When Private Donald Melville Wood Brown wrote home in June 1916, quoting a fellow soldier, he had changed his mind about soldiering. Sadly, his war ended when he was killed in action three months later on the Somme.
New Zealand's experience of the Somme
On 15 September 1916, New Zealand’s official war correspondent Malcolm Ross reported on the start of the renewed Allied offensive on the Somme in northern France. He found ‘a commanding position from which to view the final bombardment’ in the artillery barrage. His poetic description belied the ferocity and horror of the battlefield.
Day broke with a red dawn, and a three-quarter moon high in a clear sky. On the horizon, over the battle front, there hung a pall of dark smoke and cloud, like black bats against the sky... A shell burst against the dark background, with a beautiful falling shower of brilliant red sparks... As a spectacle it was a success.
'The Flers Fight', Feilding Star, 11 November 1916
For the men it was not a spectacle. The brutal experience of the Somme remains among the less well-known aspects of New Zealand’s war. Nearly 600 New Zealanders died on 15 September, the first day of our infantry’s first major engagement on the Western Front and the worst day in our history for loss of life until Passchendaele 13 months later. Double that number was wounded or missing. By the time New Zealand troops were withdrawn from the Somme after just over three weeks in the unrelieved hell of constant shellfire, gas, deteriorating weather, impossibly churned earth and thick, deep mud, 2000 men were dead (more than half of whom have no known grave), and 6000 had been wounded.
This engagement saw other firsts. Our New Zealand artillery fired poison gas shells for the first time and the new British tanks were used in the field for the first time on 15 September, four accompanying the New Zealand Division.
A tale of two soldiers
Among New Zealand’s losses were Private Donald Melville Wood Brown, 9th Reinforcements, Auckland Infantry Regiment, and Sergeant Donald Forrester Brown, 9th Reinforcements, Otago Infantry Regiment.
Private Donald Brown and Sergeant Donald Brown enlisted within a month of each other in late 1915 and both embarked for the war on HMSNZT 37, the SS Maunganui. Perhaps they met each other. It’s more likely they did not (the 9th reinforcements comprised over 2000 men), although the coincidence as namesakes may have been enough to throw them together at some stage.
Family on the mind
A phrenologist’s analysis in Private Donald Brown’s papers suggested he was 'possessed of great force of character, energy and self-reliance', tenacious in his opinions, and ambitious. The little we know of him seems to bear out this analysis. Donald’s father had died in mid-1912, and at the time Donald went to war his mother was caring for his two young brothers and baby sister by herself, family circumstances which seem to have been on his mind. He allotted 3 shillings a day from his pay to go to his mother and in a letter home from the transport in January 1916 he wrote how he planned to apply for some of ‘Bill Massey’s land’ when he got home. That's the land that parliament had just declared would be available for resettling discharged soldiers. In a later letter to his younger brother Malcolm, Donald told him to keep ‘improving in your schoolwork, and studying diligently. Take good care of yourself and keep clean.’
Private Donald Brown was in France by the end of May 1916 where he was attached for a time to the Australian Tunnelling Company. He saw enough action to quickly change his mind about being there, noting he was a damn fool and adding ‘whichever way the game goes I hope God spares me to get home to NZ again.’
The morning of the Somme
Whatever the respective experiences of Private Donald Brown and Sergeant Donald Brown during the few months they were on the continent, both young men found themselves on the Somme on the morning of 15 September 1916, waiting to go 'over the top' at 6.20am in what was to be known as the Battle of Flers-Courcelette.
The Aucklanders and 'Otagoites' were the first New Zealanders to go. The Otagos were being decimated by German machine guns to the left of their position. Sergeant Donald Brown led a successful attack on two of these guns.
Private Donald Brown pushed on with his regiment and was lost sometime that morning before the New Zealanders reached the environs of the village of Flers. In a letter dated 13 November 1916, Chaplain Captain Edward Elliot Malden wrote to Donald’s mother that:
At first we thought that your very gallant son had been wounded during the advance … but now we find that he was killed that day and lies buried at a cemetery about half way between Delville Wood and Flers Village on the left hand side of the road going towards Flers.
Donald was just 16. He had disguised his age when he enlisted, entering only the day and month of his birth on the attestation papers. Sometime later, a person unknown added a year to the date, '1895'. This made him appear five years older than he really was.
He toa taumata rau
Sergeant Donald Brown was killed three weeks later on 1 October, following another single-handed attack on a German machine gun position, and a few days before the New Zealand Division was withdrawn from the Somme. Sergeant Brown was posthumously awarded a Victoria Cross (VC) for his courageous actions on this front. This was New Zealand’s first VC on the Western Front.
The deaths of Private Donald Brown and Sergeant Donald Brown effectively bookend New Zealand’s experience on the Somme. Official history remembers one but not the other. But the bravery of both young men bears remembering and reminds us that courage does indeed wear many faces. He toa taumata rau.
Cite this article
'"Dear Mother this war is a buggar"'. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 13 September 2016. Updated: 6 October 2021.