Alice Finn was a South Auckland farming widow when she watched six of her sons sign up to fight in World War I.

The first to join up, Patrick, enlisted in the Auckland Mounted Rifles in August 1914, just days after the war began. Three brothers followed in 1915, one in 1917 and the last in 1918, the final year of the war.

Patrick Finn joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles just days after World War I began. He was wounded at Gallipoli.
Patrick Finn joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles just days after World War I began. He was wounded at Gallipoli.

Alice had lost her husband Richard in 1910, when he was 60, and she would have been anxious for the life of each of her sons who went to war.

Alice Finn of Clevedon watched six of her sons go to World War I, and all came home alive.
Alice Finn of Clevedon watched six of her sons go to World War I, and all came home alive.

But as it turned out, the Finn family defied the cruel mortality statistics of the war and all six sons came home. Had New Zealand's World War I service death rate of about 17 per cent struck them on the average, one would have died.

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Not that the Finns were unscathed; they bore their share of battle wounds and sickness, in places such as Gallipoli, Egypt and the Somme.

"It was a miracle they all came home," said Betty Shackelford, an 89-year-old granddaughter of Alice's.

Betty says the large family's contribution to the war would have created difficulties for her grandmother in looking after their farm at Clevedon. There were six girls and eight boys. One of the girls had died at birth, and one of the boys, when he was 17. Another boy was too young to enlist, although age was no barrier to Maurice, who, in his enthusiasm to join up seems to have lied his way into uniform.

Maurice Finn inflated his stated age to fight in World War I when, under the New Zealand military rules, he was two years too young.
Maurice Finn inflated his stated age to fight in World War I when, under the New Zealand military rules, he was two years too young.

Maurice enlisted in October 1915 under the name of John Finn. Born in July 1897, he would have been 18. But his signed declaration puts his birth date in April 1895, which would have made him 20 years old on paper. The minimum permitted age was 20, until September 1917 when it was reduced to 19 if the recruit had parental consent.

He also had some trouble with stating his next of kin, crossing out "Mrs Ellen" and "Mother", before settling on "Mrs Alice A. Finn" (his mother) and describing her as his "Aunt".

Maurice Finn joined up under-age as
Maurice Finn joined up under-age as "John Finn" and had trouble naming his next of kin on his declaration. Mrs Alice Ann Finn was in fact his mother, not his "Aunt". Source / Archives NZ

Maurice survived the horrific Battle of the Somme in 1916, but was shot in both legs by machinegun fire.

Betty's father Albert was the last of the six to join up, in April 1918 - seven months before the war ended - when he was 19.

He was spared battle, by another kind of ordeal: influenza, which he caught when he arrived in England. The worldwide pandemic that would kill tens of millions of people was sweeping through armies.

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Albert was admitted to a military hospital near London and it was there that he met his future wife, Lucy Adams, a nurse aide. But Albert was sent home and they corresponded across the oceans for six years before Lucy came to New Zealand and they married.

Richard Henry Finn joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles in 1915. He served in Egypt and Western Europe.
Richard Henry Finn joined the Auckland Mounted Rifles in 1915. He served in Egypt and Western Europe.

War historian Professor Glyn Harper said there was no policy of preventing all the siblings in a family enlisting although when conscription began, appeals could be made to district military boards for someone to be excluded on grounds such as the need to run a family farm or care for ailing parents.

He said it was common for all siblings in a family to serve and there were tragic cases such as the O'Gorman family.

Their five sons served and only one, James, survived. Their mother's plea to authorities for another, Timothy, to be allowed to come home succeeded, but his indefinite leave came too late: he was killed in France just weeks before the war ended.

"That's the breaks in war. Some suffer inordinate pain and suffering. Some are quite fortunate to escape that."