Adorned in khaki and gripping a Lee Enfield .303 rifle, Private Albert Downing would have looked like any other soldier at Anzac Cove when he landed there on August 6, 1915.

However, if he had his sleeves rolled up, a massive tattoo of the Ranfurly Shield on his left forearm would show that he wasn’t just your usual Kiwi at Gallipoli.

Downing – a towering six foot-tall lock from Napier everyone knew as ‘Doolan’ – was a six-test All Black with a passion for rugby that burned so brightly he’d got the Log he’d won with Auckland in 1913 inked on his skin.

With twenty tour games to go with his test performances over the two years before World War I broke out, Downing seemed destined for a long, fruitful career in the black jumper.

Less than a year before he landed as a reinforcement for the Wellington Infantry Battalion, he was playing his last test for New Zealand; a 22-7 rout of the Wallabies in Sydney, on August 15, 1914.

Two days after Downing landed on Gallipoli, the 29-year-old lay dead on Chunuk Bair. He was the first All Black to die serving his country during war, and one of dozens of New Zealand international athletes to pay the ultimate price for his country.

These days, superlatives and metaphors of battle and conflict are often woven into press reports of sporting events. A tightly fought game of rugby or league might be described as ‘trench warfare’, while boxers or mixed martial artists often compare themselves to ‘warriors at war’.

In the absence of the horror of conflict, such things creep into the vernacular. It doesn’t happen maliciously of course; there are now very, very few Kiwis who really know what it is like to experience war in all its detail.

Yet, in generations past, sportsmen from virtually every code in New Zealand served abroad, and lost their lives.

Thirteen All Blacks, including that towering lock from Napier, died in the First World War. Irish-born Aucklander Dave Gallaher, the captain of the famed 1905 Originals, was the most well known.

The six-test All Black was killed in the mud at Passchendaele on October 4, 1917. His grave, in Belgium, is a regular stop for All Black touring sides to Europe.

“In death, [Gallaher] acquired a mystique,” legendary rugby writer TP McLean once wrote. “His grave became a shrine.”

Canterbury winger Eric Harper, a fellow Original, was killed in Jerusalem on April 30, 1918, while serving in the Canterbury Mounted Rifles.

Taranaki flanker Henry ‘Norkey’ Dewar died the day after Downing, due to an artillery burst. Star first-five Bobby Black was killed in the Battle of the Somme on September 21, 1916, and Southland loose forward James McNeece was killed at Messines, in Belgium, the following year.

Downing, Black and McNeece played on the All Blacks’ final pre-war tour to Australia in 1914. All three are understood to have signed up to serve on the boat ride back across the Tasman the week after the final test in Sydney.

London-born Canterbury winger Hubert ‘Jum’ Turtill played one test for the All Blacks, against Australia in 1905, before becoming one of New Zealand’s first-ever dual internationals as a league rep.

A fullback in both codes, Turtill played six tests for the Kiwis in 1907 and 1908 – as well as 137 games for St Helens before the war. He was killed while serving in the Royal Engineers on April 9, 1918, during the Battle of Estaires.

In World War II, Auckland flanker Bill Carson, who toured with the All Blacks to Australia in 1938, died of wounds while on a ship in the Mediterranean in 1944. An artillery major, Carson served in Crete, North Africa and Italy.

Carson was also a fine cricketer, touring England with the New Zealand team in 1937. An impressive left-handed batsman with a first-class average of 34.88 and a high score of 290, Carson played in the majority of the tour matches but was unable to crack the test line-up.

Denis ‘Sonny’ Moloney did, however. The Otago all-rounder made his debut at Lord’s in late June 1937, scoring 64 in his first innings against an English bowling line-up that featured the great Wally Hammond. He’d play two more tests during that tour, but would die of wounds, as a prisoner of war, at El Alamein in July, 1942.

Five Kiwi Olympians were killed while serving, including three of the first six athletes to officially represent New Zealand at the Games.

As part of a combined Australasian team, Christchurch’s Albert Rowland finish fifth in the final of the 3500m walk at the 1908 Olympics. A second lieutenant with the New Zealand Cyclist Corps during World War I, he was killed in action near Marfaux in France on July 25, 1918.

Fellow Cantab Henry Murray, a 1908 hurdler, served as an engineer in the Australian Imperial Forces in France, winning the Military Cross for bravery in action. Murray would survive the First World War but not the second; dying in a jeep accident near Whangarei in 1943 while serving as a airfield construction officer.

World War II claimed the lives of two Kiwi Olympic athletes. Wellingtonian David Lindsay swam in the 400m and 1500m freestyle heats in London in 1928. He was killed during the Battle of Orsogna in Italy in early December, 1943.

Blenheim’s George Cooke was a member of the New Zealand rowing eight at the 1932 Olympics in Los Angeles, before serving as a corporal in the New Zealand infantry in Greece and Crete. He was wounded in action on May 20, 1941 in Crete and captured by German paratroopers.

It is understood that he received special care from a German doctor who was also an Olympian, but died from his wounds days later.

Arguably the most famed Kiwi Olympian, and athlete full stop, to be claimed by war was tennis legend Anthony Wilding.

A six-time Grand Slam singles champion (four Wimbledon titles and two Australian Opens), the Cantabrian was – like Downing – one of the players of his generation.

A bronze medalist at the 1912 Olympics in Paris, Wilding still holds the record for clay court titles won (75), titles won in a single season (23) – and shares the career outdoor titles won (114) with Aussie great Rod Laver.

Wilding, whose film star good looks and renaissance lifestyle in Europe have been well chronicled, joined the Royal Navy’s Armoured Car Division in October 1914 to fight in France.

As reported by the Poverty Bay Herald on July 31, 1915, Wilding wrote in his last letter home to New Zealand on May 9, that year: “For the first time in seven and a half months, I have a job likely to end in my gun, myself and the whole outfit being blown to hell!,” he wrote.

“However, it is a sporting chance and if we succeed we will help our infantry no end.”

That evening, a shell exploded through the roof of his dugout, killing him instantly.

Leave a comment