29845 ~ JOHN ANDREW O’BRIEN, M.M.
The Military Medal (MM) was established in March 1916 to recognise “acts of gallantry and devotion to duty under fire.” This was subsequently reinterpreted as “an act (or acts) of gallantry in the face of the enemy.” A Military Medal earned for gallantry in action by a New Zealand soldier is always an enticing find for any serious medal collector, particularly if the medal recipient earned the award as a result of taking the ‘fight’ to the enemy. An MM was normally awarded for individual acts of heroism such as rescuing a comrade from danger whilst under fire, or taking offensive action that made a significant contribution to the mission or tactical situation. An Imperial gallantry decoration, the MM ranked as the third highest decoration for gallantry in action, below that of the Distinguished Conduct Medal and Victoria Cross. It is now an obsolete decoration and ceased to be awarded in 1993 when Commonwealth countries previously eligible for the medal, instituted their own award systems. In New Zealand the Military Medal was replaced with the New Zealand Gallantry Decoration (NZGD).
For Bravery In The Field
Between 1914 and 1918, the Military Medal was awarded to 2,128 New Zealanders during the First World War , 2066 single awards with another 62 recipients awarded a Bar (a second award) to their medal. This represents just 2% of the 100,000 plus New Zealanders who served overseas. Compared with the total awarded to the remaining over 3,000,000 soldiers and nurses from Britain Australia, Canada, Africa and South Africa, India and the Caribbean, the numbers of New Zealand’s so recognised was very small. This was in part attributed to a “quota system” administered by Imperial leadership which often did not rule in the New Zealand Division’s favour. However, what this has unintentionally created is rarity. NZ’s First World War Military Medals are among the rarest of the Britain’s obsolete gallantry decorations, are highly collectible and a valuable collector investment.
To medal collectors, it is this relative rarity (rarity being the number awarded in proportion to the size of the force) of the MM, or any other gallantry decoration, together with the narrative (the Citation) that led to the awarded being made, that is everything in terms of a medal’s value. In short, the degree of danger the recipient was exposed to in performing the act(s) of gallantry, will drive just how much profit can made from a gallantry medal.
Citations for the MM were generally economically worded, these at times subject to prevailing memory (or lack of) and the capability of the recommending superior to articulate the event(s). Indeed some citations were little more than a few words such as, “For conspicuous gallantry” or, “For bravery in the field.” While a medal with an unqualified citation such as these provides no supporting narrative. However to a savvy seller, the medal can still command a good price based upon where and when the action took place, and compared with how many others were also recognised with the award. Citations that articulate a soldier taking the fight to the enemy are the most valuable and most remain in the hands of collectors. The selling price for a group of medals and a detailed Citation therefore can be astronomical and beyond the reach of many, particularly family. How much would you be prepared to pay to recover medals that had belonged to your ancestors? More to the point, how important is it to you that medals that once belonged to your ancestors, be recovered for the benefit of your family and its heritage?
Whenever I come across such medal groups, be it on Trade-Me or eBay my first thought is to wonder ‘why this prestigious medal (or group of medals) is not still with the recipient’s descendant family’? Reasons can be many and varied however in the few cases of medals bought on the internet that I have handled, the majority of descendants have been only too happy to have the opportunity to acquire them for their family. Some descendants may be aware of an ancestor who went to war but most younger family members have no idea, or are completely unaware any medals ever existed? Medals that come up for sale on Trademe and eBay I consider to be part of New Zealand’s intrinsic military history and national heritage. As a matter of course I will briefly review the named recipient’s genealogy looking for the potential of living descendants who could be contacted to alert to the sale – it may be the only opportunity they ever have to recover them for their family?
Gallantry group for sale
I first saw Corporal John O’Brien’s medals on a Trademe post in March 2021 with a $1.00 Reserve. The medals were accompanied by a partial photograph of the 18th Reinforcements during a route march from Featherston to Trentham Camp and in which Cpl. O’Brien allegedly featured – as I later discovered, his identity in this photo remains unresolved.
To buy or not to buy …?
Southland soldier John Andrew O’Brien, or “Jack” as he was universally known, went to First World War in 1916 together with his younger brother Martin. The brothers served together and during their service in France, Jack distinguished himself on the battlefield as a machine-gunner which resulted in him receiving the Military Medal for gallantry in action.
Deciding to make a bid for any medal on Trademe or eBay is a decision that needs to be made fast as on-line auctions by their very nature are short lived and bidding (particularly for gallantry medals) is usually brisk and highly competitive among collectors.
If after assessing that the potential of finding a descendant is favourable, finances permitting I will buy the medals. That way I can research descendants at leisure. If any medal I have bought remains unclaimed for any reason, they will not be re-sold but remain in my custody until gifted to the National Army Museum (or Navy or Air Force, as appropriate) after my eventual demise. My rationale for this course of action ensures the gallantry, service, and sometimes supreme sacrifice made by the person named on the medals, will never again be profited from.
A desert of information
One of the things that became obvious once I started to research John (Jack) O’Brien, was just how little there was known about him. I could find very few newspaper references to him personally save for a couple of advertisements for sheep sales, and his listing on one of the district’s Reinforcements advices. Whilst Jack’s name was known at the Otautau Museum, no photograph, letter or even an anecdote could be found which made mapping his life in Southland particularly difficult.
After speaking with a relative Jack O’Brien seems to have been a bit of an enigma. From the limited knowledge of him it would appear he lived a fairly solitary life either labouring or farming, a quiet man who had little interest in marriage or a family. Not one to make headlines, on the one occasion Jack did make news in the Wallace County, his notoriety was short lived to the extent that even today, very little is known or is in evidence, of his bravery during the final weeks of the war. Jack O’Brien’s name does not appear on any public memorial, honours board and even his gravestone is devoid of reference to his bravery. Perhaps it was his faith and/or war experiences that shaped a preference to avoid the spotlight of celebrity and remain uncredited. Whatever kept Jack in the background of his life, we will never know as there is now no-one to recall the detail of his relatively short life – his history and contribution died with him.
