The Younger Brother: Archibald Donald Milner

‘Your loving brother Archie’

Archibald Donald Milner or Archie as he signed himself was born in Ireland in 1890. He was the youngest of five siblings, some15 years younger than James the eldest [1]. The archive holds two wartime letters he sent to James from France, where he served as an officer in the Cheshire Regiment. On the 8th of August 1916 Archie wrote regarding James’ promotion to Director, ‘Jimmy you really cannot believe how delighted I am to know that you have at last been rewarded in this manner, for I am always most pleased to hear of anybody in the family doing well and getting on in life.’ In a second letter postmarked 8th March 1918 Archie is upbeat, grateful for his rations and philosophical about a Commanding Officer recently recalled to England remarking, ‘it pays to be a dud at times’ [2 & 3]. Reflecting on some of the practical challenges of active duty he writes, ‘It is very difficult to get washing done when in the line as all the villages are not villages’.  Most crucially he reveals, ‘we have been out of the line resting for the last three weeks, but return tomorrow.’ The timing and content are poignant because sadly Archie was killed in action later that month. He would have been 28 years old.

Tracing Archie’s Story

Archie’s military service is documented in War Office papers at The National Archives. He was already in the Army when war was declared: he had been a Corporal in the 5th Battalion Rifle Brigade and served in the ranks for 4 years and 122 days before he was granted a commission in February 1914 as a Second Lieutenant in the Cheshire Regiment. He went to the West African Regiment that July but by September 1914 was back with the Cheshires, promoted first to Temporary Lieutenant, then to Substantive Lieutenant with the 9th Battalion. This Battalion came under command of 58th Brigade in 19th (Western) Division until February 1918 when they transferred to 56th Brigade in the same Division. They landed at Boulogne on 19 July 1915 however Archie’s medal index card records his entry into the French theatre of war as July 1916. Archie was promoted to Temporary Captain attached to the 9th Battalion twice, once in September 1916 and again in February 1918, at which time he commanded a Company.

Two death dates for Archie recur in records, either the 23rd or 24th of March 1918. Amongst War Office papers one document relating to his estate offers both a date and place of death: 24th March 1918 at Delsaux Farm near Bapaume, France. This associates Archie with the major German spring offensive against allied forces on the Somme, Operation Michael, and in particular with the German capture of Bapaume [4]. A regimental history describes events on that day and cites Archie’s actions. The 9th Battalion endured a barrage from 9.00-10.45am then the enemy attacked in force. The front line trench and Delsaux Farm were lost, ‘But the Battalion rallied in the support line, whence Captains A.D. Milner and F.A. Palmer led a counter-attack. The lost trench was gallantly retaken and heavy casualties were inflicted on the enemy.’

The exact circumstances of his death are unknown but Archie’s name is recorded at the Arras memorial at Faubourg D’Amiens cemetery. This commemorates nearly 35,000 servicemen killed between spring 1916 and summer 1918 in the Arras sector. Regimental medal rolls indicate Archie was awarded the British War and Victory medals.

‘The war has brought deep sorrow to us all’

Researching Archie sheds new light on the wartime challenges James Milner faced. While War Office records show him dealing with the loss of his brother in spring 1918 the Gallery’s archive documents his role in evacuating portraits. Unfortunately evidence of James’ personal experience is scant. Former Director of the Gallery Sir Lionel Cust wrote to him on the 2nd of May 1918 expressing anxiety over the fate of his own son, missing in action [5], ‘My dear boy has been missing since April 9, but as we have not heard any sad news, we are led to hope that he may be a prisoner somewhere. The suspense is hard to bear, and the fact makes me feel the more deeply the sad loss which you yourself have sustained.’

Perhaps a passing comment made not long after Archie’s death is illustrative. In June 1918 the donor of a portrait wrote that he had lost his only child in the war and James responded, ‘Pray let me express my sincere sympathy in the loss you have suffered. The war has brought deep sorrow to us all.’

Only one direct reference by James to Archie’s death has surfaced in the archive. Writing to the curator of the Imperial War Museum in April 1919 he asked, ‘Are you collecting uniforms? I could let you have anything that way belonging to my late brother who was a Lieutenant in the 22nd (Cheshires). He was killed in the big attack, Palm Sunday last year’. This offer is intriguing because War Office records indicate Archie’s family struggled to take possession of any mementos of him after his death. The Standing Committee of Adjustment reported his kit and effects may have been lost due to ‘military exigencies’ and a later letter confirmed a single package was sent to the Milner family, containing only an Army Book (a record of Archie’s service and pay).

Bryony Millan

For more on the Gallery at War please click here