Harry Browne was born on 11 April 1887 in Whakatane, a small coastal town in the Bay of Plenty. He was one of 12 children born to William Franklin Browne and his wife Ellen (also known as Erena or Erina). The pair moved around the upper North Island working with the Native Schools Department, a branch of the Department of Education which dealt specially with the education of Maori children in small communities. Ellen died after contracting typhoid fever in 1888, aged just 45.
Browne’s father remained in Whakatane and raised Browne and his siblings alone. At some point in the early 1900s, Browne and the younger family members returned with their father to Wellington.
After finishing his basic schooling, Browne took up a position as a baker with New Zealand Automatic Bakeries. At the outbreak of the First World War he lived near the city centre in the suburb of Thorndon. It is possible that Browne walked the short distance from his home at 13 Cottleville Terrace to the grounds of Parliament, joining the crowds of people who gathered there to hear Governor Lord Liverpool’s proclamation that New Zealand had joined Britain in declaring war on Germany.
While studying in Whakatane, Browne, like most young New Zealand men, spent four years in the School Cadets. He volunteered to join the NZEF just a few weeks after war was officially declared, enlisting on 28 August 1914. He was 27 years old.
Browne was assigned to the rank of a trooper in the 6th (Manawatu) Squadron, Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment. This regiment had begun gathering at Awapuni Racecourse in Palmerston North on the 8 August 1914. By the time Browne enlisted, the camp was well established and training had begun in earnest.
On 24 September the Wellington Mounted Rifles travelled to Wellington, ready for the departure of the NZEF Main Body the following day. But this was not to be. An extract from the official history of the Wellington Mounted Rifles reads:
The Awapuni Contingent had reached Wellington, where it was ‘farewelled’ officially and otherwise in Newtown Park. After the ceremony the troops marched to the wharves through dense crowds of enthusiastic well-wishers, the bands playing ‘Tipperary’ and other tunes popular at that time, and the embarkation was quickly accomplished. The men were highly elated at the prospect of an early departure, but disappointment awaited them. The presence of two powerful German cruisers had been detected in adjacent waters, and in consequence the departure was deferred pending the arrival of two other warships to strengthen the escort. The troops were therefore disembarked, the Regiment marching to Trentham Racecourse, where training was resumed, but with more than a full share of recreation.
On 13 October, HMS Minotaur and the Japanese battleship Ibuki arrived in Wellington Harbour to join HMS Psyche and HMS Philomel as the naval escort for the Main Body transport ships. Browne’s Wellington Mounted Rifles squadron left New Zealand aboard HMNZT Tahiti on 16 October 1914. They shared their voyage from Wellington with the Canterbury Mounted Rifles Regiment and one company of the Canterbury Infantry Battalion who had arrived from Lyttelton Harbour on 25 September. In total, Tahiti carried 30 officers, 611 men and 282 horses on the voyage to Egypt.
When the New Zealand transports made a short stop in Hobart, Tasmania, the soldiers were disembarked for a route march that was led by the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, to the delight of the local population who gave them a large ovation when they passed by.
The New Zealanders arrived in Albany on 28 November 1914, where they met up with the Australian convoy. After a few days they departed together, bound for Egypt.
On 13 November 1914 the Main Body crossed the equator. To celebrate, each ship held its own ‘Crossing the Line’ ceremony, where troops dressed up and were ritually ‘ducked’ in pools set up on board deck.
Browne arrived in Egypt on 3 December 1914, and disembarked in Alexandria the following day. After tending to their horses, the whole Wellington Mounted Rifles entrained for Cairo. They originally set up camp for their horses at Heliopolis Racecourse, but this was quickly deemed unsuitable. On 5 December 1915 they moved to the Zeitoun Camp area, and set up horse lines nearby on the ruins of the Biblical town of On. The Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment took great care in arranging their camp, and it was a source of much pride to the men.
The troops quickly settled into their work and began a vigorous course of training. The unit’s official history explained that ‘the almost unlimited expanse of desert adjacent afforded ample scope to manœuvre the troops under cloudless skies by day or night’.
The lines of the camp had been laid down with commendable foresight. Broad streets, which gave access and facilitated the distribution of supplies, intersected the various unit areas. A water-supply system was installed throughout the camp; canteens, cinemas, and shower baths were erected, and separate areas were leased on rentals to tradespeople to ply their various callings. A well-populated town sprang into being in a few days where a barren desert had previously existed.
As a trooper in the Wellington Mounted Rifles, Browne did not arrive on the Gallipoli peninsula until 12 May 1915. The New Zealand Mounted Rifle units had been held back from the main Anzac landings on 25 April, and instead remained camped in Egypt as reinforcements. The Mounted Riflemen left behind their horses, which were unsuitable for the rugged Gallipoli terrain.
