Sunday, February 5, 2012



     It’s not by intent that the majority of my ancestor stories seemingly  concentrate on the maternal side of my family, about the relations from Sussex and Fiji and the American grandfather of the dual names, ChasBert Brown-Parker.  It’s just that I knew them better, they and their history were my childhood companions.

  Dad’s side of the family though was another kettle of fish entirely.  My mother put a stop to any close fraternising; she and they you could say were not enamoured of each other.  Then Dad’s death while I was still a teenager meant I lost the one person who could, maybe, have filled me in on their past.

  This chapter concerns one man and his grandson born 70 years apart... both named Charles Brown... both combat hero’s, in my eyes at least.  One on the veldts of South Africa the other in the steamy jungles of Vietnam.

Ken McFayden Australian War Museum
A while ago in Australia’s history, in 1900 to be exact, mother England and it’s South Africa colonies were at loggerheads with the Boers.  Capetown, the southern tip of the vast African continent had ceased to be merely a convenient restocking stopover for sailing ships enroute to  the new colonies of Australia and New Zealand. 
During the Napoleonic wars Britain had acquired the republics of Dutch-Afrikaner settlements, and these alongside their own English speaking colonies forged an uneasy relationship, barely tolerating one another throughout the early 1800’s.  Then, in the 1880’s gold and diamonds were discovered, mainly in the Boer republics, English diggers started a gold rush, an imbalance of British and Boer settlers caused further friction, until suddenly the southern parts of the continent were at war.
Australia answered the British Empire’s call for troops with contingents of fighting men. 
These were recruited in waves, the first were the militia of already established colonial forces. The second were the ‘bushmen’, country lads recruited from rural areas and paid for by public subscription and donations from wealthy landowners, while the third were known as the ‘draft contingents’ raised by individual state governments and the newly established Commonwealth government.  Up to Federation the six Australian colonies had maintained separate government.
Grandfather Charles Brown, my father’s father answered the second call in Hillgrove, a small gold mining settlement high on an escarpment overlooking the vastness of Wollomombi Gorge.
He duly became a private in the First Australian Mounted Rifles. All  the recruits were eager young men seeking adventure, sons and grandsons of convicts and gentry alike.  They were in the main natural born horsemen, had an affinity with the land and were excellent marksmen.  Their skill with rifle while mounted was unsurpassed.  
Charles though was not a young boy when he sailed off to war, he joined up when he was 28 years of age.
His father, my great Grandfather, William Brown was a Scotsman from  Blairgowrie in Perthshire.  In 1860 as a  17 year old he arrived in the Colonies giving his occupation as a butler.  Just five years later he marries an Irish immigrant from Cork,  Ellen Vaughan and in doing so he unwittingly seals the future of his fourth born son Charles.
The witness to the marriage, or best man as we would describe him now,  was Samuel Marshall, the 19 year old son of my great-great Grandparents, the convict Samuel Marshall and his wife, the Convict’s Daughter, Catherine Spalding.  Young Sam in the goodness of time would see his brother John’s daughter Bella Marshall marry Charles, the 30 year old son of his good friends William and Ellen Brown.
But before his romance and marriage to Bella, Charles has a war time rendezvous with the Boers in South Africa.
The more heart stirring logistics of war are often hidden in the drama and bloodshed of actual conflict.  Apart from a passing reference to cost and transport little space is allotted to a soldiers most necessary accoutrements. 
In the case of Trooper Charles Brown’s B Squadron, the one item he and his comrades in arms treated with the utmost respect, the one item they implicitly trusted their lives with was their mount, their horse, the speedy little nag that would carry them and their weapons into the bloody jaws of war.
Such was their horse’s value and necessity the troops of the 1st Mounted all had spares in reserve and they  traveled together on the sea voyage from their homeland in Australia to the great unknown that lay ahead.
Over 300,000 horses died in the years of the South African battle.  In Port Elizabeth, where the photograph of one horse being unloaded from the decks of a troop ship was taken,  there is a bronze Horse Memorial, a lasting tribute to the memory of these unsung equine heroes.
 For the sole purpose of war a rough total of 360,000 horses were shipped into South Africa from as far afield as Europe, North America, Argentina and Burma, with 35,000 alone arriving from Australia. Grandfather Charles would arrive home with tragic memories though, in one battle alone he had two horses shot dead beneath him.

