COMPANY SERGEANT-MAJOR EDWARD BROOKS VC
Life in Headington
Early days of The Great War
The War in France
Return to Civilian Life
What kind of man was he?
Edward Brooks VC was born in Oakley in the Thame RSD (Rural Sanitary District), Buckinghamshire, on 11 April 1883 in a dwelling on the Oakley Common. His parents were Thomas Brooks (born in Oakley in 1855) and Selina Brooks (born Siviter in Halesowen, Worcestershire in 1857), who were married in the Dudley district, Worcestershire, in 1875. He was baptised in the village Church of St Mary on 20th January 1884. In later life, on some occasions he added George as a second forename to Edward. According to the records of the 1911 census Edward was the fifth of thirteen children born to his parents, nine of whom survived childhood.
The 1891 census records Edward (then 8) living on Oakley Common with his father, Thomas Brooks and his mother Selina Brooks, together with his siblings Thomas (11), James (9), Charles (3) and Selina (1). His elder siblings recorded in the 1881 census were Ellen Jane and Rhoda and later censuses recorded Lizzie, Harry, Mary and Owen. The direct ancestors of this family going back to John Brooks, born in the late 18th century, Richard (born 1806), another John (born 1833) and Thomas (born 1855) had all lived in Oakley or Brill, working as Agricultural or Forest labourers. It was Edward who would break this succession of farm labourers.
Edward was entered into the register of Oakley School, which was then in School Lane, off the Bicester Road, at the age of 3, when his father was given as Thomas Brooks, living on the Oakley Common. At this time, the children of the village were taught at all ages in the same school. Edward’s age on leaving school is not given, but his education was probably no further than age 12 and may have even have been infrequent until then.
In an interview with the Oxford Mail in 1942 (Parker 1942), Edward Brooks said that he did not like country life, and in 1896 left home at the age of only 13 to stay with a friend in Reading. Here, he obtained a job at Huntley & Palmer’s biscuit factory, where he was kept on unofficially when his age was discovered and, instead of receiving a regular wage, was given a substantial tip at the end of the week. It is possible that he lived there with his uncle, also Edward Brooks, who was his father’s brother and is recorded in the Reading census of 1901, working at the biscuit factory and in 1911 as a building labourer in Reading with his wife, six daughters and a son. Edward Brooks VC did not appear in the 1901 census. Edward also attempted to volunteer to serve in the Army at the start of the Second Boer War in October 1899 at the age of 16, but was turned down because he was too young.
The Grenadier Guards
However, on 9th January 1902, aged 18 years and 9 months, Edward Brooks joined the 1st Battalion, Grenadier Guards, enlisting in Reading for twelve years, the first three to be on active service in the Colours and the balance in the Reserves. His Regimental Number was 10080. His physical description at the time described him as a fit man of relatively slight build, 5 feet nine inches high, weighing 127 pounds. He was posted to Caterham for his initial training and then to the Wellington Barracks in London. On 1st December 1902, Brooks was transferred to the 3rd Battalion, Grenadier Guards, in Aldershot and then to Wellington Barracks in 1903, finally ending his service in the Colours in Aldershot in 1905.
All of his service in the Guards was at Home i.e. within the UK. During this period of service, he would have spent time training, and on guard and ceremonial duties relating to public buildings such as Buckingham Palace, Windsor Castle and the Houses of Parliament. As a Guardsman at Buckingham Palace, he was often harassed by visitors trying to find out whether he was real or not, by pushing his buttons and joking to try and make him laugh, but he never succumbed. On one occasion he was part of the Guard of Honour that welcomed the Kaiser, which was ironic considering his role in the later war. He also spent some time hospitalised with Rheumatism in Woolwich Hospital and this was an affliction that he would be burdened with throughout his military career.
Edward Brooks VC completed his three years of active service on 8th January 1905 as a Private and was transferred to the Army Reserve. Upon his transfer, his conduct and character while with the Colours was stated to be very good and that he was a clean, smart and reliable soldier. He had one Good Conduct Badge but no medals or certificates of education. His classification in Musketry was rated as 1st Class.
He gave his place of residence after discharge to be Ickleton, Cambridgeshire and his desired occupation as Policeman, though this was never to be realised. It was at the Register Office in Linton, near Ickleton, on 20th August 1905, that he married Elizabeth Barker age 23 from Ickleton, the daughter of Frederick Barker, a Bricklayer. Edward gave his occupation then as a Painter, and that of his father as a Market Gardener. Nothing further is known of Elizabeth as no records of her after the marriage have been found.
