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O'Neill G J     Pte    5515

Page history last edited by Lenore Frost 4 years, 11 months ago

Volunteers of Essendon and Flemington, 1914-1918


O'Neill G J     Pte    5515    George Joseph              6 Field Amb    18    Law clerk    Single    R C        

Address:    Moonee Ponds, Wilson St, 19    

Next of Kin:    O'Neill, Hugh J, 19 Wilson St, Moonee Ponds    

Enlisted:    5 May 1915        

Embarked:     A16 Star of Victoria 10 Sep 1915  

Awards:  Belgian Croix de Guerre


Relatives on Active Service:

O'Neill-H-F-Pte-491  brother



Private George Joseph O’Neill


Rod Martin


George O’Neill followed his older brother Harry into the Australian Imperial force in May 1915.  It was just after the landing at Gallipoli, and feelings were high in Australia, enhanced by colourful propaganda posters and stirring newspaper stories (heavily censored and fictionalized!) of heroic deeds at Anzac Cove. Just turned eighteen years old, 170 centimetres tall and weighing seventy kilos, George had dark brown hair and brown eyes.  He had spent three years in senior cadets, so it may have been imagined that he would enlist in the infantry, just as Harry had.  However, George’s interests were in another direction.  He applied for the medical corps, and was assigned to 6 Australian Field Ambulance as a stretcher bearer.


George trained in Melbourne between May and September, and then sailed for the Middle East on HMHS Assaye on the tenth of the month.  He arrived in Egypt on 4 December 1915.  After a short stay at the Australian training base at Tel El Kebir, George was transferred to 4 Field Ambulance and sent to the field hospital on the island of Lemnos, where he assisted wounded men who had been evacuated from Gallipoli.  It was this service that enabled him to apply for and be awarded the Anzac Commemorative Medallion (for those who served in the Gallipoli Campaign or in direct support of the operation from close offshore) in the 1960s.


Tent lines of 4 field ambulance, Lemnos 1915        (AWM C00710)



When Gallipoli was abandoned later in December, George returned to Egypt and spent the next five months there before sailing for France and the Western Front on 2 June 1916.  He arrived in Marseilles on 8 June and then travelled north by train (in covered goods wagons), arriving at Bailluel, near Armentières in northern France.  4 Field Ambulance set up a rest station there.


1 July 1916 witnessed the beginning of the Battle of the Somme, a major offensive in the Picardy region of France.  4 Field Ambulance moved to the area at the start of the month to provide support for the troops involved in what quickly became a murderous campaign.  The Australian forces were first blooded in the diversion at Fromelles (north of the Somme) on 19 July, and then the attacks at Pozières and Mouquet Farm later in the same month.  George and his compatriots moved to a field hospital at Warloy-Baillon, not far from Pozières, on 27 July to provide support for the troops who had been engaged in the battle since the twenty-third, and the bearers moved to the front lines.  As such, George was involved in the same conflict as his brother Harry, a member of 7 Battalion.


That attack cost Australia the largest single tally of casualties of any battle its troops have fought in: 22 876 in a period of less than seven weeks.


George’s job as a stretcher bearer was primarily to remove wounded men from regimental aid posts on the front line (they would have been brought in from the field by regimental stretcher bearers) to ambulances and thence to advanced dressing stations and field hospitals in the rear.  However, in many instances, such as during the first few days of the attack at Pozières, he may well have replaced wounded or dead regimental bearers, evacuating men from where they fell on the battlefield.  The ranks of stretcher bearers suffered large losses during the war.  Unarmed, these men had to venture into hostile territory, such as No Man’s Land between the front lines, to rescue wounded soldiers.  Troops on both sides gave little thought to sparing the bearers.  For some of the enemy, they were legitimate targets, and many were shot down or blown up in their tracks.  Others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time.  The reader should appreciate the difficulty of the task the stretcher bearers faced.  It was not just a matter of running out into a field, putting a man on a stretcher and carrying him in.  That field had been churned up by constant artillery fire.  It was uneven, covered in shell craters, strewn with barbed wire, riddled with bits of corpses and regularly raked by machine gun fire from the opposite trenches.  Imagine how hard it would have been to carry a heavy body over such terrain, often having to bend over while running in an attempt to reduce the chances of being hit by a bullet in the back.  If the enemy had fired gas shells, the bearers had to stop, put their stretchers down and quickly don their masks – which, of necessity, restricted their lateral and downward vision, making their journey even more hazardous – as well as that of their patient.   