Charles, or Scotty as he was no doubt called by his mates... both father and son had broad Scots accents, sent letters home regularly, some of which his father in Liverpool forwarded on to local newspapers.  (Otherwise we wouldn't be reading the letters now.)
Early in March of 1900, Grandfather’s squadron arrived at the Modder River, scene of the famous battle  just  in time to witness the surrender of the controversial Boer General, Piet Cronje.
Cronje, in civilian life a burgher or farmer,  had led his men against the British troops in guerrilla style battle. Prior to his surrender it was said he lost 8,000 men in bitter months long fighting.  After his surrender when he finally appeared before the British commander Lord Roberts at Paardeberg the Boer General strenuously begged not to be separated from his wife, Frau Cronje. 
Rather unkind I thought, after all circumstances of war no doubt dictated her unwashed condition, Cronje’s wife was described by one English correspondent as being a ‘thin dirty bedraggled old lady’.
In a letter home written just a day or two after the surrender, Grandfather tells that his squadron was put on guard duty around the camp at the Modder River...
at night we are guarding about 8000 Boers.  They are a wild looking lot and give us a bit of trouble sometimes.  400 of us were camped around them last night with us mounted (on our horses) all night.’
He goes on to add...
 ‘I saw Cronje and his wife.  He is a funny looking fellow.  He was surrounded (in battle)  for five days before he would surrender and his wife, who begged and prayed of him to give up, got wounded in the fight.   She always went with him when he was fighting so she must be a brave woman.’
‘Cronje is being well treated and the day he came down after surrendering we were all called out to give him a salute.’
In fact an English officer observing the captured General and his wife at breakfast next morning sent over a cigar, but when the General had smoked and enjoyed that one he asked for another and was refused.
General Piet Cronje commandant general of the Traansvaal Republic and his wife Hester were transported along with 1000 prisoners of war from Capetown to St Helena in the Bermudas where Napoleon Bonaparte died in 1821..
The prisoner of war camp on St Helena was one of numerous British camps situated throughout the world.  While most of the prisoners were housed in shanty type accommodation at a site known as Deadwood, the Cronje’s were allotted  comfortable two story housing in Kent House some distance away.
The Cronje’s are pictured in the  grounds of the cottage from where he would ride to visit his men in their prison at Deadwood.
Boer General Piet Cronje and his wife Hester– prisoners on St Helena
 Obviously prison life has agreed with the Cronje’s both husband and wife, no longer could the newspaper correspondents description of her as being thin and bedraggled apply.  But at least he had his wish, the two weren’t separated.

     Never let it be said that Mother England neglected her troops in the field. Their comfort and well being on the veldts of South Africa were obviously uttermost in Queen Victoria’s mind.

    As the festive season approached, back home in England Her Royal Highness had countless little workers busily packing tin upon tin of choice chocolates for distribution to her brave soldiers at the front.

        Presumably they were meant as a Christmas or New Year gift though many didn’t arrive at the front until months after the celebrations.
  Over 40,000 tins were packed by England’s then three top chocolate producers, Rowntree’s, Cadbury’s and Fry.  The tins were of uniform size with only slight apparent difference in production.  Officers  however received larger tins.
Perhaps their appetites were bigger than those of enlisted men.
The photo shows the Queen’s Chocolates being distributed to troops at the Modder River in February 1900.

