JOHN JOSEPH O’DONNELL ~ West Coaster’s medal reunited with Army’s ‘Sword of Honour’ graduate.


The name of O’Donnell is well known on the West Coast of New Zealand with the descendants of Irish immigrants still populating most towns up and down the length of Westland.  Generations of O’Donnell men have worked as miners, mill workers and bushmen/loggers, and the O’Donnell brothers in this story were no different. 

Immigrants Michael, John and James O’Donnell had come to NZ to take advantage of the gold-rush that started on the Coast after it had been found in the Taramakau River (south of Greymouth) in 1864.  Gold was also discovered in several other locations on the Coast around this time, one of them being at Charleston in 1865, about 26km south of Westport.  When the O’Donnell brothers arrived they headed for Charleston and by 1885 were settled into serious gold mining at Croninville (the Croninville Terrace), a mining colony that had sprung up along the banks of the Waitakere (or Nile) River that follows out to the Tasman Sea at Charleston. 

In due course the O’Donnell brothers migrated down the Coast to other mining centres such as Reefton (gold and coal) and eventually to Greymouth where coal was being mined beside the Grey River.  Greymouth in the 1870’s was a typical 19th century coal and gold miners town – the ‘wild west’.  Around Greymouth there were numerous mining operations – Brunner, Wallsend, Blackball and many more.  The men, many of whom were of Irish birth,  became the backbone of the mining population on the Coast – and they were hard men.  Many had done their apprenticeships in the Australian goldfields at Ballarat in Victoria – hard working, hard drinking, hard fighting and as tough as they come (and devout Catholics on Sundays as well – well, most were).  You had to be tough to survive not only the primitive living conditions but also the harsh weather conditions that prevailed at various times of the year. 

“The Barber” flows from the Grey Valley – so cold if feels as if it will cut you!!

Anyone who ever lived or worked in the Grey Valley (where most of the mines were), or on Greymouth’s Mawhera Quay that runs from the town almost to the river mouth, or lived in the Cobden village across the river, soon becomes acquainted with the unique early morning spectacle the is “the Barber” – a visible, icy cold air mass that originates in the Grey Valley and literally flows to the sea.  The “Barber” has an ethereal appearance of a dense white, almost silk-like liquid that moves at slightly quicker than walking pace.  As “the Barber” strikes the Paparoa Ranges on the Cobden side of the river it oozes over the top and down the other side flowing though Cobden village, around the Cobeden Quarry promentory and across the Grey River into the buildings that line Mawhera Quay.  Standing in the “Barber” is enough to take your breath away it is so cold – and then as quickly as it appears, its gone, evaporating at the coast.


Michael O’Donnell had met married another Irish born immigrant, Mary KEATING who lived in Greymouth.  Together they had a family of three sons.  The O’Donnell brothers, John Edward (b1877), John Joseph (b1884) and William Henry (b1896) were all born and raised in Greymouth and once of working age worked in the bush (bushman), or in a timber mill (saw-miller or yard hand), or at gold/coal mines (miner, battery worker, labourer).  Each brother had worked at all three at some point in their early lives however timber-milling was to become their main form of employment.  As the boys entered their twenties they started working at different locations widely dispersed around the Coast.   William Henry, known as “Curley” had a job working for the Consolidated Gold Mining Company at Reefton but lived at Waiuta, some 37 kms further north and itself the site of a major coal mine – the Blackwater Mine.  Eldest brother John Edward, known as “Eddie” was living at Tainui, a small village south of Hokitika while working as a saw-miller for the Westland Saw Milling Company at Mananui (about 10 km south of Hokitika).  John Joseph (Johnny or JJ) O’Donnell was even further down the Coast at Ross (28 km south of Hokitika) also working as a saw-miller for Stewart & Clapham’s sawmill at Mikonui.

Consolidated Gold Mining Co. stamping battery and mill at Crushington, Reefton 

Stewart & Claphams sawmill at Mikonui, Ross 

Mananui  in 1910 – Westland Sawmilling Co.

