Monthly Archives: July 2015

42. Alfred Kitson McDOUGALL 126

Alfred Kitson McDougall enlisted in Melbourne on 17 August 1914. It was a very early enlistment, given that the declaration of war had only occurred two weeks earlier. It was one month before the first large group of enlistments from Yarram on 16 September 1914.

McDougall was 31yo when he enlisted and he gave his occupation as painter. He was single and his religion was recorded as Church of England.

His father – John McDougall – was dead and he gave his mother – Mrs Janet Margaret Hysing – as his next-of-kin.  Her address was 60 Wilson Street, North Carlton and this was the same address he gave for himself.  When his mother completed the (National) Roll of Honour form she indicated that he had attended the state school in Carlton (Rathdowne Street) and on his enlistment papers he gave his place of birth as North Carlton.

He must have moved to Yarram for work and he must have been there for a fair length of time. It appears that he had moved back to Melbourne before the War as there is no entry for him on the Electoral Roll of the time and he does not appear in the Rate Book. However, he must have lived and worked in the local area for some time because he was clearly regarded as ‘local’. He had spent time in the Yarram Rifle Club. His name appears on both the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll – with his death indicated – and the Shire of Alberton War Memorial. As well, when his mother completed the information for the (National) Roll of Honor she gave Yarram as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. Lastly, the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative – gave the following brief account of his death in the edition of 20 August 1915:

Lance-Corporal Alfred H [sic] McDougall, formerly of Yarram, and only son of Mrs. Janet Hysing, 60 Wilson St., Princes Hill, was killed in action at the Dardanelles on 13th July.

He joined 7 Battalion and his unit left Melbourne on 19 October 1914. His papers show that he was promoted to Lance Corporal on 31 October 1914. In Egypt, he spent one month in hospital at Alexandria – from 7 April to 11 May – with an abscess of his left hand. Discharged from hospital, he embarked for Gallipoli on 20 May and rejoined his battalion on 31 May. L/Cpl McDougall was killed in action on 13 July 1915.

The mother received reasonably prompt advice of her son’s death. The cable back to Australia was dated 31 July 1915 and the official Report of Death of a Soldier was dated 16 September 1915, Alexandria. Both  The Australasian T.&G. Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited and United Ancient Order of Druids made formal requests for the Certificate of Death as early as the second week of August 1915 but had to wait until late September before they received it. There is no record of any personal effects being returned to the mother. The mother received a pension of 30/- per fortnight, which was increased to 40/- from 10 May 1917.

L/Cpl McDougall was buried in Shrapnel Gully Cemetery.  Following the work of the Graves Registration Unit after the War, in May 1921, the mother was advised that her son was buried in Shrapnel Valley Cemetery, Gallipoli plot 2, row C grave 1. As per normal practice she was given a photograph of the grave.

While there is no Red Cross report for L/Cpl McDougall,  the war dairy of 7 Battalion – written by its commander, H E (Pompey) Elliott – gives some indication of what happened. Essentially, his death was the result of another ‘demonstration’ – a limited raid/feint on the Turkish positions, this time in the general vicinity of German Officers’ Trench.

The entry indicates that at 5 AM on 13 July a party of 11 volunteers led by 2Lt Greig attacked and overran an outlying Turkish position. The Turks withdrew and then the raiding party itself came under a sustained bomb and machine gun attack from the main Turkish line. All the men in the raiding party were wounded, 2 were killed and 2Lt Greig went ‘missing’. In fact, 2Lt Norman James Greig – former Master at Scotch College, Melbourne – was recorded, subsequently, as ‘killed in action’. Whilst this action was underway another party of Australians attacked another part of the Turkish line before they were also forced to withdraw with heavy casualties. This second action was confused in its execution and more ad hoc than planned. The end result was that the Turks must have feared that a major assault was imminent and they opened up with … the most severe bombardment we have yet experienced & our trenches were practically destroyed in most places. The casualties from this Turkish bombardment were 7 officers and 37 other ranks. L/Cpl McDougall must have been one of those killed. Not surprisingly, such ‘demonstrations’ were not very popular with the Australian soldiers.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