A fortnight after Grandfather’s encounter with Cronje  two letters from soldiers at the front are published in Liverpool papers, one from Private Brown the other from Private Mason.
 in his  letter written from Bloemfontein on March 17th 1900,  Grandfather describes an encounter against a larger force of Boers ...
I have a few minutes to myself so I will send you a little news..... ‘300 of us attacked 11,000 Boers at Loofontein and we were under fire  for nearly five hours, the bullets falling round about us like hailstones...we killed a terrible lot of Boers.’
Ted Smith a Liverpool comrade, is attached to us and we were fighting together in the last fight.’
Their squadron  arrived in South Africa too late to become involved in the disastrous British defeats of  late 1899 when over 2,300 men were killed or wounded in three separate engagements.  But the First Australian Rifles, part of the second wave of recruits of which both Brown and Mason were part, were present during the relief of Kimberley in February and in battle at Paardeberg later in the same month.
Another letter home dated March 20  from Private Mason, a comrade  in arms also from Liverpool, describes fighting on the Modder River...
... ‘I had my horse shot from under me but escaped personal injury...the stench arising from dead soldiers and horses is almost unbearable in some places...’
In his letter Charles has shortened the spelling of the town, Bloemfontein.  He then goes on to tell about the squadron’s horses...
we are all going to get new horses, we want them badly as ours all have sore backs.’
He tells his father about the high cost of tobacco, 5 shillings a cake... ‘but I did without them.’  A drastic but effective way to give up smoking.
Even though he escaped some of the bloodiest encounters there is no doubt Grandfather Charles has experienced both the reality and the futility of war,  he ends the current letter with this cryptic comment...
when I get home I will read you the contents of my pocket book and then you can form some idea of what war is like.’
A notebook that didn’t survive the ongoing years.

First Australian Horse without horses
Another letter dated April 2nd .  Charles writes from Spyfontein, on the railway line 11 miles from Kimberley. The letter has been posted from Bloemfontein where he and the Squadron have been sent to acquire new uniforms...


...‘Bloemfontein again tomorrow to get some clothes and not before we want them...then to Delagoa Bay which will be another trip on the boat for about a week.  It is getting very cold here...we had a bit of a fight the other day. 
There were only 30 Boers and 15 of us.  We had a great go in, killing 20 of them and only one of our men was wounded. We had to fight our way to the place where we are now camped.  It has been raining hard...I pity some of the poor fellows who have to sleep out.  I have been sleeping in a very dry place since we got here.‘
Just four months later, June 31st, Charles writes yet another letter to his parents from Wynberg near Capetown where we find him recuperating from a bout of fever. (Though later it is described as typhoid.)

 His letter continues...
‘...I am O.K. and getting as fat as ever.  I was sent down from Bloemfontein about a week ago to Capetown.  I think they will send all of us who are sick home soon.  In fact we expect to leave any day for Sydney. ...I would sooner be up with my company than in the hospital, but they will not send us up after having fever.  Two boats leave Capetown every week with about 1000 troops.’ (Presumably with sick and wounded.)
‘I do not take much interest in the war now was a bit of hard luck that I took sick just as we were near the end.  I heard today that one of our officers was killed last week and three men wounded.’
‘Sleeping out did not hurt me, it was the water that gave me the fever.’
For Grandfather Charles Brown his war is over, his parents thankful his life has been spared.  

The South African war however continues, and while perhaps a majority of Australians will in time become disillusioned with Britain’s military conduct of the Boer War,  it will be many years before the full story of a harsh war and its heavy death toll is told...The ugly story of wartime concentration camps housing and starving the women and children of the Boers.  The execution of Australian troops, the true story of Breaker Morant.  The all to real futility of war that Trooper Charles Brown confined to his note book for his father to read when his son returned home.
In August of the same year the people of Liverpool, in a public gathering complete with bunting, flags and brass band welcomes home two of their soldiers, Private C. Brown of Liverpool and Private F. Mason of Hoxton Park.
Liverpool, the town of his birth where his parents and siblings still reside, organises a gala welcome. Great Grandfather William is a prominent businessman and a long time member of the Order of Foresters.  A parade through the streets is organised, the Mayor and dignitaries welcome the two soldiers onto the dais in front of a large crowd.
Member of Parliament Mr T.W. Taylor makes a speech lauding the actions of the two men who answered their countries call to arms.  He goes on to state the war in South Africa has done much to ‘cement the British Empire’ than any other incident in English history.  He mentions that Private Brown had taken part in seven battles and had two horses shot under him.
Another VIP, Dr Beattie expresses his sincere pleasure in taking part in the proceedings, Private Brown and Mason, he adds, had borne the British flag in South Africa and had returned home invalided and he was proud to welcome them.
That night both Troopers are treated to a smoke concert at Mrs Marsden’s Commercial Hotel.   But while Charles was born in Liverpool and had lived there most of his life, he had actually joined up in Hillgrove.
 Two days later on a Saturday night, to rousing music played by the town’s band, he is officially welcomed home together with another local soldier, Private W. Gribble.   Both men had arrived back in Australia together on the ship Persic.