Stewart & Clapham bush railway, Mikonui c1900









The consequence of being so widely dispersed was that the brothers rarely spent much time at their childhood home in Paroa (on south side of Greymouth) either with their parents, or each other.  As the inevitability of the First World War drew near, national registration and the ballot ensured that most eligible, single males from 20-45 were drafted for overseas service which  included all three O’Donnells.  In the early stages of the preparations for war, the Army had called for volunteers and initially there was no shortage of takers – who would not want a free sea voyage to the other side of the world and plenty of action on arrival.  How disappointed they would be.  The youngest O’Donnell brother, William Henry was better known as Curley, and at just 18 years of age was chomping at the bit to join up for the ‘great adventure’.   He had not hesitated to volunteer when the opportunity arose while his older and a more circumspect brothers were just a little less enthusiastic about volunteering too quickly, but both knew in their bones their time would probably come.  

The brothers had very little opportunity of regular contact on the job or at home in Paroa, mainly due to the demands of their jobs and their remoteness from Greymouth.  In addition Johnny O’Donnell had no long married and was busy establishing him and his wife Hetty in their Moorhouse Street house at Ross; his personal priorities had changed.  

Mawhera Quay, Greymouth looking east up the Grey River valley – 1900

Greymouth Wharf along the Quay looking west towards the river mouth – 1900 







Much to their mother’s distress, Curley her youngest was first to leave for the war.  6/924 Pte. William Henry ‘Curley’ O’Donnell was enlisted into the 1st Canterbury Infantry Battalion in August 1914.  He trained at Featherston Camp with the NZ Expeditionary Force’s Main Body and was among the first troops embark the troop transport ships to sail from Lyttleton in October.  Instead of docking at Liverpool as was anticipated at the end of the five week voyage, the transports were re-directed mid-voyage to Suez and shortly thereafter the main Body troops were shipped to Gallipoli, Turkey.  As things transpired Curley O’Donnell became a “First-Day Lander” at Gallipoli when the Auckland Infantry, half of Canterbury Infantry, the Otago and Wellington Infantry and then second half of Canterbury Infantry battalions stormed onto the beach with the Australian Brigade at ANZAC Cove on 25 April 1915.  Curley survived the landings and was hitting his straps as far as establishing routine on the Peninsula but unfortunately his in surviving the landings and subsequent establishment of the beach-head for the luck ran out after a four months on the Peninsula after he was severely wounded in Sep 1915; he died of his wounds in England. 

No doubt Johnny and Eddie’s reticence to put themselves in the firing line on the other side of the world, took on a very different perspective after Curley’s death.  But follow their young brother’s lead they would.  Johnny (32) and Eddie (almost 40 – the age limit for single men enlistments was 45) were both called up together and attested for service in April 1917.  Johnny’s age and his saw-milling experience along with his obvious fitness made him a natural for selection for the New Zealand Engineers Tunnelling Company which involved mill work.  Eddie being an older man was enlisted as a Reinforcement for the 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade. 

Photo source: Greymouth & sawmill images: 

John Joseph O’Donnell

Johnny O’Donnell had more reason to be concerned over being sent to war than his brother.  His recent marriage to Henrietta Jane JAMIESON (known as ‘Het’ or ‘Hetty’) from Koiterangi, was the result of the imminent birth of  their now four month old baby daughter, Rona Louisa O’Donnell.  From the time he was called up Johnny was given little time for personal arrangements and so had to rely on his mother and father to keep an eye on Het and Rona whenever they could, while he was away.  The two big questions every married man in Johnny’s position agonised over of course, were – will I come home?; will I see them again?

37725 Sapper John Joseph O’Donnell was enlisted with the NZEF’s 27th Reinforcements, part of whom were the NZ Engineer Tunnelling Company’s 5th Reinforcements.  Following his training a Featherston Camp, Spr. O’Donnell embarked HMNZT 84 Turakina at Lyttelton in June and arrived at Devonport in England on 20 July 1917.   The NZ Engineer (NZE) Training Depot was located at Christchurch in Dorset where all NZEF engineers, tunnellers and Māori reinforcements were prepared and trained before embarking for France.  After three weeks at Christchurch Camp Johnny returned to the Engineer Reinforcement accommodation at Brocton Camp to wait for their call.  Prior to embarkation the Reinforcements were assembled at the NZ Infantry Reserves & Reinforcements Depot at the Sling Camp, a few kilometers away, where they would be transported to Dover and taken to the French port of either L’Havre or Bolougne.  From there the reinforcements  were transported to the main Base Camp at Etaples to prepare for movement to the Front.

Spr. O’Donnell first task on reaching the Front  and joining his unit was to join a detachment of Engineers that were sent to the French 2nd Army’s position to assist them in the preparation of artillery positions and communications entrenching for an upcoming offensive.  He returned to the Tunnelling Company in October.

