Laughter amid darkness: a WWI soldier’s lifelong battle


Harry Browne and friends enjoy a light-hearted moment amid the devastation on the Western Front in 1917.

In this feature series, Every Body Has A Story, we unearth some of the compelling stories from the historic Melbourne General Cemetery, the final resting place for thousands who have called the city home.

The photograph of Harry Browne and friends dated July 22, 1917 is both comical and harrowing.

They stand in front of a ruined landscape on the Western Front, cheekily grinning at the camera, Browne holding an umbrella above his head with affected flair.

It captures a moment of levity amid the battlefields, but offers no hint of the suffering Browne endured during and after the war.

Browne’s Commonwealth military gravestone stands out in the Melbourne General Cemetery, a small part of the legacy of the Western Front right here in the inner north. He was awarded the Military Medal for service as a linesman at the Battle of Pozieres in 1916, and his granddaughters Suzanne and Maree White are determined that his life be remembered.

Browne’s wartime service began when he enlisted in Brisbane as a volunteer in the Australian Imperial Force on September 18, 1914, an unmarried, 23-year-old labourer.

He joined the 15th Battalion, comprised of recruits from Queensland and Tasmania, and was sent to train in Broadmeadows, Victoria. It was in Melbourne that he met Margaret Leo Conway and wrote to her throughout the war.

Maree White in Pozieres, at the concrete bunker mentioned in the citation for her grandfather’s military medal. Image supplied by Maree White

His first experience of action came at Gallipoli, where he landed on April 25, 1915 with the 15th Battalion. On August 7 later that year he was evacuated to Lemnos.

He was then sent to the Western Front and the Battle of Pozieres, which began on July 23, 1916 when the Australian First Division captured the small village.

The Germans counter-attacked at dawn, but the Australians fought them off. The rest of Pozières fell between 23 and 25 July, and the Germans concentrated their artillery fire on the Australians. They directed constant bombardments onto the village and the narrow approaches and the result was one of the bloodiest and most destructive battles on the Western Front.

Only a few days later, on July 31, Australia’s official war correspondent Charles Bean visited the remains of the village. His observations were chilling. He noted that “everywhere were blackened men — torn and whole — dead for days”.

The devastation was incomprehensible.

Australian forces tallied 23,000 casualties from July 23 to September 4 at Pozieres, with 6700 men killed in action or who died from wounds.

On the evening of August 8, 1916, Browne and his fellow Queenslander Lance Corporal Herbert Evans laid four wires over 800 yards to the northwest of Pozieres, opening up vital communications between headquarters and the front line under “heavy artillery barrage … with little or no cover”.

Major General H. V. Cox, the commander of the Australian 4th Division, argued the “courageous efforts” of the pair ensured communications between Advanced Fourth Brigade Headquarters and the 15th Battalion Signals were maintained.

On October 4, 1916, Browne and Evans were awarded the Military Medal for “bravery and enterprise”.

But just a year later, on October 16, 1917, while stationed at Zonnebeke in Belgium, Browne suffered severe wounds as a result of gassing.

Transferred to the Horton County of London War Hospital in Epsom, he was eventually declared unfit for service on January 11, 1918.

Shortly after returning to Australia in May 1918, Browne was admitted to the No.6 Australian General Hospital in Kangaroo Point, Brisbane, where he stayed for several months, gradually recovering from his injuries.

Although they never met him, Browne’s granddaughters Maree and Suzanne White are incredibly proud of their “Grandpa Harry” and have worked to understand his wartime experience and to know him better.

“My husband and I visited the Western Front battlefields in 2019 and saw where Harry fought or was billeted  … It was a moving time,” Maree said.

Over the first COVID-19 lockdown in 2020, Suzanne also spent six months learning more about her grandfather’s wartime experiences. Her research produced insight into the good-humoured and kind man.

Harry Browne enjoys a break from his millitary training in Egypt in 1915. Image supplied.

Suzanne found a picture of her grandpa on a camel while training in Egypt in April 1915 , an image he had he sent to his father. He had scribbled on the back of the photo that “after this photo was taken, the camel took to its heels and my dignity and backside suffered”.

Maree and Suzanne said their grandfather never shared his wartime experiences with his family, despite suffering bad nightmares for years.

They suspected he had undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder. Browne’s letters to his father from hospital at Kangaroo Point corroborated this belief.

In one letter, Browne acknowledged he was a “different man than the one who left Australia”.

“Mum told me he had seven diagnosed disabilities when he returned from war,” Suzanne said.

When he had recovered from his injuries at Kangaroo Point, Browne relocated to Melbourne and married his wartime sweetheart, Margaret Conway, on October 26, 1918. They had two daughters together, Marie and Kathleen.

After the war, Browne worked as a fitter and turner, also volunteering for numerous charities and helping in local council election campaigns. He also became qualified as a justice of the peace in 1945.

However, his deteriorating health meant he was constantly in and out of the repatriation hospital and was eventually unable to work.

Even though he had the full support of his doctors, Browne initially struggled to obtain a Totally and Permanently Incapacitated pension.  Maree said the final granting of a full TPI was a joyous time for the family.

Despite Browne’s ongoing war trauma, his granddaughters said his life was filled with love, family, and community.

Browne died in Heidelberg on February 1, 1950, aged 59, as a result of the prolonged effects of gassing.

His story is just one of  hundreds of thousands that demonstrate the ongoing personal cost of war on a generation of men and women. However, he maintained a quiet enthusiasm for life and never experienced a shortage of love.

His spirit is reflected in the death notice written by his daughters Marie and Kathleen: “He had a nature you couldn’t help loving and a heart purer than gold”.