The "Dinkum Soldier" whose luck ran out
Name: William O'Brien
Unit: 25th Battalion AIF
Private William O'Brien came from a hard-working family. His father died in 1906, just a few years after establishing a flour mill in Toowoomba. This left his mother with 10 children to look after and a business to run.
William was just 10 when his father died. His mother carried on with the business, overcoming enormous odds, thanks to the help and kindness of local people.
The O'Briens had established the mill in 1898 because local growers were dissatisfied with the prices they were getting from Brisbane flour millers. They had run their own grocery business for some years but took the huge risk of establishing the Defiance Flour Milling Company, and the original building still exists today, although the company has been sold.
After Patrick O'Brien died, Ellen found their money was tied up in his estate and the banks unwilling to lend to a widow with 10 children. The local growers who had been helped by the O'Briens now repaid their kindness by rallying behind Ellen, some delivering grain on delayed payments. Even the local church chipped in and the Defiance company survived.
As the children grew up and war broke out, William and his brother Anthony answered the call to arms and joined the AIF in June 1916.
By November 1916, William was in camp in England where he seemed to spend much of his time taking part in route marches. In a letter to his brother Tom, William said he expected his Battalion would be sent to France in the new year.
"We have some great marches here," he wrote. "Route marching is practically the only training undergone in this camp. But we like them very much. We take no notice of the pack - you would never know me now. I am so big and strong.
"I think I was cut out for a soldier. My pals call me the 'Dinkum Soldier'. I might tell you I am proud of the name. It is a nick-name to chaps who never miss a parade and who do their guard or fatigue with a smile. You may think I'm skiting but I'm going to be 'dinkum' right to the finish.
"At present our battalion is resting so we will not leave England until the New Year (I think). I surmise that the Allies will put every man and gun into play next spring."
William's prophecy proved accurate for in February 1917 he wrote again to Tom describing the freezing conditions they were having to endure in France.
"In the trenches you have only what you stand in and a waterproof sheet. Ah gee it is cold. It is so cold that the ground is frozen so hard that it breaks all the picks, so we are unable to enlarge our trenches or even improve them.
"We get plenty of tinned food, which is frozen hard and cannot be eaten - you will never understand what I mean by this freezing. Meat is frozen so hard that a knife will not touch it, even the bread is frozen so hard that you cannot eat it. You simply sit there and freeze. Otherwise it is not too bad."
Apart from the cold, William seemed to be enjoying the life of a soldier.
"Well, I might tell you that I like the front line very much. I admit it is a bit of a strain on a chap's nerves, but it is great to be a dinkum soldier, looking over no-man's land knowing that you can claim it any time you wish.
"I had some narrow squeaks and exciting experiences which help to make our little trip interesting. Going up to our posts, as well as many shells coming in our direction, old Fritz had his machine guns onto us but he did not get me. He did get about six in the same position at that time.
"At the post he had a machine gun on our left, one on our right and one straight in front - all within 150 yards of a little bit of a trench. They had several goes at me when I have been doing my turn on duty, but were not smart enough to get me.
"On our last night about fifty of them were coming to raid us but we were awake to their little pranks and gave them a rough reception. The sentry spotted them lining up about 150 yards in front of us, so he gave the alarm.
"First go the machine guns refused to work. The oil was frozen. That made a couple of the chaps a bit windy. It was a serious position, but I guess the 17 of us were worth 500 Fritzs. We go to them with our rifles and I had about 20 shots. At any rate we scattered them in about ten minutes and according to the squeals and yells we sent a few for a trip across the great divide.
"I do not know for certain if I got any but if I did not I gave them a hell of a fright. It was in this raid that I got my reputation. The officer reported that one of his men got out on the parapet (exposing the whole of his body) so as to be in a good shooting position.
You would think that I was a bit of a hero, but don't you think that I would have been a damn fool if I had missed a chance of getting a few of them. I did some good work in the way of finding Fritz's machine gun positions, and other little bits of information.
"The officer must have found me OK because he recommended me for the Brigade Machine Gun section, a position of great honour given only to the bravest and the best."
William O'Brien was unable to take up this honoured position because of a severe case of trench feet.
On 1 April 1917 he wrote to his mother proudly outlining the achievements of the Australian troops.
"We can now say we are 'soldiers'," he wrote. "We have been in the fighting area for 56 days and actually in the front line for about 30 days. We have not shown the white feather when the bullets were flying; at least our friends are quite satisfied with our conduct.
