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John Thomas Rae BELL

Rank Reg/Ser No DOB Enlisted Discharge/Death Board
Sergeant 11/703 27 Apr 1880 31 Aug 1914 5 Dec 1916 4

Warrant Officer Class 1 John Thomas Rae Bell MBE  (1880 - 1944)

John Thomas Rae Bell, who was known as “Rae”, seems to have dreamt from his youth of becoming a career soldier.   He was the grandson of a well-respected pioneering Brisbane family and who, at the age of sixteen, joined the cadets.

Rae enlisted with the Queensland Imperial Bushmen in the early 1900s for the war in South Africa; after his return to Australia, he moved to New Zealand.  He was a keen horseman and enlisted as a Quarter Master in the New Zealand Permanent Forces in 1912.   Rae served overseas in Egypt and France in WW1 with the Wellington Mounted Rifles and, on his return home, was again employed with the NZ Permanent Forces.

Sergeant Major John Thomas Rae Bell received many awards during his long career, with one of the most prestigious of these being the M.B.E.

The family

Rae Bell’s parents, Alexander Ferguson Bell (1856-1929) and Phoebe nee Baldock (1849-1910) were married on 12 June 1879, by Revd J. F. McSwaine (minister of the Creek Street Presbyterian Church).  The marriage took place at a Leichhardt Street home, presumably Alexander Bell’s family home, at 72 Leichhardt Street, Spring Hill.

Rae's paternal grandparents - Robert & Margaret Bell

Robert Bell and Margaret Rae Bell, who lived with their family at 72 Leichhardt Street, were born in Glasgow.  Robert Bell served his cabinetmaking apprenticeship in Glasgow; and at the age of 22 years, he and his new wife Margaret, who was 20, left Glasgow for a new life in Australia.   They travelled on the ship “Ghengis Khan” in the early part of 1854 and arrived in Moreton Bay on 18 August 1854.   On his immigration papers Robert Bell described his trade as “Joiner” and he obtained his first employment in Brisbane with Mr W. Pettigrew, a sawmill owner.  Shortly after, Robert and Margaret Bell moved to Sydney, but returned to Brisbane after a few years.   

On his return to Brisbane, Robert commenced work as a builder and contractor, which he carried on for a considerable time.  He was a founding member of the Builders and Contractors Association in Brisbane, and for many years held the office of Treasurer for the association.  Robert Bell was described as one of Queensland’s early pioneers and his photograph (which is also in the photo gallery) was included in the 1909 publication “Fifty Years in Queensland – Living Pioneer Colonists”.

Robert and Margaret Bell had nine children - Alexander Ferguson(1856-1929, Rae’s father), John Michael (1858-1925), Jane Maltman (1860-1955), Anne McGaw (1865-1955), Jessie Ferguson (1868-1939), Robert (1870-1949), Elizabeth “Margaret” (1873-1953), Elizabeth Myra (1874-1916) and Janet May (1877-1949).   Of interest is the marriage of their youngest daughter (and Rae Bell's aunt), Janet May Bell, to Sergeant Arthur George Moffrey in 1916;  he is also listed on the Saint Andrew’s Honour Boards.

Connection to Saint Andrew's

There is a strong connection of the Bell family with Saint Andrew’s Uniting Church as Rae’s grandparents, Robert and Margaret attended the original Presbyterian Church on Wickham Terrace.  A record in the church archives after Robert Bell died in 1916 shows Margaret and her daughters, Jane, Jessie and Janet as communicant members of Saint Andrew’s Presbyterian Church Ann Street.

Rae Bell's early life

John Thomas Rae Bell - who was usually known as “Rae” - was born on 27 April 1880 in Brisbane, Queensland.  Rae was the eldest child of Alexander Ferguson Bell and Phoebe nee Baldock.    

After Rae’s birth in 1880, Alexander and Phoebe Bell had five other children, viz Phoebe Edith Maltman Bell (1881-1925), Florence May Bell (1883-1884) who died in infancy, Maud Bertha Ferguson Bell (1885-1959) and twins, Ethel Blanche Bell (1887-1916) and Stanley Alexander Bell (1887-1968).  The family was living in Brisbane at this time.   

Rae Bell spent his youth in Brisbane where, after finishing school at about the age of 13 years, he trained as a Paperhanger (as recorded by his 1912 enlistment papers for the New Zealand Permanent Forces).

