Private James Brambley, Royal Irish Regiment
As a collector of First World War medals I am guilty of assumption. That is to say that when I look at a pair or a trio to a particular regiment or with a particular name, I will make a guess at the history of the recipient. When I see a 1914 star to the Royal Irish Regiment, I ask myself - was he a casualty? - maybe he was taken prisoner after the battle of Le Pilly. A 1914/15 Star to the Munster’s or Dublin’s may be a “River Clyde Man”. Then my assumption is either proved right (or wrong) by the MIC card or service papers if they are available. Unfortunately as is often the case information on the recipient is just not available and so the group will just remain un-researched – but I have always felt one should never give up as new information is always being made public and so, what may not be here today may become available tomorrow.
Many years ago (in 1994) I bought a British war medal and victory medal pair to 3983 Private James Brambley Royal Irish Regiment. At the time the only information available specific to Brambley was a very non descript and boring medal index card which just confirmed his entitlement to the pair and also listed his later service in the Royal Engineers. When years later I searched for his service papers I drew a blank. And so I began to make “assumptions”. I assumed that James Brambley joined up post 1916 (as no qualifying date on MIC) and because of what appeared to be English name I assumed that maybe he was possibly a conscript pushed into the ranks of an Irish unit, to fill the gaps made by dwindling Irish recruitment. And so I felt I knew a little of who this James Brambley was – that is until it started to snow this year.
One positive outcome of being snowed in on the side of a hillside is time. Normally I would not have the time to reinvestigate “research dead-ends” but as I had time on my hands I began to reinvestigate groups that previously did not seem to have service papers available. When I tried with Brambley – initially I had no luck when I searched via his regiment or his regimental number. In the end I just pulled up all soldiers with the name Brambley and began investigating them one at a time. I eventually found a distinctly “crispy” service record which was totally charred and burned. It did have the name Brambley but most of the other details were obliterated. Luckily most of the other papers were intact and it confirmed that this Brambley was my man from later pages which has his regimental number on them. And it seems he was an interesting character to boot.
He was not English – He was from New Ross and enlisted in Waterford! In fact he was a pre-war reservist. He joined in 1909 the 4th Special Reserve Battalion Royal Irish Regiment. Shortly after his recruits course Brambley undertook a Musketry course. On paper he would appear to have been a good reservist, attending annual camp faithfully every year. He was never on a charge or seemed to have caused his NCOs and officers any grief. That is until he was mobilised in August 1914. He was posted to the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment on October 7th. He would have been sent to reinforce the battalion after it suffered losses at Caudry and the opening battles of Mons. This battalion was to be decimated in the following weeks but it was finally wiped out at a tiny hamlet called Le Pilly. In fact roll call on October 20th listed 30 officers and 884 men on the strength- on October 21st, 1 officer and 135 men answered the call. This included our private Brambley who somehow managed to survive. Maybe his survival had something to do with a change in Brambleys character as 10 days later he was awarded 14 days field punishment (number two) by the commanding officer. Soon after this on December 3rd Brambley received 28 days field punishment (number one). Unfortunately we do not have his conduct sheet so we cannot say for sure what his offence was (generally for this kind of sentence it would suggest drunkenness and or insubordination). Surely such a brutal and bloody introduction to the war must have a left a mark on this young man hence the apparent change in his personality. There is a letter dated November 2nd from his new wife in Irishtown New Ross to the war office requesting any information they had about her husband as she had not heard from him since he had gone to the war. It must have been a horrific time for his young wife to see the filter of telegrams arriving at neighbour’s doors telling them of their sons and fathers being posted killed, wounded or taken prisoner. The War office replied to her a few days later informing her that he was still alive and serving with the BEF. For the next few months the Battalion was being rebuilt and brought back to strength. When it took the line again in March 1915 the war had become stagnant as the armies took a gasp for breath and dug in. Private Brambley ironically would have been numbered as one of the veterans of the battalion having been one of the few to have survived Mons. In May The Royal Irish held a position along Bellewarde ridge (Shell Trap Farm). The battalion had undergone a gas attack earlier in the month and stood their ground with little loss. On May 24th the Battalion endured another gas attack. This time however casualties were much more severe including 18 officers and 370 other ranks. Again Private Brambley walked away from this action without a scratch. Over the next few weeks and months the battalion was again slowly built back up to strength. It took its place in the rotation of front line trenches then reserve trenches then rear areas. This service was interrupted intermittently by artillery fire, sniping and trench raids. Private Brambley again received another 10 Days field punishment (number one) on November 11th. After this on December 7th Private Brambley was wounded in action. It is ironic to think that after surviving 12 months in France and personally witnessing the destruction of his own battalion on two separate occasions he is eventually wounded in the line during the day to day normal “wastage” of trench warfare. There is not even a mention of any specific activity in the regimental history on the day concerned!