Life in Headington
(Partly sourced from www. Headington.org.uk/history)
Edward Brooks VC moved back to the Oxford area where, at some point, he worked for Messrs Knowles and Son, a building firm in Oxford. Later records show him as Labourer. It was in this occupation, living in Ardley, that he married Elsie May Danbury on the 12th March 1910 at the Register Office in Bicester, Oxfordshire. Elsie was 25 at the time, born in Headington 1st January 1885, the daughter of stone mason Elijah and Sarah Danbury. Elsie was baptised at St Andrew’s Church on 22nd February 1885. In 1891 she was living with her parents at the former school house at the Field School, now St Andrew’s School. By 1901 her family were living at Windmill Cottages in Windmill Road, but Elsie (16) was out to service at 81 Iffley Road, Oxford. At the time of her marriage Elsie was a Housekeeper, living in New Headington, Oxford.
In the census of 1911 Edward was recorded as living with his wife and daughter Doris Rhoda (born 31st August 1910) at New High Street, Headington, Oxford. Four other children were to follow: Harold Gilbert Brooks (18th August 1912), Stephen James Brooks (21st May 1914), all before the Great War, and Nora Ida Brooks (18th December 1918) and Barbara Brooks (3rd June 1924) afterwards. Strangely, in this census, Edward gave his birthplace as Halesowen, Worcestershire. This was his mother’s birthplace, not his, which was Oakley. The family moved to Gardiner Street in 1914, and the following year around the corner to 16 Windsor Street.
Edward Brooks VC was discharged from the Grenadier Guards as a Private on 8th January 1914 following completion of the twelve years of service he had signed up for in 1902. There is no record of his activities for the nine years he served in the Reserve. It is possible that he attended annual camps. He put his skills as a marksman at the disposal of the Headington Miniature Rifle Club as a committee member and instructor. He was one of the club’s best shots, winning Dr Massie’s Challenge Cup in 1911, Colonel Hoole’s Challenge Cup in 1912 and the 1913 cup presented by Major RS Rowell, as well as instructing members in shooting.
Early days of The Great War
On 4th August 1914, Great Britain declared war on Germany and its allies. In Oxford recruitment for the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry (Ox and Bucks LI) started in September and Edward Brooks volunteered and was enlisted into the 2/4th Territorial Battalion on 19th October 1914. He signed up for four years or the duration of the war. He gave his age as 32 years, 6 months and his occupation as a bricklayer. His physical description at enlistment was:
Height: 5 feet, 10 inches; Weight: 148 lbs;
Chest measurement, fully expanded: 38 inches; Range of chest expansion: 2 inches
Physical development: Normal
He was posted to D Company and allocated Regimental Number 201154. In January 1915, the Battalion moved to Northampton and joined the 184th Brigade of the 61st Division and then moved to Chelmsford. In March 1916, they moved to Salisbury Plain. Edward Brooks was promoted to Sergeant on 13th May 1916. On the 24th May 1916, the Battalion mobilised for war and landed at Havre, France, two days later.
On 4th August 1916 Edward Brooks VC was promoted to Company Sergeant Major (Warrant Officer Class 2).
The War in France
- “A short history of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry for the young soldiers of the Regiment” by Lt-Col R.B. Crosse.
- “VC’s of the First World War: Arras and Messines 1917” by Gerald Gliddon.
- “The story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry” by Captain G.K. Rose
As part of the 184th Infantry Brigade, 61st Division, the Battalion was instructed in trench warfare in the Laventie Sector, and was in action for the first time on 19th July 1916, when a subsidiary attack to the battle of the Somme was carried out. In November 1916, the Battalion took over the line in the Somme area, near Grandcourt, but was near Ablaincourt in March 1917 when the German retreat commenced.
With the onset of the Battle of Arras, on 7th April 1917 the Battalion attacked near le Vergier and, three weeks later, they were at the village of Fayet north-west of the German-held town of St Quentin. It was at Fayet that a plan was proposed for a raiding party supplied by the men from the 2/4th Ox and Bucks LI to pass through a known gap in the section of the enemy trench opposite the village. The trench was thought to be unoccupied. The raid, timed to begin at 4.20 a.m. on 28 April, was also to pass through several copses which were also thought to be unoccupied.
