Samuel Thomas Cunneen was born at Lewis Ponds in 1892, the third son of John and Margaret Cunneen. Margaret was one of the McConnell clan, well known on the Ophir gold fields. Though he did some prospecting, Samuel’s father earned his living as a labourer and a carrier. The family were in Lewis Ponds until 1908, when John decided to try his hand at farming, leasing about 1,000 acres at Ballimore near Dubbo. Samuel and his older brothers left home and were working as farm labourers in the Dubbo district.
On 2 October 1916, Samuel enlisted in the AIF in Dubbo. His service number was 6536. He was assigned to the 19th Reinforcements for the 19th Battalion. He was 24 years old.
In April 1917 Samuel arrived in England aboard the Wiltshire and did his training near Rollestone. Sent across to France on 14 October 1917, he was taken on strength into the 19th Battalion, 5th Brigade, of the 2nd Division of the AIF, who were engaged in fighting in the mud of the bloody Passchendaele offensive.
Over the winter months from November 1917 until March 1918, the Australian divisions were rested in the quiet sector in the forest beyond Messines. But their rest came to an end when on 21 March 1918, Ludendorff launched a major offensive against the British zone, with 35 extra German divisions released from the Eastern front by the collapse of Russia.
The Australian Divisions were rushed south to Villers Bretonneux and Denancourt, to reinforce the retreating British and block this offensive which was driving through towards Amiens. The 2nd Division (containing Samuel), arrived from Messines on 4 April to take up the defence of Denancourt.
For most of May and June 1918, Samuel was in hospital with a middle ear infection. And then on 6 July, he was discharged and rejoined the 19th Battalion. He was back on active duty just in time for the great Amiens offensive on 8 August. The 19th Battalion (and indeed all five AIF divisions in France) participated in this sweeping victory. For the Australians, this was “a tres bon stunt” that they wouldn’t have missed for the world. The success was largely due to meticulous planning with almost perfect coordination between tanks, aeroplanes and artillery, and after only half a day’s fighting, fifteen miles of the German front south of the Somme had been swept away.
The Commander in Chief, Sir Douglas Haig, ordered his armies to follow up on the great victory. They were to continue to press the general attack and to push along the Somme and seize the bridge heads. But the next three days of difficult and badly coordinated advances, supported by dwindling numbers of tanks and artillery batteries, cost dearly in casualties.
The 1st and 2nd Divisions, including Samuel’s 19th Battalion were tasked to capture the Lihons heights. On the morning of 11 August, the 19th Battalion was moving beyond the village of Rainecourt, when the mist lifted at about 8am. The troops digging-in in the open fields came under intense and deadly sniping from rifles and machine guns. Samuel was hit in both legs, probably from machine gun fire, one bullet penetrating his left knee. By the following day he had been passed from the 15th Australian Field Ambulance to the 53rd Casualty Clearing Station, and on to 10th General Hospital at Rouen. And by 22 August he was back in England in the Endell Street Military Hospital in London – a hospital set up and staffed by suffragettes.
In September 1918 Samuel’s aunt advised the Orange Leader of her nephew’s wounding. On 9 September they reported:
His aunt, Miss Agnes McConnell, on Friday received word that her nephew, Private Cunneen, who enlisted from Dubbo, but was born in Orange, and had lived here all his life up till a few years ago, has been wounded in France. Private Cunneen had seen two years’ service.
In January 1919, Samuel returned to Australia on the HMAT Marathon and was invalided out of the army in February, medically unfit for further service. With his smashed knee, Samuel probably hobbled for the rest of his life.
Upon returning to the Dubbo district, Samuel tried farming like his father. He applied to the Dubbo Land Board for a homestead lease and joined the Ballimore Farmers and Settlers Association. But this didn’t work out.
With the Great Depression, Samuel took to the road looking for labouring work. Firstly he stayed in the Dubbo district but then he headed south to the Riverina, hobbling along from one town to another. He asked for help from the employment bureau run by the RSSILA (now the RSL). To be eligible for this assistance he had to produce his discharge papers. These were so grubby and illegible after Samuel’s years of living rough, that in 1937 he sought a duplicate copy from Army Records, writing to them:
As men travelling around much as I do often call on the RSSIL for such assistance as they give men on the road. Therefore one’s discharge papers soon become dirty and stained by constant handling.
Samuel lived for ten years in Leeton, working as a station hand and labourer, and then twenty years in Griffith. He never married.
In 1968, he was moved down to Sydney to the Graythwaite Red Cross Hospital, at 10 Edward Street, North Sydney. Graythwaite was a convalescent home for war veterans. In 1915 Sir Thomas Dibbs left his own sandstone mansion to the state government in trust, for this purpose. [Controversially the government recently sold it to Shore Church of England School, despite protests from the RSL, the local council and the Commonwealth Government].
On 15 July 1969, at 77 years of age, Samuel died and is buried at the Field of Mars Cemetery in Ryde. He was buried in a ‘public grave’ by the RSL, which he shares with another man, Norman Pamment.
Samuel has no headstone.
* Rob Cunneen, 2016