lbert 'Doolan' Downing was the very first All Black to die in the First World War, only one day before the next All Black to lose his life - Henry Dewar. These two big front-rowers would most likely have first met each other during the Ranfurly Shield challenge between Taranaki and shield holders, Auckland, in 1913. Downing had just joined the club having moved up from the Hawkes Bay and Dewar was enjoying success with the Taranaki side. That day, Taranaki ended Auckland's long run as shield holders, 14 - 11. Later that same year, they'd both be All Blacks and in two years time they'd be stepping onto a foreign shore only one day apart from each other, and making the ultimate sacrifice.
Albert was born on 12 July 1886 in the bustling Napier port region called Port Ahuriri. It also earned the nickname 'The Iron Pot' or 'The Spit'. In the early days Napier consisted of an oblong mass of hills (Scinde Island) almost entirely surrounded by water, from which ran out two single spits, one to the North and one to the South. Napier soon flourished though, and became a well established commercial centre with a growing port, servicing a wide area. Ahuriri is steeped in history. It was one of the earliest settled areas of Napier, and its shallow but sheltered waters offered safe mooring for sailing ships in the 19th and 20th centuries. Albert worked as a Storeman for the famous Ellison & Duncan company there. Port Ahuriri was Napier’s main port until the 1931 earthquake when port services were relocated to the current site at the Port of Napier.
Downing probably attended the local Ahuriri school which was established in 1858 and is still there today. We pick up his rugby career at the Napier Old Boys Rugby Club and then for Marist, representing Hawkes Bay from 1909-12. He appeared above provincial level for the first time in 1911 when he played every game on a five match tour by a North Island Country
team. Selection for the full North Island team followed at the end of that season and again the following year. This was in the series held annually where the best of the North Island would compete against the South Island's finest, a tradition that ended in 1965. North Island Country toured again, to the South Island, in 1912 with 'Doolan' Downing appearing in all four tour matches. The last tour game, against South Island Country in Wellington, had to be abandoned at half time owing to the state of the ground, a rare occurrence in New Zealand rugby but perhaps not that rare for Athletic Park!
Downing left the Bay and moved to Auckland, although whether this move was primarily for work or rugby we don't know... probably both. He found himself recruited into the Auckland Marist Club in 1913 as a result of his strong playing abilities. (On May 14, 1910, the club’s premier team made its debut and two years later strong recruiting meant that by 1912 Marist had a formidable side which was good enough to win
the Auckland senior championship, winning eight of 10 matches).
By 1913 Marist had its first All Blacks: AJ (“Doolan”) Downing. He was followed soon after by fellow Marist players, Jim (“Buster” Barrett, who played a test match against Australia the same year. Downing had a successful tour, playing in 14 of the 16 matches including the test against All-America and scoring 6 tries. Two other All Blacks forwards who died in WWI played on that same tour with Downing - Henry Dewar and hooker, George Sellars.
In 1914 Marist had no fewer than four players in the All Black side which toured Australia, Downing and Barrett being joined by five eighths Jock McKenzie, who had transferred from Wellington, and Jack O’Brien, a fullback who was a club foundation member. Once more he had a heavy workload, appearing in all three tests and 10 of the 11 tour matches. Downing won high praise for his lineout ability. He played in the same team that year (1914) with yet another All Black forward to die in WWI - Jim McNeece.
Going back to his rugby roots, he was described by Hawkes Bay and North Island Country team mate Norman McKenzie as "an outstanding lineout forward with a wonderful pair of hands" Downing, 6ft tall (1.83m) and weighing around 14 stone (89kg) was a top player whose standing would have been greater had he not played in a low key period of New Zealand rugby.
His level of commitment and passion for the game was reflected in a tatoo of the Ranfurley Shield he had on his arm!
Enlisting in the Army in 1915, Downing played twice for Trentham Military Forces, against Wellington and Auckland, before leaving New Zealand on 13 June 1915 with the Fifth
Reinforcements, Wellington Infantry Battalion. He was onboard either SS Maunganui, SS Tahiti or the SS Aparima (HMNZT 24, 25 or 26). They all departed for the same destination; Suez, Egypt, with Albert arriving on 24 July 1915. Downing may arrived on one of the first ships but it still meant that within less than two weeks later he would be dead, killed in action at Gallipoli during the assault on Chunnuk Bair, the first New Zealand rugby representative war casualty. His front-row All Black mate, Henry Dewar who may have even shared the same landing craft with Downing, wouldn't have even known his mate's fate as he was already preparing to take on the formidable heights of the peninsular in order to capture Chunuk Bair. He too would join Downing in death with 24 hours.
The Gallipoli assault began at 9.30 pm, 6 August 1915, and saw Downing in the 'thick' of it. The Auckland Mounteds , the Otago Mounteds and the Canterbury Mounteds all successfully took their objectives. At 11 am on 7 August, the Auckland Infantry Battalion attacked and lost 300 men in twenty minutes for a gain of 100 metres. The Wellington Infantry Battalion was ordered to continue the attack but their commanding officer refused to send his men 'to commit suicide'. Enter Doolan Downing... it was early morning of 8 August, 'A' Company occupied the Turkish trench on the crest of Chunuk Bair and dug a supporting trench behind it. The Turks' dawn counter-attack saw the British battalions, with the Wellingtons, break and run, but according to a 'Lance Corporal Hill', it was after Downing had distinguished himself in a bloody bayonet charge. The trench on the crest was lost and the fight continued on the seaward slopes. Men dug trenches behind the original support line as it filled with dead and wounded. Turkish grenades were hurled back, and even stones were thrown. For 12 hours the Wellingtons, reinforced by the Auckland Mounted Rifles, fought off Turkish attacks. By nightfall Downing was dead and reportedly witnessed to have been 'blown to pieces'. The Otago Infantry Battalion and the Wellington Mounted Rifles replaced the Wellingtons. Throughout the next day, the Wellington Mounted Rifles desperately held on to a line just below the crest of Chunuk Bair. But by evening they had no more to give. Out of 3000 men, the New Zealand Infantry Brigade had 1700 casualties; both New Zealand brigades were exhausted. The position on Chunuk Bair was taken over by two British battalions. On the morning of 10 August, a Turkish counter-attack panicked the raw British infantry, and the New Zealanders were recalled. But the effort required was too much for exhausted men and the Turks regained the slopes, so determining the fate of the Gallipoli Campaign. NZ withdrawal took place on December 19-20.
