John ‘Jack’ Thomas O’Callaghan

August 4, 2015

O’CALLAGHAN, John -‘Jack’ Thomas – – – – SPC ?

DoB:- – 20 May, 1893, Warracknabeal, VIC

Father:- – Thomas Henry O’Callaghan

Mother:- – Mary Ann, nee Russell

John Thomas O’Callaghan was the eldest of nine children born to Thomas Henry and Mary Ann O’Callaghan. The first four children were born in the Victorian country town of Warracknabeal, before the family sold their farm and moved to Ballarat, to the Market Hotel at the saleyards in West Ballarat, where the younger five children were born.

Service No:- 13327

Rank:- – Private

Unit:- – 13th Field Ambulance

Jack O’Callaghan was 22 years and three months old when he enlisted for service on 7 August 1915. He was an unmarried man whose occupation was bank clerk. He was five feet, eight inches tall, with a fresh complexion, brown eyes and dark brown hair.

Jack embarked from Australia on 7 March 1916, and he wrote of his departure in the diary he kept throughout the war:

-‘-¦ Tues 7 March -“ We slept in our clothes last night. The infantry were on at 3am and they left camp around 6.15am en-route for the boat. We got the balance of our kit and left the meadows about 11.20 -¦ we arrived at the boat about 1.45 and after the usual preliminaries went on board about 3pm and the people were allowed on the pier to wave goodbye to their friends. Streamers were the order of the last hour. I saw Vic and threw a couple of letters down to him to post. We got going about 4pm and waved our farewells to dear old Australia -¦’

A few weeks later, on Wednesday 5 April, -‘-¦ we arrived at Suez about 3.30 this morning. Our first view was not very promising, nothing to see but sand -¦’

They had to wait on the ship overnight, disembarking on 6 April, -‘-¦ about 11am, issued with 24 hours’ rations, and were conveyed in lighters to the shore -¦ Then we entrained, or rather scrambled into cattle trucks and started.- We waited in Suez about an hour, but the novel sights so interested us that we did not mind -¦ Our journey was very interesting -¦ It is estimated that 60,000 men are encamped between here and Suez. We arrived in Tel-el-Kebir around 9.30, scrambled for our kits and likewise for our tents. No blankets available, so we did without, but it was cold -¦’

The troops remained in Egypt, undergoing training and dealing with the relentless flies and sand. On 6 June, they were boarded onto the ship which would take them to France. After a night moored in the harbour -¦

-‘-¦ the anchor was pulled about 9am and we moved out. Unless one has the experience it is almost impossible to describe life on a troop ship, particularly when it is overcrowded -¦

Tues 13 June -“ We disembarked at 9am, were supposed to remain on the wharf all day as leave would not be granted. Some of us made the most of the opportunity and saw as much of the town as possible. The majority visited the famous wine cafes where fun reigned fast and furious. Indians, Tommies and Kangaroos joined for the one purpose of having a good time -¦We left the wharf about 6.30pm and marched to the station -¦ After parking our gear in the trucks we entrained about 9.30pm and commenced on our long trip to the Front.’

Late in June 1916, while billeted near the town of Hazelbrook, Jack and some pals went sightseeing into the town. -‘Naturally we were quite excited to see so many shops and acted like the proverbial waybacks. Among the places we visited was the cathedral, absolutely one of the finest churches I have ever seen, far superior to St Pat’s in Melbourne. We met Dick and Dave and had tea together. Had a great joke with a young lady, who picked me out as a healthy nice boy. I wish some of the girls at home would think the same -¦’

As the battalion approached the front lines, Jack noted in his diary that the -‘terrible bombardment’ night after night was relentless. -‘-¦ Our aviators had a raid on the enemy trenches last night. From our billets we could see them quite distinctly -¦ The guns were going a treat all the afternoon -“ evidently some big engagement in progress as the bombardment continued through the night -¦ We were issued with gas helmets -¦’

On Sunday 23 July, -‘-¦ news came through of a great Australian fight at Pozieres. Said by the War Correspondent to eclipse the landing at Lone Pine. The Great Push is still going strong -¦ we heard the 2nd Field Ambulance got blown to blazes last night -¦’- A few days later, on 27 July, Jack recorded that -‘-¦ the boys came back from the trenches tonight. One had just to take a glance at their haggard faces, so dust begrimed and utter worn out appearance to guess what terrible ordeals they had gone through. Unfortunately, a few of them got outed. Tom Storey and Evans severely wounded, and poor old Chris Dyson was apparently killed. Nobody seems to know anything more -¦ S Trevan got blown up twice and buried but he had exceptional luck -¦’

Many of the entries in Jack’s diary over the next few months are grim descriptions of the horror and reality of combat. The closer to the front he and his fellow stretcher bearers got, the more ghastly the details became.