To develop some perspective for this story, I have touched on a little of the O’Brien family as a whole in order to gather some perspective of where Jack fitted in the scheme of things. Jack O’Brien’s elder brother Michael, or “Mick” O’Brien was the most well known of the family members and of who there was plenty written. Mick featured large in the community as well as the lives of all O’Brien family members since it was with Mick and his wife Delia, the family lived for varying periods of time both before and after the First World War.
From Galway to Temuka
On September 22, 1925 an obituary in the OTAUTAU STANDARD AND WALLACE COUNTY CHRONICLE signalled the end of an Irish pioneer’s life, one who had worked hard to carve out a living on the desolate plains of Wallace County in Southland.
Patrick O’Brien (1843-1925)
“There passed away at Otautau, on Tuesday the 10th inst., another of the old identities, in the person of Mr Patrick O’Brien at the age of 82 years. One of Nature’s gentlemen and an early pioneer of the district, deceased was universally respected. Born in 1843 at Carrabrown, Galway, Ireland, he left home in November 1863, in the sailing vessel “Aboukir”, landed at Port Chalmers in January ’64 being then 21 years old. With three comrades, he set out to walk to Invercargill through the then trackless country, taking four days to complete the journey, the party having to sleep out in the open for lack of other accommodation. He obtained work on the Invercargill-Bluff railway, then in the course of construction, lured by the gold fever, he joined a party who walked from Invercargill to the West Coast where he worked for about a year but without much success.
Leaving the Coast, he went to Christchurch. Here he engaged in several railway contracts for a period of years after which he took up a farm at Rhodes Island in the Temuka district after his marriage, which he occupied for 10 years. A very enterprising man, and while engaged in agricultural pursuits, Mr O’Brien arrived in Southland long before it was connected by rail, and was one of the successful contractors that took up Public Works Contracts in the early days in road-making and in other directions. After selling his Rhodes Island property, he selected another farm at Morven, which he farmed for three years. He again disposed of this property before moving to Southland in 1881 and settled at “The Gorge” at Wairio. In 1934, Mr O’Brien removed to another property, “The Gorge” at Wairio which he farmed together with his son Martin, until he retired. Seven years ago  Mr and Mrs O’Brien retired and came to Otautau to live with their son (Michael) and their daughters at the Crown Hotel.
Coming to New Zealand, as he did in 1864, he has seen many wonderful changes in the condition of affairs. To have had a chat with him when in a reminiscent mood was an education in the early affairs of the country. Deceased was a highly respected citizen, and his quiet presence will be missed by friends visiting the township. Mrs O’Brien was a woman of a most kindly nature, and took an active interest in the early history of St. Peter’s Church and Convent at Wrey’s Bush to which parish she belonged. Deceased was a highly respected citizen, and his quiet presence will be missed by friends visiting the township.
Mr O’Brien is survived by a family of six sons and four daughters, viz: Messrs Michael and John (Otautau), Thomas (Te WaeWae), James (Invercargill), Patrick (Napier), Martin (Wairio), and Mesdames W. Burke and O. Gallagher. He was interred at Wrey’s Bush on the 18th. A Requiem Mass was celebrated at Otautau by the Revd. Father Lynch of Wrey’s Bush, who also performed the last rites at the graveside.” – W.R. Ireland, Undertaker.
Patrick O’Brien’s wife Bridget predeceased him six years earlier in 1919 at the age of 68 years.
Mrs Bridget O’Brien (1851-1919)
“General regret was evinced when it became known that Mrs O’Brien, of Otautau, had passed away (in March), after a protracted illness, at the age of 68 years. A native of Galway, Ireland, Mrs Bridget O’Brien (nee Farrell) was born in 1851, and came out to New Zealand in the ship Blue Jacket, landing at Port Chalmers 57 years ago. She married Mr O’Brien at Temuka in 1863, where her husband was engaged in farming. In 1881 the family removed to Southland, taking up a well-known farm, “The Gorge” at Wairio.
The sons are—James (Kauana), Michael and Jack (John) (Otautau), Patrick (Gisborne & Napier), Thomas (Te WaeWae), and Martin (Wairio). The daughters are—Mrs Gallagher (Wairio), Mrs W. Burke, and Miss Mary and Miss Delia; all of Otautau.
The funeral took place on Sunday, leaving Otautau for the Wrey’s Bush cemetery, and was perhaps the largest cortege ever seen in the district, many coming from long distances to show their respect for the deceased lady and the family. The Very Rev. Father’s Murphy (Riverton) and Lynch (Wrey’s Bush) officiated at the graveside.”
Wairio in Wallace
Wairio sits in the heart of Southland’s Wallace regional county, about 68 kilometres NW of Invercargill. In the later part of the 1890s, a large property in the vicinity of Wairio, known as Waicola Estate, was cut up for closer settlement. The town of Wairio had been built around the railway station, the line running from Otautau, 25 kilometres to the south, up through Wairio to the coalmining town of Nightcaps just four kilometres to the north-west, which had originally been included in the Wairio district. The main road running from Otautau through to Nightcaps passes through the district. Another small settlement, Scott’s Gap, is seven kilometres west of Wairio, and on the eastern boundary of the Wairio area sits Wrey’s Bush, the two settlements being about six kilometres apart.
In 1901 Wairio had a Presbyterian church, a community hall, a hotel and a general store at which the post office and telegraph business were also located. The population of the Wairio settlement was 270, the surrounding area swelling the numbers to around 1,200. The local school had an average attendance of 45 children by 1904. By comparison the population in 2013 was 942 representing an increase of 33 people since the 2006 Census.
Named after Walter Wrey, in June 1857 Walter Wrey and Herbert Seymour transferred 2500 sheep on the ship Taranaki from Nelson to stock a property entitled Run 153, otherwise described as “wastelands of the Crown”. Pioneer diaries described the area as “desolate bush” and “spurs more holy than righteous”. When Wrey died unexpectedly in Invercargill Run 153 was taken over in 1869 by William and Agnes Johnston as one of the largest sheep runs in the district – Wrey’s Bush Run 153 was approximately 30,000 acres. They purchased the freehold land (around 10,000 acres) and signed up for the rest of the leasehold land (another 20,000 acres) and then named this run “Annandale”, after the valley of the Annan, south of Moffat, where William and Agnes had lived in their early days in Scotland. The eastern boundary of Wreys Bush is bounded by the Aparima River running north-south.