War Diary of 7 Battalion

National Archives file for MCDOUGALL Alfred Kitson

First World War Embarkation Rolls: Alfred Kitson McDougall

Roll of Honour: Alfred Kitson McDougall

40. Edward RADBURN 477

When he enlisted, Edward Radburn gave his place of birth as Lucknow (Bairnsdale). However when the father completed the details for the (National) Roll of Honour form, he gave the place of birth as Boolarra. The father also recorded Boolarra as the place with which his son was ‘chiefly connected’. He gave his son’s primary school as Outtrim, near Leongatha. However, the father’s address on the enlistment papers, and also on the embarkation, roll was recorded as Gunyah. Further, when Edward Radburn left for service with the AIF, the brief piece in the Gippsland Standard and AlbertonShire Representative (16 October 1914)  described how he was farewelled from Gunyah. Basically, it appears Edward Radburn and his family were living on the border of the Shire of Alberton and this probably explains why his name is not recorded on either the Shire Honor Roll or the Shire War Memorial. At the same time, the family was certainly known in the district. For example, the Gippsland Standard and AlbertonShire Representative reported on 6 December that James Radburn – the father – who had been a sergeant of police for many years had been sworn in as a Justice of the Peace and that … he is sure to prove a very worthy justice. His appointment will be a great convenience to the residents of Gunyah. Similalrly, there is a Radburn Road in the district. And Edward’s sister, Lucy, and father both appeared at several patriotic concerts held in the Wonyip (Ryton) Hall – he acted as the MC and she performed as a singer.

Edward Radburn enlisted in Melbourne on 1 October 1914. On enlistment, Edward gave his age as 19yo but according to the father, when he completed the Roll of Honour form, his son was only 18 years and 10 months when he died from wounds some 9 months later, on 10 July 1915. There is no sign in his service record of the written permission required of the parents whose son was underage.

Edward was single and his occupation was recorded as farm hand. Presumably he was working with his father. He gave his religion as Church of England.

In correspondence in the service file, the father – James Radburn – referred to himself as an ‘old soldier’ but there is no record of Boer War service under that name. At the same time, as already noted, it appears that the father had seen service in at least the police force. Correspondence in his son’s AIF service file reveals that the father was proud of his son’s enlistment.

Private Radburn was in the 9 Light Horse Regiment. The official record states that he died from wounds on 10 July 1915. The wound was a gunshot wound to the thorax. When he was admitted to the hospital in Alexandria – 17 General Hospital – on 8 July 1915, he was described as ‘dangerously ill’ and he died within 2 days.

The father was informed by telegram of his son’s death on 15 July, less than one week later, which, by the standards of the time, was very prompt. Obviously, the fact that he died in a major hospital in Alexandria meant that the family could be advised promptly. Similarly, the funeral was attended to expeditiously – it happened on the same day that Private Radburn died – and the details were passed back to the family in Gippsland: Rev. S A Marsh officiated and the burial was at Chatby Military Cemetery, Alexandria.  A small number of personal effects – Testament, cigarette case and watch(damaged) –  reached the family in April 1916.

Even though the reporting of this particular death ran far smoother than most of the others we have looked at to this point, there were still discrepancies. All the AIF forms give the date of death as 10 July 1915. Yet, the formal death certificate issued by the Municipality of Alexandria has the time and date of death as 9.40pm on 9 July 1915. More worrying for the family was that the date of death was originally given as 29 June; and this error was not corrected until the end of April 1916. In the intervening 9 months, the father received advice from his son’s friends in 9 Light Horse Regiment on the circumstances of his death. They told him that he had been seriously wounded on 29 June, transferred off Gallipoli and taken to hospital in Alexandria where he died round 10 July, just after having been admitted. It took several letters from the father before the AIF admitted their initial advice was wrong and the record was corrected.

