of his homecoming
as a happy and contented time.7
At the expiration of
his leave, Browne returned to Cork to join the 1st Reserve Battalion of the
Royal Dublin Fusiliers, which was shipped to the Dardanelles for action in
the Gallipoli Campaign. The battalion arrived in the Dardanelles 15 June 1915
and remained in action until evacuated to Egypt. The 29th Division of
which the Royal Dublin Fusiliers form part was transferred to France the following
March (1916) and assigned to the Somme Sector. Against all odds, Browne survived
trench warfare until 1917 when he was transferred to the Railway Operations
Division in need of experience firemen. He remained in the ROD until he was
demobilized on 16 February 1919.
So ended chaotic life
of this most extraordinary of military misfits with do enviable a lineage.
He was done with the Army, but there was work yet to be done with the Navy,
which claimed his attention. In April 1919, he joined the Mercantile Marine
Reserve and became part of the North Russian Relief Force to Archangel where
he remained until the evacuation in April 1919. He was paid off at Portsmouth
in September of that year.
William A. Browne had
a job in his later years with the War Graves Commission. When the Second World
War came, Browne was ready to serve on the home front. He was, however, in
his 64th year and too old to serve. He died in 1962 at age 87.
would be unusual. Good conduct stripes were awarded to adult soldiers,
but not to those on boy service.
is the first indication in Browne's memoir that he had a married
sister. Whether she was the elder or younger of the two is not known.
his memoir, Browne dates the Battle of Lombard's Kop at 29 October
Hill was the site of the 3,106 Culinan Diamond, found in 1905 and
named after the mine's owner, Sir Thomas Culinan.
infamous Robben Island Prison in which the President of South Africa
to be, Nelson Mandela, was sentenced to life imprisonment.
June 1914, the U.S.A. was in a dispute with Mexico over the affair
known as Vera Cruz and war seemed likely.
his memoir, Browne makes no mention of his family until he records
being on leave following the wound he received at Ypres. Hence,
it is not known how his wife and children lived during his long
absences, nor what communication he had with them.
A version of this article appeared in
The Journal of the Society for Army Historical Research
Winter 2008, Volume Eighty-Six, Number 348