Third Battle of Ypres

Sappers – NZ Tunnelling Company

The first major offensive of the year was in April 1918 at Arras where the men of the Tunnelling Company played a valuable role in preparing underground facilities before the advance.  This was a prelude to the NZ Division’s greatest test – the main Allied attack would be the Third Battle of Ypres (or Passchendaele as it is better known).  Messines had initially been a spectacular success for the NZ Division however the main assault faltered in the face of determined German resistance.  From 9 Oct to 6 Nov the NZ Division battled an entrenched enemy with the net result that only a few kilometres were gained including the ruin that was once the town of Passchendaele.  This had been the costliest battle in terms of NZ soldier’s lives of the First World War.  Spr. O’Donnell had been indeed fortunate to escape this slaughter as had been scheduled to be rotated away from the battle front on 03 October, for two weeks leave in England.  By 28 October he was back and thrust into the thick of preparations for the NZ Division’s last major action in France – the battle to capture the town of Le Quesnoy.  The attack was launched on 4 Nov, just seven days before the Armistice was signed on 11 November signalling the end of the war, and was all over by the 6th.

NZE Tunnellers living underground in the Carrière (Quarry) Wellington at Arras

‘The Earth Remembers’ by Marian Fountain – a memorial to the NZ Tunnellers at Wellington Quarry, Arras

Spr. O’Donnell returned to England in Jan 1919 in preparation for his return to NZ.   He embarked the SS Ionic at Southampton on 14 March and arrived in Christchurch some six weeks later.  Following thye completion of demobilization at Burnham Camp, Sapper Johnny O’Donnell was discharged from the NZEF on 24 May 1919, boarded the train for the West Coast and his return to Hokitika and Greymouth.  The trip from Christchurch would have been quite a scenic novelty at this time as the Otira train tunnel had only been completed nine months earlier in August 1918.

Awards:  British War Medal, 1914-18 and Victory Medal

Service Overseas:  2 years  1 day

Total NZEF Service:  2 years  42 days

Note:  Both of Johnny O’Donnell’s brothers, William Henry – “Curley” and John Edward – “Eddie” also served in the First World War.

Canterbury Inf. Regiment

6/924 Private William Henry “Curley” O’Donnell as indicated above, had been a miner at Reefton before going overseas with the 1st Canterbury Infantry Battalion as part of the Main Body.   Curlry was in the 12th Company 1/CIB and instead of going to England as expected the destination of the troopships was altered mid-voyage to Suez, Egypt.  The Turks had aligned themselves with the German Empire states with a consequence the new target became an invasion of the Gallipoli Pensinsular by a combined force of New Zealand, Australian, British, Nepalese Gurka, Canadian (Newfoundlanders), French, Senegalese, and Indian. 

Curley O’Donnell (28) had sailed from Lyttelton and arrived at Suez aboard the HMNZT 11 Athenic on 16 Oct 1914.  Once ready to launch for the target area the Canterbury, Wellington, Otago and Auckland Battalions embarked their respective troopships (1/CIB on the SS Achaia) and headed for the Gallipoli Peninsula, arriving in the vicinity on 12 April.  The troops remained at sea whilst the final preparations were made for the landings on the 25th. The casualty toll on landing was horrendous with the Ottomans dominating the high ground which very few actually managed to scale, only to be cut down at the last minute by murderous hails of machine-gun fire.  Curley survived the landings and the first four weeks at Anzac Cove, only to be evacuated to Malta on the Hospital Ship Bremer Castle with a Septic Hand.  He was back on Gallipoli with his unit by 19 June and re-joined the fruitless attempts Australia, the Brits and New Zealanders were making to advance up the cliffs to engage the substantial Ottoman defences.  The most significant attacks to oust the Ottomans came on 6 August when the Australians attacked Lone Pine and the Wellington Battalion the Chunuk Bair feature.  The attack was only partially successful.  The Wellingtons, Cantabs, Otagos and Aucks continued to hammer away at the Ottomans for the next four days attempting to dislodge them from the heights but to no avail – superior in number with the added advantage of dominating the high ground and being able to fire and throw bombs downhill, the Ottomans were a formidable foe in these circumstances. 

