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Derek Savory, 2012
For King & Country

Major James A Browning
Major James A Browning
Rushden House, the redundant mansion near Parklands surgery, off Wymington Road, faces an uncertain future. It was built In 1870-71 for the Currie family, on land bought from Mr. F. U. Sartoris of neighbouring Rushden Hall.

Henry William Currie, a London banker who aspired to landed gentility, his wife, Caroline, and son, William Reginald, born 1861, lived there until 1901, when Mrs. Currie died, nine months after Queen Victoria. The property was then sold to the Browning family who were living at Knuston Hall.

Edward Campbell Browning, born 1836, was another London businessman. His career began with a partnership in his father's firm of Twiss & Browning, wine and spirits merchants. He studied law, became a Barrister, and practised for fourteen years before becoming "something in the City" and a successful financier.

In 1873, he married Louisa Pratt-Barlow, who bore him two sons and four daughters. His retirement in 1897 had brought him to Knuston. At Rushden House, he set about enlarging and enhancing it to accommodate his large family and a staff of servants, which included a butler and a coachman. Embracing the life of a country gentleman, he enjoyed shooting, became a J.P. and Vice President of Rushden Town Cricket Club, and encouraged the new Boy Scout movement, founded in 1907 by Boer War hero General Baden-Powell.

Edward’s younger son, James Alexander, was born in 1878 and educated at Eton and Sandhurst. Described as a "born soldier" he joined the Army in 1898, just in time to serve in the South African (Boer) War (1899-1902) as a Lieutenant in the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays), a crack cavalry regiment.

The Queen's Bays motto was "For King & Country" and they lived up to it. The regiment evolved from troops of horse raised to fight for James II against the Monmouth rebels in1685. It became the Queen's Regiment of Dragoon Guards for Queen Caroline, George II’s wife, in 1749. When it changed to riding bay horses (with white or dappled-white hair) in 1767, it acquired the name and held it until 1921.

The Bays fought in South Africa with the Cavalry Division commanded by Lieut- Gen. French. James joined them for the later battles, for which he was awarded the Queen's medal with five clasps.

His career forged ahead, and in 1900-01 he was Aide-de-Camp for the Inspector General of Cavalry and was promoted to Captain. From 1906-09 he acted as Adjutant to his regiment and was promoted to Major in 1911.

In 1903 he married Lilian Brenda Fisher, daughter of Capt.J.B. Fisher, at St. Mary's church Higham Ferrers.

After two years the Bays returned to England and were stationed at Hounslow and then Aldershot. The Young Brownings went with them. James's charger, which he had ridden in South Africa, was brought to Rushden House and used for hunting with the Oakley Hounds. The Army approved of hunting as good practice for cavalrymen. James was a keen follower and always wore Hunting Pink.

Britain's Boer War experience spurred the new Liberal government of 1905 into a series of political and military reforms. These included the creation of a volunteer, part-time army, the Territorial Force (TF) to defend the homeland should the regulars be called away.

The Edwardian years were notable for the Entente Cordiale between Britain and France. Both countries saw Germany as their likeliest opponent in a future war, and an "agreement" was reached between them in 1904. All the Great Powers drew up war plans for mobilising and deploying their forces in battle.

When war came in 1914, a British Expeditionary Force (BEF), of five infantry and one cavalry divisions, almost 100,000 men, was speedily assembled and shipped safely to France by 22nd August.

Britain's war plan placed the BEF on the French Army's left facing two of the Germans' five armies advancing through Belgium. Germany's plan was to knock out France quickly before Russia could bring its enormous weight to bear, and so avoid a two-front war. To do this they would drive through Belgium, then swing southwest to outflank French defences, pass round Paris and trap the French Army against Germany's border defences.

On their part, the French intended to fight "a l'outrance" (to the death). They would push into Germany from their 19th Century border forts and strike at the German armies' flanks as they advanced through the Belgian Ardennes. On both counts they failed, with terrible casualties .

James and Lilian Browning now had two sons and were living at "Stoneycroft", Aldershot, probably a rented property in the town. Rushden's "Echo" of 21st August 1914 reported that Major J. A. Browning, Queen's Bays, had gone to the front with the 1st Cavalry Brigade; he was said to be fit and well.

This was one of four brigades, each containing three regiments, that made up the cavalry division. The BEF was divided into two Corps each commanded by a Lt. General, and the overall Commander was Field Marshall Sir John French. The 1st Corps' Commander was Lt. Gen. Sir Douglas Haig; both French and Haig were cavalrymen who had served in South Africa.

The "Echo" continued to publish extracts from James's letters as and when they were received. One of them was quoted in Friday 16th October's edition:

"September 4th. We went by train from Havre to Maubeuge on the Belgian frontier, and stayed there about a day, we were in touch with the Germans at once. During the battles of Mons and Le Cateau, four days fighting, we were on the flank and I saw a good deal of the fighting, only we were not actively engaged, losing only a few men to shell fire.