In 1901, Wreys Bush had a population of 289 and was serviced by two hotels, two stores, a blacksmith, a saddler, a boot maker, a Catholic church and the Wreys Bush Public School. Wreys Bush was a popular stopover for wagoners, drovers and gold miners; they usually stayed at one of the Wreys Bush hotels. Annandale was eventually split up into farms which were owned by Irish farmers, most of them being Catholic.
In 1899, St Peter’s church-school, as they were known, was opened and run by the Sisters of Mercy. St Peters followed the pattern of many early New Zealand Catholic settlements, where there was no school building to start with, and classes were held in the church. This meant the furniture had to be arranged on Friday afternoons for Mass on Sunday and then rearranged back to a classroom on Monday morning for classes to begin. With the establishment of this church-school the local state (public) school had only one non-Catholic student and so was made obsolete and closed down. To begin with St Peter’s ‘Mass Sunday’ was very well attended with families arriving early in buggies to have time to catch up with their neighbours and other parishioners in the area. The community always made the Sisters, who walked the short distance to the church from their convent, very welcome. When Wreys Bush became a separate parish, a new presbytery was built so there was a resident priest to serve the busy township. The convent still stands today (now a private home) but the school house has been demolished.
Aside from Patrick “Paddy” O’Brien’s arrival in Southland as an early settler and contractor who helped to establish the rural communities of Wairio/Wrey’s Bush, it was one of Paddy and Bridget’s (nee Farrell, of Galway, Ireland) sons Michael who made the greatest impact from the 1910s to the 1940’s through his hospitality and equine businesses. Three of Paddy’s sons became Hotel Keepers. The eldest, James (1869-1952) and his wife Margaret (nee Cavanagh, from Ryalls Bush) had the licence of the Benmore Hotel (an accommodation house at the time he took over) at Kauana, while younger brother Michael (1875-1938) or “Mick” as everyone knew him, ran the popular Crown Hotel with his wife Delia Annie (nee Forde, from Scotts Gap) in Otautau, situated on the NE side of the Longwood Range. The next youngest brother, Thomas “Tommy” O’Brien (1877-1951) and his wife Mary (nee Donovan, from Riverton) farmed at remote Te Waewae on the opposite, SW side of the Longwood Range, near the mouth of the Waiau River and about 18 kms as the crow flies, from Port Craig across Te Waewae Bay. Their son Thomas Jnr took over the property when Thomas Snr and Mary retired, the couple remaining at Te Waewae for the rest of their lives.
Wairio, 1900 >
Mick O’Brien’s three youngest brothers Patrick Jnr, Jack (John) and Martin O’Brien were all born at Wairio and had grown up together at “The Gorge”. Their older brothers had all initially worked on farms and as contractors or miners, three of them later becoming hotel keepers whilst the youngest siblings were still at home. The four O’Brien sisters also grew up in Wairio, three eventually marrying and move away. Pat, Jack and Martin attended Wrey’s Bush Public School until of an age to work full-time back on the farm with their father. Contract work such as road, culvert and bridge building, drainage ditching and fencing between seasonal shearing and crop harvesting broadened their experience and kept them fully employed during the leaner periods of the year when snow and ice blanketed the Southland countryside for months at a time.
For recreation, apart from the usual hunting and fishing trips, being capable horsemen the boys were enthusiastic participants in the Birchwood Hunt and Wairio Jockey Clubs. Rugby was another commitment with teams made up from the local area including Wairio, Wreys Bush, Nightcaps and Ohai.
The O’Brien name in Otautau and thereabouts in Wallace County became well known and highly regarded due in large part to the presence of the affable Mick O’Brien. Before coming to Otautau, Mick had initially worked at Wairio before going further north for a number of years to farm at Greenvale (near Balclutha) and later take up contract work at Five Rivers and Birchwood. In 1907, Mick decided on an occupation change and returned to the family fold in Wallace County to become a Hotel Keeper (publican) and owner of the Crown Hotel at Otautau.**
Note: ** Mrs Julianna Price (wife of Thomas, the original builder and owner of the first Otautau Hotel) built the Crown Hotel, one of five different hotels that Mrs Price was involved in building or running. After Price was bankrupted in 1884, Robert and Julia Sweetman bought the Crown and ran it until 1907. It was at this point that Mick O’Brien bought the Crown and operated it out of three different premises and sites over the years until his death.
The Canadian Naval Cadets toured New Zealand in 1912. Their stop at The Crown, on the way to Winton, was a great affair with citizens massing to see not only the Cadets but also the motor cars they were travelling in. The Cadets were very popular in Southland, with the Canadian Trade Commissioner for Australia writing to the Southland branch of the Navy League thanking the Navy League for their warm welcome and kindness shown to the Cadets on their recent tour of the New Zealand.
Mick O’Brien was thirty two years of age when he and wife Delia bought the Crown from the Sweetmans in 1907. The Crown was an institution in Main Street, Otautau that offered the travelling public livery stables, fine accommodation, an excellent dining room and menu, a lounge for the ladies, and the all important bar room facilities for the men. Generous to a fault, Mick and Delia were renowned for running the most desirable accommodation and dining facilities in the town. Mick’s profile and popularity were further escalated when he bought Sweetman’s Horse Bazaar which was built behind the Crown. Mick’s love of horses and horse racing was a natural fit for the additional business and prosperity the bazaar bought to the small rural town during its regular auctions.
The O’Brien’s were an upright Catholic family who took their faith seriously. While at Wairio the family were faithful servants of the Wreys Bush church-school, something Delia and her mother-in-law Bridget had been instrumental in getting established in the absence of a Catholic church building, despite a large proportion of the local population being Irish. Delia maintained her allegiance and commitment to the Wreys Bush parish even after moving to Otautau. She could also exercise her influence at the Crown in a most agreeable way to ensure the establishment’s well earned reputation remained upheld. Needless to say with her faith being her guide, Delia O’Brien’s quiet and genteel disposition could be quickly set aside should mien host’s ears take offence from any Crown patron’s language or antics in her establishment lest they not meet with the Lord’s commandments or expectations!