The war diary for 9 Light Horse Regiment does not record any action for 29 June. It does record 2 killed and 4 wounded on 28 June – the day before – when, at Walker’s Ridge, the Australians fired at the Turkish trenches in a sustained manner for 1 hour. It was another feint intended to … assist landing of troops at Cape Helles. The Turks replied with heavy shelling and this was when the casualties were sustained. Private Radburn could have been one of the 4 wounded. The next entry in the war diary is for 30 June. Very early that morning, in the period from just after midnight up to 5.30 am, the Turkish forces mounted a major attack on the 9 Light Horse Regiment’s trenches at Walker’s Ridge. The fighting was intense and after it finished, the Australians counted 54 dead Turkish soldiers immediately in front of their trenches. There was 1 Australian killed and 8 were wounded. Presumably, Private Radburn was one of the 8 wounded. The fact that the action occurred so early in the morning might explain why the 29 June was given as the date he was wounded. He was taken off the Gallipoli Peninsula and transferred by ship to Alexandria, a process that took at least 1 week.

When he died in hospital in Alexandria, Edward Radburn was still only 18yo and he had been in the AIF for not much more than 9 months.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

War Diary of 9 Light Horse Regiment, June 1915
National Archives file for RADBURN Edward
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Edward Radburn
Roll of Honour: Edward Radburn

39. Nathan HEPBURN 584

Nathan (Nathan Walbourne) (William Nathan) Hepburn was another young man who had been born in the Shire of Alberton (Alberton),  attended school (both Yarram and Port Albert State School) and grown up in the Shire, but who, at the time of enlistment was living and working in Queensland. He enlisted at Bundaberg, very early in the War, on 19 August 1914.

The family dynamic was difficult. His parents had divorced in 1898 when Nathan was about 12 yo. At the time of enlistment his father – Wilfred Alfred Hepburn –  was a fisherman living at Port Albert. His mother – Elizabeth Jane Hepburn – was living in Melbourne at Carlton.  Nathan recorded his mother as his next-of-kin on the enlistment papers, but it appears that the authorities lost contact with her from late 1918. Then in 1920 the father successfully challenged his former wife’s status as next-of-kin and, as a consequence, all medals, the Memorial Plaque and photo of the grave were sent to him. There was a sister – Mrs B  (Elizabeth) W Morris – living at Darriman in the Shire of Alberton, and another sister – Mrs Sheehan – living in South Melbourne.

Private Hepburn’s occupation was recorded as labourer. He was 27 yo, single and he gave his religion as Church of England. Also on his enlistment papers, he noted that he had served 2 years in the senior cadets and 1 year in a rifle club. The rifle club could have been in the Shire of Alberton, but the 2 years in the senior cadets suggests that he could have lived in Melbourne, perhaps with his mother, as a teenager. In terms of his links to the local area, when the Roll of Honour form was completed, Yarram was given as the place with which he was ‘chiefly connected’. His name is included on the Shire of Alberton War Memorial and also on the honor rolls for the 2 schools he attended. However, his name is not on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and there is no indication that he – or his father, on his behalf – ever received the Shire Medallion.

Private Hepburn joined the 9 Battalion and embarked for Egypt from Brisbane on 24 September 1914. He was promoted to lance corporal on 19 January1915.

L/Cpl Hepburn went missing on 28/6/1915 and a court of inquiry, held in France one year later on 5/6/1916, determined that he had been ‘killed in action’ on the date he was reported as missing. As in so many other cases, the family had had to wait for a year before his fate was formally determined. Then in early May 1921, the father was informed that L/Cpl Hepburn had been buried at Shell Green Cemetery. The body must have been identified after the War through the work of the Graves Registration Unit.  A small number of personal belongings, including 2 diaries, had been returned earlier, in July 1920.

The action in which L/Cpl Hepburn was killed was a diversionary attack on the Turkish lines. Such ‘demonstrations’  were not popular with the Australian soldiers. They were intended to prevent the Turks withdrawing troops from their lines at Anzac and sending them south to Krithia. The war diary for 9 Battalion describes how on 28 June 1915, 2 companies (B and C) were ordered to attack (1) Snipers Ridge South and (2) Razor Back Ridge.

The attack was made with the object of co-operating with the Southern Force [Cape Helles] and preventing the enemy from sending reinforcements down. The attack of B Coy was well carried out. C Coy was under heavy fire from both flanks, both shrapnel and Machine Guns. This attack was not well carried out and a retirement took place without orders from the Co. Commander.