The charge of the second brigade at Mons was a ghastly mistake and a useless sacrifice of life. They got into some wire, and were enfiladed by maxims and every sort of thing, and did practically no good at all."

He continued: "The German's leave everything in a most awful state and smash everything. Two or three days ago we were billeted in a beautiful chateau and all the lovely things in it had been smashed."

"September 20th. I have seen a good many German prisoners. They are as a rule very pleased to be captured. Tonight we are in a clean house with the prospect of a clean bed and good dinner, tomorrow night it will probably be a ditch full of water."

It was still a war of movement, mostly on foot or by horse. Communications between the Allies was patchy and for the Germans, slower, the further they marched from home.

The places named in James's letter were the scene of early clashes involving the BEF; as yet, in terms of numbers, the junior partner to the French Army. Maubeuge, a fortress town with a French garrison, was besieged by the German 1st Army and surrendered after only two weeks. It had been chosen as the British advance base.

Mons, a Belgian mining town, was to become synonymous with military failure and dismal re treat. Defended by French and BEF units, it was attacked on 22nd August by two German army corps. The British held them off for the day with superior musketry, next morning discovered that the French on their right were retreating and they were completely exposed on the left.

There was no alternative but to follow southwards in a long slog through gruelling heat and dust until they reached Le Cateau and dug in. Here, the Germans caught up and a battle was fought on the 26th-27th August. Again, the British, with the aid of French cavalry, were able to escape.

The retreat ended on the River Marne, when the Germans, over-stretched and weary found a large gap had opened between their 1st and 2nd Armies. French General Joffre threatened their flanks and the Germans pulled back to the River Aisne, where both sides dug in. Trench warfare was about to begin.

The Bays were part of the retreat from Mons and James was personally involved in an incident that occurred on the 1st September, when they were bivouacked in the French village of Nery:

"It was during the retirement that the affair of Nery occurred and we took 8 guns from the Germans. We had just got in in the dark and put outposts. The order in the morning was to have our squadron saddled and the others standing to at 5am. It was a misty morning and I had just gone down about 5am to look at my horses when a most tremendous outburst of shellfire and Maxims burst on my ears. I was in a farm with the regimental headquarters, and the Battery (L Battery) was picketed in the village.

I rushed out into the field and for a moment could see nobody. The horses had stampeded. However, in a second or two I met Captain Springfield and Major Ing and a few others, and together with about 100 men, we proceeded to ride in the direction of the firing. There we saw our (L) Battery still firing in a terrible condition. The road and Battery were simply plastered by shrapnel and bullets. It was some little time before we could see the enemy, and then at last we saw their guns about six or seven hundred yards off. Mr. Lamb (Sgt. Major), with his Maxim, did excellent work, getting into them in fine form, and together with our fire from the road amidst a perfect hail of bullets, took in the situation and sent in the 5th Dragoon-Guards round the other side of the village to threaten their flank. It was in this movement that Colonel Ansell was killed. Our artillery in the meantime had stopped, all the officers being killed or wounded. The last man to leave the Battery was the Sgt. Major. He served one gun until all the ammunition was gone. I personally saw him and spoke to him and he then collected some of his drivers with rifles, and helped us with rifle fire. I believe he has been recommended for the V.C.

The situation remained like this for some time. The Germans kept on trying to get their guns away and we were plastering them for about two hours. Then the 4th Cavalry Brigade and some infantry appeared, at which the Germans bunked, leaving their guns and a considerable amount of dead and wounded, and about 100 prisoners. We heard afterwards that it was just as much a surprise to them, as to us, only unfortunately they saw us first. After that we retired in peace to Paris, and rested for one day, then we started off again, this time, I am glad to say, in the direction of the Germans, and not away from them."

James was a professional soldier. He had fought in South Africa, which was no picnic, and seen death and destruction before, hence this typically understated version of what was a very bloody encounter. The Germans had lost 188 officers and men and 232 horses. The British 1st Cavalry Brigade lost 133 of all ranks and up to 390 horses, and L Battery was wrecked. Sergeant Major Lamb, whose skill with the machine gun had "saved the day" was awarded the DSO.

Out of all this slaughter it is pleasing to read of one survivor - James's warhorse: "My charger (Brune) had stampeded at Nery, due to my servant, but I found him next day with a man on his back, whom I quickly removed."

This and similar pithy comments in James's letters appeared in the Rushden "Echo" of 16th October 1914:

"This is a beautiful place, the valley of the Aisne where we have been for the last ten days, dodging German shells. The Germans are awful cubs, and up to all sorts of mean tricks. I personally saw them put some prisoners in front of their Maxim to prevent themselves from being fired on...... They won't face our infantry, who have a supreme contempt for them, but we have a wholesome respect for their artillery."

