How It Began

The search for great grandad’s medals …


5137 Private John Ormsby Sullivan   


~ a young Kiwi in Australia enlists for the ‘great adventure’ ~ 

News from the Front …

On the 11th of November 1916 an infamous pink telegram from the NZ Post & Telegraph Office arrived at 16 Lees Street, Dunedin, the home of John & Margaret Sullivan.  The telegram carried the news that all parents dreaded who had sons of military enlistment age … the Great War, the ‘war to end all wars’ had claimed the life of their beloved and only son.  5137 Private Jack* Sullivan, an infantry soldier serving with the 56th (Inf) Battalion, 1st AIF, had been killed on the 9th of October, 1916 by a stray artillery shell that struck his billet in the French village of Fleurbaix, on the Western Front.  Fleurbaix was part of the 5th Division’s Battalion Reserve Area located in rear of the then battle front-line at Armentières on the Somme  – Jack was 24 years old.  

Pte Jack Sullivan, 3 ALH Bde - December. 1914

Private Jack Sullivan, 3 ALH Bde. – circa December 1914

Jack was the name Private Sullivan enlisted under.  He had abandoned the ‘John Ormsby’ names possibly because he was usually known as Jack rather than John, but more particularly to differentiate him from his father, John Snr.  His forenames had also caused some confusion when the ‘Ormsby’ initial was inadvertently linked to ‘Sullivan’ thereby incorrectly listing him as an ‘O’Sullivan ‘ … or was there another reason ?  Over 4,000 AIF soldiers enlisted under false names for a variety of reasons.  Some name variations were the result of administrative error however most were by design to conceal a man’s identity from an event or circumstances of their past – as was the case with Jack !  

A family in mourning …

In due course Jack’s few meager personal possessions from his person and last known position on the Front, were posted to his parents in 1917.  However it would be 1921 before they would receive any formal acknowledgement of Jack’s service and sacrifice on behalf of the King and a grateful nation – a Memorial Plaque (also referred to as the ‘Death Plaque’, Death Penny’ or ‘Dead Man’s Penny’), a Memorial Scroll which accompanied the Plaque, the King’s Letter which thanked Jack for his commitment and service, an illuminated Certificate of Service, and three separate issues of service medals (the WW1 Trio).  These posthumously awarded items represented the sum total of Jack’s life, service and sacrifice.

In 2010 while studying some old family documents, I stumbled across evidence of my maternal great-grandfather, a man our family never knew existed. Subsequent research on the Internet directed me to the National Archives of Australia and the Australian War Museum, and very soon I was able to confirm that Service Number 5137 Private John (Jack) Ormsby Sullivan was indeed that man. Enthused by this discovery I further found that 18 year old Jack, a Dunedin theater pianist, had ‘done a runner’ to Australia in early 1913 to avoid a paternity claim that was pending against him.  Jack ended up in Melbourne and by 24 October 1914

" no change can cloud our thoughts of you "

” no change can cloud
     our thoughts of you “

had voluntarily enlisted into the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for war service in Europe.  Jack was assigned to the 3rd Brigade of the Australian Light Horse whose first ‘great adventure’ as it turned out was not to be fighting the Hun in Europe as they had anticipated, but a new enemy – the Turks on the Gallipoli Peninsula. 

Jack survived the Battle of Gallipoli only to be transferred to an ANZAC Infantry Battalion when the 3rd ALH Brigade was downsized.  The dismounted troops were largely experienced Gallipoli veterans and had been re-assigned as Infantry to boost/train the ‘green’ reinforcements that had arrived direct from Australia to fight on the Western Front. 