Stretcher bearers on the battlefield       (AWM H09271)



George and the other bearers were kept busy at the front in the early part of August, transporting wounded men to ambulances behind the lines.  The main dressing station at Warloy saw many wounded (including Germans) passing through.  For example, on 6 August, 325 wounded men were treated at the station.  The next day, another 277 arrived.


In early September 1916, 4 Field Ambulance was relieved and moved to the relatively quiet area of Reninghelst in Belgian Flanders to rest and recuperate.  Nowhere was absolutely quiet on the Western Front, however.  Intermittent bombardments, sniping and trench raids occurred constantly all the way along the 700 kilometre front line.  In addition, with so many troops operating in very taxing conditions, numbers of men became sick with various ailments, such as dysentery, influenza, scabies, pneumonia, malnutrition and ‘trench foot’(caused by standing in cold mud for hours on end).  George and the other bearers at the main dressing station in Reninghelst were kept busy right from the start.   


In late October, 4 Field Ambulance returned to the Somme, and was based near Dernancourt.  The winter rains had well and truly set in by that time, and the unit diary records the conditions as being very muddy, and the weather very wet and cold.



Where the mud was a tragedy: the carriage of the wounded on the Somme. 

(AWM P05380.002) http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/P05380.002


The Battle of the Somme petered out in November 1916, but 4 Field Ambulance stayed in the area, based at such centres as Dernancourt, Albert, Becourt and Becordel.  In early 1917, the Germans staged a strategic retreat to the heavily fortified Hindenburg Line.  As Australian troops occupied some of the land left vacant, 4 Field Ambulance followed them and established itself at the newly retaken town of Bapaume.  The unit moved between these settlements over a period of time, looking after sick and wounded, and sustaining casualties itself.  For example, the war diary for May 1917 records that, on the sixth of the month alone, it lost four men killed and eleven wounded.


Shrapnel bursts over stretcher bearers                           (AWM E00443)



In early June, 4 Field Ambulance moved north into Belgium, again returning to the Ypres area, this time near the town of Messines.  After the Battle of the Somme bogged down to become just a series of bitter trench fights, British commander-in-chief Sir Douglas Haig conceived a strategy designed to break out of the salient at Ypres, take control of the Belgian coast and the German submarine pens there, open the way to the north German plain and severely damage or destroy German morale in the process.  He hoped to do this in a swampy, mud-ridden region where two previous attacks (in 1914 and 1915) had failed.  He believed his plan would work as long as the weather remained dry. The start of what was to become the Third Battle of Ypres (often called ‘Passchendaele’ after its initial target) was to be the explosion of nineteen massive mines at Messines in the south on 7 June.  4 Field Ambulance was in place by that date, ready to deal with the anticipated casualties from the advance following the detonations.


The mines were set off on time and caused the greatest man-made explosion the world had ever experienced.  The Germans were severely knocked about and the advance was a success.  However, the next phase of the battle was delayed until the end of July.  When it did begin, the rains started, almost as if on cue.  The battlefield, boggy at the best of times, became a quagmire into which men, horses and materiel sank, often without trace.  The place quickly became a slaughterhouse for both sides.