"Our supply arrangements are simply wonderful; men being awfully well fed even right up to the trenches. This is just as well, as the country, having had French and British armies through it, is about played out as regards local supplies."

"We have seen a deal of the French Algerian troops. They are funny looking beggars, and the Saphis ride small ponies about fourteen hands high, and wear brilliant scarlet coats, most picturesque looking people."

"We have seen a good deal of the Foot Guards. They are magnificent, and I should say no regiment have done better in this campaign. Yesterday they had just captured two Germans whom they had found in the middle of a haystack behind our lines. They had been left behind to send information, and had been in the haystack for fourteen days......"

"The French infantry, or a portion of them, go about in motor 'buses. The other day, during a battle, I saw a 'bus arrive and wait round the corner while the battle raged, and then proceeded on."

After the German offensive was halted on the Marne, the two sides attempted to outflank each other in the so-called "race to the sea." Both wanted to secure the Channel ports of Dunkirk and Ostend. They clashed near the West Flanders town of Ypres between October-November 1914. In this, the 1st Battle of Ypres, the British and French held on to a salient in the German lines, but the Germans gained the commanding high ground of the Messines Ridge, six miles away, which they held until 1917.

On 27th October, James wrote to his sister, Mrs. Alice Simpson, at Higham Ferrers. He told her that he was quite well, they were enjoying wonderful weather for the season but were not looking forward much to campaigning this winter. The Germans opposite them had been "having a high old time" shelling an old church, and he had watched them firing on one of our aeroplanes. He thought that the sight of shells bursting around it was "very pretty."

Within hours of receiving his letter Mrs. Simpson heard that her brother was dead. The "Echo" of Friday 6th November reported: "With deep sorrow we have to record that Major James Alexander Browning has been killed in action. He was 36 years of age. The deceased officer was, at the time of his death, in command of his regiment, the C.O. (Col. Wilberforce), being home on sick leave. The first intimation (of his death) was conveyed by the War Office to his wife at Aldershot in the form of a terse telegram, which she received as late as eleven o'clock on Monday night. Mr. & Mrs. E. G. Browning were at Brighton and they at once motored home to Rushden. Major Browning leaves a widow and two sons, Geoffrey Alexander, aged eight, and Peter Campbell, aged four.

It is a sad fact that two of Major Browning's cousins met their death in the present terrible war. Captain Charles Browning, late of Clapham Park, Bedford, who was killed at Mons, and Commander Bernard Pratt Barlow, who was drowned in the recent disaster to HMS Hawke."

The "Echo" went on to describe James's "brilliant career, prematurely ended", and how he was one of the youngest commanding officers in the British Army. Later, it was learnt that he had been killed by shellfire in the battle for Messines Ridge on 31st October. The Germans captured it next day. Commander Pratt Barlow was one of nearly 500 sailors lost when the old armoured cruiser "Hawke" was torpedoed off Aberdeen on the morning of 15th October 1914. Her Nemesis was U9, commanded by Otto Weddigen, who, three weeks earlier, had sunk three old British cruisers, "Aboukir", "Cressy" and "Hogue", in one morning, and become a German national hero.

Before the year's end, fate dealt the Browning family another heavy blow, when James's father died suddenly at home on 21st December. He was 78. The "Echo" recorded the news in its Christmas Day edition, describing Mr. E. C. Browning as "Rushden's leading resident and a "great financier". His funeral service at St. Mary's church, Rushden, on 2nd January 1915 was given great prominence in the local press, and there was a Guard of Honour of Rushden Boy Scouts at the graveside.

Memorial in Rushden cemetery
Rushden Cemetery Memorial
James is buried in the Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Military Cemetery, Belgium, and there is a memorial to him in Rushden Cemetery. The Great War spared neither rich nor poor, as evidenced by the names on Rushden War Memorial.

In January 1916 Lilian Browning was advised by the War Office that James had been mentioned in Field Marshall Sir John French's dispatches of 3rd May, 1914 for "gallant and distinguished service in the field". And, "His Majesty desires me to console with you on the loss you have sustained, and to express his high appreciation of the service of the late Major James Alexander Browning."

Rushden House had been sold to a Mr. George Henry Lane, leather merchant, of Kettering. But, having acquired the home of the town's late leading resident, Mr. Lane seemed unsure what to do with it. In a conversation overheard in the offices of Marriott's, the builders, he remarked, "Guess what? I’ve bought Rushden House. "What for?" "I’m going to turn it into a lunatic asylum, and I'm going to be the first patient."

It was, in a way, at prophetic flippancy. Rushden House and grounds were destined to become a refuge for patients afflicted with other kinds of illness. And though it would never be a family home again, it did become, for some, a home of sorts before the war ended.

In 1915, Mr. Lane came to an agreement with the Government to use the whole area as a German prisoner of war camp, to be known as Ploughman's Camp. And so it remained until its last inhabitants went home.

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