Gerald Fell left a successful legal career to enlist in the Army. He was killed in action in Belgium on 7 June 1917, aged 36. He is buried at Wulverghem-Lindenhoek Road Military Cemetery, Heuvelland, Belgium.
Gerald was born in Blenheim on 24 February 1881. His parents were Alfred George and Alice Fell and he had three brothers and two sisters. He went to school at Nelson Boys' College, where he did well academically and in sports. He was to be an enthusiastic and active sportsman for the rest of his life. At school he performed best as a sprinter, but also played cricket and rugby. He was a member of the Nelson College Cadet Corps, holding the rank of Lieutenant. He was proud of his connection with Nelson College and was a key player in the formation of the Wellington Nelson College Old Boys' association, acting as treasurer for the inaugural banquet in September 1903 and responding to one of the toasts ("The Old Boys Association") at another gathering.
After matriculating Fell attended Victoria University College in Wellington in 1901 to study law. He must have been one of the first law students at Victoria, which employed its first law lecturer in 1900. Fell was later one of the founders of the Wellington Law Students' Association which was formed in March 1906. He chaired the Association's second annual meeting in May 1907 and made a speech at the annual dinner in December 1907.
Outside university life he quickly became a member of the Star Boating Club and was to remain so for the rest of his life. He competed in many events, as a single sculler and also as a crew member and was active in management and coaching. A later tribute from a fellow club member described him as "rising rapidly from the junior stages, his magnificent physique and clean living stamped him as a 'coming-man' on the water, and before long he had the honour of a 'stroke' seat in the maiden four."
He belonged to the Thorndon Tennis Club and participated in the Wellington Lawn Tennis Association, and also played and helped manage rugby in Wellington, for the Wellington Rugby Club. Later in life Fell took up golf, joining the Wellington Golf Club. He quickly became adept, moving from a handicap of 24 in September 1913 to 9 in June 1914 and later that year he played in the New Zealand Amateur Golf Championships at Middlemore in Auckland. Fell did not marry.
Fell obtained his LLB in December 1904 and began work with the firm Bell, Gully, Bell, and Myers. He quickly showed an aptitude for litigation and developed a reputation as one of the most promising junior counsel. After several years Fell went into practice on his own, taking rooms at Dalgety's Buildings at 119-123 Featherston Street, Wellington. Over the next few years he appeared in many cases, often as junior to CP Skerett KC (later Sir Charles Skerett, Chief Justice). He was regarded as an expert in banco cases, but appeared in both criminal and civil proceedings.
Sensational cases in which Fell was involved included the libel claim by William Ferguson Massey against the New Zealand Times Company Ltd over a cartoon, the Maori claim for fishing rights in Lake Rotorua which included consideration of the Treaty of Waitangi, and the case brought by the Attorney-General against the New Zealand Observer over a cartoon of a Judge said to bear a "lascivious leer and sensual smile". All would have kept Fell's name prominent in the court reports.
Fell was active in the Wellington District Law Society and was a member of the Council for a number of years. Perhaps because of his involvement in the Law Society and law students' association Fell also moved the admission of many new lawyers in the then Supreme Court.
The war began on 28 July 1914 and Fell enlisted in May 1915 after advertising the availability of a suite of two rooms in Featherston Street "lately occupied by GH Fell, solicitor, electric lift installed" and arranging a partnership of convenience with P Putnam. Fell went to Trentham Camp on 8 May 1915 for training and was promoted to Sergeant in June 1915. His army medical examination report shows he was 5 foot 10 tall (1.78 metres), weighed 150 pounds (68.4 kg) and had blue eyes and fair hair.
Fell embarked from Wellington on 9 October 1915 with the Seventh Reinforcements of the Wellington Infantry Battalion. He was promoted to Second Lieutenant on the day of his departure from New Zealand. He arrived at Suez in Egypt on 18 November. Over the next two months he was twice admitted to hospital with influenza. After training at Ismailia, Fell was sent to France, arriving at Marseilles on 14 April 1916 and going into action shortly afterwards.
A bout of illness meant he was taken from the front line on 25 August and sent to St Mark's Hospital, Chelsea, London "suffering from debility". A subsequent Medical Board inquiry reported that Fell "has been subject to great strain and hard work during the fighting in France". This caused chronic tiredness and problems with a tooth meant he was sent to England to recover. Fell was released from hospital to Sling Camp on 25 November and he rejoined his battalion in France on 9 January 1917.
Second Lieutenant Fell was killed in action while fighting with the First Battalion of the Wellington Infantry Regiment on the opening day of the Battle of Messines on 7 June 1917. Fell was killed shortly after the attack began at 3.10am when heavy German artillery fire hit the New Zealand troops who were waiting to advance.
The news of his death in New Zealand brought many tributes from members of the judiciary and legal profession. At a sitting of the Court of Appeal on 25 June 1917, the Chief Justice, Sir Robert Stout, was reported as delivering a "glowing tribute to the character and capabilities of the deceased solider." (Evening Post, 26 June 1917, page 4). Sir Robert said Gerald Fell had been personally known to him "as a man of high character and rare ability. There had been a great future before him in his profession." (Dominion, 26 June 1917, page 4).
Another tribute, from Wellington District Law Society President AW Blair stated: "He soon showed that he was endowed with the best qualifications of a lawyer. His career at the Bar, although it extended over little more than the short space of eight years, quickly brought him into considerable prominence. It was recognised that he was one of the leading junior counsel, and that he might well be expected to attain to the highest honours in the profession." (Dominion, 26 June 1917).
Gerald Fell is remembered on a memorial plaque in the Wellington library of the New Zealand Law Society. In October 1923 the Star Boating Club President (and prominent lawyer) Sir Francis Bell unveiled a memorial in the clubhouse to the club members who were killed in World War I. Fell's name is one of 31 inscribed on a brass tablet.
Sources: Colonist, 23 November 1896, page 2; Marlborough Express, 10 October 1899, page 2; Evening Post, 31 October 1900, page 5; Colonist, 3 May 1901, page 2; Evening Post, 13 January 1902, page 4; Evening Post, 5 March 1902, page 7; Marlborough Express, 17 December 1904, page 2; Evening Post, 2 May 1907, page 2; Colonist, 7 September 1907, page 2; Evening Post, 22 October 1907, page 2; Evening Post, 6 December 1907, page 2; Evening Post, 9 May 1908, page 5; Dominion, 22 December 1910, page 6; Dominion, 13 May 1911, page 6; Evening Post, 22 January 1912, page 3; Dominion, 8 October 1912, page 7; Evening Post, 15 September 1913, page 2; Evening Post, 10 October 1913, page 5; Evening Post, 15 June 1914, page 4; Evening Post, 10 October 1913, page 4; Auckland Star, 17 October 1914, page 6; Dominion, 23 February 1915, page 7; Dominion, 1 May 1915, page 6; Evening Post, 9 June 1915, page 1; Evening Post, 25 June 1915, page 3; Evening Post, 19 October 1916, page 8; Dominion, 16 June 1917, page 7; Evening Post, 18 June 1917, page 3; Dominion, 26 June 1917, page 4; Evening Post, 26 June 1917, page 4; Colonist, 30 April 1919, page 4; Evening Post, 29 October 1923, page 6; WH Cunningham, CAL Treadwell, JS Hanna, The Wellington Regiment (NZEF) 1914-1919 (Ferguson & Osborn Ltd, Wellington, 1928), pages 163-164.
This obituary has been prepared by the New Zealand Law Society to preserve the memory of members of the legal profession who died while serving in World War I.
by Geoff Adlam, New Zealand Law Society. Further information is welcomed: email@example.com.