When Third Ypres began, 4 Field Ambulance was in Steenwerck, northern France.  By mid-September it had moved into Belgium once again and, on the twentieth of the month, was in place to support the troops who would be participating in the Battle of Menin Road, just outside Ypres.  Menin Road was a minor victory for the Australians.  A small area of territory was captured, and was used as a staging point for further advances to areas such as Polygon wood.  The cost, however, was great: 5000 casualties. 4 Field Ambulance was in the thick of the conflict, taking over new first aid posts created as the front moved slowly north-east.


Stretcher bearers at Ypres                                         (AWM E05270)



The movement of wounded men to the rear was constant for several days.  The first aid posts were often subjected to heavy shelling, as were the routes established between them and the advanced dressing stations.  The bearers were under considerable strain, being targets while moving supplies such as medicines and blankets to the front line and then moving wounded men back.  Two of the 4 Field Ambulance men were killed along these paths by the end of the month.


Ypres sector, 21 September 1917. I Division advanced over this land the day before. 

The dugouts (top right) were later used as relay posts by the stretcher bearers.  

(AWM E00909)  http://cas.awm.gov.au/item/E00909


The unit was relieved at the start of October 1917 and moved to Steenvoorde, just over the border in northern France.  The men were still in the action, however, sustaining seven deaths and twenty-nine casualties for the month.  In November and December, they were moved away from the front and spent the rest of the year training, restocking and recuperating in France.


By mid-January 1918, however, they were back at the Somme, based at Peronne.  Things were fairly quiet at that time, Third Ypres finally petering out in the previous November with the rather pyrrhic victory embodied in the capture of the devastated hamlet of Passchendaele. Approximately 70 000 British and commonwealth troops died in the conflict and more than 200 000 were wounded. The unit was still in that area in February when George took some well-earned leave, and probably went to England.  When he returned to duty on 6 April, the whole situation on the Somme had changed.  In March, bolstered by the transfer of troops from the Russian Front after the new Soviet government opted out of the war, and anxious to take advantage of the situation before troops from the newly combatant United States could arrive in large numbers, the Germans launched a major offensive in France, hoping to capture Paris and push the Allies into the sea.  By 6 April, when George arrived back, the situation was very fluid and serious, the Germans having broken through across the Somme front and the Allies struggling desperately to hold them in place.  4 Field Ambulance was located at Toutencourt, north-east of Amiens.  Casualties were coming thick and fast.  This situation continued through the month and, in late April, 4 Field Ambulance assisted in evacuating wounded men from the Battle of Villers Brettoneux, a heroic Australian action that saved the town from the Germans.  It was action such as this, in April and May, that slowly turned the tide in the Allies’ favour. 


Scene in an advanced dressing station       (AWM E00715)



The unit stayed in the area of Villers Bretonneux throughout May and June.  The region was fairly quiet, but that did not stop the Germans from periodically bombarding it, including with gas shells.  In early June, George was evacuated to hospital with a case of hammer toes – an affliction usually caused by the wearing of ill-fitting boots or shoes over a long period of time.  George may well have cursed the quartermaster’s stores as he was receiving treatment!


George was back with the unit by the start of July and was involved in providing support for Australian and American troops in the Battle of Hamel, which began on the fourth of the month.  On that one day alone, 4 Field Ambulance handled 345 allied and eighty-one German casualties at Les Alencons.  Though costing 800 casualties, the battle was over in ninety-three minutes, and all objectives were achieved.  Planned mostly by Australian commander Sir John Monash, Hamel provided a good blueprint for further battles that steadily pushed the Germans back towards their famed Hindenburg Line.


The Allies’ big counter-offensive began on 8 August 1918 – the day German commander Eric Ludendorff described as the ‘black day’ for the German Army.  4 Field Ambulance followed Australian troops as they pushed forward, its men once again being in the thick of the action.  By the end of the month, the unit had lost five dead and ten wounded.


