Percy Francis McDonnell was born in Orange in 1890, the son of Luke and Mary McDonnell. Luke’s father was James McDonnell, who was a pioneer pastoralist of Cumnock and the Western District.
James McDonnell worked at Yullundry Station in 1837 and then moved to various locations around NSW. He returned to Cumnock in about 1892 to live with his son Thomas, near Burrawong. Another son who lived in Cumnock was James William McDonnell, who owned the Shepherd’s Inn and built the Commercial Hotel in 1892. JW McDonnell also had a son called Percy (middle name Edward), born 1892, who worked for many years at post offices at Cumnock, Cargo, Forbes, Dubbo and Grafton. Percy Edward also intended to enlist but was promoted and continued working for the Post Office.
Luke McDonnell lived in Cumnock in the 1880s and 1890s and his children attended school at Cumnock. He moved to Forbes and in 1912, operated a Second Hand and Dealers store. He became an Alderman for the Forbes Shire Council in 1914 and Mayor of Forbes in 1918. His wife became ill and they moved to Sydney to live in 1919.
Percy Francis McDonnell became a saddler, and learnt his trade from Tom Connelly, a saddle and harness maker in Cumnock. Percy, aged 24 years, enlisted at Forbes on 25 August 1914. His medical report states that he was 5 feet 9¾ inches tall, had blue eyes, a fair complexion, dark brown hair and was of the Roman Catholic religious denomination. His war records mainly class him as a saddler, but he was also classed as a gunner. Saddlers, like shoeing-smiths, wheelers, fitters and a few other trades were appointments, carrying a higher rate of pay and known collectively as artificers.
Percy embarked at Sydney on HMAT Argyllshire A8 on 18 October 1914, and as part of the first detachment of the Australian and New Zealand Imperial Expeditionary Forces, set sail for Egypt on 1 November 1914. After four months training near Cairo, the 1st Field Artillery Brigade took part in the landing at Gallipoli on 25 April 1915. They were only able to land one gun, which took 100 men to manhandle up a steep hill over a number of hours, with many casualties. They were eventually able to commence firing it with good effect. Saddler Percy McDonnell was later to write to his father “that he went through the Gallipoli ‘gamble’ without receiving a scratch.” In fact, he was not wounded during his entire war service.
Saddler McDonnell left Gallipoli on 4 December 1915, disembarking at Alexandria, and proceeding to the Suez Road Camp. Percy was one of many young soldiers who became sick with gonorrhoea while in Egypt and was hospitalised at No 2 Australian Hospital, Cairo, for treatment from 26 January to 18 February 1916. On 21 March 1916, he embarked at Alexandria, disembarking at Marseilles on 28 March 1916.
The 1st Division saw action around Armentières and in July 1916 joined the Somme Offensive, capturing the town of Pozières at great cost. The 1st Division continued to fight around Pozières and Flers in August and October 1916. In 1917 it was involved in fighting at the Hindenburg Line and Largincourt, and in May relieved the 2nd Division in the Second Battle of Bullecourt.
While on leave in the United Kingdom, Saddler McDonnell became ill and was admitted to hospital with gastritis on 20 September 1917. He was transferred for duty to the Pay Corps at Administration Headquarters in London on 10 December, but considered unfit for service with chronic dyspepsia and returned to Australia on 7 June 1918 per HMAT Suevic. He was awarded the 1914-15 Star Medal, the British War Medal 1914-20, and the Victory Medal.
On 27 July 1918 the Molong Express and Western District Advertiser reported:
Saddler Percy McDonnell, who was gassed during his three years and eight months on active service, and was invalided home, paid a visit to his relatives last week. He was tendered a welcome home in the form of a social evening on Saturday evening last, and presented with a purse of notes – about £16 – and a gold medal, suitably inscribed. The amount was collected in Cumnock, where the recipient spent his school days, and learnt his trade with Mr TC Connelly. Perce is an original Anzac, being at the landing on Gallipoli, and he remained there the whole time of the British occupation. Since then he has been at the front in France.
Percy married Mary Curry at Paddington in 1918 and they had two children, Margaret and Richard. He worked for NSW Railways. Percy Francis McDonnell died on 9 February 1967 at Hornsby, aged 77 years.
Percy Francis McDonnell is commemorated on the Cumnock Public School Honour Roll (as P McDonald) and on the Cumnock War Memorial Gates.
* Dianne Strahan and Val McKenzie, August 2018