Soldiers, Signalmen, Runners
By Trent Corbett, Deputy Club Captain, August 2017
The Grand Memorial race has been an annual feature on the Olympic Harrier Club calendar since 1920 to remember club members who died in the First World War. Over half of the club membership left home to fight in the War, including two sets of brothers who were foundation members of the club – Frank, Vince & Charles Byrne, and James & Hugh Wilson. Frank was an outstanding runner; well known in Wellington, he won three Provincial Cross Country Championships and placed second in another. Both he and Vince represented Wellington at the National Cross Country Championships. Sadly, all but Hugh perished in the War.
The Byrne Memorial Cup – awarded for second place in the Grand memorial Race
Living together at Mount Victoria
Their enlistment records show that all five of these men lived together in the Byrnes’ parents’ house in Ellice St in Mount Victoria. A large house which still stands today, it may have been sub-let to make up for a lack of income – by this time the Byrnes’ father was permanently bedridden and unable to work.
The Byrne brothers had all moved to Wellington from Kumara on the West Coast in search of work. Their father – a lawyer and formerly the Mayor of Kumara – had not provided for their education. This left them little choice but to seek work in the capital.
James Francis Byrne – known to his family as Frank, but to the harriers community as Darky due to his dark complexion, hair and eyes, was a boilermaker at Niven & Co. Vincent John Byrne was a jeweller at Jerusalem & Co., one of the lower level shops in the Bank of New Zealand arcade building at the end of Lambton Quay. The store may have been owned by a family of German descent, as the Attorney General declared it an “Enemy Company” during the war and placed it under control of the Public Trustee. Charles Alfred Byrne, the youngest of the three, was a clerk at Millars West Australian Hardwoods Co in Taranaki St, which lost almost all its stock in a fire in 1918.
Darky Byrne sits in the front row (with Olympic logo on his shirt) of club members in 1914 (he often went by his middle name, resulting in his initials frequently being reversed)
Hugh Gordon Wilson and James Alexander Wilson were born in Porongahau in the Hawkes Bay. James was a teacher, and Hugh a civil Servant in the Defence Department.
Running for Brooklyn 1911–1913
The Dominion newspaper described these men as “of the wiry and leggy stamp”, and they competed in numerous local races.
Darky joined the Brooklyn Club in 1911; he won the Wellington Cross Country Champs in 1911, placed second in 1912, and won again in 1913 and 1914, becoming one of Wellington’s best known runners. Harriers running must have been quite the sensation at the time – Wellington Harriers and Brooklyn were the only two harriers clubs in New Zealand. The newspapers reported all of their club runs in detail – the route taken, obstacles encountered along the way, the form of the runners, and most importantly the “run in”. Each club run finished with those present racing for a sprint finish over distances that ranged from 400 yards to a mile. The papers eagerly reported the placings. They even went as far as describing the quality of the entertainment if a club run left from a member’s house.
An Evening Post article on a Brooklyn Harriers club run in 1911. This was Darky’s first appearance in harriers reporting.
Darky first appeared in harriers reporting in March 1911. He featured frequently in the news, winning a number of run ins with the Brooklyn Harriers Club. In May 1911 he established his credentials, surprising everyone present by holding off C. Rowberry – the Wellington Provincial Champ - in a run in with the Wellington Harriers club. Race placings soon followed, and his brother Vince started to appear around the same time. When Darky got the fastest time at the inaugural Brooklyn club race of the season, a two mile handicap, Vince won the run in for those novice members not eligible to run in the handicap race. “Mercury”, the athletics reporter at the Dominion, described Vince’s performance against the best runners in the Brooklyn club as “another case of running in the family.”
Despite winning the Wellington Cross Country Championships in 1911, Darky still had to compete in a selection “test” for the national championships. He placed poorly, and Vince was selected over him to represent Wellington at the event. The Dominion described Darky’s performance as one of those "whose failure was mainly due, not to carelessness, but to over-zealousness in their training operations, which has caused a staleness in this early stage of the season." The reporting on his poorer performances was not always so charitable. When Hugh beat Darky in one race near the end of the 1911 season the Dominion slammed his performance: "Darky Byrne, who opened the season rather sensationally, is now running like unto a draught horse of commerce."
Despite this drop in form, Darky managed to win the Wellington Cross Country Championships in October 1911. Darky ran shoulder to shoulder with C. Rowberry – the reigning champion – throughout the race. Rowberry lost a shoe two miles from the finish, and kept the pressure on to the end, Darky only besting him by three yards in a sprint finish.