After arriving at Anzac Cove, the Wellington Mounted Rifles were sent up to relieve the Nelson and Deal Battalions of the Royal Naval Brigade on the right of Walker’s Ridge.The New Zealand Infantry Brigade had originally held this line, but when these men were called down to Cape Helles, the remaining British and Australian forces were thinly stretched and the arrival of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles was greatly welcomed. The unit’s official history describes this position:
The country within this area was of the wildest description, and the defence line around it rose and fell, and sometimes broke, in conformity with the precipitous cliffs and jagged ravines which lay along its course, and where it was almost impossible to gain a foothold. Walker's Ridge was one of the highest points of the position, and from it dry water courses and crumpling gullies spread out to the north and east, while its western side, facing the sea, was a perpendicular wall.
The New Zealand Mounted Rifles were soon given their baptism of fire in this sector. The Ottoman soldiers launched a large attack at midnight on 18–19 May at Quinn’s Post and The Nek. The Auckland Mounted Rifles took the full brunt of this assault, but given the restrictive nature of the terrain, characterised by steep ravines and narrow ridges, they were able to hold their line easily and inflict massive casualties on the advancing enemy soldiers.
General Godley ordered a counter offensive to be undertaken by three squadrons of the Wellington Mounted Rifles, to be led by Captain W J Hardham against Ottoman positions at The Nek. All those present in the area realised the futility of an attack against such a heavily fortified position in virtually open ground. Just before the attack was to take place, the Commanding Officer of the New Zealand Mounted Rifles, Brigadier General Andrew Russell, phoned General Godley to request that the attack be cancelled. According to the official history of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment, Russell was advised to ‘use his own judgement’. He did, and undoubtedly saved the lives of all men involved. The Ottoman dead from this attack numbered in the thousands, and within a few days their bodies had rotted in the sun, creating an intolerable stench. Eventually an armistice was arranged for each side to bury their dead on the 24 May 1915.
The end of May until the beginning of August was a relatively quiet period in the campaign for the Wellington Mounted Rifles, mainly spent in a garrison role around Walker’s Ridge. On 3 August, Lieutenant Colonel William Meldrum informed the officers of their unit’s role in the forthcoming August Offensive. Meldrum, the original commander of Browne’s 6th Manawatu Squadron, was given command of the whole Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment for the attack. On 5 August the regiment left Walker’s Ridge and moved north to No.1 Post. Browne described this event in an account written after the offensive:
We hear that there is going to be a big advance to the left, and the NZ Mounted Brigade is going to open it up. We are glad to leave that Ridge [Walker’s Ridge] where with the Auckland Mounteds we have been working fortnight about with the Australian Light Horse, to the total and tender care of the latter. Apart from a few occasions it has been comparatively unexciting and monotonous with the settled kind of trench warfare, but we have tender thoughts as we leave the precipitous hill, which the Australian landing party took in seventeen minutes, and on the far side of which many an Australian and New Zealander lay in the sun, until the armistice late in May enabled us to bury what was left of them. Along a certain bank is a rough little wooden cross and it is inscribed ‘Sacred to the memory of an unknown member of the NZ Exped. Force’ I will not go into details as to why we should be unknown, but he was one of our infantry who landed on that first day, nineteen days ahead of us. It is important to always wear the identification disc around the neck, for the sake of those at home, and that is not always infallible.
The Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment’s task in the August Offensive was to support the assault on Chunuk Bair. Lieutenant Colonel William Malone’s Wellington Infantry Battalion captured the slopes of Chunuk Bair in the early hours of 8 August, and held the position throughout the day, but suffered severe casualties. The 2nd and 6th squadrons of the Wellington Mounted Rifles were sent to reinforce the infantry on Chunuk Bair at 12.15 pm. Their advance was led by Lieutenant Colonel Meldrum. Despite being stationed nearby on Table Top, it took them several hours to reach Chunuk Bair because of the difficult terrain and heavy fighting. They finally arrived at 10.30 pm to occupy ‘the cockpit’, the central position in the hastily dug trenches where the most intense fighting occurred.
After the death of Malone on 8 August, Meldrum was the most senior officer left on the slopes of Chunuk Bair. Under his command, the Wellington Mounted Rifles held their tenuous position, despite suffering crippling high casualty rates of over 60 per cent. This included Browne, who was wounded in the leg on 9 August.
Listen to Browne’s account of how he and the Wellington Mounted Rifles held onto their ground on Chunuk Bair’s crest.
Browne’s injury was serious enough that he was transferred to hospital in England. He did not return to Gallipoli.
When in hospital in England, Browne wrote up a highly detailed account of his role in the August Offensive.