The Hillgrove Brass Band
The town of Hillgrove at this stage is still intact with a large population and a busy commercial district.  But within a few years mining will suffer a setback and, as unbelievable as it seems, the towns buildings will be dismantled.  Hotels, public buildings, churches, homes, offices, all will be reduced to timber, tin and brick and relocated far from this beautiful escarpment .  Many ended up in the thriving town of Armidale.
All of this though is still in the unknown future,  two years on Charles will wed his Bella Marshall in Hillgrove, and though my father is not born in the general area of the town he will be named Guy, perhaps in memory of the rushing tumbling Guy Fawkes River that tumbled into the Wollombi  Gorge on its meandering journey to the Pacific Ocean.
Trooper Charles Brown will never meet Guy’s son, Charles Brown, which is a pity, he and his grandfather the Boer War veteran would surely have found they had a lot in common.
Charlie and Dad, Guy Brown, 3 years before our father's death.
I had no direct contact with my Boer War grandfather, Charles Brown, my father’s father. He died before my birth, and later, as I was growing up I saw and mixed with the Brown family only rarely, so I heard few stories about him...
Yet there is a parallel between Charles, the Boer war grandfather, and yet another man with the same name,  Charles Brown; he is my  baby brother and only sibling.

I can be forgiven for calling him a baby, there is after all the twelve year age difference between us.  Because our parents were both more often in ill health rather  than active and well it was left to me to look after him, the baby in our family.
 Through the ages of twelve, thirteen and on when either or both Mum and Dad were rushed to hospital I held the fort until my Grandmother Maggie made the rush trip from Sydney to Brisbane.  I loved him dearly and I still do.

Then by the time my little brother began his growing up years  I was married and starting my own family.
Charlie was four years old when our father Guy Brown died in a military Repatriation Hospital in Brisbane.  With Dad’s death went any chance of learning about Dad’s family; about his own father’s Boer war experience for instance, the personal details that rarely accompany official records.
My paternal Grandmother, Bella Marshall whose own grandmother  I’ve written about in ‘The Convicts Daughter’  did live long enough to meet her youngest grandson, Charlie Brown when he was barely five years old and I was seventeen.
But again, the seeds of genealogical inquisitiveness had yet to emerge and I failed to ask the questions I would love answered now.
There must be an inherent trait in all young men that calls them instantly to war when danger threatens.  In brother Charlie’s case it was the Vietnam War.
Vietnam was the 1970’s war that our returned soldiers rarely talk about; the war they bottle up inside themselves, quietly and privately reliving and experiencing time and again the horror they lived through as young men in that far away Asian country.
I have always respected my brother’s privacy, but once others, former fellow servicemen,  had broken through the silence, publishing  first hand accounts of the particular war he and they had shared,  I felt the time was right to place his life where it belongs,  with his proud family and beside the memory of another young man who fought a very different type of war, not in helicopters but on a tough speedy little horse.
To avoid intruding too much on my brother's personal  life I will limit his Vietnam story to the accounts written by others.

Charlie Brown was a young, very young helicopter crewman with 9 Squadron RAAF Iroquois based in Vung Tau. He has rarely, and then only briefly, spoken to me about his time in Vietnam. What I now know about his Vietnam service I have found through the few newspaper interviews others have given and eventually gone public with.
At seventeen, Charlie enlisted as a Royal Australia Air Force ground defence guard, but at the time the following event took place he was a rear gunner on one of the ‘Bushranger’ Iroquois helicopters operating out of Nui Dat.
The following story was related and published on the internet by a retired Salvation Army Officer, Bob Stephens,  in his youth a fellow helicopter crewman in the Vietnam conflict.
On the particular day this event occurred Bob’s aircraft was taking part in a medivac mission when his helicopter was shot down in the Long Hai  hills resulting in their army medic, John Gillespie’s death along with other supporting servicemen on the ground...
Charlie was a rear gunner on one of the Bushranger gunships  circling above, assisting the downed aircraft with covering fire until the surviving crew could be rescued.
Bob Stephens, in the 2008 interview I found on the web, didn’t dwell on the horrors of that particular day, nor did he even hint at the heroics of any of the participants:  His purpose in going public was to talk about the little known philanthropic activities that he and three other former air force mates had been quietly performing  in Vietnam during the past few years.
Those four ex-servicemen were Bob Stephens, Roy Zegers the door gunner on his downed chopper, and helicopter aircrew mates Peter Johnson and Charlie Brown, crewman and door gunner respectively on one of the Bushranger gunships that provided covering fire until  Bob Stephens could be rescued.
It was left to another website supplied by Keith White to describe the unfolding events of that fateful day, April 17, 1971.
This is the graphic description of what happened when Corporals Stephens and Gillespie aboard the medivac helicopter arrived to rescue injured personnel in the midst of battle.