The Wellington Provincial Cross Country Championship Shield – Darky’s name appears three times (1911, 1913, 1914)
In 1912, when Darky placed second in the Wellington Cross Country Championships, the course in Palmerston North was so flooded that runners could not tell where the roads ended and the drains started. The Manawatu Standard described the course as:
Evidently, the competitors were unable to work out where the course actually was in places:
“Entertainment” for spectators between athletics events that Darky competed at in 1911
Despite his provincial success, Darky struggled to make a mark at the national level. He placed 10th in the New Zealand Cross Country Championships held at Miramar in 1912. The New Zealand Herald noting that "The course proved a strong test of staying power, with liberal helpings of fences, ditches, and sand." The Otago runners were particularly strong at this time, winning for the fourth year in a row.
In 1913, the various harrier and athletics clubs in Wellington started to hold demonstration races during the half time of rugby matches at Athletic Park. These were seen as important advertisements for the sport, and drew great publicity. Both Darky and Vince competed in these, while Hugh and Charles were more involved in club runs.
This was an unsettled year for the Brooklyn club – the committee had planned for the incumbent Vice President to step up as President, but the absence of key members at the AGM saw a much less experienced member elected as President. A number of members disagreed with this, as the new President had given the club much less service than their candidate. This disharmony in the committee was soon evident in competition on the track, with the club choosing to run club races instead of contributing runners to the demonstrations at Athletic Park. Dominion athletics correspondent “Mercury” was scathing in his criticism of this decision, lamenting the club’s “perversity” and “peculiar attitude”.
Despite all of these distractions, Darky won the Wellington Cross Country Championships for the second time in 1913. He was carried shoulder high after his win. The Wairarapa Age described how "Mr G.R. Sykes, M.P., occupied the chair, and in making the presentation, congratulated the Brooklyn team on its royal win, and particularly Mr Byrne, whose generalship was a big factor in securing the first four places for his team." The Dominion described his leadership in detail, praising him for keeping the Brooklyn runners together as a group to work off each other, rather than letting them run at their own pace. He even allowed other runners to pass them for a while but shepherded their energy for a fast finish as a group that the other competitors simply could not match.
Darky’s leadership featured heavily in Brooklyn’s win at the Wellington Cross Country Championships in 1913
Foundation members of the Olympic Harrier Club
In April of 1914, the Olympic Harriers appeared as a new club in Wellington by breaking away from Brooklyn, evidently a reaction to the discord between Brooklyn committee members and their runners. Darky was elected as the new club’s first Club Captain. The club quickly established its credentials, taking the top three places in the very first interclub race of the new season. Charles too started to come into his own as a runner, often placing well in the club’s run ins and making the club’s A Team for the Provincial Championships. Following a selection run, the Evening Post announced the members selected for the Olympic Teams, and added the following guidance for them:
The Wellington Cross Country Championships in 1914 were held in appalling weather. The Dominion reported that high winds caused course diversions, and the weather was so bad that the course stewards were unable to make it out to the outlying points on the course: "Competitors were on their honour to cover the full distance." The correspondents again praised Darky’s leadership, noting that he held his team together until the last mile and a half before increasing the pace, establishing a break, and winning the race.
His performance saw him selected to represent Wellington at the National Cross Country Championships again on 1st August, but three days later Britain declared war on Germany. Many runners enlisted from clubs across Wellington, while still taking part in club races when weekend leave from their training allowed. An early club photo shows Darky and Hugh together, Hugh in his soldier’s uniform. The Olympic Harrier Club was only four months old, but was about to lose its best runners to a new contest.
The Great War: Egypt and Gallipoli 1914–1916
When War broke out in August 1914, Vince, Charles, and Hugh all enlisted in the Divisional Signals Company – they completed their medical examinations for enlistment together only 11 days after the declaration of war. Darky had tried to enlist with them, but a wisdom tooth problem meant that he failed the medical. In October, Vince, Charles and Hugh sailed to Egypt aboard the steamship Waimana. The official history of the Divisional Signals Company described their long, hot voyage:
They disembarked in Egypt in December, aiding in the defence of the Suez Canal before sailing to Gallipoli in April 1915.
Vince, Charles and Hugh were among the first to land on Gallipoli – going ashore in broad daylight at 1130 under the direct fire of Turkish machine guns. Their signal office was only 50 yards from the beach, but within two hours they had laid telegraph cables to the New Zealand Brigade headquarters, and had established a system of runners to communicate with the Australian Division.
The Divisional Signals Company war diary entry for 25th April 1915 – the landings at Gallipoli
Hugh Wilson (in uniform) and “Darky” Byrne together at a club event. In contrast to the original caption, the style of Hugh’s uniform hat indicates that the photo was probably taken sometime between August and October 1914 before Hugh sailed for Egypt.