This wound seemed to focus Private Brambley as his records are clear until February 20th 1917 when he is listed as deserting! Interestingly his papers suggest he was given 1 months leave from January 17th and it seems he overstayed his leave by a month. It is easy for us to pass judgement on a man from a comfortable chair, 90 years on but I think we should put things in perspective. After he was wounded, and returned to the battalion he would have been with them on the Somme where his battalion famously took part in the attack and capture of the fortified villages of Guillemont and Ginchy. After these attacks (which were very costly - 230 men of the 2nd Royal Irish alone). The battalion had to be rebuilt again – In addition to this general reconstruction- battalion structures were also reorganised for the new types of warfare being developed. By February 1917 the battalion began training for another assault – this was to be the famous attack on the village of Wytschaete on the Messinnes ridge. I can understand why Brambley may have had enough and decided discretion was the greater part of valour in this instance. I would speculate after visiting his young wife and child at home the idea of returning to the horror of France and Belgium was too much. I believe this view is confirmed by some very sad documentation accompanying his file. That is the death certificate for his 3 month old son who sadly died on November 26th 1917. This childs conception would place Private Brambley back in Irish town New Ross about January or February 1917. He was on the run for exactly one month but his papers state “He rejoined” the battalion after desertion which suggests he voluntarily came back (as opposed to normal “Returned to battalion” which I have seen in other papers. He was placed under arrest and on April 5th and sentenced to 2 months field punishment (No 1). Ironically this punishment would have kept Brambley in service with the battalion and he would have been with them at Messines on the attack on June 7th. I would speculate that he would have been one of the most experienced men of the battalion at this point and maybe this was why he did not receive a more severe punishment (such as penal servitude and imprisonment). Again Brambley survived this attack and walked away apparently without a scratch. But by August 1917 the battalion were in the line to the right of the infamous Langemarck. The regimental history states that from the 3rd to the 16th the battalion lost just under 80 men due to very heavy artillery fire and enemy aircraft strafing the line. Our private Brambley is listed as suffering a gunshot wound to his right leg (GSW right leg) on August 5th. This was most possibly caused by the German aircraft which caused several casualties (as opposed to being listed as having shrapnel wounds). The wound was severe enough for private Brambley to be hospitalised. He travelled to hospital in Liverpool (arriving August 11th ) via Etaples General hospital. By this stage his young son John had been born and I am sure that when granted eight days recuperation leave on November 15th he would have travelled home to his wife and sons. On November 24th he returned to the Regimental Depot (in Clonmel) and it would have been here that he probably received the terrible news that his newborn son passed away just two days after he said goodbye to him.
Private Brambley remained attached to the depot until he was posted to the 3rd battalion on March 4th 1918. Shortly afterwards he transferred to the Royal Engineers (March 19th). He was downgraded as Class 2 Troops – This would have been as a result of his wound. In fact he would mainly have been used as a labourer (road troops) until the end of the war and his demobilisation. In February 1919 Pioneer James Brambley underwent his final field general court martial (for Drunkenness and Insubordination) where he was sentenced to 28 days field punishment number two.
On April 12th 1919, James Brambley was discharged from the army at London. He gave his intended residence as being Irishtown, New Ross. Although his papers state he qualified for a 1914 Star, he never received one – Maybe someone later felt that he was not entitled to one as he spent so much of his early war on a charge enduring field punishment. That is despite the fact that he was one of the first soldiers to go overseas, he witnessed and survived some of the bloodiest battles in history and was in fact wounded twice.
For all his suffering and hardships he only ever received two medals. The same two medals I bought in 1994 and assumed were just an ordinary pair to an English conscript forced to join an Irish regiment.
How wrong I was!