(The lead up to the medivac – four South Vietnamese Regional Force soldiers have been injured by a mine explosion and difficult terrain demanded a helicopter evacuation.  The Long Hai hills – caves and dense timber has long harboured a major Viet Cong base and the medivac requires the protection of helicopter gunships.)

‘Late afternoon April 17, Iroquois A2-767, captained by Flying Officer Mike Castles was scrambled for an urgent dustoff (medivac) in the Long Hai Hills.  Due to the location two Bushrangers escorted the lightly armed dustoff helicopter on its mercy mission.
 On arriving in the area it was found there was no clearing.  It was necessary for the chopper to hover so that the winch and stretcher could be used to extract a South Vietnamese soldier, who had both legs blown off at the knees by a land mine.
Crash site in the Long Hai Hills where L/Cpl John Gillespie died in the helicopter medivac crash in April 1971.  Cpl Tom Blackhurst also died in the same incident.
The wounded soldier had just been strapped into the stretcher on the ground when the Viet Cong opened fire on the chopper, hitting it repeatedly.  Despite the gun fire Cpl R.A. Stephens started the winching operation while LAC Roy Zegers replied to the enemy’s fire.
The Iroquois took more hits and all of a sudden there was silence as the engine stopped and the doomed helicopter fell out of the sky.  Cpl Stephens watched with horror as the legless soldier on the ground below got out of the stretcher and crawled away from the falling chopper.
 The chopper crashed into a boulder strewn area occupied by South Vietnamese troops and their advisors resulting in one American and one Australian soldier being killed by flying debris.
The two pilots and LAC Zegers managed to get clear of the burning wreck.  However Cpl Gillespie, an army medical orderly, had his legs firmly pinned in the wreckage and Cpl Stephens remained behind to free him.  It was impossible to do so and Stephens just managed to scramble clear as the aircrafts fuel and ammunition exploded.
Cpl Stephens applied first aid to the wounded co pilot Tony Ford while a vicious fire fight was taking place around him  between the ARVN and the Viet Cong.  He continued caring for the wounded until a rescue helicopter landed to evacuate the dead and wounded.
 The South Vietnamese soldier they had attempted to rescue was one of the dead’.
And there the story rested until some 35 years later when four former comrades met up again in a Brisbane coffee shop.

Charlie arrived home to a joyful reunion with his family and began assimilating back into everyday suburban life.
But this is when Australia, a broad mainstream of Australia, let our boys from the Vietnam war down.
When I wrote about Grandfather Charles Brown returning home from South Africa to brass bands and waving cheering crowds I was chronicling yet another traditional homecoming to a hero returning home from the war.  The same joyous welcome accompanied the men and women returning from the Great War of 1914-18, from the Second World War and even from the Korean War.
The welcome ceremonies were in effect an assurance of a job well done, a valve that eased off some of the pressure of war.
The war in Vietnam though was not a popular one to a great many Australians.  It had been marked at home by rowdy demonstrations and street marches.
Vietnam and everyone connected with it acquired a tainted image. 
When the boys, many of them  National Service Trainees, arrived home it was to a conspicuous silence.  The  perceived blame, if there was any blame, for the country’s participation in the fight against the Viet Cong should have been laid solely at the door of politicians.
Instead it widened to include the young men who had risked their lives in the service of their country.  Many had no choice in the matter, their participation, on their 20th birthday was controlled by the luck of a ballot.  Over 15,000 young men, all conscripts served in Army Corps alongside regular troops in Vietnam.
The Australian Navy and Air Force did not use the National Service Ballot for Vietnam.   My brother  enlisted long before his 20th birthday.
This slap in the face to an Army and body of fighting men and women would have long reaching consequences that are still being felt today.