No doubt influenced by her mother’s and grandmother’s straight-laced catholic principles of righteousness during her upbringing, Mick and Delia’s eldest daughter Mary decided to take the veil to become Sister Mary Campion (O’Brien) SM, a long serving member of the Dunedin Sisters of Mercy religious order. Their second eldest, Norah, married Mervin Joseph English and thus became the unwitting parents of the 39th Prime Minister of New Zealand, Sir Simon William “Bill” English, KNZM. Mick and Delia’s family were complimented by three youngest members of the family, sons John Martin, Michael and Francis Patrick O’Brien.
Horse Bazaar & Livery Stables
As part of the Crown purchase, Mick also bought the horse bazaar (auction house) situated behind the hotel which the previous publican Robert Sweetman had built in 1900. From 1907 onwards the bazaar was re-named “O’Brien’s Horse Bazaar.”
This is a photograph of Mick O’Brien’s Horse Bazaar when it was still called the Crown Livery Stables and Horse Bazaar, built at the back of the Crown Hotel in Otautau by the then publicans, Robert and his wife Julia Sweetman. The first sale held here was Opening Day, a Wednesday on 5th September 1900. The attendance at this event was huge, with many settlers coming ‘from far and near’. At the sale, Heddon Bush’s Mr Forde’s** First Class gelding fetched the price of £49 (pounds), the modern-day equivalent of over $8000.00.
Note: ** Mick O’Brien’s father-in-law, wife Delia (nee Forde) being one of his daughters.
By the end of 1920 the building had been taken over by the Wallace Motor & Tourist Co. Ltd. The old bazaar was refitted and re-purposed as the Crown Garage. Mick O’Brien continued to run his highly successful “O’Brien’s Horse Bazaar” sales but exactly where remains unclear. It is possible that sales continued to be held on land owned by Mick, or possibly in the area in front of the building as shown in the photo. But wherever it was held over the next number of years, it remained named “O’Brien’s Horse Bazaar.”
The very last horse sale on record held under the O’Brien name was on August 28th, 1928. This may have been because by the end of 1928, a new service station in front of the Crown Garage had almost been completed for the new owner.
Three years after Mick and Delia took over the Crown, Mick’s parents Paddy and Bridget O’Brien retired from “The Gorge” at Wairio in 1910, leaving their sons Pat, Jack (John) and Martin to continue working the farm. Paddy and Bridget moved into the Crown becoming permanent residents for the rest of their days until both passed away. Mick’s brothers and sisters also worked and/or lived at the hotel at varying times, or until marriage resulted in their moving to their own properties.
Wherever you have a hotel, closely associated with it you will find horse racing and so it was at the Crown. Mick and his three younger brothers’ love of horses and horse racing ensured the Crown was the hub of O’Brien family life, particularly whenever family members gathered to attend a race or hunt club meeting, or when a break was needed from farm work back out at Wairio. Mick O’Brien became one of the leading horse-racing personalities of Southland. His drive and enthusiasm to establish a racing club in Otautau attracted widespread support and he managed to have a licence issued to establish one. Regarded as the founder of the Otautau Racing Club, Mick O’Brien became its first and continuous president until the day he died in 1938. The O’Brien brothers were also committed members of the Birchwood Hunt (formed in 1886) and the Wairio Jockey Club.
Disaster struck the Crown on 18 May 1919 when it caught fire in the night and was subsequently raised to the ground along with buildings alongside the hotel. The fire however, narrowly avoiding the destruction of the Horse Bazaar (an auction house for both working and racing horses) which was in rear of the hotel. Fortunately all the residents and guests including parents Paddy and Bridget O’Brien, managed to escape to safety. Undeterred, Mick and Delia immediately established a temporary bar on site and accommodation facilities in the Wallace Hall. Mick moved again to a store in the main street and finally to a neighbouring building which later became Westney’s Jewellers & Watchmakers. The horse bazaar continued to operate at another location while Mick planned to re-build the Crown but first he needed to Re-Licence. His application to re-licence however was met with endless resistance. The greatest objection was from the Women’s Christian Temperance Union who had widespread support in Southland to advocate the banning of liquor sales due to the disorder, crime and maltreatment of women and children that resulted from it. Returning soldiers indeed exacerbated this situation. The Licensing Commission had objected because they considered Mick had not made sufficient effort to re-build quickly enough after the fire! Mick had been without a permanent premises for nearly six months when finally, the pressure of need for the travelling public together with Mick’s history of providing a good service, the Commission granted him a Licence to re-build the Crown.
Mick O’Brien’s motivation and influence on the Otautau sporting community was significant. In addition to his Otautau Racing Club commitments, he also became a member of the committee of the Clifden Racing Club, the Birchwood Hunt Club, and the Wairio Jockey Club. He was also a member of the Otautau Athletic Society, and had been the chairman of the committee which successfully conducted the 6oth jubilee celebrations in 1937 of the Riverton parish of the Roman Catholic Church.
In 1934, Mick bought the “Sunnyside” Station in the Monowai district making his eldest son John Martin O’Brien, then around 18 years of age, the Station Manager. Sunnyside was a large sheep and cropping property which kept the family well provided for whilst allowing Mick to pursue his passion for horse breeding and racing, together with his younger brothers, two of whom were also returned World War 1 veterans. Mick was able to leave Delia running the hotel while he commuted the 65 km on horseback from Sunnyside. It was only after Mick’s untimely death that Delia, daughters Mary and Norah, and sons Michael and Francis moved to Sunnyside once the Crown had been sold. In later years, John and brother Michael ran Sunnyside Station in partnership while their youngest brother Francis joined the Franciscan religious order in Sydney and became a priest. Sunnybank Station still remains in existence today running cattle and deer in a somewhat modified, smaller form after several blocks were sold off over the years.
Michael “Mick” O’Brien died suddenly at the age of 62 in December 1938, thereby ending the life of the fondly remembered and well respected publican and racing club president, an identity who together with wife Delia and their family made an indelible contribution to Otautau and to the Wallace County.
