Here in the Numismatics department we have been working on tracking down the biographies for the recipients of the Great War medals in our collection. The overall drive for this research is to accumulate stories which are representative of World War One universal experiences for the 2014 exhibition. Occasionally this can lead to frustration and bottomless cups of tea, but every now and then we find a man whose story brings to mind the gospel praise of ‘Hallelujah’. Private Harry Vincent Brear, a Rifleman in the Prince of Wales’s Own West Yorkshire Regiment, 2/7th Battalion is a perfect archetype for a soldier in the Great War. In our collection, we have both an Allied Victory Medal and a British War Medal 1914-1918.
Pte. Brear lived a typical Northern life; he was born on the 6th of March 1882 in Halifax, Yorkshire to Harry Randal and Alice Brear seen here.
The 1901 census indicates that Pte. Brear’s father had passed away in the previous ten years leaving his wife and children behind. Pte. Brear married Dottie Susan Grace Chenhall at the age of 23 in 1905. The marriage licence shows that Harry Brear was a jeweller while his wife was a photographic assistant. Until the beginning of the war, Pte. Brear lived a fairly typical life. He was married in his early twenties to an educated woman and had no indication of warfare on his horizon; the life of a jeweller hardly fortells the life of a rifleman.
The Census of England and Wales, 1911 indicates that he and Mrs. Brear had two sons, Harry James and John, and lived with his sister, Gladys Irene Brear. A lost child is also indicated but is not unusual for this time, around 20% of children died before reaching their first year. The couple would go on to have two more sons before Pte. Brear left for the Western Front.
Pte. Brear’s enlistment record has been lost along with thousands of others, most likely due to the burning of the WWI records during a German air raid in September of 1940. Pte. Brear’s life up to the war, and his regiment, indicate that he likely enlisted and trained in Yorkshire before being deployed to the continent for duty. Many enlisted in the troops in late 1914 and early 1915, and Pte. Brear was no exception.
The final record found for Pte. Brear was for the medal distribution, displaying his presumed death on the 10th of April 1917. His burial is located in Faubourg-d’Amiens Cemetery, Arras in Nord-Pas-de-Calais, France.
The records for Pte. Brear end here at his death at almost 35 years of age echoing his father’s early demise. In total during the Great War, 10 million soldiers died, about 1 million of whom came from the British Army, and half a million of those died in France and Flanders. Pte. Brear’s life is an excellent example of the typical soldier. He was born to a normal Yorkshire family, became a jeweller as an adult before marrying a woman of similar age and starting a family. Everything changed in August of 1914 when there was a call to arms which Harry Brear dutifully reported for in order to fight and die alongside over five hundred thousand of his fellow compatriots.
By examining the life of Rifleman Harry Vincent Brear, the broader themes for the First World War become quite clear. Most men who enlisted came from non-military backgrounds and lived normally, creating their own families and following professional aspirations. When Prime Minister Herbert Henry Asquith declared war on the German Empire in early August 1914, millions of British lives were overturned. Men from all over the country signed up for warfare, abandoning their families and their careers for the Western Front, some of whom never returned.