The diary also gave casualty figures for an action that lasted just 3 hours. B Coy had 12 killed, 46 wounded and 7 missing. C Coy lost 9 killed, 16 wounded and 15 missing. These were high figures – a total of some 105 men – for what was no more than a strategic feint. Interestingly, the casualty figures for C Coy, where the men effectively withdrew towards their own lines without waiting for orders to retire were considerably less than for B Coy which was applauded for following orders.

L/Cpl Hepburn was in C Coy and he became one of the 15 men missing on the day. The battalion war diary offered some additional information on the men missing after the action.

The missing in B Coy are almost certain to be killed. It is possible that of the 15 missing in C Coy the party under Lieut Jordan may be prisoners.

It also noted that over the next few days several attempts  were made to recover bodies but most of these efforts had to be called off because of enemy fire. The only success was on the morning of 29 June, the day after the action: Secured five bodies early this morning, stripped of boots and clothing.

The reference to the party of men from C Coy who were missing with Lt. Jordan is highly relevant in terms of what happened to L/Cpl Hepburn.

Lt. Jordan was 2Lt. Stanley Rupert Jordan. He had been an accountant before enlisting on 22 August 1914. He was only 20 yo and had been promoted to the rank of  2Lt. on 28 April 1915. His file indicates that he was in fact taken prisoner on the day (28/6/15) and it also shows that he was wounded – ‘gun shot wound to right arm’ – on the same occasion. He was held as a POW until November 1918.

There were 12 witness statements in the Red Cross file on 584 Lance Corporal William Nathan Hepburn. Most statements simply claimed that he was missing after the action on the day. However, 3 statements gave additional information on the connection between 2Lt. Jordan and L/Cpl Hepburn and the likely sequence of events. As indicated in the battalion war diary, the retirement of the men from C Coy. to their own trenches was at their own initiative. Once back in their positions, it was realised that Lt. Jordan was not there and another officer – Capt. Young – sent Hepburn to locate Lt. Jordan and inform him that the rest of the Company had retired.  The following witness statement from Pte George Orgill 564 refers to a definite order having been given to retire but, as indicated, the war diary of the battalion notes that, initially at least, no such order was given. In any case, the substance of what happened is clear:

At Anzac about two months after the landing on April 25 Companies B and C were sent out in front of trenches on the right of Anzac to draw the Turks fire. Witness [Orgill] and Hepburn were with them. They were then ordered to retire to the trenches. Capt. Young then sent Hepburn to tell Lieut. Jordan to retire (as Jordan had apparently not heard the order when first given). Neither Hepburn nor Lt. Jordan ever returned.

Another witness – G E Dench 1749 – also stated that Hepburn was with Lt. Jordan when both of them were ‘cut off’.

The following account by Cpl. H Wilson 541 does not mention Lt. Jordan but it does note that Hepburn went out again to try to find missing men:

Informant states that on June 28th at Anzac Cove half of the Company [C Coy.] were sent out in front of our trenches to line the ridge so as to draw reinforcements that were going to reinforce against the British troops at Achi Baba. About 20 men and an officer, (including Informant [Cpl. Wilson] and L/Cpl. Hepburn) went over the hill into the gully. We were then called on to retire, and L/Cpl Hepburn retired with us. He went out again to try and find the others who were missing, and that was the last we saw of him. He could have easily been taken prisoner.

The exact circumstances of L/Cpl Hepburn’s death will never be known. Did he locate Lt. Jordan? Was he killed in the same action in which Lt. Jordan was wounded? Or was he killed before he managed to make contact with Lt. Jordan? On this last point, there was one witness statement – Pte. F E Black 533 – that explicitly recorded his death:

Hepburn was killed on 28th June. I passed him lying dead: shot through the neck.

Perhaps Pte. Black was one of the last men from C Coy to retire and he came across Hepburn’s body as he was returning to the trenches.

Beyond the conjecture, it appears that L/Cpl Hepburn either was ordered or chose voluntarily to return to the battle zone to locate men from C Coy and inform them that all the others had retired. Without doubt, it was an act of bravery. Whether the young Lt. Jordan ever learnt that L/Cpl Hepburn most likely died trying to save him is another of the War’s ironies, on the small but very personal scale.


