Martin O’Neill was born at Cargo in 1892, 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.
Martin attended school at Cudal and completed a three-year apprenticeship as a baker in Cudal. In the 1916 electoral roll for Calare, Martin O’Neill is listed as working as a labourer at Burgoon, Cumnock. His parents and siblings, James and Catherine, were listed as living at Glenview, Cumnock.
Martin O’Neill enlisted at Cumnock on 30 March 1916 and was medically examined by Dr Ivie Aird. He stated that his occupation was a baker and his next of kin his mother, Lavinia O’Neil. He was 5 feet 7½ inches tall, had fair hair and complexion, blue eyes and was of the Church of England religious denomination.
Private O’Neill trained at a camp in Cootamundra and had weekend leave in Cumnock in July 1916. The Molong Express and Western District Advertiser of 2 September 1916 reported:
Pte Martin O’Neil, son of Mr and Mrs D O’Neil, of ‘Glen View,’ Cumnock, who has been employed by Mr W Evers at Molong for some time past, was entertained by a large number of friends at the Parish Hall on Monday, and presented with a combination cutlery kit. Pte.O’Neil, who was on final leave, returned to camp on Tuesday, being played off by the band and enthusiastically farewelled by friends at the station.
On 7 October 1916 the Molong Express also reported:
Ptes Harold Wythes and Martin O’Neill, old school mates, expect to sail also. God speed to them and a safe return.
Sadly, neither would return.
Privates O’Neill and Wythes embarked from Sydney on HMAT Ceramic A40, on 7 October 1916 and disembarked at Plymouth on 21 November 1916. Private O’Neill spent time training at Larkhill Camp on the Salisbury Plain and as part of the 1st Australian Divisional Base Depot, proceeded from Folkestone to France on 15 February 1917. He was transferred to the 3rd Battalion on 11 March 1917.
Private O’Neill was wounded in action with a gunshot wound to his right shoulder on 5 May 1917 and hospitalised in France. He returned to the 3rd Battalion on 4 June 1917. On 22 August 1917 he was buried by a shell bursting on his dugout in a support line near Hooge, Belgium. It took some time before he was dug out and he suffered the effects of shell shock.
Martin was hospitalised in Belgium and returned to the 3rd Battalion on 3 October 1917 at Broodseinde, Belgium. The following day he was found dead, killed by another shell burst. Between 2–8 October 1917, the 3rd Battalion suffered 54 soldiers killed in action and some 180 wounded in action.
The following letter was written to Miss Amy Webb of Wellington, a friend of Martin’s, by Corporal William Jacques of the 3rd Battalion, and published in the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser on 10 August 1918:
The Late Pte. M. O’Neill – How He Met His Death
If what I am about to write will cause you any comfort, I shall be glad of it, for Martin’s sake. He and I enjoyed only a short period together — a few months only — but long enough for me to find what a splendid fellow he was. We were very close chums from the moment we met, and though I am a much older man than he was, we seemed to have much in common with each other.
He, as you must know, was a splendid type of a young Australian, both as a man and a soldier, and it was his unselfish nature and his great sense of duty to his comrades that led him to his death. We went into action together on the 20th September, and on the 21st he was the means of saving my life. We always carried our rations together, and after he had prepared Lieut. Smith’s meal he called to me to have my meal with them. I luckily obeyed the call, and 20 secs after a large shell fell where I had been standing and blew my belongings and half a ton or so of earth skywards.
Shortly after we moved up to take over the front line, and poor old Martin received a bad dose of shell-shock. When he was carried out we never expected he would come back, and we sincerely hoped he would get home; but it was not to be, for after being in hospital a short while he asked to be sent back to his Battalion. When he arrived at our transport lines he found we were in the line again and also that three ration parties had been knocked out trying to get rations through to us. He, with several others who came back with him, at once volunteered to try their luck and bring food to us. They succeeded, and got through to us with the food about 9 o’clock on the night of Oct. 6th. [Date is an error and should be October 3rd]
Poor old Martin found out where I was, and came over to me. It was raining very heavily at the time, and we had rigged a little shelter over our trenches, and we wanted Martin to share it with us; but as there was not room for two others that came with him he decided to find another place. This he succeeded in doing; the place they found being a small dug-out that had been used by the Hun before we advanced, and situated a few yards to the rear of our trench. It was here we found them on the morning of the 7th Oct. [Date is an error and should be October 4th]. They had rolled themselves up in their blankets, and were evidently killed in their sleep by a shell that had fallen right at their heads. There was no possibility of there being any lingering pain; death must have been instantaneous. We buried him where he fell, about 1½ miles east of Zonnebeke.
His death was a great blow to the lads, and we felt that many of us could have been better spared. He was liked and respected by all his comrades, and a straighter, cleaner living lad never left Australia. He showed no fear, and was as bright and happy as possible while in the line. I was and am very proud of the fact that I was his chum, even though for only so short a time…
The Molong Argus of 9 November 1917 reported that a special service of intercession was to be held at Molong on 11 November as a memorial to Lieutenant KM Day and Privates H Wythes, M O’Neill, A Aubrey and F Taylor, all of whom had been recently killed in France.
Martin O’Neill is commemorated on panel 7 of the Ypres (Menin Gate) Memorial in Belgium, the Cumnock War Memorial Gates; the Molong RSL Honour Roll and on panel number 37 on the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial in Canberra.
Martin’s brother, William Francis O’Neill also served in WWI; he was killed in action at Bullecourt in May 1917.
* Dianne Strahan and Val McKenzie, April 2016
Cumnock NSW War Memorials