At the age of 16 years, in 1896, Rae joined the volunteer group, Queensland Cadets, for three years.   He rejoined the cadets for another two years until he turned 21 in 1901.    At around the same time, Rae’s father, Alexander, left the family and moved to North Queensland where it appears he re-married.

Boer War

At the outbreak of the war in South Africa in 1901, Rae enlisted with the Queensland Imperial Bushmen (QIB) as a member of the 5th Contingent.   His attestation papers give his father as his nearest of kin (NOK).

A photograph of Rae (captioned with the number 9) appeared in the “Queenslander Pictorial” of 16 March 1901 and described as:

“…9. Rae Bell, care of Alex Bell, Wolfang Station, Clermont.”

Rae was appointed Sergeant on enlistment and on 6 March 1901 he departed Australia for South Africa.  In 1902, after serving almost two years in the Boer War, Rae Bell returned to Australia.  He was 21 years old.   

Move to New Zealand

In the same year (1902), Rae departed Australia for New Zealand, settling in Wellington.   Shortly after his arrival, he was actively involved with the Dominion Scouts and the 6th Manawatu Mounted Rifles and later joined the Heretaunga Mounted Rifles.

Marriage and family

On the 23rd April 1905, Rae married Alice Alberta Stoner in Wellington.  Their first child, Alice Phoebe Florence, was born in Wellington on 14 May 1906.  It appears Rae was working at his trade as a Paperhanger throughout this time.  The family moved to Australia and their second child, William Rae Bell, was born in Brisbane, Queensland, on 31 December 1907.   Records show the family returned to New Zealand as a second son, Norman Stanley Bell, was born in Wellington on 16 July 1911.

Joined the Staff New Zealand Permanet Forces

On 1 May 1912, while a member of the Heretaunga Mounted Rifles, Rae (aged 32) applied to be part of the New Zealand Permanent Staff.  On his enlistment papers he gave his trade as ‘Paperhanger’ with his last employer the Wellington Harbour Board.  Rae was successful with his application and was appointed as the Staff Regimental Quarter Master Sergeant and posted to Waverley as a Mounted Instructor.


With the outbreak of war in Europe, Rae enlisted with the Wellington Mounted Rifles (WMR) in August 1914 and was promoted to Squadron Quarter Master Sergeant with his Regimental No 11/703.  (It is interesting to note that Rae gave his birth year as 1882, instead of 1880, a gambit commonly used to enhance an application.)

Included with his attestation papers, Rae Bell’s medical form gave his personal characteristics as 5’ 9½” (176 cm) tall and weighing 151 lb (68.5kg); he had a ruddy complexion, blue eyes, ‘darkish’ hair and was Presbyterian.   His wife, Alice, was given as his nearest of kin (NOK) and was living at Waverly, Taranaki. (Alice and her young family later moved from Waverly to Wellington, some 200 km away, presumably to be with her mother, Mrs W. Stoner, while Rae was away.)

The Wellington Mounted Rifles was formed from three Territorial Force Mounted Rifles Regiments of the Wellington Military District (which was raised for service overseas as part of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF)).

In August 1914, Rae was posted to Trentham Camp, Upper Hutt, near Wellington.  An extract of a description of the camp which was found in "Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and some account of daily rounds of the troops within its bounds" follows:

"The Main Body and the First Reinforcements sailed from New Zealand on October 14, 1914. On the same day, nearly three thousand recruits and huge quantities of camp equipment arrived at Trentham. The pitching of tents, under the direction of experienced men, was begun, while the issue of clothing and equipment was carried on well into the hours of darkness. The Camp Quartermaster's stores and the supply store were in marquees. The only buildings were those connected with the rifle range, and initially, all messing, living and storage areas were in Indian Service conical tents, or marquees and barrack huts with duckboards for walkways."

Overseas service

On the 16 October 1914 at 6am, Rae Bell departed Wellington with the Main Body of the NZEF for Hobart, Australia from where they continued to Albany, Western Australia, joining the Australian Imperial Forces (AIF) for their journey to Suez.  The transport ship arrived in Colombo on 15 November and departed for Suez on the 17th November, arriving there on 30 November.  The Main Body arrived at Port Said on 2 December and the Wellington Mounted Rifles moved on to Alexandria arriving on 3 December.  They spent time in Egypt training from the beginning of 1915 until the NZMR departed for the Gallipoli peninsular on 5 May 1915.