War Diary of 9 Battalion, June 1915
National Archives file for HEPBURN Nathan
First World War Embarkation Rolls: William Nathan Hepburn
Roll of Honour: William Nathan Hepburn
WW1 Red Cross files: William Nathan Hepburn

41. Pressed to enlist in the first half of 1915

This is the second post that looks at divisions apparent in the local community from the very beginning of the War. Once again it involves a series of letters-to-the-editor in the local paper, the Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative. The common thread to the letters was the claim that young men from the township of Woodside were refusing to do their patriotic duty and enlist.

The first letter was signed anonymously, “Mary Jane” and it appeared in the paper on 21 April 1915.

It appears strange to me that so many able bodied young men are content to remain at home while the best and bravest of our boys have either gone or are going to fight for King and country in the battle fields of Europe. During a recent visit to Woodside I saw a tall, strong, active young man wearing in his button hole a badge displaying the historic words, “England expects every man to do his duty.” That young man is still in Woodside, and so far as he is concerned England stands a big chance of being disappointed. He is only one of many we meet every day. Their duty it appears lies at home; though late, very late at night, they may be heard riding home from the nearest hotel singing “Tipperary.”

The essential charge was that the patriotism of too many young men in the district was hollow.  They hid behind the pretence of patriotism, more interested in heavy drinking sessions at the local pub than fighting overseas.  And, as far as the writer was concerned, there was at least one such young man in Woodside. In fact, from the entire Shire of Alberton, Woodside was the only specific location named.

Two weeks later the same argument was revisited, and once again Woodside was identified. This time the writer signed him or herself as “Patriot”. One interpretation would be that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person and that the first letter was intended to establish some sense of credibility – or  serve as a ‘teaser’ – for the more serious charges to come.  If it was not the same person then there was definitely a congruence of views.

“Patriot’s” first letter appeared on 1 May 1915. It was signed “Patriot” of Woodside. The detail in the letter covering the specifics of life and individuals in the local community of Woodside certainly gives the impression that the writer was a local.  The basis of the argument was that, unlike other local communities, Woodside had seen very few young men volunteer. Moreover, not content with such indifference to their patriotic duty, the same group spent or wasted their lives drinking, fighting and being a general nuisance in the community. The significance of the letter is that of all the small towns and settlements across the Shire of Alberton, attention was turned on the particular township of Woodside. Where “Mary Jane’s” letter had merely hinted that there could be a problem at Woodside, this letter proclaimed boldly that Woodside was some sort of epicentre of patriotic indifference.

I believe out of [the] large crowd of young men in Woodside only about two or three have gone, but I think a couple more started and came back again for some reason or other which I don’t know. Where in other places I know one or two have gone out of every family and more would go if they only could. These boys are different to the boys in Woodside, for I believe at the present time there are about a dozen young men in Woodside that could go and won’t go. They would sooner spend their time fighting one another, and will be seen going about for days or a week after with their eyes and hands neatly tied up after having had them attended to by a doctor. Then of course they have to have a holiday, for they are not able to do anything, but every night they will be seen rolling up to the hotel again, and will be heard going home quite happy at a late hour at night. Perhaps in some future time they may be sorry they never joined the colours, instead of fighting one another about there. I believe one certain young man said he would go only he had to stay to buy his mother’s bread. This, I think, is a poor excuse, for I know his mother has a husband and one or two more sons, and I think if the husband can’t provide her with bread he ought to go to the war and try to his duty there if he can’t do it at home. And many more of these strong young men ought to do the same.

Not surprisingly, the letter prompted a response. Two letters appeared in the edition of 19 May 1915, nearly a fortnight later. One was dated 12 May, Woodside and the other 13 May, also Woodside. The first, by Jas. O’Neill, claimed that in fact ten or a dozen of the Woodside boys had already enlisted and more were going to enlist. Jas. O’Neill appears to have been, according to the Electoral Roll, James Joseph O’Neill, labourer of Woodside. O’Neill made the point that at least those going would be able to fight a enemy they met face to face whereas they were powerless to take on “Patriot” who was nothing more than a backbitter [sic] hiding behind her anonymity. He assumed “Patriot” was a woman or perhaps he wanted to make the point that a real man would not conceal his identity.   He also suggested that more of the … Woodside boys would join the colours if it was only to get away from the likes of “Patriot”.