On the Chunuk Bair NZ Memorial, on panel number 17, is Albert Downing's name. However back in his home town of Napier in NZ, an unfortunate event has seen his name erased from memory as a combatant of the Great War. The original Great War Memorial and the role books were destroyed in the Napier earthquake of 1931, just a few years after the memorial was erected. The names were transferred to a new plaque on the former WWII memorial but somehow A. J. Downing has been omitted. Instead, there is engraved on the new plaque, a mystery figure; a character by the name of 'C. Downing' of whom both the Commonwealth War Graves Commission and the NZ Cenotaph war records do not hold any reference to having existed. What has most likely happened is that the 'a' was misread as a 'c'.
Napier city though, is blatantly proud of the sacrifices that its citizens made during wartime. Even when the local Memorial Hall fell into disrepair many years ago and the Memorial Eternal Flame was extinguished, at the rededication ceremony, the Eternal Flame was relit by Napier's oldest soldier, World War I Veteran and former Mayor, Mr E.R. (Ron) Spriggs M.B.E. May future generations ensure that the eternal flame is never again extinguished.
As a footnote, the 'Canterbury' clothing manufacturer, who were a former All Black uniform supplier, has honoured Albert by releasing a jacket/jersey top called the 'Downing'. It can be purchased for £39.99.
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All Black statistics courtesy of the NZ Rugby Museum:
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'All Blacks At War: The First XIII'
Sydney aged 28 Rank Sergeant, Wellington Battalion Serial Number 10/2119 Died Sunday, 8 August 1915, Gallipoli Age 29 Grave Not Known. New Zealand National Memorial, Chunuk Bair, Ref: 17
ALBERT JOSEPH DOWNING
Born 12 July 1886, Napier Parents Mr & Mrs John Downing, Port Ahuriri, Napier Education Napier Boys High. Physical 1.83m 89kg Province Auckland Rugby Club First Made All Blacks From Auckland Marist. AB# 176 Position Loose Forward & Lock All Black Debut 6 September 1913 v Australia, Wellington aged 27 International Debut 6 September 1913 v Australia, Wellington aged 27 Last Test 15 August 1914 v Australia at
The All Black Games that Downing played.
(+) = substitute; (-) = replaced
6 Sep vs Australia at Wellington 30-5
10 Sep vs Wellington at Wellington 19-18
4 Oct vs Olympic Club at San Francisco 19-0
8 Oct vs University of California at Berkeley 31-0
11 Oct vs Barbarians Club at San Francisco 30-0
15 Oct vs Stanford University at Palo Alto 54-0
22 Oct vs University of Santa Clara at Santa Clara 42-0
25 Oct vs University of California at Berkeley 38-3
29 Oct vs University of Nevada at Reno 55-0
3 Nov vs University of California at Berkeley 33-0
8 Nov vs University of Sthn California at Los Angeles 40-0
12 Nov vs University of Santa Clara at Santa Clara 33-0
15 Nov vs USA at Berkeley 51-3
19 Nov vs Victoria (B.C.) at Victoria 23-0
22 Nov vs Victoria (B.C.) at Victoria 35-0
24 Nov vs Vancouver at Vancouver 44-0
1 Jul vs Wellington at Wellington 14-19
11 Jul vs N.S.W. at Sydney 27-6
15 Jul vs Central-Western Districts at Orange 59-10
18 Jul vs Australia at Sydney 5-0
22 Jul vs New England at Armidale 35-6
25 Jul vs Queensland at Brisbane 26-5
1 Aug vs Australia at Brisbane 17-0
5 Aug vs Metropolitan Union at Sydney 11-6
8 Aug vs N.S.W. at Sydney 25-10
Points scored for the All Blacks
t c p dg pts
vs University of California, 8 Oct 1913
vs Barbarians Club, 11 Oct 1913
vs Stanford University, 15 Oct 1913
vs University of Nevada, 29 Oct 1913
vs University of Sthn Cal, 8 Nov 1913
vs Wellington, 1 Jul 1914
Test Record by Nation
P W D L t c p dg pts
4 4 - - - - - - -
1 1 - - - - - - -
5 5 0 0 0 0 0 0 0
Albert 'Doolan' Downing
All Black 1913
Ahuriri School Present day
Auckland Marist Club
All Blacks 1914
Lt Col Malone of the Wellingtons ...killed same day
Port Ahuriri 1858
Ahuriri 'The Iron Pot' Napier
Napier Boys High
Wellingtons at Gallipoli
1 - - - 3
1 - - - 3
1 - - - 3
1 - - - 3
2 - - - 6
1 - - - 3
7 0 0 0 21
ANZACs Storming the Turks
Wellingtons dig-in at Gallipoli
Napier WWI memorial pre-earthquake
Napier memorial present-day
The Canterbury 'Doolan' Jersey
Or visit another of the 'First XIII'
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Last Updated Information - 05 March 2010