Cornelius James SWEENEY (1449)
15 Battalion KIA 11/4/1917
Cornelius Sweeney was the brother of Patrick Joseph Sweeney who had been killed in 1915 at Gallipoli (Post 45). Besides the 2 brothers who were killed, there was another brother- William Henry Sweeney (645) – who survived the War. William was badly wounded, also at Gallipoli. It was described as a ‘bombwound’ and it was obviously severe: compound fracture skull and left tibia burns and wounds face and left arm. He was repatriated to Australia after medical treatment in the UK and discharged on medical grounds at the end of 1916. In all, this particular family suffered great loss.
The Sweeney family, Irish-Catholic, had been in the local district from the late 1850s or early 1860s. Two brothers – Cornelius and Patrick – both born in Ireland, had moved to the settlement at Alberton after serving their sentences as convicts transported to Van Dieman’s Land. This first generation of the family established themselves as successful farmers in the local district. The success of the second generation of the family was more qualified. One line was definitely successful and, in fact, this success continued through to the third generation. For example, in 1915 this branch of the family had extensive land holdings – approximately 500 acres – of land at Woranga. At the same time, success for the family branch which took in the 3 brothers who enlisted in WW1 was more problematic. Initially, their father – Patrick Sweeney 1855-1932 – was a successful business man in a stock-agency partnership. He was also prominent in local politics. For example, in 1889 he was president of the Yarram branch of the Australian Natives’ Association. In 1901 he was Shire President. He was described as a grazier of Waronga. However, from the early 1890s his fortunes appeared to change. He gave up his partnership in the business. Unlike the other branch of the family, there is no indication that his family held any land at the time of WW1 and, in fact, the 3 brothers who enlisted simply gave their occupation as ‘labourer’. Admittedly, on one enlistment form, one of them did refer to himself as a ‘dairy farmer’; but, as indicated, there is no evidence that any of them held land and, most likely, they were all working as farm labourers on other properties, possibly even on an uncle’s farm.
Obviously, all 3 brothers were well-known in the district. All had their names recorded on the Shire of Alberton Honor Roll and the 2 who were killed – Patrick Joseph Sweeney (8/8/15) and Cornelius James Sweeney (11/4/17) – had their names included on the Alberton Shire Soldiers’ Memorial. All 3 were also included on the honor roll for the Yarram State School. The father gave Yarram as the location with which his son – Cornelius – was ‘chiefly connected’.
Cornelius Sweeney enlisted on 16/9/14 as one of the original group from Yarram. He was 35 yo and single. He had been in the Stacey’s Bridge Rifle Club prior to enlistment.
When Dr Rutter carried out the medical examination at Yarram, he wrote on Private Sweeney’s enlistment papers that he was ‘strongly recommended’ with ‘splendid stamina’. Like others from that first group of volunteers, it appears that Private Sweeney enlisted in the belief that he was joining the ‘Light Horse Gippsland’, but in fact he was taken on the strength of 15 Battalion. He left for Egypt on 22/12/14.
Private Sweeney was wounded twice, both times seriously, before he was killed at Bullecourt on 11/4/17. On Gallipoli in July 1915, he suffered a shrapnel wound to the back of his neck and was taken off the peninsula to hospital in Malta. He did not rejoin his battalion until October that year. The battalion moved to France the following year (June 1916) and he was again wounded, 2 months later, with another shrapnel wound to the right hip. His hip was fractured. This time he was hospitalised in England and did not rejoin the battalion until February 1917, some 6 months later. Then 2 months later he was killed in action at the first battle of Bullecourt.
The war diary of 15 Battalion for April 11 is depressing reading. There is a separate ‘narrative of action’ , dated 15/4/17, included in the diary which details the attack on the ‘Hindenburg Line South of Riencourt on morning of 11th. April 1917’. Tanks were supposed to cut he barbed wire defences. The narrative explains how the tanks could be heard clearly by the enemy as they laboured towards the first stretch of wire. The tanks then failed to reach their objectives and the wire remained intact. Subsequently, the attacking troops, moving forward without the tanks, were cut down on the wire by enfilade machine gun fire. The report details 100 casualties on the first stretch of wire, and the losses on the second stretch were also heavy. Despite the losses, the battalion made it to the second German line and was part of the brigade that managed to seize about 900 yards. However, it proved impossible to hold the ground gained. The Australian troops were subjected to enemy bombing parties and enfilade machine gun fire down the trench and they were effectively cut off from their line, and supplies – particularly bombs and rifle grenades – could not reach them. The report details all the failed attempts to establish communication and supply lines between the troops in the German lines and their own forward lines. As the report grimly noted,
No runners have returned from Front Line and judging by the number of enemy Machine Guns playing in enfilade fire across No Man’s Land it was impossible to get back from captured position.