The second letter was signed by another O’Neill – S J. O’Neill – and this writer explicitly identified himself as the target of “Patriot’s” attack and presented his defence. The writer was 25 yo Simon John O’Neill:

I was commented on as being in a hotel brawl, instead of being at the war. Allow me to say that in trying to avoid a dispute I was drawn into one, but have not, as the writer says, been repeatedly at the hotel at night since the occurrence, and can prove that I have been working and not loafing round the hotel. As for not going to the war, unfortunately I am unfit, or I should have volunteered long ago.

S J O’Neill also challenged “Patriot” to reveal his or her identity:

It would also be interesting to know why “Patriot” does not disclose his or her name, as anyone who speaks the truth has no need for secrecy. On condition that “Patriot” will answer this letter through the press, with his or her name signed in full, I will lodge £5 at the “Standard” [Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative] office in aid of the Belgian Relief, and I think “Patriot” to prove true patriotism should contribute the same amount.

Another 2 weeks passed before “Patriot” replied on 26 May. The reply revealed just how personal the initial attack had been. To begin, “Patriot” dismissed the respondent James O’Neill by stating that the first letter … had nothing whatever to do with him. There was a sense of outrage that this O’Neill has bought into an argument that did not concern him. Presumably he was too old to enlist. But in the next sentence “Patriot” continued the attack on the younger S J O’Neill, claiming that her sources suggested that  … he has not been in Woodside much since then [the brawl at the hotel]. Clearly, J S O’Neill was one of “Patriot’s” initial targets.  He was one of 3 O’Neill brothers, all from Woodside and aged in their early twenties. People in Woodside who read the first letter would have known those being written about.  “Patriot” had no intention of backing down. The claim was made again that only a handful from Woodside had enlisted, and as for revealing his or her identity and the £5 challenge:

As for signing my name, I will not, as it may only cause trouble and perhaps make many people bad friends, but I am sure my statements are just as correct as his, and he can give his £5 if he likes. … I would be quite willing to give mine also, if I could only afford it, but I cannot as I am only receiving a small salary, and having more than myself to keep I find I am not able to do it.

On 4 June, “Mary Jane”, the initial person to call into question the patriotic loyalty of the young men of Woodside, submitted another letter-to-the-editor. It seemed that both “Patriot” and “Mary Jane” had to respond to the O’Neills; and there was the suspicion, again, that the two identities were the same. In fact, “Mary Jane” referred explicitly to this belief in the letter – Some people, I am informed, are quite sure that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” are one and the same person – and then denied it, but in a most unconvincing manner. She also claimed, again unconvincingly, that she had never intended to target specifically the O’Neill Brothers and that, in effect, they had self-identified:

Only the O’Neill Brothers to whom I had not given a thought when writing, fitted the cap on their own head.

She also expressed regret that … her former letter caused so much bitterness in certain quarters. But it was a sham contrition – It was not intended to arouse such feelings and certainly would not have done so amongst sensible people. – and she drove home again the basic message:

… when married men are leaving wives and children and giving their lives to the service of their country, surely the single man who has youth, health and strength, and has no nearer duty to perform might also consider his country’s claim upon his manhood.

And, finally, there was another parting shot at S J O’Neill:

If he would rather stay home and keep a whole skin, the least he could do would be to refrain from wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties, especially very late at night when respectable residents wish to sleep.