Surviving participants of that tragic day  back in 1971 didn’t see each other again until 2006 when Stephens, Zegers, Pete Johnson and Charlie Brown met up in Brisbane over coffee and lunch.
Bob Stephens at the time was the Chief Commissioner for the Salvation Army Red Shield Defence Services.  For those from an ARA background, Bob was the chief ‘Sallyman ’, responsible for philanthropic representatives in support of Army units in the Australian Defence Forces.
Pete Johnson and Charlie Brown had already made a quiet trip to Vietnam, involving themselves in giving aid to needy Viet veterans and their families and to orphans in various centres.
Over the coffee and chatter Pete and Charlie revealed they soon intended  making a return trip to Vung Tau and the Long Hais area.  With regret Stephens felt it was not yet the right time for him to go back to Vietnam, he was still undergoing treatment for post traumatic stress.  A year later in 2008 he did join them on another trip.
As Bob tells the story the four men retraced their war time steps , confronting their personal battles , meeting and befriending some of the men, the Vietcong, they had fought against all those years before.
Pete and Charlie met a former VC, a Lt from D445 Btn by the name of Hi Nung who had been appointed by the People’s Party in Hanoi as the ‘caretaker’ of the Long Hais battlefield in the old Province of Phuoc Tuy.   Nung lived with his family in a typical ‘shanty’ with a thatched roof that leaked badly in the wet.  Pete and Charlie paid $US800 to have a galvanised corrugated iron roof installed.
Bob with Hi Nung and Baby San & their new dentures.
Nung also had some blood heart issues and after a medical examination Roy Zegers paid $US5000 for treatment. Roy later met a former VC Colonel, Sau Thu, who led the attack on the Australians at Long Tan in 1966. Sau Thu received a head wound in the battle and as a result was left profoundly deaf in his left ear. 

Roy paid for him to have a hearing device implant.  Both Vietnamese men were overwhelmed by his kindness and generosity.
The four made further trips to Vietnam quietly helping their former foe where they could and were instrumental in locating long missing bodies of fallen Australian serviceman that were either later marked with a commemorative plaque or repatriated back home.
The efforts of these four Australians were sincerely appreciated by the Vietnamese and all four received formal invitations by the former Viet Cong General, Hi Quan, to attend the VC Veterans’ Day.  A rare privilege and an honour; foreigners have never before been invited to these events.
Their help wasn’t just centred on their former adversary, the soldiers of the Viet Cong;  the four... Charlie, Pete, Roy and Bob quietly helped the children of Vietnam as well, supplying food, clothes and toys to the children’s orphanage at Baria. 
Bob closed his story with the observation that perhaps some fellow Australians might not entirely approve their action in giving help to the former enemy;  ‘but’, as he explained;  ‘they, the Viet Cong,  had to do what they had to do, and we had to do the same.  Now we can put the past behind us and try to treat each other with respect, as former warriors’.
All four men have fought their personal battles with post traumatic stress and each feel their visits to Vietnam have helped give them some closure on their wartime experiences.  To this day they continue their visits to Vietnam.
I am much older now, my baby brother has passed the sixty mark, yet it has taken all these years for me to discover and fully appreciate his incredible bravery under fire, and his ongoing integrity.

Charlie Brown’s father, Guy, and his grandfather, Trooper Charles Brown the  Boer War veteran, would have been enormously proud of their offspring.

Robyn Mortimer ©2012


  1. Aunty Robyn,

    I am very grateful of your skills as a wonderful journalist, And Aunty. Your blog about our family and my father ( your brother ) Charles was great. I am very proud to be part of such a fantastic family. Who would of though there was so much history. If it wasn't for your fascination and determination I would have never known anything about my ancestors.

    Love lots,

  2. Aunty Robyn,

    I am very grateful of your skills as a wonderful journalist, And Aunty. Your blog about our family and my father ( your brother ) Charles was great. I am very proud to be part of such a fantastic family. Who would of though there was so much history. If it wasn't for your fascination and determination I would have never known anything about my ancestors.

    Love lots,


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