War comes to Europe
Not since 1902 when the Boer War ended, did the country think it might again need to send is fit young men to the other side of the globe to fight a foreign war. That illusion was shattered when 19-year-old Gavrilo Princip assassinated Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand of Austria at point blank range, in Sarajevo in June 1914. From this incident, war in Europe was precipitated. When Britain declared war with Germany on August 4th, 1914, New Zealand as a loyal member of the Empire was first to commit its loyal support making its declaration of war the following day.
For months the newspapers had carried news of the sabre rattling between Germany and Britain’s allied European states. Speculation on what might happen if NZ went to war was rife. For the young men of the country where unemployment was widespread, poverty rampant and prospects poor, imaginations were fired with thoughts of patriotism as well as the potential for travel to escape personal circumstances. Thousands of the nation’s young men were champing at the bit, eager for the chance to join up and to ‘have a crack at the Hun’. When the government introduced National Registration in October 1915 whereby all men between the ages of 18 and 60 were required to fill out a card with personal particulars and their willingness (or not) to serve in overseas, there was no shortage. When eventually Recruiting Centres opened their doors to enlist volunteers in 1915, they were overwhelmed by men young and old eager to sign up.
Eight thousand soldiers were initially required to man the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) which would be followed by an on-going requirement for reinforcements as the war progressed. Single men from the ages of 18 to 40 years were enlisted, subject to passing a medical examination from an Army approved local doctor or one of the many travelling Army Medical Boards who tested applicants at the recruiting centres. A soldier had to be 20 years of age to legally serve overseas; those 18-20 were enlisted and were able to train with their nearest territorial unit until they turned 20. The effect on smaller rural communities such as Wallace County was substantial as some of the fittest specimens of manhood were to be found farming and labouring on farms in the country areas. Draining these communities of these men added substantial hardship to those left behind, particularly the women and girls who had to make up for the absences. In the O’Brien household, only two of brothers were single and over the age of 20. Jack was 26 and Martin 24, both fit as fiddles, they made their way to the Invercargill Drill Hall to enlist, keen to have that chance to go overseas. But they would have to wait.
29845 Private John “Jack” O’Brien
Jack was contracting at the time he was called-up for service in June 1916. He was 26 years and eight months of age when he reported to Trentham Camp on 29 June 1916 as part of the with the Otago Regiment’s 18th Reinforcements. His his younger brother Martin who was working with his father at “The Gorge” was also called-up to follow him into camp four weeks later.** Jack was five feet, six inches tall (168cms) and weighed in at 154 lbs (70kgs). He had brown hair, grey eyes and a fresh complexion. With a chest expansion of 35 to 38 inches, he was a solid man, very fit with an unflagging capacity for work. Whilst 100% fit in every respect, his only prior ailment had been a bout of pleurisy when he was seventeen.
After being attested for service at Trentham and completing the routine administration that took around a week. , Pte. O’Brien and the rest of the 18th were off to Featherston Military Training Camp in the Wairarapa where they underwent 12 weeks of basic training. The Rifle Brigades, Infantry Regiments and Mounted Infantry all received their basic military training at Featherston, a camp that was built for the purpose and opened in January 1916. Those who met the medical and training standards were destined to join one of the Otago Regiment’s battalions in France. When they arrived in England, they would then be assigned to a particular company within one of three battalions.
Following a period of home leave Pte. O’Brien embarked on to HMNZT 66 Willochra at Wellington’s Queen’s Wharf on 16 October with the remainder of the 18th Reinforcements draft and set sail for Devonport, Plymouth in the south of England. Arriving on the penultimate day of December 1916, the 18th entrained for the 138 kilometre journey to Bulford railhead where they were dismounted and marched to Sling Camp, the NZEF’s primary training facility that was a little over three kilometres away. The camp was situated on the desolate, windswept Wiltshire Plain. The new arrivals were placed in the 3rd Reserve Battalion and would spend the next three months learning and practicing trench war fighting skills they would have to cope with as soon as they got to the Front Line in France.
When the training was complete, the Reinforcements were moved to Codford Camp, another New Zealand facility about 16 kilometres west of Sling. Codford was built as an additional NZ accommodation camp and also a convalescent facility for soldiers in post-hospital recovery. Here the new soldiers waited until they were scheduled to be shipped to France. Drill on the ‘bull ring’ and weapons training continued at Codford to keep the men primed and in a fixed routine. Short periods of local leave were permitted to the nearby towns of Bulford, Tidsbury and Salisbury to break the monotony.
On 28 May 1917, the 18th Reinforcements were readied for travel to France and embarked onto sea transport at Southampton to cross the Channel. Although only 30 kilometres across the Channel to Etaples, the trip usually took up to two days due to the number of craft having to unload and load. Once at the French fishing port of Etaples, a short distance further south of the town was the Etaples Base Depot camp which prior to the war had been a British Army training camp.
Etaples – Base Depot Camp
Housing some 100,000 soldiers, Etaples camp was the largest of its kind ever established overseas by the British, and was built along the railway adjacent to the town. British, Canadian, Scottish and Anzac forces each had a Based Depot inside the eight kilometre perimeter of Etaples Camp. The camp was served by a network of railways, canals, and roads connecting the camp to the southern and eastern fields of battle in France and to ships carrying troops, supplies, guns, equipment, and thousands of men and women across the English Channel. Being away from the front line it was relatively safe from attack, the exception being from the air, Etaples also became the base for numerous General and Stationary Hospitals, with beds for approximately 22,000 patients.
Soldiers arriving in France, whether new reinforcements or returning from leave or hospitalisation, reported to their respective Base Depots before deployment to the front. All drafts, although they had already passed in England as fully trained, were subjected to further tests, a strict medical check, and at least ten days of additional training. These extra days of training proved frustrating for both the soldiers and for the units often desperate to have these men, and towards the end of the war the number of mandatory days of additional training was reduced. The Etaples Depot camp was universally hated by all soldiers who on more than one occasion, rioted and mutinied.
The NZ Infantry & General Reinforcements Depot (NZI & GBD) was a large area towards the rear of the Depot Camp comprising tented accommodation, a HQ, medical and logistical support, dining facilities and separate canteens for officers, NCOs and soldiers. Here the soldiers were accommodated, trained and equipped before before being deployed to the Front.