In turn, this letter elicited responses from 2 of the O’Neill brothers. The first from S J O’Neill appeared on 11 June. He pointed out, correctly, that “Mary Jane’s” first letter – back on 21 April – had, in fact, elicited no response in the paper. It was only the letter of “Patriot” that had prompted response. He queried why she had felt the need to reply when no-one had ever engaged with her in the first place. His clear implication was that “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” were the same person.  He focused on her attack on the young man wearing the patriotic badge – presumably himself –  the character she had originally set up in her first letter in April:

… her deceased [sic] brain has once carried her beyond the sublime when she objects to people wearing patriotic badges and singing war ditties simply because they have not gone to the war. Did “Mary Jane” ever take into consideration the help which every person is giving by procuring one such badge to which she objects, but “where ignorance is bliss it is folly to be wise.”

And he offered as his farewell:

I would advise “Mary Jane” to sink herself into oblivion and stay there for the rest of her life, or until such time as her foul mind has discarded its bitterness, and that she may be fit to come and live with pure-minded people.

The letter from Maurice E O’Neill – the second respondent – appeared on 16 June. He and his 2 brothers had commenced enlistment by this point – they had all passed the medical at Yarram in May 1915 – and he indicated that he was leaving for the camp at Seymour and he wanted … to have a pick at “Mary Jane” for the first and perhaps the last time. He claimed that, despite her denials, she had definitely targeted the O’Neill boys. Given that he was killed in France in 1916, his parting wish was cruelly ironic:

So I will wish “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” farewell. Hoping that they will have recovered from their strange delusions by the time I get home again.

The last word went to “Mary Jane”. Her letter published 23 June admitted some grudging respect for the O’Neill brothers who had enlisted; but at the same time she took on the persona of a poor, defenceless woman, threatened by young louts, and claimed credit for goading the brothers to enlisting:

The O’Neill brothers seem to be suffering from furore scribendi [rage for writing]. I have heard that they are going to the war. On this I congratulate them most heartily. They are setting an example that others, in the same position, might well follow. If it is any satisfaction to them to knock out a poor old woman before they leave Woodside, they are welcome to that. Only let them deal as bravely with the enemy when they met him. So far as this correspondent is concerned they have kept it up very well indeed. Had they not done so it had long since been forgotten. It is no use tickling a frog that won’t jump. Alas! there are many frogs that are too indolent to croak, much less jump.

Trying to interpret these events from so long ago is obviously not easy. However there are several points that can be made. First, the local paper chose to publish the letters of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot”, even though the letters were anonymous, the claims generalised and the reputations of known people attacked.  Again, as with the ‘flag flapping’ of Post 38, the paper gave people a platform to make virtually any claim they liked in relation to real or perceived lapses in patriotic sentiment and duty. The local paper was flexing its political muscle and brandishing its patriotic credentials.

The second point concerns the accuracy of the basic claim that not many young men from Woodside volunteered. At the time, this claim would have been difficult, if not impossible, to determine, with major problems over who was keeping records and how an individual was to be identified with a particular location. There was no objective, independent tally of enlistments from every location within the Shire kept at that specific time. Nor was one ever kept at any point over the duration of the War.  In such an environment, people’s perceptions were very powerful. While there had been manifestations of patriotic duty all over the Shire at the outbreak of the War, there would also have been inevitable variations in the rate of enlistment between locations. If someone like “Patriot” wanted to claim that such a variation amounted to proof that young men in a particular location were unpatriotic, and that assertion was given credibility by being published in the local press, then no doubt perceptions could readily become commonly accepted beliefs. Doubtless in mid-1915, after the correspondence in the local paper, people throughout the Shire of Alberton would have discussed the possibility/probability/certainty that not enough young men had volunteered from Woodside. And in discussing the situation at Woodside, they would also have looked at their own location and wondered if the same claim could be made about their own young men’s sense of patriotic duty. Presumably, this was exactly what the local paper was setting out to achieve.

The third point covers the possibility, 100 years later, of being able to uncover the identity of the anonymous writer(s).

There is little doubt that whoever wrote the letters to the editor knew about the O’Neill brothers. The O’Neill’s were right in responding to the letters in the belief that they, specifically, were being targeted. Details in the letters of “Mary Jane” and “ Patriot” certainly did identify them. Presumably, the letters were written by one or more persons in the local community of Woodside who knew the O’Neill family and, more particularly, had identified the O’Neill boys as typical of those single, young men who were causing problems – drinking, fighting, out late at night – when they should have already done the right thing and enlisted. One or two people wanted to draw attention to the O’Neill boys and the local paper was prepared to assist, presumably on the basis that the O’Neills represented a problem that was common across the Shire as a whole.

