Topic: W.O.1st Class John William O'Brien (WWI) 1883-1966
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This close up photograph was staged as part of a public relations exercise showing the Australian Light Horse and New Zealand Mounted Rifles.
The New Zealander is, 11/109 Staff Sergeant John William O'Brien of the Wellington Mounted Rifles. Trooper John O'Brien was born 1883 in Deal, Kent but lived in Wellington New Zealand when war broke out. He had been taking a friend, Jack Doolan, down to London to sign up for a ship sailing to NZ. When they arrived at the shipping company Jack talked him into signing up too. When the ship arrived in Wellington, Jack vanished down the gangplank and John didn't see him for another 40 years. Instead he found his way up to Fielding, where he was employed on a farm out Kiwitea way, working for the Kilgour family.
When war broke out he enlisted in the Wellington Mounted Rifles, Manawatu 6th Squadron. His Father had been a professional soldier in the Royal Marines. His two brothers also served. Charles Stuart was a 2nd Lieutenant in the Irish Guards. He died in France two days before the Great War ended, and was mentioned by Rudyard Kipling in History Of The Irish Guards, (Vol. 2), for "conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty in charge of a raiding party". For that he was awarded a Military Cross The other brother, Andrew James, was killed in Belgium it is thought, about 6 weeks after John was wounded at Gallipoli. Andrew served with the Buffs (East Kent Regiment).
John was wounded at Gallipoli on the 9th of August 1915, and sent to England to recuperate. He arrived at Hornchurch hospital in London on September 4 that same year. He rose through the ranks, first being sent to the Records Office at base depot Hornchurch, then promoted to Corporal (December 15, 1915). On the 31st of January 1916 he became Acting Sergeant, then promoted to Staff Sergeant (June 1916) and Company Sergeant 2nd class at W.O. (4th of August 1916). His final promotion was May 30 1919 when he was made W.O. 1st-class and awarded the M.S.M. in "in recognition of valuable service rendered during the campaign" (London Gazette, Twelve Supplement).
His uniform in the photograph indicates a date between June and early August 1916. After the war he returned to Wellington and married. Son Tim O'Brien was born from John's second marriage, and during late 2013 and early 2014, Tauranga WW100 collected email correspondence between Tim, and Janet Statham. Tim shared these stories of his father with Tauranga City Libraries in July of 2014. Some of these stories are recounted below.
"Please appreciate that my Dad was 60 when I was born and at the age of 10 or so , I was not really interested in listening to tales about Gallipoli from a 70 yr old man. Now I certainly wished I had. "
"Two stories Dad told me from Egypt. The main thing about these stories as described, was the dislike the Kiwis and Aussies had for the English Officers. I find it unusual now, that he related these stories with enjoyment, as his Father was a professional soldier in the British Royal Marines and an Officer as well. One day an Aussie soldier was riding down to the river Nile for a swim. All he had on was a pair of shorts. He was stopped by a British Officer, and had his ear chewed for appearing in public without full uniform. At that he took off his shorts and hat, handed them to the officer, hopped back on his horse and carried on naked. Whether this next bit is related to that incident I don't know. The British arrested an Aussie Soldier on some charge and imprisoned him in some sort of stockade guarded by MP's. The ANZACS got together, and en masse, marched on the stockade cut and tore down the barbed wire and freed him. There were obviously too many ANZACS to arrest and charge, or fire upon. I have never heard or read anything about this, but these two stories have stuck in my memory for 60 odd years. I guess it was a mutiny of sorts. It would have been hushed up I guess for diplomacy reasons. Can't have Allies fighting before they got to fight the real enemy.
The Kiwis were in their mess one day having a meal, when this young girl wandered in begging for food. Dad said she looked about 12, but she said she needed food for her and her baby. The guys said "bullshit, you're too young to have a baby", and at that she took out a breast and squirted milk onto the table. I think they fed her for the rest of their stay there."
That is all I can recall of Egypt except how they hated leaving their horses behind when they left for Gallipoli. Believe it or not Dads horse was a mare called Poppy, named back in Kiwitea well before the poppy became a symbol".
"My father was in the Wellington Mounted Rifles , and he was wounded on Chunuk Bair on August 8th 1915. Both the Wellington and Otago guys went up at the same time to Chunuk Bair. There were Maoris up there also at that time. The Turks hated the Haka, and at one stage after the Maori's did it and charged, the Turks fled. One Maori guy was determined to capture a Turkish officer, so took off, outran his mates, and was last seen overtaking the slower Turks.
Dad did mention the truce they had at one stage to collect up all the bodies. Each side collected their own and took them away. They shared cigarettes with the Turks, then next day got back to killing each other. The flies, because of the bodies, were indescribable. The Soldiers would try to eat by opening their tins of food and eating it with their head and shoulders under a blanket. Didn't help much. It left Dad with an absolute loathing for flies, so growing up in the 1940 and 50's (the days before spray cans) he had a fly swot in every room and god help any fly that entered our house.
They used to make home made hand grenades out of bullybeef and apricot jam tins. Sometimes the fuse would go out, and the same bomb would go backwards and forwards several times. That's how he got wounded. One came over. He saw the fuse was very short, so tried to take cover, turned his back and got a piece of shrapnel in the back. He hated Guy Fawkes night. Would sit in the dining room at home with the radio turned up loud. The sound of the fireworks was too much for him. Dunno why I did it but once I let a jumping jack off in the backyard on Guy Fawkes. The kitchen door was open and the bloody thing jumped inside. Won't describe the rest to you.
This last memory of dad's stories is from either Gallipoli or the hospital ship going back to England with the wounded. Dad being of Irish descent had an affinity with horses (as do most Irishmen ), hence the Mounted Rifles I guess. This Irish soldier was dying, so they called the Priest in to give him the last rites. Dad actually said his name was Paddy (surprise).Anyway Paddy said to the Priest "what are you doing here Father?" The Priest said "I am here to say prayers for you so you can go to heaven". Paddy then said, "Father, are there horses in heaven?" The Priest replied, "no Paddy, I don't think there are horses in heaven", at which Paddy said, "well Father, I don't want to go there then", closed his eyes and died about 15 mins later. I know it sounds like a bad Irish joke, but I can recall my Father telling me in almost those words".
John attended the first ANZAC service in Europe in 1916, Hornchurch. A pamphlet, which reads more like an account of the occasion, can be seen here (or look in related items, documents).
This article was archived at Perma CC on August 11, 2016 (https://perma.cc/64JW-T6N4).