There are 14 memorials to men who died in World War One in Old St Paul’s. On 29 June 2015, we remember the 100th anniversary of the first of those men to die, and his brother, who also died in the war, three years later.
World War One had a huge impact on New Zealanders’ lives and those at the church were no exception. Wellington lawyer Edward Balcombe-Brown and his wife Eliza Mary were closely involved with St Paul’s. Both of their sons, William and Rainsford, were killed in action while serving overseas.
With distinguished British army connections and a family history of military service the two boys seemed to be destined for war. William and Rainsford both attended Mrs Swainson’s School. The school had a close connection with St Paul’s and with the First World War. Many other boys that attended Mrs Swainson’s would also find themselves in the horrors of war, some not making it home.
Cheviot Bell, son of the first New Zealand-born Prime Minister Sir Francis Bell, attended Mrs Swainson’s School with the Balcombe-Brown brothers. At the school’s diamond jubilee in 1938, he remembered the brothers:
“If I wrote of our swimming sports in the old Thorndon Baths I see at once Rainsford and Willie Brown first and second in the High Dive, though they couldn’t swim a stroke and had to be rescued each time. And then later, for each [during the war], the thin line of tracer, the tell-tale wisps of flames, the same spirit still stubborn in resisting the ebbing of life, till each slumps forward on joystick in the last steep dive from which, this time, no rescue lay.”
A joyous instance of a man
William Balcombe-Brown was the eldest son of Edward and Eliza Mary. He later studied at Wanganui Collegiate School and then completed his education at Oriel College in Oxford in 1912. Here he earned his ‘half-blue’ for boxing and was a member of the Oxford Officers’ Training Corps. William enlisted at the outbreak of the war and became second lieutenant in the Royal Artillery Field. He was killed by a shell while observing for his battery in Belgium on the 29 June 1915. The Provost of Oriel said of him: “He was a joyous instance of a man who was thoroughly good without being made unsociable by it.”
Highest ranking NZ man to lose his life while flying in WWI
Rainsford Balcombe-Brown enlisted in the Royal Air Force while studying in Britain. Rainsford quickly rose to the rank of Major in the Royal Field Artillery and received a Military Cross for bringing down an enemy observation balloon in 1916 – he was only 21. He was particularly talented at flying and popular with the officers, later serving in the Royal Flying Corps. This is not surprising considering as a student at Wellington’s Pipitea Preparatory School he won an award for good conduct, neatness and punctuality at the age of six. Last seen engaging four German triplanes, Rainsford was reported missing on 2 May 1918 and later confirmed dead.
Eliza suffered a triple loss during the war – not only did her two sons die, but her husband did as well, in February 1918, just before Rainsford. She went on live until 93, and was a widow for 44 years. During that time she was very active in the Plunket Society, and was the first national secretary for the Mother’s Union, the church organisation for women.
Below is an image of the family’s memorial brass in Old St Paul’s, for the parents and their two sons, and an image of William’s gravestone in Belgium.
Twelve other men who fought in the First World War are commemorated in Old St Paul’s, reminding us of the sacrifices New Zealand made not only overseas but within the community as well. See also this story for other men memorialised in the church.
Read more about WWI and current centenary commemorations in New Zealand: http://ww100.govt.nz/
Images: Edward and Eliza Mary Balcombe-Brown [P2-714-1772]. Photographer unknown, ca. early 20th century. From Upper Hutt City Library. URL: http://uhcl.recollect.co.nz/nodes/views/1645. Portraits of William and Rainsford from Wanganui Collegiate School’s World War One book In Memoriam, 1914-1918. War grave from the New Zealand Wargraves website: http://www.nzwargraves.org.nz
Sources: In Memoriam, 1914-1918 [Wanganui Collegiate School]; Press, 10 July 1915, p.6; Dominion, 26 August 1915, p.7. See also Auckland Museum’s Cenotaph website.