C Company, under Captain G.K. Rose, began to move up to their start position at dusk on the 27th; it was later discovered that the enemy was contemplating carrying out a similar operation at the same time. Moving up from Holnon, the raiding party reached the sunken road leading to Fayet and found it full of British troops. Reliefs and supports were being organised, and while all this activity was taking place the German artillery dropped five nines (German 5.9-inch artillery shells) on the sunken road. Many of the men initially packed themselves under the banks of the road for safety. C Company continued across the Gricourt-Fayet road until they came to a large crater close to the gap in the German defences.
At 3 a.m. on 28 April 1917 Captain Rose led his company of about 150 men over open ground north of Fayet in order to reach its eastern side. It was pitch dark and the Germans were totally surprised at being attacked in the flank and rear. They ran, leaving blankets and equipment in the trenches and the Ox and Buck LI captured three machine guns. However, a turn of events followed as the trenches and wood beyond those first captured were neither unoccupied nor weakly held. After their first surprise the Germans recovered, manned their reserve machine guns, and opened a fierce fire from front and flanks upon the Ox and Bucks LI. It was in the following action that Company Sergeant-Major Edward Brooks was awarded the Victoria Cross, the first ever for his Battalion.
The citation awarding Edward Brooks the VC, briefly describing the action, was published in a supplement to the London Gazette of 26th June 1917 and read:
“For most conspicuous bravery. This Warrant Officer, while taking part in a raid on the enemy’s tranches, saw that the front wave was checked by an enemy machine gun at close quarters. On his own initiative, and regardless of personal danger, he rushed forward from the second wave with the object of capturing the gun, killing one of the gunners with his revolver and bayoneting another. The remainder of the gun’s crew then made off, leaving the gun in his possession. Company Sgt-Major Brooks then turned the machine gun on to the retreating enemy, after which he carried it back into our lines. By his courage and initiative, he undoubtedly saved many casualties, and greatly added to the success of the operations.”
The award of the Victoria Cross to Edward Brooks was widely reported in the national and regional newspapers the day after its appearance in the London Gazette and later in the weekly issues and at least 20 papers carried the news.
In that raid two Military Medals were awarded, as well as a Military Cross. Unhappily, there was 1 officer killed and 10 other ranks; wounded 2 officers and 41 other ranks; missing 1 officer and 2 other ranks.
Later that month the Battalion moved to the Arras sector and took up positions south-west of Cambrai. For four weeks from mid-August 1917 the 61st Division was involved in the third battle of Ypres.
Insights into CSM Edward Brooks VC
Sourced from “The story of the 2/4th Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry” by Captain G.K. Rose, who was Edward Brooks VC’s Company Commander:
- In Christmas on the Somme 1916 he relates how the Company was warned about a working party and how, at 6 a.m. they paraded in semi-darkness. As the outing was not a popular one, the role was called by Sergeant-Major Brooks (recently back from leave and in the best of early morning tempers) amid coughing and scuffing in the ranks.
- Later, Captain Rose tells of how he and Sergeant-Major Brooks were partially gassed in the Ablaincourt sector in February 1917 and hardly responsible for their actions. Rose states how dependent he was on Brooks, signallers and some runners who were his familiars and he was proud to live with and among these faithful men.
- Captain Rose provides details of the raid on Fayet in which CSM Brooks won the Victoria Cross. The raid was hailed as a signal success for the Battalion. Two machine guns and one prisoner were dragged back to the British lines. The German trenches had been over-run and many of their occupants killed or wounded. The German troops were a battalion of the Jaegers, the regiment which had raided the 2/4th Battalion two months previously at Ablaincourt. Captain Rose received the bar to his Military Cross for his part in the Fayet battle.
- On the eve of the third Battle of Ypres, he says: “Of my runners and signallers’ I was especially proud, and at Company Headquarters there was, of course, the redoubtable Sergeant-Major Brooks who, besides being a great fighter, possessed also high organising powers”.
- Although it was not stated in the VC citation other sources remark that, when Edward Brooks VC turned the captured machine-gun on the fleeing enemy, he aimed over their heads, not wanting to be accused of shooting men in the back.
On 10th July 1917, in recognition of the award of the Victoria Cross, CSM Edward Brooks was granted Home leave until 26 July 1917. Shortly after his arrival in Highfield, Oxford, he was interviewed by the Oxford Times and this was published on 14th July 1917. In this interview, he said there was little to add to the reports of his winning the VC and he stressed the contribution made by the men in his Battalion, saying “They are really splendid fellows. I am speaking from experience, and know them to be very fine soldiers. Everything goes like clockwork, and it would be splendid if things in other Regiments went so smoothly.”
