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556241 SPR. J. W. BRIERLEY. R.E.


Joseph William Brierley was born in the third quarter of 1881 in Peckham/Camberwell, south London, and baptised at Newington St Mary’s, Southwark, on 25 September that year.  His father was John Brierley (b. 1849 in Titchmarsh, Northamptonshire), a former carpenter and oil and colourman (he was self-employed, making and mixing pigments and paints).  His mother was Eliza Cordelia Hardy (b. 1859 in Walworth).  John moved from Northamptonshire to London in the 1870s and married Eliza in 1878.  They had five children, four of whom survived infancy: John Hardy (b. 1879), then Joseph, Walter Harry (b. 1890) and Elsie Annie (b. 1894).  In 1911, John and Eliza were living with Walter and Elsie at 54 Grove Vale, Dulwich, but Joe had married in 1909.  His wife was Mabel Hallett (b. 1886 in Exter).  Mabel’s father was in the army and they had moved to London in the 1890s, but by the time she married, both her parents were dead.  In 1911, Joe and Mabel were living at 121 Oban Road, Barking.  They had a daughter, Elsie May (b. 1910).  Mabel’s younger brother Charles was also living with them.  Joe was a carpenter, like his father.


Joe enlisted with the Royal Engineers, probably in 1915.  He was assigned service number 2912 in the Royal Engineers (T).  The Long Long Trail says:


The war of 1914-1918 relied on engineering. Without engineers there would have been no supply to the armies, because the RE’s maintained the railways, roads, water supply, bridges and transport. RE’s also operated the railways and inland waterways. There would have been no communications, because the RE’s maintained the telephones, wireless and other signalling equipment. There would have been little cover for the infantry and no positions for the artillery, because the RE’s designed and built the front-line fortifications. It fell to the technically skilled RE’s to develop responses to chemical and underground warfare. And finally, without the RE’s the infantry and artillery would have soon been powerless, as they maintained the guns and other weapons. Little wonder that the Royal Engineers grew into a large and complex organisation.


Especially once the war in France had ceased to be one of movement and the deadlock of entrenched positions had begun, the artillery lost most of its ability to fire at targets that could be directly observed. Enemy artillery and other positions were out of sight, requiring indirect firing. The ability to know very accurately where your own position was, where the enemy was and the general lie of the ground became of increasing importance. Surveying the ground, creating maps and identifying the position of the enemy even when he could not be seen became the job of a new type of Field Survey Company.


Four companies were formed in France in March 1916 and were organised as RE units by July, although a fixed establishment was not defined until February 1917. They each comprised a Headquarters, Topographical section, Map section, Observation section and Sound-ranging section. Some of the various sections already existed and were absorbed into the new companies. The Army Printing Sections were also added into the Field Survey Companies later on, principally to organise production of the tens of thousands of maps that needed to be issued. Three more Companies were also formed and moved to other theatres.


In May 1918, the Companies in France were reorganised into Field Survey Battalions, comprising a Headquarters (this including the surveying and printing sections), two Artillery Sections (incorporating the sound-ranging and observation sections) and a Corps Topographical Section. There was one each for the five British Armies. For tactical purposes they were placed under the General Officer Commanding Royal Artillery in each Army. Three additional Sound-ranging Sections were also created for other theatres.


So, as part of this reorganisation, Joe was assigned a new service number, 556241, and posted to 1st Field Survey Battalion, 8 PL(atoon?).  This Bn was attached to the First Army.  Unfortunately, I haven’t been able to locate a War Diary for this battalion, so I have no more information about what Joe was doing.  He died on 26 December 1918, aged 37, and is buried at Douai.  He died of ‘illness’, which may have been influenza.


Rank:  Sapper

Service No:  556241

Date of Death:  26/12/1918

Age:  37

Regiment/Service:  Royal Engineers, 1st Field Survey Coy.

Grave/Panel Reference:  D.8.


Additional Information:  Husband of Mabel Brierley of 40 Parkstone Road, Peckham.


Mabel moved back to Peckham after her husband’s death.  She died there in 1960.  


Joe’s father came from Northamptonshire and moved to London in the 1870s.  His family remained in Northamptonshire.  So Joe’s cousin was 7509 PTE. C. G. BRIERLEY. NORTHANTS.R., who was killed at Neuve Chappelle on 10 March 1915.

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