Back at home, the 1915 harrier season was underway. James started to place in run ins; The Evening Post described him as a man of some promise, and a valuable addition to the club. The newspapers even reported on Darky leading a pack run through Kelburn and Karori on 25 April – less than 14 hours before his brothers went ashore at Gallipoli on the other side of the globe. Bunny Carpenter, a fellow soldier in the Divisional Signals Company, kept a diary vividly describing their experience as they went ashore on their first day in Gallipoli.
There must have been immense pressure on those still at home to enlist. At the 1915 Annual General Meeting, the Club Chairman congratulated the members on the successful season just passed and on the loyalty of the club members “50 percent of whom have gone to the front to fight for their country.” The newspapers reported how the King took great interest in ‘military’ cross country races in the UK, following the runners on horseback. The Wellington Mayor was in regular attendance at club events encouraging them to do their bit. When Darky managed to enlist into the Divisional Signals Company together with James in May 1915, it appeared in the newspapers within only a couple of days. One reporter observed "I understand the popular captain of the Olympic Harriers has enlisted with the Expeditionary Force. This will be a great loss to the club, but their loss will be the country's gain. It's men of Byrne's stamp that make the best soldiers. He is fleet, sound of limb, and as hard as nails. There are a number of other runners in the harrier ranks who would do well to fall in beside Byrne and follow the good example set by other harriers now on service.” This after twenty members had enlisted!
Another correspondent described how harriers runners were well suited to military service:
On 22 October 1915, Darky married Olive Lillian King in Wellington. This was also a happy day for his brother Charles, in a sense – on this same day Charles was evacuated from the hell of Gallipoli to a rest camp on the island of Mudros in the Mediterranean, before a lengthy stint in hospital. Less than a month after his wedding, Darky and James sailed from New Zealand for the War.
They disembarked in Egypt in December 1915 – only a few days before Vince, Charles, and Hugh arrived following their evacuation from Gallipoli. Hugh had actually left Gallipoli after Vince and Charles – he was one of the last to be evacuated. He would have suffered throughout the trip by sea to Egypt – the army leadership had not planned on so many men surviving the withdrawal, so had not provisioned enough food for the voyage. Many New Zealander evacuees from Gallipoli ate nothing that Christmas Day. In contrast, Darky, newly arrived in Egypt, celebrated Christmas with his brother Vince, recording in his diary:
Club photo 1915. Darky Byrne sits in the front row. If this photo is dated correctly then the man in uniform is probably James Wilson, as his brother Hugh was already in Gallipoli. The “lemon squeezer” hat that James is wearing also came into widespread use around this time.
In the New Year, all five men met up at a sports meet in Egypt to raise morale. The army constructed a sand track in the desert at Zeitoun Camp "put into decent order with the aid of water and a roller." Fresh off the ship from New Zealand, Darky won the half mile, 440 yards, and mile races. The others – malnourished and regularly ill during their time at Gallipoli – had lost their strength and did not appear in the results.
The Great War: France and death 1916-1918
In April 1916, the men sailed for France aboard the steamship Minnewaska, James sailing the following month after a stint in hospital with pleurisy that had beset him soon after his arrival in Egypt.
The Steamship Minnewaska that carried Hugh Wilson and the Byrne brothers from Egypt to France
After arriving in France, Darky took part in the battle of the Somme. He recorded his duties as part of a party sent in to build barb wire defences around newly captured positions in his diary:
Clearly, Darky found time to relax amidst the madness after uncovering a stash of spirits on one of the captured trenches:
A probable reference to Charles Byrne’s actions in the Battle of the Somme on 16 September 1916. He had been promoted to Temporary Lance Corporal in March, whereas his brothers both held the rank of Sapper at this time.
Soon after, in December 1916, Hugh was awarded the Military Medal for an act of gallantry in the field. However, the unit history and war diaries shed no further light on what he had done to earn it.
Their service records show that the fighting took its toll even on these athletes. They all spent time in hospital with various wounds, spells of sickness, or disease. It was little wonder that the men were constantly in and out of hospital - the Divisional Signal Company War Diary noted "Conditions were appalling. Our dugouts were wet and dirty, alongside a line of duck boards. Shell holes, many of them big, were touching one another, and were full of water. Dead men were in the water, and a couple of days later we had to take water from those shell holes to make tea." Early in 1917, Darky personally described just how bad the conditions were in his diary:
He had spent almost a month in hospital without a change of clothes or a wash.
The Divisional Signals Company war diary entry from 14 June 1917 describing how communications supported an advance as part of the battle of Messines – the second to last sentence describes how runners were used to maintain communications
Darky met his end not long after. He was killed on 18 June 1917 during the NZ Division’s attack on Messines Ridge. The Divisional Signals Company’s official history noted that around this time "Enemy shelling was quite severe, and they sent over quite a lot of gas of several varieties – all vile."
