Cyprus Mail

Who was Sapper Brown?

By Evie Andreou

BURIED among his much more contemporary fellow servicemen in the Wayne’s Keep Military Cemetery in the Nicosia buffer zone lies Sapper James Brown, a young Royal Rngineer who died at the age of 29 in the late 19th century.

His grave, the sole burial site in the cemetery from the earliest days of the British colonial presence in Cyprus, intrigued and inspired Colonel David Vassalo L/RAMC to find out who he was and how he came to be buried in a cemetery that only officially opened in 1948 even though he died on February 2, 1879.

“I was inspired to write this book last year during a visit to the Nicosia War Cemetery and the collocated Wayne’s Keep Military Cemetery in the UN buffer zone, when I stopped and paid my respects at the grave of Sapper Brown, who died in 1879,” Vassalo says at the start of his 230-page-book titled: ‘Who was Sapper Brown?’

Sapper is a military term for engineers or servicemen who perform engineering duties such as bridge-building or road paving.

Sapper J. Brown arrived in Cyprus on September 19, 1878 from Chatham during the early days of the British takeover of the island from the Ottomans.

He joined the 31st Fortress Company Royal Engineers, which had arrived on the island in late July of the same year.

Prior to Brown’s arrival, the 31st Fortress Company moved to Nicosia and then to Mathiatis to prepare a temporary winter cantonment for the garrison.

They were also charged with the task of constructing a 22-mile road from Limassol to Platres and a mule track ‘from Platres up to the final five miles of Mountain to Troodos, a task that was finished with the help of 6,000 hired local labourers “just in time for the Government and the Garrison to decamp for the summer”.

The takeover of Cyprus from the Ottomans was smooth without bloodshed, but the first British soldiers on the island were dying from a ‘mystery epidemic’, the author notes.

“In Cyprus alone, in the latter six months of 1878, there were 2,203 admissions to hospital with remittent fever, compared to the 895 for ague (malaria), and only 14 for enteric fever [typhoid],” writes Vassalo in the book, quoting an army medical report from 1878.

Sapper Brown was one of the victims of this ‘mystery epidemic’ whose main characteristic was remittent fever. Vassalo managed to find information in the National Archives in Kew, UK, in the Muster Book and Pay Lists of the 31st Company Royal Engineers for 1878-79 saying that Sapper Brown was admitted to a temporary hospital in Mathiatis on January 12 and died from remittent fever less than a month later on February 2, 1879.


The mystery epidemic, was a few years later identified as brucellosis, caught by drinking the milk of infected goats, and it was a condition that killed many British soldiers at the time not only in Cyprus but also Malta.

Based on the place of his death Vassalo concluded that Sapper Brown must have been buried at the Mathiatis cemetery and that it was very likely that he must have been re-interred at Wayne’s Keep during the EOKA years (1955-59) out of concern for possible vandalism at the Mathiatis cemetery.

Vassalo, who was stationed in Cyprus himself until May 2013, gives a brief account of the events that led to the arrival of the British troops on the island in 1878, the difficulties and unexpected factors they encountered that led several of them to their death.

Sunstroke and accidents were two other causes of death the author identifies in his research.

Sergeant Samuel McGraw VC, aged 40, of the 42nd Royal Highland Regiment was the very first fatality recorded. He had collapsed and died of heat apoplexy (heatstroke) the first day of the British troops’ arrival on the island, on July 22, 1878.

The book mentions that McGraw, the only Victoria Cross recipient to have died in Cyprus, was buried close to where he fell, under a tree near the Larnaca Salt Lake. Five years later his remains were moved to Kyrenia to the Old British Cemetery as it is called today.

But Vassalo’s idea to write a book about Sapper Brown, urged him to write “a larger commemoration of all British and Commonwealth serving military personnel” some 1,200 people, buried in service cemeteries on Cyprus.

“This wider commemoration gives a better historical perspective and also helps re-unite colleagues from the same regiment now buried in different cemeteries,” Vassalo said.

To honour these men that fell while on duty, and whose graves are scattered around the island’s service graveyards, Vassalo collated a new Roll of Honour, starting with a list of all service burials by regiment and place of burial in Cyprus from 1878 up to the outbreak of World War I in 1914.

“Regrettably, several names have been lost in the mists of time,” the author said.

Vassalo gives an account of the 12 service cemeteries on the island and their history, and traces the lives and conditions of death of many of the men that are buried in them, hence drawing a picture of the life of British servicemen and their families on the island.

The author said that proceeds of the distribution of the book, which costs £14 sterling (€20) would be donated to the voluntary cemetery committees that care for the British graveyards in Cyprus.

“I hope this will help sustain and encourage them in their caring for those who served,” Vassalo said.

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