Ivan Orbell

Birth Date:
18 Jul 1889
Death Date:
25 Oct 1914
Service Branch:
Service Number:

Ivan Douglas Scott Orbell, to give him his full name, was born in New Zealand on the 18th July 1889. He was the 9th and youngest child of Henry Orbell & his wife Margaret. Henry was born in Suffolk and emigrated to New Zealand in 1849 with his parents  when he was 18.

The family were quite well to do by the 1890s and young Ivan was sent to school at Christ’s College Canterbury and Otago University where he studied to become an architect. At the University he was a member of the Officers Training Corps and attained the rank of Corporal. In 1910 he joined the New Zealand Defence Force (equivalent to the TA) and was commissioned eventually reaching the rank of Captain. Realising there would be a war in Europe he moved to Ealing, West London and applied to join the British army.  He was accepted on 12th August 1914, 8 days after Britain declared war on Germany,  even though his chest measurement was 1” under the recommended size!  He was thus commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Royal  Fusiliers.

The next we hear of Ivan is a note in The Times 27th November 1914 to say that he is ‘wounded and missing’.

There is then a letter  from the High Commissioner of New Zealand dated 10.12.1914 to the Prisoners Bureau saying that the Royal Fusiliers re-took trenches lost by the Irish Rifles at Herlies, near Lille & the Germans took the village 25 – 27.10.1914. He added that Ivan wrote to ‘his people’ 24.10.1914 saying he was near the latest firing line. He also noted that the Orbells were ‘a respected New Zealand family and required an answer.’ There was also a note on the file that the War Office can’t make enquiries about missing officers but they would get the High Commissioner to do it on their behalf.  This was again done on 19th December 1914.

In early 1915 his sister Ruth and her mother came to London to try to find out what had happened to him. Ruth wrote to the War Office asking them to find him and asking if she could have back his sword, kit and whether or not she would get his pay. A letter was received by the WO from the New Zealand High Commissioner asking what they were doing as his mother was very upset and had only ever received one returned letter.  The War Office replied to everybody saying they were doing all they could and were asking the US High Commissioner in Germany to make enquiries on their behalf. (The United States were neutral at the time not having declared war until 6th April 1917)

Then, out of the blue, came a statement from a Private F Cornish 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers to say  he was in the trench when a message came from the next trench to say that Mr Orbell had been killed and asking if reinforcements had arrived so that someone could go and take command.  12 officers were killed or missing on that day (25.10.1914) at Neuve Chappelle.

On 15th  June 1915 a letter from a Corporal Wynn,  now in Dover,  was sent to the WO. It said ‘On 26th October last I was drawing rations and on return I was told Lt Orbell was severely wounded in the head by rifle fire from some houses occupied by Germans. I dressed him and did what I could hoping to get him to a field hospital. During a fierce attack from the Germans our Battalion lost heavily and we were forced to abandon the trenches and leave the wounded. I distinctly saw with my own eyes the enemy shooting men who were lying helpless but whether Lt Orbell was among the men shot I cannot say although he was not seen again. I reported to Lt Undery who was killed a little later. We were in holding trenches outside La Basse.’

On 14th July 1915 a  Sgt Osborne at Red Cross Hospital, Cirencester’ told the War Office ‘An Informant reports that Lt Orbell was so badly wounded near La Bassee that he was captured and killed’

Ruth complained to the War Office that they had not even acknowledged the letter from Corporal Wynn which they agreed to do. They also arranged to get a Death Certificate as the New Zealand High Commissioner told them that Ruth and her mother were returning to New Zealand in October.

Eventually on 4th October 1915 the War Office wrote to Ivan’s mother saying they  cannot issue a formal Death Certificate. Ivan was reported wounded and missing 25 – 27.10.1914. Corporal J Wynn,  6 Btn Royal Fusiliers said that Lt Orbell was seriously wounded and abandoned in the trenches on 26th October in the face of a fierce attack by Germans who were seen shooting the wounded as they advanced. The Army Council agreed that he was dead and died on 25th October 1914.

By changing the date to 25th October this conveniently meant Ivan was dead BEFORE the Germans took the trench.

Ivan is remembered on the memorial at Le Touret in France and when I last visited there I placed a British Legion Poppy Cross on the memorial for him. On it I wrote ‘Shot after capture 25.10.1914’.

The family received no money as he had apparently been overpaid by £46.10.0 which was deducted from his Gratuity which was less than £46.10.0!  I personally do not know what happened to his sword.


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