6/924 Pte. William Henry “Curley” O’Donnell

During the last assault by the New Zealanders on August 10th Pte. Curley O’Donnell suffered several gun-shot wounds (GSW) – to the chest, to his shoulder and left foot.  He was evacuated to a Hospital Ship (HS) and on to Alexandria on 15 August, transferred to the HS Letitia on 3 September and taken to England.  Nine days later Curley was being attended in the Royal Victoria Hospital, London, but unfortunately fate was not on his side.  Curley O’Donnell, 29, died two weeks later on 17 Sep 1915 and buried in Netley Military Cemetery, Hampshire.  He had spent just 58 days on Gallipoli. 

Pte. William Henry O’Donnell had served a total of 1 year and 4 days overseas, and a grand total of 1 year and 34 days in the NZEF.  For his service Curley had qualified for the following medals:  1914-15 Star, British War Medal, 1914-18 and Victory Medal which were sent to his then widowed mother, Mrs Mary J. O’Donnell at her  Paroa home in Greymouth.  In addition Mary received her son’s Memorial Plaque (‘Death Penny’) with  accompanying Scroll and form Letter of Condolence from the King.


NZ Rifle Brigade

54076 RFLM John Edward (“Eddie”) O’Donnell – ‘G’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade at 40 years of age was older than most of his fellow soldiers that were called up in late 1917.  Eddie followed the same process his two younger brothers had gone through at Featherston Camp before embarking HMNZT 88 Athenic with ‘D’ Company, 2nd Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade – these soldiers were the 27th Reinforcements draft and arrived at Liverpool on 16 Sep and marched in to Brocton Camp. The NZRB Reinforcements arrived in France at Etaples on 27 Oct and five days later Eddie  O’Donnell found himself in the field with his unit making final preparations, just two days before the New Zealand Division’s final attack on the heavily defended French village of Le Quesnoy.  Little did he know his young brother Johnny was probably within spitting distance being with the same Battalion, however the frenetic pace of operations in preparing for the attack on 4 November, did not permit time any time for such pleasantries.

Both brothers survived the capture of Le Quesnoy.  Doubtlessly they would have had the opportunity to meet up after this and/or over the December – January period.   Eddie O’Donnell however went down with severe Bronchitis which did not seem to ease, in fact it got steadily worse.  On closure examination and analysis the specialists attending Eddie considered he was exhibiting the symptoms of Tuberculosis.  Eddie was first evacuated to England’s Tooting Hospital on 11 January 1919 and subsequently moved to the 2nd NZ General Hospital at Walton-on-Thames for intensive care on Feb 14th..  Further testing and observation confirmed the diagnosis – Eddie had a Tubercule Lung.  He underwent a Medical Board on 26 Mar which concluded he was “UNFIT FOR ACTIVE SERVICE”.  The next move for Eddie O’Donnell was a hospital ship home.

Eddie departed from Southampton on 31 July 1918 aboard the HMNZ Hospital Ship Marama which arrived in Wellington on 11 October.

RFLM  John Edward O’Donnell (41) had served overseas for 1 year and 70 days, total NZEF service of 1 year 354 days.  Eddie was discharged from the NZEF on 18 April 1919 being “No longer fit for active service on account of illness contracted on active service – TB Lung”.  A further Medical Board in NZ recommended a period of up to six months at the Waikato TB Sanatorium in Cambridge, which Eddie duly undertook in 1920.  No longer able to work at the sawmill, Eddie’s shortness of breath and coughing fits as the disease progressed in his lungs, gradually precluded him from doing any manual work at all.  But survive he did.  Eddie O’Donnell was a 77 year old bachelor when he passed away at Hokitika on 21 August 1954.  He was buried in the Orawaiti Cemetery in Westport with his parents.  For his war service Eddie O’Donnell was awarded the British War Medal, 1914-18 and the Victory Medal.


‘When Johnny comes marching home again…’