Speaking of the events of the 28th April, Brooks said “I told my men the night before that we were expecting to make an attack at 4.30 on the following morning and the men at once replied ‘Let’s go tonight!’. That was the spirit which distinguished them, and which led them through undertakings which seemed well-nigh impossible of attainment.” CSM Edward Brooks VC described the raid as already mentioned and went on to say that he had to walk back a mile to his lines carrying several German rifles and the captured machine-gun, weighing half a hundred weight. How he had the strength to manage this was a mystery to CSM Brooks. He said “Out there, under such circumstances, a man seems able to do things quite beyond his strength. I was no different to the others. All the men are filled with determination to win through, and it is this which helps them to achieve wonders”
Later that week, CSM Edward Brooks VC received a hero’s welcome and reception in Headington where he lived, and was presented with an address decorated with the flags of the allies and containing the names of the subscribers to the gifts of a cheque for £108 collected by the people of Headington, as well as furniture donated to the family. According to the Oxford Journal of 21st July 1917, replying to the generosity of the local people, CSM Edward Brooks VC thanked those present for the unexpected welcome he and his family had received and all the subscribers for their gifts. He went on to say that he had a very busy time looking up his old friends. He had nothing to say about how he won the VC and that there were a lot of men who deserved it but had not received the medal. He praised the Headington and Oxford boys in the Regiment and said it was their noble support and sacrifice that enabled the VC to be won. When he went back to France he would let his fellow men know what a good time he had and how proud Highfield and Headington seemed over his achievement.
The people of Oakley presented him with an engraved wrist watch. On the 21st July 1917, he was invested with the VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace.
Return to Civilian Life
On 20th December 1917 Edward Brooks VC returned home requiring medical attention. He was diagnosed as suffering from Rheumatism, which he stated to have been suffering from for 12 years, as reported in his service with the Grenadier Guards. He also reported suffering from gas exposure arising from a gas bomb experience in February 1917. He was hospitalised in Oxford, then Thame and Bicester.
In April 1918 CSM Edward Brooks VC was transferred to the Reserve Battalion of the Regiment at Seaton Delaval, Northumberland. He was demobilised on 15th March 1919, giving his address as Windsor Street, Headington, Oxford. On 25th November 1919, he attended a Disability Board which judged him to be 20% disabled having suffered from rheumatism and gas poisoning.
The nation honoured the contribution made to the war effort by the servicemen and women in many ways but it was those who distinguished themselves in valour to whom the highest regard was paid and, after the war, this was frequently recognised. In 1920 Edward Brooks attended the garden party at Buckingham Palace for holders of the Victoria Cross and the George Cross, the highest honours for valour awarded to military and civilian people respectively. In 1929 he attended a dinner at the House of Lords. That year also saw him at the unveiling of the 61st (South Midland) Division Memorial in Stafford, where he raised the divisional flag. On 6th May 1935, he took part in a Silver Jubilee rally of over three thousand veterans from the Great War. On 11th October 1935 at a Poppy Day Appeal Brooks was photographed shaking hands with Countess Haig.
After demobilisation, he worked at Morris Motors in Cowley, Oxford for 25 years until 1944, first on the production line. Later, he became a fireman at the works and finally, when he turned 60, he worked in the stores for a short time. Herbert Morris, the founder of the Company, who later became Lord Nuffield, met him on a number of occasions and he also met the Prince of Wales, later Edward VIII, and then Duke of Windsor, and was photographed with him, on the occasion of his visit to the Cowley plant.
Edward Brooks VC died on 26th June 1944 aged 61, having been ill with thrombosis for five weeks. He was buried in Rose Hill Cemetery, Headington, Oxford on the 29th June 1944 in Plot G2, Grave 119. Lord Nuffield sent a wreath. Brooks’ former Regiment was also represented at his funeral, which was not a military one, although the local British Legion presented a flag for covering the coffin of the former soldier. The fire brigade from Morris Motors was represented. A local newspaper described Edward Brooks VC as a “quiet home-loving man, he was a keen gardener and won the cup for gardens on the Council estates for two years”. Probate of his estate of £438 5s 6d was granted to his widow Elsie May Brooks on 4th November 1944.
