A mother's double tragedy

03:24, Apr 24 2012
Wyndham war memorial
TRIBUTE TO FALLEN HEROES: The crowd at the unveiling of the Wyndham war memorial on the anniversary of the signing of Armistice, in 1924.

On page five of the Southland Times on Wednesday, November 12, 1924, in between columns dedicated to a "divorce sensation" in Sydney, a story about Invercargill's water supply, and whether Italian dictator Mussolini was "losing his grip", was an article about a ceremony held at Wyndham the day before.

"Wyndham memorial unveiling ceremony. An impressive scene, tribute to fallen heroes", the heading read.

It was a "most pleasant day" for the war memorial's unveiling, the newspaper reported, with a swell of locals and others from outside the district crowding around for the official reveal.

Wyndham war memorial
POIGNANT REMINDER (top): Geoff Genge at the Wyndham war memorial. BOTTOM: Ben Genge (left) and Guy Genge.

"Shortly after 10 o'clock, a parade started from the Town Hall to the memorial site at slow march pace, led by a company of some 14 returned soldiers under Major Rice, Lieutenant Robertson, and Sergeant-Major Davis, all in full uniform and with arms reversed. Then followed the Wyndham Pipe Band in full dress, and playing a suitable lament. Next was a further party of returned soldiers each carrying a floral wreath, which was deposited at the base of the monument. Then came members of the local Territorial and Cadet forces under Lieutenant Munro, followed by a large procession of school children in charge of their teachers," the article said.

Jane Genge was chosen to open the memorial in 1924 for unenviable reasons – she was the only Wyndham mother to lose two boys in the war.

In 1916, brothers Ben and Guy Genge left behind their family – which included siblings Ernest, John, Tom, Dan, Fanny, Elizabeth, Mary and Anne (a seventh brother, George, had died as a child) – and went away to war, said her great-grandson Geoff Genge, from West Plains.


Both were strapping Southland lads. Youngest brother Guy appeared to be a hard case, judging by a letter sent home.

"Most people end letters with `love' and that kind of thing, but in this letter he signs off `yours til cremated', so he must have had a bit of a sense of humour," Mr Genge said of his great-uncle, the brother of his father Tom.

Ben, on the other hand, was described in family letters as a fine fellow and seemed to have been a sensible sort.

Just four months after leaving New Zealand, Ben Genge was killed in action at the Somme, on September 26, 1916.

In a letter to a cousin in England, his brother, Dan, wrote: "[He] was a very popular young man and doing well but of course thought it was his duty to enlist, and was killed on the 26th of September 1916. It was hard, Flo, to think we were never going to see him again, but of course we must bear our loss like a great many more."

He left Wellington aboard the Ulimaroa on May 1 that year, landing at Suez in Egypt, but it was not long before the icy grip of tragedy would dig its claws into the Genge family of Wyndham.

The same week the family learned of his death, younger brother Guy was back at the Wyndham farm, visiting after finishing his training – a brief respite before he too left for war.

Guy also wrote of his brother's death in a letter to his cousin Florence, who lived in Dorset, on November 8.

"I am 20 years of age and the youngest of the family. My brother Ben, the next to me, was killed in action in September last. He had hard luck being there no more than a month. My Mother just received word of his death while I was down on leave and it was a very hard on her coming so quick and my going away at the same time [sic]," he wrote.

He signed off, having to attend a parade at Trentham camp, and mentioned again a photo of himself he would send her, after she had asked Dan for photos of the family. "This is not the best place to write as there are so many chaps about playing larks and annoying you in general. However it will explain the photo if it ever reaches you. I remain, your affectionate cousin Guy Genge."

His last letter to Flo, written from France and dated August 9, 1917, said he did not have much time to write as he was going out on watch. "Still in the best of health and I've no doubt you are the same ... I'll manage to write a decent letter but I can't today. Yours, G. Genge."

Guy fell on October 4, 1917, at Ypres in Belgium.

Another letter to Florence, this time from Dan, read: "... we had a letter from a comrade (of Guy's) saying that he just dropped down dead, as they could not find a mark or a bruise on him."

The brothers rest in unmarked graves – Ben, who died at the age of 28, at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in the Somme, and Guy, dead at just 21, at Tyne Cot Cemetery in Belgium.

After what was surely an emotional unveiling of the memorial by Mrs Genge, a group of returned soldiers fired a salute to their fallen, before a bugler sounded the solemn Last Post.

A dedicatory prayer was read. A hymn was sung.

Jane Genge's stiff upper lip was sorely tested by the war, and the stoicism with which she prevailed over the Wyndham memorial's opening again showed through after the death of a fourth son, Dan, who had a brain tumour, Mr Genge said.

A woman from a fairly well-to-do English family who was believed to have eloped to New Zealand with husband Thomas, a farm worker, Jane had never had to brush her own hair before the war. In Wyndham, she lived in a home with a mud floor.

"She always said, 'I made my bed, I have to lie in it'." – Sources: Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph Database, Genge family (West Plains)

The memorial at Wyndham was unveiled on the sixth anniversary of the signing of the Armistice, on November 11, 1924. The words of Rudyard Kipling, whose imperialistic poetry adorns many war memorials around the world, are also engraved upon the structure at Wyndham, beginning:

"All that they gave – they gave in sure and simple faith". –  Information: New Zealand History Online, Ministry for Culture and Heritage.

The Southland Times