There is no record of exactly how Darky died. However, four days before his death, an entry in the Divisional Signals Company’s war diary describes problems with communications before finishing with the note “Runners maintained comm[unications] when other means failed.” It could be that he was called on to run one last time, leading to his death.
A number of newspapers recorded his passing, one writing “The war continues to take its toll of the brightest and best of New Zealand’s athletes. In one of the latest lists appears the name of F.J. Byrne (died from wounds), who by his nickname of "Darky," was probably the best-known harrier and long-distance runner in Wellington.”
Darky’s wife and club mates continued posting memorial notices in Wellington newspapers on the anniversary of his death throughout the 1920s.
James Francis “Darky” Byrne’s grave at the Strand Military Cemetery in Belgium.
Four months later on 18 October, Charles and Hugh were shelled with mustard gas. Hugh was evacuated to a hospital in England, but Charles succumbed to his wounds at a field hospital at Wimeraux in France. Hugh’s wounds were so bad that he was classified unfit for military service and sent back to New Zealand. While Charles and Hugh were in hospital, James won a Military Medal for bravery. Unfortunately for him however, less than two months later he was part of a group working on a ‘bury’ one morning - burying a telegraph line to protect it from shelling - when the group was hit by German artillery, forcing them to stop working around 9:30 am. He was among three signalmen killed, along with a group of twenty other workers who were simply listed as “did not return.”
The Divisional Signals Company War diary entry referring to James Wilson’s death. He is simply listed as a 2/Cpl (Second Corporal) killed.
Vince soon went to England himself – assigned to the signals training depot at Stevenage. He had spent a lot of time in and out of hospital being treated for impetigo and VD – his exhausted body struggling to fight off infection. In October of 1918 he was admitted one last time – he died less than a month before the end of the war. Until the discovery of penicillin in 1928, syphilis was a death sentence. His service file records his doctor’s notes on the agony of his final hours as the infection took over his body.
The war diary of the reserve signals company in England records a final entry for Vincent Byrne on 4 October 1918: “4/535 L/Cpl V.J. Byrne to No 2 NZ Gen[eral] Hospital [at] Walton-on-Thames”
Vincent John Byrne’s grave in Codford War Grave Cemetery, England
After the War
Hugh was discharged from the Army after he returned to New Zealand in 1919. The papers do not record him running again, but noted that he served on the committee of Olympic Harriers as Time Keeper and Starter. The war clearly took its toll on the club members who fought. In the 50 year history of the club, foundation member and Club Patron P.L. Wilson (evidently no relation of James and Hugh) recalled that only one of the club members that returned from serving in the First World War ever ran again.
Hugh donated a sum of money along with other soldiers from the Divisional Signals Company to raise funds for a trophy remembering the three Byrne brothers. On 26 June 1920, Hugh was the time keeper for the first Byrne Memorial Handicap race, run over 5 miles. He also donated the Wilson Cup to remember his brother James.
Hugh’s personal file notes that he was discharged on 18 February 1919 “No longer physically fit for war service on account of wounds (gas poisoning) received in action.
In 1929, with races starting to crowd the club calendar, these two events were combined with the race in remembrance of foundation Club President “Dad” Philp, who had died in office in 1924, into a single race – the Grand Memorial.
Despite his injuries seeing him classified as unfit for war service at the end of the First World War, Hugh served again in the Second World War He reached the rank of Squadron Leader in the Air Force, and was awarded an OBE in the 1949 New Year’s Honours. Hugh finally passed away in Auckland in 1966, aged 72.
There was prolific newspaper reporting on the Byrnes and Wilsons as runners – well over 200 articles mention them – and can be found by searching New Zealand’s digitised historical newspapers.
- Byrne-Rothwell, Daniel, The Byrnes and the O’Byrnes, Vol 2, 2010 (Contains an extensive section on the Byrne family, and excerpts from Darky’s person diary in the war)
- Ellis, Roy F., By Wires to Victory, 1968 (The official history of the Divisional Signals Company)
- Olympic Harrier Club, History of the Olympic Harrier Club, 1914-1963, 1964 (Contains some background on the Byrne Memorial Cup, as well as commentary on why the club was formed. Also contains the only photos of Darky and Hugh)
- Olympic Harrier Club, 75 Years down the Track: The History of the Olympic Harrier Club. 1914-1989, 1989 (Reprints information from the earlier history)
- Both the Divisional Signals company War Diary and the Reserve Signals Company War Diary held in the National Archives provide useful context. However, they only contain a couple of references to the Byrnes and Wilsons by name.
- Full personnel files for all men are available online at http://archives.govt.nz/world-war-one.
Last updated: 15 Aug 2017