Note: ** 32886 Private Martin O’Brien, 1st Battalion OIR paralleled his brother Jack’s service for a large part of the war, Martin being just four weeks behind Jack’s enlistment. Martin went into Trentham Camp with the next draft, the 19th Reinforcements and embarked for Devonport on 16 Nov 1916 aboard HMNZT 68 Maunganui. The brothers met up at again at Codford and then travelled together from Southampton to France on 28 May 1917. On arrival, Martin was placed in the 8th Company with his brother, as an infantry rifleman. Apart from Jack’s employment in the specialist machine-gun section, the two remained together in the 8th Company for the almost the full duration of the war. Martin returned to NZ without any significant physical damage and was discharged on 26 Aug 1919 after 2 years and 196 days overseas. He returned to Wairio, initially went to contracting before eventually taking over his father’s land which he farmed for the remainder of his life. Both Martin and Jack remained bachelors. Martin O’Brien died at Invercargill in July 1977 at the age of 85. He was buried at the Wreys Bush Cemetery in Invercargill with his brother Jack and sisters Delia Catherine and Mary Anastasia O’Brien, both of whom were life-long spinsters.
To the Front
Pte. Jack O’Brien and his brother Martin left the Etaples Depot Camp on 30 Sep 1917 and were transported to the NZ Division’s Wing XXII (22) Corps Reinforcement Camp at Abele, about 33 km from the Armentieres Sector of the Front Line. Here he joined the 3rd Reserve Battalion, OIR together with a mixture of men from the other Companies of both the 1st and 2nd Battalions of the Otago Infantry Regiment. The camp at Abele was essentially an assembly area for newly arrived soldiers (or those returning to the Front after an absence), prior to their transfer forward to their respective battalions. While waiting, the soldiers were a pool of manpower for a myriad of tasks, as well as keeping their training up to date. During his time at Abele, Pte. O’Brien sustained his first recorded “wound”. He had been in the field just three weeks when he was “wounded” on 26 Nov. Given the wound was at Abele and unspecified, it was more than likely the result of accident. Apparently not serious, he was treated but was retained at No.3 NZ Field Ambulance for a week under observation before being declared fit enough to return to duty on 8 December. While waiting to join their units in the field, the Reserve Battalion soldiers spent employed on work party tasks that were interspersed with additional preparatory training to keep them current for when their time came to go forward.
Finally on 23 Feb 1918, Pte. O’Brien left Abele to join 1/OIR in the field. On arrival he was assigned to the 8th (Southland) Company specialist machine-gun (MG) Section. The section consisted of two gun teams, each consisting of a pair of soldiers (a Gunner and his No.2) and a Lewis gun with each pair. The role of the MG Section was to provide a high rate of automatic fire support for infantry in order to suppress or stop enemy machine-gun or artillery fire to enable the company to reach its designated objectives. The Gunner carried and maintained the Lewis gun and as many magazines as he could carry (and/or belted ammunition to reload the magazines). The Gunner’s No.2 was responsible for spotting targets and advising the Gunner of corrections to his fall of shot if not on target. He also carried extra ammunition/magazines and the tools and spares for the machine-gun. The No.2 was also capable of taking over the Gunner’s role in the event the Gunner was killed or incapacitated. The MG Section was commanded by a Corporal or L/Cpl, one of the four men in the section. Machine-gun sections were prime targets of any infantry formation because of their potential to stop an advancing enemy and to maximise casualties.
Promotion and hospitalised
Pte. O’Brien must have found it odd when after being with his company for just four weeks, he was sent on his first leave since arriving in France, a pass to the UK from 13 March to 4 April. Leave was very much a rostered (and necessary) privilege that very much depended on the unit’s available manpower and the tactical situation at the time, so very little negotiation over when it was to be taken was ever entered into. On his return to the 1/OIR, Pte. O’Brien was promoted to Lance Corporal (L/Cpl) and given command of the 8th Company’s MG Section.
A period of stomach illness on 25 Apr 1918 was treated by No.1 NZ Field Ambulance however other worrying symptoms were detected and so he was transferred to the 56th Casualty Clearing Station at Gézaincourt, about mid-way between Abbeyville and Arras. By the Apr 29, L/Cpl. O’Brien’s health had deteriorated significantly, a more serious illness having developed. He was moved immediately to No.11 Stationary Hospital at Rouen where he was diagnosed with Trench Fever.**
With appropriate treatment L/Cpl O’Brien’s symptom subsided almost as quickly as they arrived, but not completely. He was back on his feet again – only just! He spent a mandatory two weeks at No.6 Convalescent Depot that was outside the Etaples Depot Camp boundary, on the Etaples – Boulogne Road, before he was discharged and cleared to return to the field on the 18th of May. On 4 June, L/Cpl O’Brien sustained a second wound, this time to his face. A piece of shrapnel from a bursting shell/mortar bomb imbedded itself into one of his cheeks. Treated again by the No.1 NZ Field Ambulance, Jack declined to leave his section for something he considered minor and not affecting his ability to carry on.
Note: ** Trench Fever is a louse-borne disease caused by the bacterium Bartonella Quintana. Its symptoms are characterized by the abrupt onset of fever, malaise, myalgias, headache, transient macular rashes of the torso, pain in the long bones of the leg (shins), and splenomegaly (enlarged spleen).
Advance to Victory
In 1918, a series of major German and Allied offensives had broken the stalemate of trench warfare on the Western Front, resulting in the near-collapse of the German Army but for entrenched elements of resistance who had stood their ground and were prepared to fight.
By the time L/Cpl. O’Brien had returned to the field, 1/OIR was preparing to advance with the remainder of the NZ Division. The advance was part of a much larger Brigade operation aimed at routing the enemy over 30 odd kilometres taking in the walled town of Le Quesnoy among others. During the advance, 1/OIR’s first objective was about 3 kilometres across open farm land before the battalions would need to cross the Canal de l’Escaut. The long the canal bank presented a problem in particular for 1/OIR. The German defences along the west bank were significant and would take considerable effort to remove. But before this was dealt with, 1/OIR would have to sweep through and around the town of Esnes to eliminate any resistance. The advance would take place under the protection of a creeping artillery barrage whilst the infantry pursued the withdrawing enemy.