After recovering from the wounds he received at Chunuk Bair, Browne was transferred from the Wellington Mounted Rifles to the New Zealand Field Artillery (NZFA) on 4 May 1916. The NZFA had expanded from one brigade to four since Gallipoli, and needed good riders to man the horse-drawn 18-pounder field gun batteries that were needed on the Western Front. Browne retrained as a gunner in Sling Camp and was then sent over to France on 11 September 1916, where he served with the NZFA’s Divisional Ammunition Column.
Browne arrived on the Western Front in time to join the New Zealand Division in its successful but costly series of attacks in the Somme sector between 15 September and 4 October 1916. The New Zealand infantry brigades were relieved by British troops in the first week of October, but the New Zealand Division’s artillery remained on the Somme, supporting the British until the end of the month. The latter stages of this battle were particularly trying due to days of heavy rain, which turned the battlefield into a quagmire, and hampered the movement of ammunition, equipment and guns. The official history of the NZFA explains:
The weather broke at the end of September, and almost the whole of October saw a succession of drenching rains. It was a period of unremitting, hard, physical toil for all ranks. It had again become necessary to push the New Zealand batteries forward, and the task of dragging them over the almost non-existent roads, and across the trackless waste of mud to their assigned positions, became well-nigh hopeless...
In February 1917, Browne was transferred to the 3rd Battery, 1st Brigade, NZFA. It was in this battery that he participated in the battle of Messines.
After the detonation of 19 enormous mines at 3.10 am on 7 June 1917, three NZFA brigades participated in a massive standing and creeping barrage designed to support the infantry advance on the town of Messines and several nearby objectives. All of the New Zealand Division’s 18-pounder guns, including those of Browne’s battery, fired continuously for 45 minutes, creating a huge cloud of smoke and debris. The ferocity of the attack and surprise explosion of the mines left the German defenders stunned. Messines was one of the most successful battles of the war. The infantry of the British Second Army, which included Australians and New Zealanders, seized all their objectives and captured thousands of German prisoners.
The official history of the NZFA describes the planning of the artillery attack:
The projected operation had previously been thoroughly rehearsed by all the attacking troops on a large scale, exact model of the Messines area; and before June 7th arrived every man was perfectly familiar with the part his unit was to play in the battle. The signal for the attack was to be the explosion of a number of heavily-charged mines, which had been prepared during many months of unremitting and dangerous labour. Along the original Second Army front there was a total of twenty-four mines, which had involved the driving of eight thousand yards of galleries. Of this total four mines were outside the front of the attack, and one had been destroyed by the enemy. The remaining nineteen mines, charged with over one million pounds of powerful explosive, were to be exploded under the enemy's positions at zero hour.
From first to last the operation in every detail, from the most important to the very minor, was thought out and planned with the most exacting care and, as far as was humanly possible every phase was carried out with clock-work precision. In the scheming of the barrage which preceded the infantry in their advance along the whole Army front no spot which might possibly prove an obstacle to the advance was left untouched.
The battle of Messines was Browne’s last major battle of the war. Two weeks later he was seriously wounded in the St Ives Sector on 20 June 1917. He was brought into an Advanced Dressing Station of No.3 New Zealand Field Ambulance with a gunshot wound to the chest. Evacuated back to England, he was eventually sent to the No.1 New Zealand General Hospital at Brockenhurst to recover. By the end of July, a medical board had classified him as unfit for further service, and he was invalided back to New Zealand, where he was discharged on 16 December 1917.
Browne survived war but his health was permanently damaged by the injuries he had suffered.
After being demobilised, he settled back into life in Wellington. In 1918 he married Ethel May Dorme. The couple did not have any children. The only recorded birth was of a stillborn child, born in 1927.
Browne never recovered from the chest wound that he received at Messines. In 1928 he contracted pneumonia, and he died on 23 August. As his death was linked to his war service, he was given a soldier’s burial by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and is listed as an official casualty in the NZEF’s Roll of Honour.
National Library of New Zealand Te Puna Mātauranga o Aotearoa 2014, Papers Past, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://paperspast.natlib.govt.nz/cgi-bin/paperspast>
Archives New Zealand Te Rua Mahara o te Kāwanatanga: 18805, BROWNE, Harry Ernest, 11/689
Brown, HE 1915, Browne, Harry Ernest, 1887-1928: Gallipoli diary, MS-Papers-3519, Alexander Turnbull Library, Wellington, New Zealand
Byrne, Lieutenant J R 1922, New Zealand Artillery in the Field, 1914-18, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland
Commonwealth War Graves Commission
New Zealand Electronic Text Centre 2014, New Zealand in the First World War 1914–1918, viewed 20 September 2014, <http://nzetc.victoria.ac.nz/tm/scholarly/tei-corpus-WH1.html>
Waite, F 1919, The New Zealanders at Gallipoli, Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Christchurch
Wilkie, A H 1924, Official History of the Wellington Mounted Rifles Regiment 1914-1919,
Whitcombe and Tombs Ltd, Auckland