Then there is the issue of the name, “Mary Jane”. The boys’ mother was typically referred to as Mrs W(illiam) Kerr. Her first husband, and the boys’ father, was James O’Neill but he had died and she had remarried, to William John Kerr who also lived in Woodside. Mrs William Kerr was in fact Mrs Mary Jane Kerr (O’Neill). It seems that the pseudonym of “Mary Jane” was a deliberate choice, with the intention, clearly, to identify the O’Neill boys. This again pointed to someone in the local community who knew the O’Neill family history.  Moreover, given that the local paper was prepared to publish both sets of anonymous letters – from both “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” – it seems reasonable at least to suggest that perhaps the editor of the paper – A J Rossiter – played a role in the affair. Perhaps, even, he had heard of the O’Neill boys and decided himself to craft a series of letters that appeared to come from concerned locals. It was his chance to raise an issue that people were talking about. As will become evident in future posts, Rossiter was certainly prepared to take an active role in promoting patriotic duty in the local community. Perhaps this whole episode was a underhand way of doing just that. There would have been little chance that his ruse could ever have been uncovered. But there is no proof of any such strategem. Besides, there is even the possibility that the writer might have been a relative: an aunt or uncle keen for the brothers to do what they saw as the ‘right thing’, rather than bring dishonour on the extended family.

Leaving conjecture to one side, the actual fate of the O’Neill boys is known. There were 3 O’Neill brothers. They were all single and they enlisted together in June 1915. The oldest was Simon John O’Neill (1958) who was nearly 25yo when he enlisted on 16 June 1915. The middle brother – Maurice Edward O’Neill (1960) – was 23yo when he enlisted on 18 June 1915. The youngest brother was Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill (2062) who was nearly 21yo when he enlisted on 22 June 1915. All 3 brothers had their initial medical at Yarram and were issued with railway warrants (105-107) on 31 May 1915 to travel to Melbourne. All 3 had been born at Sale and all gave their religion as Roman Catholic. All had as their next-of-kin their mother Mrs W(illiam) [Mary Jane] Kerr of Woodside.  Presumably the father was dead by the time they enlisted. All 3 gave their occupation as labourer but the 2 older brothers featured in the 1915 Rate Book with each holding a few acres of land at Woodside. The 2 older brothers had been involved in the Woodside Rifle Club and the oldest (Simon John O’Neill) had spent 18 months in the Light Horse unit based in Sale. All 3 brothers enlisted in 24 Battalion and all served overseas. Simon John O’Neill returned to Australia in March 1919 and Joseph Geoffrey O’Neill in April 1919. The middle brother, Maurice Edward O’Neill, was killed in action in France on 29 June 1916.

What influence the writings of “Mary Jane” and “Patriot” had on the decision of the O’Neill boys to enlist is not possible to determine. Certainly there was a surge in enlistments once the casualty levels associated with Gallipoli became commonly known. Moreover, the background of at least 2 of the 3 brothers, in the Woodside Rifle Club and other military training, suggests that they were always potential volunteers. At the same time, being identified in the local press as unpatriotic would have been hard to withstand. Even when they did enlist, their critics could only offer half-hearted praise, and rebuke them for taking so long.  Overall, their reputations were seriously damaged and enlistment at least removed them from the local area. As James O’Neill suggested right at the start, they might well have enlisted to escape the likes of “Patriot”.

In 1920, on the anniversary of her son’s death (29/6/16), Mrs Mary Jane Kerr inserted the following In Memoriam in the local paper:

O’Neill – In loving remembrance of my dear son, Private Maurice Edward O’Neill, killed in action on 29th June, 1916. R. I. P.

We all miss him, for we loved him,
And shall always feel the loss
Of our fair-haired darling, sleeping
‘Neath a little wooden cross.

Inserted by his mother.


Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative

National Archives file for O’Neill Simon John

National Archives file for O’Neill Maurice Edward

National Archives file for O’Neill Joseph Geoffrey