100 Days Offensive
The final push by the Allies in their Advance to Victory phase of the war was termed the ‘100 Days Offensive’. A series of consolidated attacks by the Allies on a wide front would ensure they were able to consolidate the gains made in putting the withdrawing German resistance to flight. The offensive began on August 8th and lasted until 11 November.
On 08 October 1918, the Otago Infantry Regiment was taking its place in the advance and was approaching an objective nearing the town of Esnes which was roughly on the same axis as the town of Le Quesnoy which lay a further 35 kilometres in front. L/Cpl O’Brien had been placed in command of a Lewis Gun section, two of his men having just arrived with reinforcements had never been under fire before! As 1/OIR advanced the enemy artillery began shelling them, L/Cpl O’Brien doing his utmost to maintain control of his MG teams while trying to bolster the confidence of the new lads and encouraging them through their fears. The 1st Battalion advanced and succeeded in securing its first objective.
While re-positioning his machine-gun teams in defence of the objective, L/Cpl O’Brien was suddenly alerted to the battalion’s exposed left flank when his MG team came under fire from enemy rifle and MG fire. A large group of around 50 enemy infantrymen were advancing toward the open flank. L/Cpl O’Brien seizing one of the Lewis Guns, ran across the open ground in order to get into a better position to bring effective MG fire to bear on the advancing group. The accuracy and aggressiveness of his returned fire inflicted numerous casualties forcing the attackers to withdraw.
In the process Jack had been wounded (the third occasion) however this time the damage was much more serious. He had taken multiple hits of machine-gun fire to his left knee and thigh, and to his left forearm and elbow which resulted in a messy compound fracture. No.1 NZ Field Ambulance was again on hand to evacuate him as soon as was possible by road to an Ambulance Train at the Remy Sidings, a distance of some 37 kilometres NW of their position.
The Remy Sidings had four British CCS’s established beside the single main line, positioned in such a fashion that four additional rail lines had been added to branch off the main line, one going to each of the CCSs. This allowed four ambulance trains at a time to access their respective CCS. From Remy, L/Cpl O’Brien was transferred to the 21st (British) Casualty Clearing Station at Wavrans where his wounds were stabilized for surgery at a general hospital in England. He would however have to wait at another four more weeks before getting to England and so was again transferred by rail, to No.16 (British) General Hospital at Le Treport on the Channel coast. Finally, he arrived in England on 25 November and admitted to No.1 NZ General Hospital at Brockenhurst, two weeks after the Armistice had come into effect on 11 November. The Great War of 1914-1918 had officially ended.
The assessment of Jack’s level of disability was between 20-100% by the time he left Brokenhurst. The exact level of disability would only be known after his convalescence was completed back in New Zealand.
L/Cpl O’Brien’s handling of his ‘green’ MG section members during the weeks leading up to his wounding, followed by his selfless initiative to bring fire to bear on the attacking enemy was bought to the attention of the his Company Commander who referred a recommendation to the battalion Commander to have Jack’s actions formally rewarded. The Commanding Officer OIR and NZ Divisional Commander agreed and endorsed a recommendation for the award of a Military Medal. This was duly approved and promulgated in the NZEF Orders of 30 October 1918 which entitled L/Cpl O’Brien to wear the ribbon on his uniform from then on. In addition to the award, Jack was promoted to Corporal in recognition of his leadership as the MG Section Commander. Jack’s Military Medal was officially gazetted on 14 May 1919, about two weeks after he arrived back in NZ while still laid-up in the Invercargill Convalescent Hospital.
CITATION for the MILITARY MEDAL
29845 Lance-Corporal John O’Brien ~ 1st Battalion, Otago Infantry Regiment
For Conspicuous Gallantry and Devotion to Duty. During the operations near Esnes on the 8th October 1918, Lance Corporal O’Brien was in command of a Lewis Gun Section. Throughout the advance of three miles he displayed great coolness in passing through enemy barrages, and kept well in hand his men, half of whom had never been previously under fire. When his company had taken its objective, heavy machine gun and rifle fire was opened on its left flank by a party of from 40 to 50 of the enemy, when this N.C.O. on his own initiate rushed his Lewis Gun across to the exposed flank of its Company and by his fire inflicted such casualties on the enemy that they were forced to retire.”
London Gazette – 14 May 1919, page 6063 Record No 3060
On 12 March 1919 HMNZ Hospital Ship Maheno departed from Avonmouth with Cpl O’Brien aboard on the return journey to NZ. On arrival at Port Chalmers five weeks later, Jack was transferred to the Convalescent Hospital in Invercargill where he stayed for a further six further weeks receiving treatment mainly for his elbow, and to improve the mobility of his left leg before his discharge.
Cpl Jack O’Brien was discharged from the NZEF a year after he had returned home, on 28 April 1920, as being: No longer fit for war service on account of wounds received in action.” This classification would ensure he would not be required for overseas war service in the future. His final disability level was assessed at 60% which entitled him to a war disability pension from the government for the remainder of his life.
Medals: Military Medal (MM), British War medal 1914/18, Victory Medal + Silver War Badge (Wounds)
Service Overseas: 2 years 193 days
Total NZEF Service: 3 years 304 days
Once discharged from the Invercargill Convalescent Hospital, Jack returned to his brother’s hotel at Otautau where he was to stay for as long as he wished. However his stay was to be short due to the fire which consumed the Crown on the 18th of May. Jack escaped any further injury along with his parents and all guests. He sought temporary accommodation in Otautau until he could decide exactly what he was going to do. Unable to return to a full farming life and the things he had done prior to the war, Jack spent the first few months helping Mick to re-establish a temporary hotel facility in Westney’s Jewellers building after the fire that had destroyed the Crown, generally pottering about the Horse Bazaar, doing whatever else he could do to be useful while re-adjusting to life back in NZ. During this time, their mother Bridget O’Brien passed away on 28 March 1919 bringing an end to a year of tragedy in more ways than one. Jack continued to experience issues with his elbow wounds necessitating several trips to Invercargill for treatment throughout 1920 and 1921.