At round 11.00 in the late morning, the report noted that the men began to fall back to their lines, across the murderous no-man’s-land. There were more casualties. The battalion was relieved that night and moved back to Favreuil, approximately 10K from the front.
The overall casualties for the battalion from the single day’s fighting were severe: ’19 officers and 364 other ranks’. The following brief note from the report gives a stark assessment of the fate of those who took part in the assault and made it through to the German line.
None of the officers who reached objective returned and of the troops who took part in the assault only 52 have returned.
It appears that Private Sweeney made it across the two stretches of wire to the second German trench. He was then wounded by one of the bombs thrown by German bombing parties who were gradually dislodging the Australians from the captured position. He was one of many left behind when the battalion withdrew. There were many prisoners taken, but he was not one of them. The following is a witness statement from the relevant Red Cross file. It was given by Cpl. T McBratney (1973) on 26/2/18.
There was a Sweeney in B. Co. killed on 11th April. I knew him well. He was a 1st. or 2nd. Rft. And his number started 14… He was of medium height and dark. We called him Paddy. He was hit during the German counter attack at Bullecourt about 11 a.m. by a bomb in the stomach. This was in the German positions which we had taken earlier in the morning. I was alongside him when he was hit. Lt. Jones B. Co. (since killed) bandaged him. He had to be left behind in the trench when we retired.
There is no way of knowing when Private Sweeney died from his wounds but, most likely, it was within a short time of being was wounded. Certainly there is no record of him being taken as one the many prisoners. He was listed as missing after the battle and then a court of enquiry in early November (2/11/17), seven months later, determined that he had been killed in action on the same day. The family was advised by cable on 8/11/17. Presumably they had prepared themselves for this news over the intervening months. The fact that he was ‘missing’ was reported in the local paper – Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative– as early as 11/5/17.
About a month after receiving formal advice of his son’s death, Private Sweeney’s father – Patrick Sweeney – wrote (8/12/17) to Base Records in Melbourne asking for help in locating and administering the will:
As your Department has informed me some weeks ago of the unfortunate death of my son (C. J. Sweeney) and he has a few belongings (horses, jinker etc) will you kindly do me a favour by letting me know if there is a will and whose duty it is to administer. I consider it is mine but I ask you as a special favour to let me know at your earliest convenience all particulars and you will confer a very great favour on
Father of the late C. J. Sweeney
There is no record of the response from Base Records and the father eventually employed the services of B P Johnson, one of the local solicitors, to manage the business of the will. The will left …the whole of my property and effects to my Mother & two sisters.
Surprisingly, there is no record of any personal kit being returned to the family.
There was no grave and Private Sweeney’s name appears on the Villers-Bretonneux memorial.
On Anzac Day 1918, there was a commemoration held at Yarram State School and one of the returned soldiers who was there that day, as a former student, was Trooper W H Sweeney. It was just over one year since his second brother had been killed on active service at Bullecourt and about two and a half years since his first brother had been killed at Gallipoli. Much was made in the speeches that day about the sacrifices made by families, like his, where so many sons had enlisted. As much was made of the idea that the ‘spirit of Anzac’ was ‘self sacrifice’ and that, as Rev C. J. Walklate put it, … the 25th April three years ago was the beginning of Australian history. Sentiments like these were meant to comfort those families, like this one branch of the Sweeney family, where the losses had been so devastating.
Gippsland Standard and Alberton Shire Representative
O’Callaghan G (Comp) 2006, Clonmel to Federation: Guide to people in the Port Albert area 1841-1901, Vol 3, The Alberton Project
National Archives file for SWEENEY Cornelius James 1449
Roll of Honour: Cornelius James Sweeney
First World War Embarkation Rolls: Cornelius James Sweeney
Red Cross Wounded and Missing file: Cornelius James Sweeney