"Hardships (and we do strike some) we meet with a smile. I reckon the Australian troops have just about accomplished the impossible. A few years ago no one would have believed that we could winter in France. But we have been in the open trench (overcoat and waterproof sheet) of stretches from 10 to 3 days.
"We have suffered severely. We have lived in the mud. Snow and ice and still we have enough fight in us to make Fritz's well-trained troops run. I have had some close calls but at no time did I doubt that the BVM (Blessed Virgin Mary) would protect me."
William received regular parcels from home including some from his sisters Nell and Nancy. He wrote to them on 3 April 1917.
"I received another parcel from you today," he said. "I will never be able to thank you. I often think of what a shame it would be if anything happened to me, you would never know how you have always come to the rescue with your parcels.
"We have had a hard trip up the line. Our big advance has started. A fortnight ago we left here. First day we walked 15 miles on a drink of tea; next morning we went another two miles and took over a portion of the front line, dug in that night. Next night moved forward and dug in again.
"Just before daylight the next morning we got Â½ a tin of bully beef and two biscuits each. Next night rations improved. Practically three days on no food and absolutely no water.
"You see we pushed him back about 10 miles in a few weeks. He blows up all the roads and railways, poisons all the water, cuts down all the trees. So we have something to put up with.
"During those two hard days Fritz sent some of his best men over against us but we beat him. Though we are nearly mad with hunger and thirst we can stand up to him and beat him, too.
"The last few days we were in there we did a little better. One night I was out on patrol and found a rut hole on a road with some muddy water in it. We all had a good drink. Can you imagine the feeling as the lumps of mud slid down your throttle. I can tell you I had visions of the big tank at home.
"We had a long weary march back here for a spell. We got a bath and a change of underclothes, then your parcel. By gee you are the angels of my life. All I can say is that I hope you get the reward you deserve. I hope this news will not worry you, or that you will blame the authorities. Everyone is doing their best. I know you will not worry. I am harder than average, you know that? I look so fat and rosy you would think that I was here for the good of my health."
On 18 April he wrote again to his mother telling her of an impending attack.
"We are getting ready for a hop over (attack). I guess it will come off in a day or two. We are in good form. Uncle Harry (a family friend) got a shell wound in the arm yesterday. You can bet on us giving Fritz a rough time."
Five days later William O'Brien was dead. His luck had run out. His mother received the news on what would have been his 21st birthday. Lt Geo Walsh wrote to Mrs O'Brien extending the sympathy of all in the Company.
"I can assure you all here, officers, NCOs and men were surprised and very sorry indeed to hear of poor Willie's death," he wrote.
"It was 7.30pm on Sunday 22 April in the front line that the Hun began to shell us; one shell happened to do more damage than we ever wished for. Fragments caught Willie in the head and left hand and arm, rendering him unconscious and causing a great loss of blood.
"Whilst being dressed he gained his senses for about 10 or 15 minutes and was talking to pals around him. We got him away to the large dressing station in all haste but the end came just about two hours after the accident.
"There was not a happier lad in the Company and his cheeriness and good nature and heartiness gained him the respect of all. He was as brave as the best and always willing to do anything no matter how risky or heavy and believe me there wasn't a lad more popular with all ranks than Will."
A former employee of the Defiance Mills, Mr H. Vermont Pery, who was a stretcher bearer, wrote to William's brother Tom to express his sympathy. He explained that he had met up with William some time before when he had been to sick parade over his bad feet.
"He came to my tent again the next night and we had a yarn," he wrote. "Just before leaving he said jokingly: 'How funny it will be if you carry me down some day. Be sure and give me a good ride'. That was on 27 March and I never saw him again until April 22nd.
"I was out near the line near Morieul on a relay post, and at about 11pm some cases came through. My squad took one and I asked a wounded chap what he belonged to and when he replied the 25th I asked if he knew Billy and he replied: 'Yes, that's him on the stretcher in front. He got hit with me.'
"When we got to the wagon I had a look at him and he was unconscious and had been all the time and died a few minutes afterwards. Had we picked up his stretcher his jesting words would have come true."
Private William Joseph O'Brien is buried at Vaulx Australian Field Ambulance Cemetery, Pas de Calais, France.
Footnote: The letters written by Private William O'Brien and those written to his family after his death were placed by Ellen O'Brien in a wooden box which was accidentally sealed behind a new wall built at the Defiance Flour Mills in Toowoomba many years ago. They were discovered again in 1973 when the offices were being renovated.
The material for this article was supplied by Mary McCafferty of New South Wales