In Memory of John Norman Brazier (1896-1985) – Anzac Day

Anzac Day is a key chapter in Australia and New Zealand’s history where we remember those who served in all wars, conflicts, and peacekeeping operations. This year, we remember fly fisher, John Norman “JN” Brazier.

One of the few and treasured photos of JN. A photo of JN taken in 1918 when he was convalescing from wounds in England – he is likely wearing the uniform of the son of the family he was billeted with as the uniform is not Australian | Source: David Marshall, grandson

“My grandfather, universally known as JN,” David Marshall remembers, “was known to all his family as Popeye, due to his constant encouragement to all his young grandchildren to eat his home-grown spinach, which ‘will make you strong like Popeye-the-Sailorman’”.

Born on the 13th August in 1896, in Armidale NSW, JN grew up with a love of sport and the outdoors. He was a champion sportsman playing first-grade cricket, and was an Australian champion in both fly fishing and pigeon shooting. To this day there is a Brazier Memorial Trophy for fly casting in Orange. Many of our FlyLife readers will likely know of this Cup or have competed for the honours.

In 1915, a couple of months shy of his 18th birthday, JN enlisted to serve in the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) in the First World War. His unhappy father, cabled the army telling them JN was not yet 18. JN was discharged, but undeterred. He re-enlisted the following year once he had convinced his family he was ready. On the 11th November 1916, JN sailed to Europe via Capetown on the HMAT Suevic (A29).

The Australian troopship HMAT Suevic (A29) at sea. | Source: Australian War Memorial

JN felt strongly about serving his country (as his having to enlist twice demonstrates), but he was totally opposed to hurting or killing another person, so he volunteered as a stretcher bearer. Australian Military Archives also note him as an assistant dentist, and not surprisingly, JN became a fully qualified dentist following the war.

In 1917, JN was shipped to France and joined the 53rd Battalion of the 14th Brigade, 5th Army Division. His first experience of conflict as a stretcher bearer was the Second Battle of Bullecourt, under the leadership of the British General Sir Hubert Gough. The First Battle (the month before) was unsuccessful with 3000 Australian soldiers killed. The Second Battle was fought furiously against the Germans but in the end only advanced the line a kilometre or so, and came at a heavy cost of 7,000 more Australian men. Unwittingly JN witnessed another frustrating ANZAC loss (after the death of 8,708 men at Gallipoli in 1915) with Australian soldiers feeling bitter towards British leadership. Historian Charles Bean wrote,

“Bullecourt, more than any other battle, shook the confidence of Australian soldiers in the capacity of the British command; the errors…were obvious to almost everyone.”

Stretcher bearers, like JN Brazier, carrying wounded back along the trenches during the fighting at Bullecourt, in May 1917. | Source: Australian War Memorial

JN’s Battalion was then moved to Belgium where they fought in the Battle of Messines. Messines was the first time Australians and New Zealanders had fought side by side since the Gallipoli campaign of 1915. JN participated in one of the greatest moments in Australian military history, as the Battle of Messines was the first major battle for the then Major-General John Monash. Under the leadership of Monash, the attack was very successful with the result decided by the end of the first evening.

Australian stretcher bearers at the regimental aid post at Messines Ridge. | Source: Australian War Memorial

JN and his Battalion then continued on to the Battle of Menin Road, another success for the ANZAC troops with a new front line won. His unit was then mobilised to the Battle of Polygon Wood in September 1917. At the centre of Polygon Wood was a dominating mound called the ‘Butte’ – an observation post heavily fortified by the Germans. The ‘Butte’ would later become an Australian memorial, which is visited annually to this day by many Australians and New Zealanders. Resistance was heavy at Polygon Wood but Australian soldiers took the Butte by the end of the day. It was at Polygon Wood that JN was wounded in action, with shrapnel caught in his left arm. JN was one of the lucky survivors – as despite the Battle of Polygon Wood being a success, nearly 2000 Australians died. The memorial at the Butte, commemorates the Australians who died there, most of them unknown.

Australian servicemen in the trenches at Polygon Wood where Monash led victory. | Source: Australian War Memorial

JN’s sense of duty continued, and following recovery in a field hospital, he re-joined his Battalion the following month. His unit was marched to Villers-Bretonneux in March 1918 to try and stop the German breakthrough. He survived the first battle but was badly gassed on the 17thApril 1918 when the Germans shelled the assembly areas prior to the commencement of the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. In April 2018 JN was invalided back to the UK and then sent home to Australia.

One of the few and treasured photos of JN. Here he is on the left-hand side, taken in South Africa on his way home to Australia. | Source: David Marshall, grandson

 

French children attending graves of Australians killed in battle at the Adelaide Cemetery, Villers-Bretonneux. It is at Villers-Bretonneux that France and Australia hold the main annual commemoration of Anzac Day. | Source: Australian War Memorial

On returning from the war JN married and became a fully qualified dentist.

David Marshall, JN’s grandson remembers,

“JN would never talk about his experiences in the war, except once to tell us that as his unit was marching up to Villers-Bretonneux in April 1918 dozens of “tommies” were quickly retreating saying (in a broad Liverpool accent) “the hoons are coo-ming, the hoons are coo-ming, get oot, get oot” and then laughed.

As a postscript, he admitted that after the battle he and some mates raided some cellars and filled up a number of hessian bags with “wine, brandy, anything and everything” and forgot the war for a while.

“JN was a wonderful person – intelligent, tough, and kind, with remarkable values and morals. What he went through, as a stretcher bearer, in such bloody (and often disastrous) battles is beyond our comprehension.”

One of the few and treasured photos of JN. JN with his wife Isabel celebrating their 60th wedding anniversary | Source: David Marshall, grandson

Acknowledgement: Special thanks to David Marshall, JN’s grandson, who shared his grandfather’s story with us.

 

References

Adams, M. (2017). Battle of Messines. Accessed 24 April 2019 from https://www.forbesadvocate.com.au/story/4703746/battle-of-messines/

Australian War Memorial: www.awm.gov.au

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (2017). 7 facts about the Battle of Polygon Wood. Accessed 24 April 2019 from https://www.cwgc.org/learn/news-and-events/news/2017/09/15/13/13/7-facts-about-the-battle-of-polygon-wood

Commonwealth War Graves Commission (n.d.). Villers-Bretonneux Military Cemetary. Accessed 24 April 2019 from https://www.cwgc.org/find/find-cemeteries-and-memorials/63701/villers-bretonneux-military-cemetery/history