On 1 May 1915, Staff Sergeant Bell was promoted to Staff Sergeant-Major.  Unfortunately, Rae Bell was admitted to the NZ General Hospital in Abbassia on 22 November 1915 (with an inguinal hernia) where he remained until 18 December 1915.  He was transferred from Abbassia to Moascar on 25 January 1916.

On 15 April 1916, Rae was transferred once again, this time from the NZ Base Depot in Egypt to France.   He again fell ill again and was admitted to hospital in Estaples for asthma.  On 2 July he was transferred from Estaples to England where, on 10 July 1916, he was admitted to London General Hospital in Chelsea with bronchial asthma.

It appears that he did not improve and at the end of July, Rae was transferred from London to the NZ Hospital at Walton on Thames.   After some time there it was decided that he was to be invalided to New Zealand per SS Remuera and “struck of strength” on 5 December 1916.

Return to New Zealand

On his return home, Rae Bell re-applied for a permanent staff position with the Defence Force and this was approved on 6 December 1916.   His appointment was made as Area Sergeant Major, Group 8, at Waverley.  He later was posted to Hawera in 1918 where he was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 2 (WO2).  In 1919, his posting took him to New Plymouth where he stayed until 1921.  During his time there, he was promoted to Warrant Officer Class 1 (WO1).   

Records show that Rae had to re-apply for Permanent Staff Positions regularly.  He remained with the Defence Department until 1942 where he held such positions as Drill Instructor, Assistant Quarter Master and Quarter Master at Trentham prior to WW2.  In 1942 he was hospitalised when he had a fall in the Drill Hall and fractured his arm.  Following this he was granted retirement leave on full pay for three months from 1 November 1942.    On 31 January 1943 at the age of 62 years and 9 months Rae was formally discharged, having reached the age for retirement. 


Over the years, Rae received many awards for his service to his country.  The awards by year follow:

1901:    King’s South African Medal and the Queen’s South African Medal (Boer War)

1916:  1914-1915 Star, British Medal and the Allies Victory Medal (WW1)

1924:   Long & Efficient Service Medal (NZPS)

1929:   Long Service & Good Conduct Medal (NZPS)

1932:   Meritorious Service Medal (NZPS)

1935:   King’s Silver Jubilee Medal (in commemoration of 25 years reign of King George V).

Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE)

Of all the awards Rae Bell received, possibly the most coveted was the Member of the Order of the British Empire Medal which he received in December 1941 to recognise his contribution to his country’s defence services and service to community.

During his life Rae took an active role in community activities in New Zealand regularly coaching and training teams in rifle shooting.  He was also actively involved in amateur athletics.

W.O. Class 1 Sergeant Major John Thomas Rae Bell passed away on 6 December 1944 and was buried at the Te Henui Cemetery, New Plymouth, New Zealand.   His wife, Alice, who lived until 1965, and his children, Alice and Norman, survived him.   His eldest son, William Rae Bell, had pre-deceased him in 1939.


• New Zealand Army World War 1 Nominal Rolls 1914 – 1918
• Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, Queensland
• Register of Births, Deaths and Marriages, New Zealand
• National Library of New Zealand - images of Trentham Camp #1/2-035323-G, #017536,
• Ancestry on line - Military Records for Australia and New Zealand
• Australian War Memorial - images of the Wellington Mounted Rifles
The Queenslander Illustrated Supplement, The Queensland Imperial Bushmen, 16 March 1901, p15
• - Bell family photographs with permission
• Bardon, Richard, The Centenary History of the Presbyterian Church of Queensland, Smith & Paterson, Brisbane, 1949
• Hawera Star, VOL LIV, 6 May 1935, page 4, King's Jubilee Medals,
The Queenslander, 21 June 1879
The Queenslander Illustrated Supplement, 'The Queensland Imperial Bushmen', 16 March 1901, #9 Rae Bell
The Queenslander, 'Living Pioneer Colonists', Saturday 7 August 1909, Page 62, #228.
• Victoria University of Wellington, Historic Trentham, 1914-1917: The story of a New Zealand Military Training Camp, and some account of daily rounds of the troops within its bounds.
• Upper Hutt City Library,
Brisbane Courier, 4 June 1879, page 6
• Australian Electoral Rolls, 1905 – 1925
• New Zealand Electoral Rolls, 1919 - 1946

Story researched and written by Miriam King, March 2022 ©

(replacing earlier verison by Noel E Adsett, Brisbane, April 2018)



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