– -‘-¦ The 3rd CCS (Casualty Clearing Station) is an immense place, the average admittance about 400. Twenty eight died last night [30 July] and were buried in the adjacent cemetery. I went and saw poor old Evans’ grave. Dear old kid -“ he was one of the whitest -¦

– -‘-¦ Seven of us sent for duty at 3rd CCS. I believe they buried 32 more this morning [31 July]. I heard the 12th Field Ambulance got smashed up a tad today -¦ I went down to the cemetery and although only a new place, there were over 400 buried there. The little wooden crosses show silent testimony of the heroes who have died here -¦

– -‘-¦ Went on unloading wagons from 9am to 6pm -“ put through something over a hundred cases. One mere boy aroused our sympathy, had both arms and legs broken and was in awful agony. Another poor unfortunate had his teeth blown away and his head and face awfully disfigured, beside broken limbs and boy wounds. He died about two minutes after we moved him -¦ The wounded continue to pour in here in hundreds -¦

– -‘-¦ We commenced to evacuate early this morning and got rid of about 700 cases. Some of them were in terrible plight minus limbs and knocked out of recognition. Some of these were dumb and others blind, the result of shell shock -¦ It was estimated that we have received over 2000 patients in the last 24 hours -¦

– -‘-¦ Yesterday [11 August] the chalk pit got blown to blazes. Several men got killed in one spot and burnt in the fire. Up at the cookhouse one shell caught 40, killing about 30 of them, smashing them to pieces -¦’

Towards the end of August 1916, Jack was happily reunited with his brother Frank (Francis Joseph O’Callagahan #3404) who was serving in the same area in France. -‘-¦ my patience was rewarded in meeting Frank [22 August] for the first time since leaving Australia. We were both so excited -¦ we exchanged home letters and reminiscences. One of the chaps kindly took my place, so I had the afternoon and evening off and needless to say we made the most of the few short hours we had together -¦ About 8pm [23 August] the 6th went past. I rushed out and caught up to Frank. It was just a hand-shake goodbye and good luck, and we parted. Goodness knows when we will meet again -¦’

Frank and Jack did meet up again, on a few occasions in September, October and November 1916, and they shared meals, drinks, letters and news from home. The last mention of Frank related to the letter Jack received from his brother on 9 December, 1916. Tragically, Frank was killed in action at Poperinghe, Belgium on 29 September 1917. He had been awarded the Military Medal for conspicuous service and bravery in the field in June 1917. Three months later, Frank and several of his comrades were killed in a German air raid. Frank was 22 years old.

In the meantime, Jack was suffering from severe heart problems which were exacerbated by recurring bouts of pneumonia, bronchitis and tonsillitis. Despite urgings from his fellow soldiers, Jack remained on duty rather than being admitted to hospital, because he did not want to leave his unit. Considering how little he dwelt on his own illness, things must have been grim for him to make mention of them at all. Despite the pain and discomfort he was in, Jack still had to perform the awful tasks associated with being a stretcher bearer.

– -‘-¦ I had a bad heart attack this morning [11 October, 1916], which lasted a couple of hours. They are getting too numerous for my liking and the boys are trying to persuade me to report, but it might mean an operation and most of them think it’s a cert to return to Australia -¦

– -‘ -¦ I was having dinner [13 October] when I took another of these queer turns -¦

– -‘-¦ I was too ill to get up this morning [19 October] -¦

– -‘-¦ I had a bad heart attack this evening [28 Nov] which lasted a couple of hours -¦

– -‘-¦ It did hurt turning out at 3am [5 December], pitch dark, horribly cold, and old Fritz shelling the roads a treat -¦Last night at 9pm, sixteen chaps were sitting around a fire and having a sing song when a shell came through the roof, landing in the fire pot. Eight Tommies were killed, three Australians wounded, and the parts of their bodies were spread at intervals around the tent, others had the tops of their heads blown off and their features remained untouched -¦

– -‘-¦ [11 December] No improvement. Had a sleepless night running a temperature of 104. A couple of heart attacks -¦

– -‘-¦ No sleep last night [14 Dec] notwithstanding the fact I had a dose of opium -¦’

Finally, on 15 December 1916, the medical officer ordered Jack’s evacuation to England for proper treatment. He spent Christmas in hospital at near Havre, France, awaiting a berth to -‘Blighty’. The Christmas carols that Jack heard on Christmas Eve at church,

-‘-¦ reminded me forcibly of old times, to hear the choir singing the old Christmas hymns that I learned at St Aloysius at Redan -¦’

The last entry in Jack’s diary is dated 28 December 1916, while he was still waiting to leave for England. From his service record it appears that after Jack was discharged as a patient, he remained in England for the remainder of his time overseas, serving in the medical corps in the hospital at Hurdcott.

John Thomas O’Callaghan returned to Australia aboard the Euripides, leaving England on 25 April 1919. He was discharged from the AIF on 20 September 1919. Back home, he became a member of the Returned Services League when it was formed after the war. When World War II broke out, he was one of the first ex-servicemen to join the local Volunteer Defence Corps, but his poor health did not allow his interest to be continued.

Jack resumed his career at the bank, and was working at the Commercial Banking Company at Wangaratta when he met and married Mynie Byrne on 24 October 1924. They had one son, William, known as Bill, who also attended St Patrick’s College between 1940 and 1941. At this time, around 1942, the family were living at Maryborough where it was becoming increasingly apparent that Jack’s health was failing, due to the recurrence of his wartime injuries. The effects of gas poisoning on his lungs finally had its dreadful results in the midst of World War II. In December 1942, Jack collapsed at work and was hospitalised at Maryborough.

John Thomas O’Callaghan died on 8 January 1943 at the age of 49 years. His wife Mynie survived him by 17 years, and at her death in 1968, she was buried with her husband at the Wangaratta Cemetery.