How It Began …

Searching for my Great-grandfather’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 – 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 errors however most were by design to conceal a man’s identity from an event or circumstances in their past – as was the case with Jack !  

A family in mourning

In due course Jack’s few meager personal possessions he had on his person and from what was left of the billet, were posted to his parents in 1917.  It would be 1921 before they received any formal acknowledgement of Jack’s service and sacrifice on behalf of the King and a grateful nation – a Memorial Plaque in a plain brown wrapper (also referred to as the ‘Death Plaque’, Death Penny’ or ‘Dead Man’s Penny’), accompanied by a Memorial Scroll with Jack’s name on, a form letter from the  King thanking Jack for his devotion and service, an illuminated Certificate of Service and photograph of his grave.  Over the following few years three separate issues of a service medal would be made – the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18 and the Victory Medal.  These posthumously mementos sent to his parent represented the sum total of Jack’s life, his service and supreme 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 he had anticipated, but a new enemy – the Ottomans (Turkish) 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 a ‘black letter’ day for Private Jack Sullivan.  Pte Jack Sullivan and one civilian were the only deaths recorded in the 56th Battalion’s War Diary for that day.  At around 11.30 hours on that day a random artillery shell obliterated Jack’s billet in the French village of Fleurbaix.  It had also killed a villager passing by.  My research to date also confirmed that I was now the sole surviving direct descendant of Jack Sullivan, his great-grandson.  On learning this my first thoughts were – where was he buried ? … and what of his medals?

Whatever happened to Jack’s medals ?

It was another two years of research before I could finally conclude that Jack’s father (John Sullivan  Snr) had sold the medals in the early 1930s.  The family had become financially destitute as a result 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 appeared to have survived the passing years.

So I started scouring New Zealand and Australia, making inquiries far and wide to find Jack’s medal Trio (‘Pip, Squeak & Wilfred’), his Memorial (‘Death’) Plaque or any of the item that acknowledged or was connected with his service and death.  Regrettably, no success thus far but I remain ever optimistic and am always looking !

Medals and memories – For Sale ?

Memorial Plaque & King’s Letter

While searching for Jack Sullivan’s medals I never ceased to be amazed (and somewhat saddened) by the numbers of New Zealander’s medals from both WW1 and WW2 that were no longer in the care of veteran’s families.  Large numbers of medals were regularly traded on the internet by individuals, collectors, dealers, auction houses and more than likely family members who either had no interest in  medals, or any memory of their ancestor veteran. 

Medals are very saleable items and keenly sought after by collectors world-wide.  It is also very probable many of these medals were sold by cash strapped veterans themselves, or their families, who have been faced with similar financial hardships as those Jack’s parents were confronted with.  Regrettably once sold, veteran’s medals are extremely hard to recover as they are keenly sought after by collectors world-wide. 

Their sale denies a family the opportunity of honouring an ancestor’s service and sacrifice by wearing their medals, and of safeguard them to pass on to future generations.  Once medals are lost to a family, so to is often a family’s memory of the veteran, one in danger of quickly being consigned to the ever swelling ranks of the forgotten.

ANZAC (Gallipoli) Medallion – 1967

‘The Fallen’ deserve everlasting gratitude

The quality of life that we as free New Zealand citizens enjoy every day is due in no small part to the efforts of our war veteran forefathers.  We, the beneficiaries of their service and sacrifices, owe them all a perpetual debt of gratitude which should never be forgotten.  Families and descendants can go some way to re-paying this debt by some of the following: honour the memory of your Veteran on the National Days of Remembrance by wearing their medals (or a Poppy) with pride; educate the young in the protocols of honour and respect on occasions of Remembrance; tell them of the deeds and sacrifices of their Veterans, and instill in them the importance of safeguarding and treating with respect, the taonga of Veteran’s ~ their medals.  

Medals Reunited New Zealand©

It is my belief the rightful place of any war or service medal that has been found (or is no longer required by an owner) is with the veteran’s descendant kin. This belief, together with my own unsuccessful search to locate great-grandfather Jack Sullivan’s medals, sparked in me the desire to honour the memory of  veterans whose medals had been found (or donated) by reuniting these with their families.  It is a sad fact that when some descendants have received an ancestors medals, many do not even know they had a veteran in their family.  Medals Reunited New Zealand© aims to re-kindle in families the memory of these largely forgotten and anonymous veterans by return their medals. 


~ A Nations’ Debt of Gratitude ~

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



Ian D. Martyn                                                                                                Director & Founder                                                                                        Medals Reunited New Zealand©



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Medals Reunited New Zealand© website was designed in 2014 by Kiwi IT guru, Ben Kemp (The SEO Guy).  Ben is the IT Manager of this website and an ardent support of MRNZ’s work.  The painting above “Rescue and Retreat” is courtesy of the artist Jennifer Marshall, 2008.

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The Webmaster of UK based AircrewRemembered provides valuable assistance to MRNZ which assists us to return to families the medals of airmen who have died on air operations.  Medals Reunited New Zealand© highly recommends to any family who has an airman ancestor die during operations in war or peace, to contact AircrewRemembered and advise them of your airman’s name.  AircrewRemembered will create a detailed Tribute Page with an historical account of the action in which your airman lost his life.  Photographs are welcomed, the service is FREE.