‘Het’ O’Donnell

Johnny O’Donnell arrived back in Ross and took a lengthy break at home with Het to spend time getting to know his daughter Rona Louisa whom he had last seen in June 1917 when only a few months old, before he left for the war.  Rona was now a walking toddler of more than 2 years of age.  When Johnny started work again he did so as a Bushman.  He, Hetty and Rona (married name BROWN, 1917-1991) were joined in 1921 by a second daughter, Mary Esther WILSON (d1991), and a third in 1929, Beryl Mae COOM (d2016).   After 20 years living in Ross, Johnny and family made the move in 1936 from their Moorhouse Street address into the bustling metropolis of Hokitika – population about 1500, today about 3000 but a far cry from its peak during the gold rush of 1865-69 when the population varied between 10,000 and 50,000.  Johnny by this time had turned 50 years of age.  His work was centered around the town and of course his daughters need greater access for schooling and work opportunities.  The family moved into a newly built house at 114 Gibson Quay, the first and last home in Hokitika that Johnny and Het would live in.  Johnny however was not about to retire (even though the average life expectancy for men was about 64 at that time) and continued to work as a Bushman.  As an aside, my research into the O’Donnell’s in 1930 uncovered three “John Joseph O’Donnell’s” in Hokitika and two in Greymouth which must have made life interesting for the Post Master of both towns.

Johnny and Hetty O’Donnell lived their lives out in Hokitika, Johnny to the ripe old age of 79 and long enough to see all of his daughters married off.  He took great delight in visiting his grandchildren, or they him, whenever he could.  Johnny O’Donnell died at his home in Gibson Quay on 05 October 1963 and was buried in the Orawaiti Cemetery in Westport with his parents, James and Mary Jane O’Donnell, and brother Eddie.

O’DONNELL descendants

Johnny O’Donnell’s war medal was one of several NZE Tunnelling Company medals sent to MRNZ by Michael M. of Invercargill several years ago.  Having reunited two of the medals Michael sent (see stories of Ball, and Ogden), the O’Donnell medal had  remained posted on our Medals~LOST page as well as on J.J. O’Donnell’s Auckland War Memorial Museum Cenotaph page.  This means of drawing attention of family members to MRNZ’s medal holdings has once again produced a great result, and not with just one medal but two two medals being reunited, and with the same family descendant!

Johnny O’Donnell’s youngest daughter, the late Beryl Mae and husband Gordon Austin COOM, raised three sons – Graeme (1950), Noel (1952) and Peter (1957).  Noel of Auckland recently retired and it was he who contacted me after seeing Johnny’s medal advertised on MRNZ’s Medals~FOUND web page.  After meeting our requirements for identity proof it was my pleasure to send Noel his maternal grandfather’s WW1 Victory Medal.  The return of the medal was also timely as Noel and his wife were about to undertake a pilgrimage to France (August) to visit the graves of family descendants and some of the significant places New Zealanders served.  

Worthy medal custodian

Spr. J.J. O’Donnell’s British War Medal

As we discussed the possibility of locating Johnny O’Donnell’s second medal, the British War Medal 1914-18, Noel rocked me when he said he had tracked the medal down.  It was in the possession of his nephew Michael, the son of Noel’s older brother Peter and great-grandson of John Joseph O’Donnell.  Brilliant I thought – the pair will finally be reunited after goodness knows how many years. But it didn’t end there.

Noel also mentioned that Peter’s son Michael was in fact P1023697 Lieutenant Michael Gordon COOM, RNZIR – an Infantry officer currently serving at Burnham Camp and undertaking a course for his promotion to Captain.  Noel said that in 2013 the massed Coom families had had the great privilege of attending Michael’s commissioning graduation parade for the Officer Cadet Company, at the Army Training Group in Waiouru.  An extremely proud gathering had witnessed Lieutenant Michael Coom ‘scoop the pool’ when he was awarded the prestigious Sword of Honour and Governor General’s Medal for graduating at the top of his Officer Cadet intake.   

Personally, I could not think of a more appropriate person than Michael to be the custodian of his great-grandfather Johnny O’Donnell’s medals. 

Second medal reunification

Noel and his wife were undertaking a remembrance pilgrimage to France in August to which Noel will be taking both medals as he  visits the graves of several ancestor soldiers buried there, and at the same time will take in some of the significant battlefields New Zealanders fought and died.  Noel said that on his return both medals will be mounted and handed over to Michael for safe keeping.  LT Coom will no doubt take full advantage of commemorating Johnny, Curley and Ted O’Donnell’s  service and sacrifice in the First World War by wearing Johnny’s medals with his own on appropriate occasions. 

Congratulations Michael !


NZE Tunnellers ‘lemon squeezer’ – WW1

NZ Army Ceremonial ‘lemon squeezer’ – current






My thanks to Michael M. for sending us the medal, only one more of Michael’s medals to find a home for – it was a pleasure to have been of service reuniting this medal with Sapper J.J. O’Donnell’s descendant family.

The reunited medal tally is now 235.