Elsie died in November 1958 and is buried in the same grave as her husband. Edward Brooks VC’s medals are in the care of the Royal Greenjackects Museum in Winchester. This is the Regiment into which the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were amalgamated later in the 20th century. These medals include the Victoria Cross, British War Medal, Allied Victory Medal and King George V Coronation Medal.
The Army Reserve Centre Barracks in Abingdon, opened in 2009 by the Duchess of Gloucester, are named the Edward Brooks Barracks as a tribute to him.
What kind of man was he?
So, what can be said of Edward Brooks the man? Clearly, he had a great sense of adventure and ambition at a young age, leaving home at 13 not wanting to be an agricultural labourer like his father and generations before. He moved to Reading and worked for Huntley & Palmers for a minimal wage and attempted to join the forces during the Boer War. Not recorded anywhere in the 1901 census, one can speculate that he was somewhere on the move. However, it was in Reading less than a year later that he joined the Grenadier Guards at 18 years, 9 months old, taking a long-term view by signing up for three years’ active service in the Colours and nine years in the Reserves. From his entry military record, his physical report shows that he was still growing into manhood. His signature was clear and showed that he was literate, even though he probably had only a basic education in the Oakley Village school.
His life in the Guards would have transformed him from a callow youth to a determined and streetwise young man. By the time he left the Colours in 1905 he had filled out, his conduct and character was very good and he was rated a clean, smart and reliable soldier with a Good Conduct Badge and a 1st Class Musketry qualification. The surprise was that he married shortly after completing his active service, aged 21, and lived in Ickleton, Cambridgeshire for a while. Mysteriously, nothing is known of what befell that marriage or what happened to his wife, Elizabeth nee Barker. Perhaps it was a marriage of convenience for an unexpected pregnancy and Elizabeth changed her name or they were divorced. No death record of her in either the name of Brooks or Barker has been found.
In the 1911 census he stated that he was born in Halesowen, Worcestershire, and this is puzzling because that was his mother’s birthplace. This suggests, as does his early departure aged 13 from Oakley and his family there, that he may have had an unhappy relationship with his father. There’s no evidence, either way, whether he later returned to Oakley to visit his family. Edward wasn’t above twisting the truth on other occasions, as he did with his age when he joined Huntley and Palmers. Also, when he married Elsie Danbury, he stated that he was aged 25, when he was a month short of 27 and a bachelor, when he might have been any one of a widower, divorcee or bigamist! These fibs are minor and can be considered youthful misdemeanours. His life, after he married Elsie, joined the Oxford and Bucks LI and distinguished himself in the war, and afterwards, with Morris Motors, was exemplary.
In 1910 Edward seemed to have found his soul mate and his marriage to Elsie Danbury was a happy and productive one with five children. Edward found work in the building industry in Ardley and Oxford and settled down to domestic life. He maintained his interest in musketry winning prizes and training men in the local rifle club. Perhaps that didn’t provide him with the challenges and excitement he had enjoyed in the Guards for, shortly after the Great War started, he enlisted in the 2/4th Territorial Battalion of the Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry. The Battalion spent 19 months training in England and for many, possibly including Edward Brooks, this may have been a frustrating time, for they had signed up to fight, not parade. But Edward was moving through the ranks quickly, as one would have expected of a soldier with previous experience, and shortly after deployment to France in May 1916 he was promoted to Company Sergeant Major. This was a great achievement for a farm labourer’s son in those days.
In the Regiment, he came under Captain GK Rose, his Company Commander, who had great respect for CSM Edward Brooks VC as a redoubtable soldier who, besides being a great fighter possessed also high organising powers. Clearly, he also had the backing of the soldiers in his Company, who were prepared to follow him enthusiastically. He reciprocated this with the praise he gave them in the interviews and speeches he made after receiving the Victoria Cross. The courage that he showed in attacking the German trench cannot be under-estimated for it was a highly dangerous position that his troops found themselves in.
His life after the war may have been an anti-climax with the excitement of his youth and early manhood to compare it with, but probably most soldiers who survived the Great War were happy to take a peaceful existence thereafter. Edward Brooks would have been happy to settle down with his family and work in the relative industrial calm of Morris Motors. He still maintained his links with the service and the nation that honoured him and the others who received the ultimate badge of valour, the Victoria Cross.
In 2015, his grandson, Keith Brooks, arranged for restoration of the grave to provide a fitting resting place for a remarkable man, CSM Edward Brooks VC.
We will honour him on the 100th Anniversary of the event that earned him the medal with the laying of a Commemorative Stone in Oakley, the village where he was born.