Searching for my Great–grandfather’s medals …
5137 Private Jack (John Ormsby) Sullivan
1st AUSTRALIAN IMPERIAL FORCE
~ a young Kiwi in Australia enlists for the ‘great adventure’ ~
News from the Front
On November 11th, 1916 an infamous pink telegram from the NZ Post & Telegraph Service arrived at 16 Lees Street in Dunedin, the home of John and Margaret Sullivan. The telegram carried the news that all parents who had sons of military enlistment age dreaded … 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.
* 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 meagre 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 waxed cardboard envelope (also referred to as the ‘Death Plaque’, Death Penny’ or ‘Dead Man’s Penny’) accompanied by a Memorial Scroll with Jack’s name inked in red, a form letter of condolence from the King thanking Jack for his devotion and service, an illuminated Certificate of Service, and a photograph of his grave. Between 1920 and 1923 the family received at varying intervals, three medals to acknowledge Jack’s service – the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-18 and the Victory Medal. These posthumous mementos sent to his parents represented the sum total of Jack’s life, his service and the ultimate price he paid.
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 5137 Private Jack (John Ormsby) Sullivan was indeed that man. Enthused by this discovery I further found that 18 year old Jack, a Dunedin theatre pianist, had ‘done a runner’ to Australia in early 1913 to avoid a pending paternity claim.
Jack ended up in Melbourne. On October 24th, 1914 Jack volunteered to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) for war service in Europe. He was assigned to the 12th Company, Australian Army Service Corps, 3rd Australian Light Horse Brigade Train and whose first ‘great adventure‘ was not fighting the Hun in Europe as was expected, but the Ottomans on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey.
Jack survived the Gallipoli campaign only to be transferred to an ANZAC Infantry Battalion and sent to France as many of the A.I.F.’s mounted units were disbanded being totally unsuited to trench warfare. The dismounted troops were largely experienced Gallipoli veterans and so were 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. He and one civilian were the only deaths recorded in the 56th Battalion’s War Diary for that day. a subsequent Court of Inquiry found that at around 11.30 hours on that day, a random artillery shell obliterated Jack and his billet in the French village of Fleurbaix, as well as a passing male villager. My research had also confirmed that I was now the sole, surviving direct descendant of Jack Sullivan – his great-grandson. On learning this my immediate thoughts were: where is he buried … and, what happened to 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 most probably sold his son’s medals in the early 1930s. The family I learned, had become financially destitute following 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 item commemorating Jack’s death that were sent to his parents in the 1920s appears 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 (1914/15 Star, British War Medal 1914-1918 and Victory Medal – aka ‘Pip, Squeak & Wilfred’), his Memorial (‘Death’) Plaque and any other item that acknowledged, or was connected with, his service or death. Regrettably nothing thus far but I remain ever optimistic that something will eventually turn up.
Medals and memories – For Sale?
While searching for Jack Sullivan’s medals I never ceased to be amazed (and somewhat saddened) by the number of medals named to New Zealanders that were no longer in the care of families. Large numbers of medals were regularly traded on the internet by individuals, collectors, dealers, auction houses.
Medals are very saleable items and keenly sought after by collectors world-wide. It is also a known fact that many medals in years past were sold by cash strapped Veterans, or families faced with similar financial hardships as Jack’s parents were confronted with. Others were simply ignored, lost, given away or disposed of by grief stricken parents who did not want to be reminded of the loss of their loved one.
Regrettably once medals have been sold or otherwise disposed of, they are extremely hard to recover as they are keenly sought after and quickly snapped up by collectors world-wide. The sale or disposal of medals also denies future families the opportunity of knowing and honouring the ancestor Veterans, of learning what their medals were awarded for, and the opportunity to acknowledge the service and sacrifice by wearing the medals. Once medals are lost to a family, so to is the future family’s memory and knowledge of the person which in turn tends to consign these Veterans to the ever swelling ranks of the forgotten and anonymous.
The Fallen deserve eternal 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: Honouring their memory of on the National Days of Remembrance by wearing their medals with pride; Educating the young in the protocols of honour and respect on occasions of Remembrance; Inform them of the deeds and sacrifices of their ancestor Veterans, and instil in them the importance of safeguarding and treating with respect the Veteran’s taonga – their medals.
Medals Reunited New Zealand©
It is my belief the rightful place of any war or service medal that has been found, donated or offered up is with a Veteran’s descendant kin. Families who care for their ancestor’s medals tend to respect and honour their memory however many more Veterans are largely forgotten or unknown to which the numerous medals traded on the internet attest to. Medals Reunited New Zealand© was established to trace descendants in order to return named medals sent to us, a wider aim being to re-kindle the memory of the forgotten and anonymous with their descendant families.
~ 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.
Please enjoy the website …
Ian D. Martyn
Medals Reunited New Zealand©
‘Rescue and Retreat’ courtesy of the artist Jennifer Marshall, 2008.
Ben Kemp is The SEO Guy, the designer and IT Manager of the Medals Reunited New Zealand© website. Launched in 2014, Kiwi IT guru Ben offered to build the site at a reduced rate in support of MRNZ’s work in reuniting medals with families, his father being a returned war Veteran.
The Webmaster of UK based AircrewRemembered.com 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.com and advise them of your airman’s name. AircrewRemembered.com will create a detailed Tribute Page with an historical account of the action in which your airman lost his life. Photographs are welcomed, their service is FREE.