On 18 September, 1 and 4 Infantry divisions began an attack at Peronne – one that, if successful, would take the front to the point where it was before Germany’s March offensive.  4 Field Ambulance supported 4 Division in another successful battle, and the casualties were comparatively light.  The new ‘bite and hold’ strategy of limited objectives supported by creeping barrages, adopted after the slaughter of the Somme and Ypres, was working, having been perfected by General Sir Herbert Plumer and his willing student, Sir John Monash.


Australian forces went on to finish their war with a dashing bayonet attack at Montbrehain on 5 October.  This marked the fall of the final section of the Hindenburg Line.  For 4 Australian Field Ambulance, however, its war effectively ended at Peronne.  The unit remained in the area to the end of the war – an event George celebrated in hospital.  He had been evacuated on 28 October, suffering from influenza, and he remained in convalescence until he rejoined the unit on 23 November.  George had survived the war and – possibly – the Spanish ‘Flu pandemic that was to kill millions worldwide over the next two years.


That George served his country and his fellow diggers well during his three years overseas goes without saying.  The bravery he undoubtedly displayed on numerous occasions was finally recognized on 7 January 1919 when he was awarded the Belgian Croix de Guerre.  This award and its French equivalent were granted to individuals who distinguished themselves by acts of heroism involving combat with enemy forces.  It was also awarded to those who had been ‘mentioned in despatches’ for heroic deeds.




Unfortunately, no citation is contained in George’s war record or the London Gazette, so we can only presume that he displayed bravery above and beyond the call of duty during his time in the Ypres area.  It would no doubt have been on one of many occasions.


George eventually transferred to England, and returned to Australia in March 1919. 


He died in 1967.





Australian War Memorial – war diaries, collection

Carlyon, Les: The Great War, Sydney, Macmillan, 2006



London Gazette 4 April 1919

National Archives of Australia

Travers, Richard: Diggers in France: Australian soldiers on the Western Front, Sydney, ABC Books, 2008




Disturbing the long-forgotten dead appears to be a favorite relaxation of some of the Australian soldiers in Egypt. Mummy-hunting it is called. Portions of the skeletons are kept as curios, and may eventually find their way to Australia.


Private George O'Neill, of the Army Service Corps, writing to his father, Mr. H. J. O'Neill, clerk of courts, Essendon, from Heliopolis, on February 27, says: —

"Yesterday we went skeleton hunting. After walking about a mile, we came across a very deep gully, with cliffs close on 60 feet in height. On looking down, we could see the feet of a body sticking out of the sand forming the side of the cliff. I was lowered about 10 feet, and imagine my surprise to find that at least 10 people had been buried there.


"I dug the skeletons out, and we got them up to the surface. A nigger told us that the skeletons were 1000 years old. We believed him. We brought two of the skulls to the camp. On questioning a native, he told us that the people, buried as they had been, had died of leprosy, and advised us to burn all our clothing and to take a phenyle bath. We took the bath. The skulls are still in our tent, and are attracting a good deal of attention.


"One doctor who examined them stated that the skulls had belonged to people who had been dead at least 500 years, and that if they had died of any disease, any danger had disappeared hundreds of years since."


The writer of the letter is only 18 years of age. Mr O'Neill has another son, George, [sic - actually Henry Francis] 21 years of age, who left Victoria with the First Contingent under Colonel H. E. Elliott, and took part in the landing and the Lone Pine attack. He is one of the five left of the original D Company, 110 strong, and has been fortunate to get through, so far, without wound or illness.


AUSTRALIAN. (1916, April 29). Weekly Times (Vic. : 1914 - 1918), p. 33. Retrieved January 17, 2014, from http://nla.gov.au/nla.news-article121109157




Mentioned in this publication:

Presentation from the Essendon Citizen's Military Association in May at Broadmeadows Camp, May 1915.

O'Neill H F Pte 491 report in Essendon Gazette 31 Aug 1916


War Service Commemorated

Essendon Town Hall L-R

Catholic Young Men's Society

Essendon Gazette Roll of Honour With the Colours

Regimental Register


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