William Francis O’Neill
William Francis O’Neill was born at Cargo in 1896, the son of Daniel and Lavinia (or Levinia) O’Neill (nee Morse). Daniel and Lavinia married in 1878 and had ten children: five sons and five daughters. They moved from Cargo to the property Glenview at Cumnock in about 1913.
Daniel O’Neill was a member of the Cumnock branch of the Farmers and Settlers’ Association. He grew wheat at Yullundry in 1921 and in 1923 the National Advocate (Bathurst) reported that he had successfully experimented with cotton-growing.
William attended school at Cudal. In 1914 local newspapers reported him playing football (as a forward) for the Cumnock Junior team against neighbouring town teams. By 1915 he was playing for the Cumnock Seniors. William was also a member of the Cumnock Druid’s Lodge.
William O’Neill enlisted at Cumnock on 1 June 1916 and was medically examined by Dr Ivie Aird. He stated that his age was 19 years and 7 months, occupation was a baker and that he had been an apprentice for three months at Lithgow. His next of kin was his mother, Lavinia O’Neil. He was medically re-examined at Dubbo on 7 June and was 5 feet 8¾ inches tall, had fair complexion, blue eyes, brown hair and was of the Roman Catholic religious denomination.
While training at a Bathurst camp, William was charged with two offences. The first offence was ‘overstaying his leave’ on 30 July 1916. The second offence was ‘talking on parade’ on 29 August. He was confined to barracks for one day for the first offence and cautioned for the second offence. His charge sheet noted that his general character was ‘good’.
The Molong Argus of 15 September 1916, p. 4 reported:
On Monday last the parents of Pte W O’Neill received word from the military authorities to the effect that their son had been seriously injured by being stabbed in the back with a knife, and was lying in the Bathurst Hospital. On Monday last, Chas Henry Hall, 38 years, a horse dealer, was charged at the Bathurst Police Court with inflicting grievous bodily harm on William O’Neill. Hall was remanded.
Chas Henry Hall was subsequently sentenced to six months imprisonment.
Private William O’Neill sailed from Sydney on 25 October 1916 on HMAS Ascanius A11. On 1 November 1916 he was charged with ‘smoking below decks’ and awarded 14 days detention.
The troops disembarked at Devonport on 28 December 1916. The trip had been longer than usual as the Ascanius stayed in Cape Town for five days and in Sierra Leone for fourteen days, a trip of over nine weeks. Gunner Philip Tarlinton described the journey in a letter published in the Tweed Daily. Of the soldiers’ on board activities he said:
Every conceivable kind of sport, compatible with the limited deck space available, has be provided for, such as tugs-o’-war, foot runnings, teams racing, boxing, single-sticks, cock-fighting, quoits, wrestling, etc, whilst musical competitions are held at night time, when prizes are awarded for vocal items, recitations, pianoforte and mouth-organ competitions. Added to these are the physical culture parades, three of one hour each every day, Sundays excepted.
Grenadier Sam Forster described their departure from Sierra Leone and their arrival in England:
[The Ascanius] followed an auxiliary cruiser out of port, and soon we had left Freetown and Sierra Leone behind. In a few days the weather became cool. After leaving port we travelled in a dark ship, and wore life belts continually except at night when they were close by us for the rest of the voyage. When we reached more dangerous waters several destroyers, in addition to the cruiser, escorted us. At length on a cold, misty morning we sighted the shores of England. Destroyers in great numbers, and several mine sweepers escorted us into Devonport. Late at night we disembarked and were entrained to camp… We were glad to be on the land again, however, for a voyage of over nine weeks becomes very monotonous, especially when freedom of movement is curtailed for several days.
Private O’Neill was stationed with the 14th Training Battalion at Hurdcott after arrival. He was admitted to hospital on 24 January 1917 with tonsillitis. He returned to Hurdcott ten days later, on 2 February.
He proceeded overseas to France on 28 February 1917 and was stationed at Etaples until joining the 19th Battalion on 23 March, stationed at Grévillers, in the Nord-Pas-de-Calais region of France. By 30 March the 10th Battalion had relieved other battalions in the line and had moved onto Fricourt, in the Somme department in Picardie in Northern France. On 1 May they moved onto Noreuil and relieved the 28th Battalion as support on the Hindenburg Line to the right of Bullecourt.
According to the 19th Battalion’s diary for May 1917 the final arrangements were made for the battalion to join the attack on the Hindenburg Line in what was to be called the Second Battle of Bullecourt. At zero hour of 3.45am on 3 May the 19th formed up on the right flank of the attack and what followed was a huge disaster for the battalion. The Germans shelled the oncoming soldiers and those who survived the shelling and reached the wire were all bunched up and were met with heavy machine gun fire. During the day time, it was impossible to get runners forward or back across No Man’s Land, owing to the heavy machine gun fire; and, owing to the great number of casualties among officers and other ranks, it was impossible to obtain clear statements as to what actually occurred in the attack.
Fourteen officers and about 550 ordinary ranks of the 19th Battalion took part in the attack. 359 casualties were sustained during the attack: 21 killed, 221 wounded and 117 missing.
Private William O’Neill was reported as ‘Missing in Action’ on 3 May 1917. It wasn’t until after a military inquiry was held on 11 December 1917, that he was declared as ‘killed in action’.
The Molong Argus of 18 January 1918 reported William’s death:
On Tuesday last the Rev. Father Lawler received word from the military authorities, Victoria Barracks, announcing that Private William O’Neill, son of Mr and Mrs O’Neill, of Cumnock, who was reported missing in May last, was killed in action on May 3rd, 1917, and asking the rev. gentleman to convey the sad news to the deceased soldier’s parents. Father Lawler went out to the residence of the O’Neill family and delivered the message to the sorrow stricken mother, who, however, was somewhat prepared for the sad tidings, as a letter had been received from a comrade stating that he saw Private O’Neill fall.
It appears that one of William’s brothers, James, was not giving up hope about the news; in March 1918 he advertised in the Sun:
Mr James M. O’Neill, of Glenview, Cumnock, would be glad to hear from any returned soldier who could give him any news of his brother (No. 2959a, Private William O’Neill). He has been missing since May, 3, 1917, at the battle of Bullecourt.
On 4 March 1918 Private J O’Neill, 297, 19th Battalion, A Company, 3rd Platoon informed the Red Cross Society Wounded and Missing Enquiry Bureau at Le Havre of the circumstances surrounding William’s death:
He was in A Company, 3rd Platoon. I was told by Private Sid. Arianson [156 Ariansen, Anton Sydney] when we were with the Battalion at Bapaume, about May 5th, that he was with O’Neill at Bullecourt. They had gone over the top about 200 yards when a shell burst near O’Neill and he was hit in the chest. We did not carry out our objective on that occasion. A heavy bombardment was going on for days after… I knew O’Neill he was very tall, thick set, fair haired, with a moustache. Played football a bit.
William Francis O’Neill is commemorated on St Joseph’s Church Orange Honour Roll, the Cumnock War Memorial Gates; the Molong RSL Honour Roll and on panel number 89 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
William’s brother, Martin O’Neill also served in WWI; he was killed in action in Belgium in October 1917.
* Dianne Strahan and Val McKenzie, April 2016
Cumnock NSW War Memorials