His Royal Highness, ….
Cpl O’Brien’s Military Medal had been earned whilst a Lance-Corporal and was published in the NZEF Orders on 30 October 1918. , his Military Medal was presented at a separate ceremony in 1920 on the occasion of the Prince of Wales visit to Invercargill, the last town he visited during a nationwide and world tour of the countries of the Empire to offer his personal thanks for their part in supporting Britain through the war.
Medal recipients of gallantry decorations and meritorious service medals from Invercargill and surrounding areas were assembled on a cold and wet day at the Show Grounds to await the arrival of .. His Royal Highness, Edward Albert Christian George Andrew Patrick David, Prince of Wales, Earl of Chester in the Peerage of the United Kingdom, Duke of Cornwall in the Peerage of England, Duke of Rothesay, Earl of Carrick and Baron of Renfrew in the Peerage of Scotland, to present their awards.
The newspaper commentary describes the medal presentations at the Show Grounds:
“Soon after the military parade commenced, 22 territorial officers, 1034 territorials, 258 returned soldiers (including 22 South African veterans, 20 returned officers, and a number of staff officers and men took up their position to the right of the Royal stand. The returned men were formed up in a hollow square immediately in front of the Royal stand and the two front rows of the seats for the official guests were reserved for nurses and disabled soldiers. The Prince addressed the assembled crowd …..
His Royal Highness then inspected the parade, which was under the command of Colonel Hargest, D.S.O., and Major Glendinning, and addressed a few words to the returned soldiers. He said: “I am glad to see so many of you here to-day, but am sorry that you have had to stand out in the cold so long. I watched your activities in the war with great interest and trust that in your civil life you will be as successful as you wore in the army.” At the Prince’s wish all the returned soldiers were presented to him. The nurses were the first to meet the Prince, and then came the oldest veteran on parade, Mr Boyd, who took part in the Crimean War. The Prince appeared to be greatly interested in this old soldier, and conversed with him for several minutes.
The official guests were then presented, and immediately afterwards a number of returned men with decorations won on the field of battle. As each man came before the Prince to receive his distinction he was detained for a moment by the Prince, who had a few words to say before shaking hands with him. Decorations were then presented to the following ……..”
Prince of Wales presents medals
Always the quiet man, Jack O’Brien remained unmarried, a private man and one of few words. We know he was a member of the Birchwood Hunt Club and of the Wairio Jockey Club. A football player in his younger days, Jack continued to be a supporter while his greater interest was in horse racing. But little else is in evidence of Jack’s life at Wairio or Otautau after 1920. As for many veterans, Jack rarely spoke of the war and nothing of his medal. His reticence to acknowledge any part he played was in all likelihood due to what he had experienced. Newspapers and public records shed no light on Jack’s life after 1919 with the exception of his medal presentation by His Majesty, the Prince of Wales during an official post-war visit to NZ in 1920.
Jack O’Brien never married and quietly passed away at Wairio on 19th May 1943, aged just 53. He is buried at Wrey’s Bush Cemetery in a family grave together with his brother Martin who died at Invercargill in 1977, at the age of 85. Jack and Martin’s two spinster sisters, Delia and Mary, are also buried with the two boys (economy of scale for the unmarried?).
With regard to the wording on Jack’s gravestone, it is noteworthy that whilst his rank, name and unit appear, his regimental number is not included, unlike his brother Martin. However what is even more remiss is that there is no mention of Jack’s Military Medal for gallantry in action.** Given that Jack O’Brien’s gravestone will ultimately be the only remaining memorial to his bravery, the absence of the letters M.M. after his name is indeed unfortunate. But, was this an oversight by the stonemason or a deliberate omission at Jack’s insistence?
Note: ** The NZ Remembrance Army has been contacted for assistance and, subject to David’s approval, will add the post nominal letters M.M. of Cpl. O’Brien’s gallantry award, to his name on the headstone. Space is an issue which will probably preclude the addition of his regimental number.
Wreys Bush Cemetery is located on the Wreys Bush-Nightcaps Highway, about 1 kilometre from Wreys Bush on the right hand side (signposted). As Jack O’Brien was buried in a non-military grave, this perhaps one of the reasons that has also contributed to his anonymity in official records. Accordingly, Wrey’s Bush Cemetery lists only one official First World War grave, that of a Heddon Bush farmer 25/1702 Rifleman Timothy Cairns – 2nd Battalion, NZ Rifle Brigade who was discharged in Jan 1918 as a result of shrapnel wounds to his back, and died of influenza and pneumonia at Riverton on 12 Dec 1918, aged 26 years 11 months.
My search of the relevant O’Brien family actually started with a request of the Otautau Museum via their Facebook page. I was particularly looking for a photograph of Jack O’Brien that might have existed plus any local information which I thought the part-time historian/curator Suzie Best may have in the museum archives. Unfortunately Suzie had very little about Jack. Surprisingly, there was no reference to his Military Medal which I thought most unusual. But as luck would have it Suzie knew of an O’Brien family contact who fortunately was able to help by putting me into contact with Jack O’Brien’s grand-nephew, retired farmer David O’Brien, the son of Mick O’Brien’s eldest son, John Martin O’Brien.
I contacted David who was very pleased to hear that his uncle’s medals had surfaced. Being aware that his Uncle Jack had received the Military Medal during the war, David like so many other families, had no idea what the fate of his uncle’s medals were after he died, nor who of his relatives might have been the last to see or have custody of them. As a family shrinks over time, so to does the general knowledge of the whereabouts of once precious mementos and memorabilia (a succession plan for medals or heritage items that must remain within a family is essential, if not too late?). David and I swapped emails to formally verify his ancestral connection to John Andrew O’Brien, MM while my colleague Brian court mounted the previously loose medals for wearing and to ensure they remain together. David received his grand-uncle Jack O’Brien’s medals in time for their first outing on Anzac Day, 2022.
Thanks to Suzie Best of the Otautau Museum for ‘oiling the wheels’ of contact.
The reunited medal tally is now 409.