The 9th of October 1916 was to be a ‘red letter’ day.  Private Jack Sullivan and one civilian were the only deaths recorded in the Battalion’s War Diary for that day.  My research had also by now confirmed that I was now the sole surviving direct descendant of Jack Sullivan – his great-grandson.  On learning this my first thoughts were … how did he die, where was he buried, and

Whatever happened to Jack’s medals ?

decThumb22924It was another two years of research before I could finally conclude that Jack’s father (John Snr) had sold his medals in the early 1930s.  The family had become financially destitute as a result of the effects of the Great Depression that gripped New Zealand and the rest of the world following the Wall Street Crash of 1929.  No evidence of any other commemorative item sent to his parents in the 1920s, on behalf of the King, appeared to have survived the passing years either.

So I started scouring New Zealand, Australia and made inquiries with medal dealers around the world to try and find Jack’s medal trio (‘Pip, Squeak & Wilfred’), his Memorial (Death) Plaque, or any of the other commemorative and memorial documents and awards that acknowledged Jack’s service and sacrifice – regrettably, no success thus far – I am still looking !

Medals and Memories – For Sale ?Memorial Plaque

While searching for Jack’s medals I never ceased to be amazed (and somewhat saddened) by the large numbers of New Zealanders medals from WW1 and WW2 that were no longer in the care of families, but being traded for profit by collectors, dealers, auction houses, and on the Internet. It is very probable many of these medals were also sold by cash strapped families (or veterans) faced with similar financial hardships as those that Jack’s parents faced. 

Sadly, the trade in war medals usually indicates an absence of surviving family or descendants.  Medals may be ‘lost’ to families for many reasons such as when the custodian dies, by accidental loss, or by theft.  Medals may also have been disposed of by veteran for financial reasons or simply because of their experiences and abhorrence of war and what the medals represented.   Family members who have no interest or understanding of their significance , or any memory or knowledge of their war veteran ancestors also dispose of medals as being old rubbish. Once medals have been ‘lost’ to a family it is very likely they will remain lost to veterans’ families – forever ! 

The dead deserve our everlasting gratitude …

Anzac-obvThe quality of life that we as free New Zealand citizens enjoy today is due in no small part to the war efforts of our war veteran forefathers. We as the beneficiaries of their sacrifices owe them a perpetual debt of gratitude for the freedoms and way of life we enjoy today. Family or descendants can go some way to honouring this ‘debt’ by actively remembering their veterans, educating younger family members of their deeds and sacrifices, and preserving and passing on these taonga to successive responsible family guardians.  

Medals Reunited New Zealand©

It is our belief the rightful place of any war and service medal is with a veteran’s surviving kin. This belief together with my unsuccessful search to locate Jack’s’ medals, also reinforced in me that there was a need for a service in New Zealand to return lost and found medals to their rightful descendant families …. and so Medals Reunited New Zealand was founded to do just that. 

Our research focus is on deceased New Zealand veterans (mainly WW1) whose names are impressed or engraved on medals.  We will also research non-impressed or engraved medals (e.g. all WW2 campaign medals were issued unnamed) provided the ownership can be verified by some other accompanying document, photo etc.  Using our world-wide network of resources we will attempt to trace a surviving family member or descendant with whom we can reunite their ancestor’s medals.  By reuniting medals with kin we hope to rekindle family interest in both safeguarding these precious taonga for future generations, and also to provide a reason to honour the sacrifice and memory of veteran ancestors by wearing the medals (or replicas) on appropriate occasions. (refer Wearing Medals)


~ A Nations’ Debt of Honour ~

 Be ever thankful for the sacrifices of others;
            We dare not forget we are the heirs of their honour,
                                                Courageous deeds, and unfulfilled dreams.                                          


Honour their Sacrifice and Memory …

Ian D. Martyn
Medals Reunited New Zealand©
M:    +64-27-940-4495
T:      +64-3-546-7728
E:     [email protected] 


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Website: The Medals Reunited New Zealand© website was designed in 2014 by Kiwi IT guru, Ben Kemp (The SEO Guy).  Ben remains the IT Manager of this site. 

Artwork: “Rescue and Retreat” by Jennifer Marshall, 2008