Silent Heroes - 199 Sgt John Reilly

A couple of years ago I was shown a photocopy of a handwritten diary detailing some of the 1st World War experiences of a young man from Bega, NSW, John (Jack) Bernard Reilly. This diary is not in the collection of the Australian War Memorial at the time of writing. This is Jack's story.

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Location: Canberra, ACT, Australia

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Jack's Diary - 1 January 1915 to 27 March 1915

1st January: Start New Year well by getting 7 days pack drill for playing up on parade.
Historical Comment
It is perhaps useful to pause at this stage and examine some issues that were developing within the Australian ranks. This is not to suggest that Jack Reilly was behaving inappropriately. However, some of those with whom he associated and who are mentioned in his diary could be described as overzealous in their pursuit of mischief. CW Bean describes the situation perfectly:

“The Australian then, and to the end of the war, was never at heart a regular soldier. Off parade he was a civilian bent upon seeing the world and upon drawing from it whatever experience he could, useful or otherwise, while the opportunity lasted. The troops had been cooped up for nearly two months in transports without leave at any port. A few broke ship by climbing down the anchor-chains, or by similar pranks-largely youngsters who wanted to see Colombo, and who considered the visit cheaply bought with a fine of a month’s pay. They had money. The youngsters among them were bursting with high spirits, ready for any adventure, reckless of the cost. Much of this behavior was little more than high spirits. The trams constantly went into Cairo crowded on footboard and roof with many more soldiers than had leave to go. On New Year’s night the stream of returning motor-cars, gharries, and men on donkeys stretched from Gizeh to Mena-five miles of swiftly-moving carriage-lights. General Birdwood’s own motor-car was taken from the front of his headquarters, and was found some hours later deserted on the sand in the heart of Mena Camp. The General took the occurrence for what it was worth-a prank of boys who would have followed him to death and beyond.
At the same time matters were swiftly coming to a point when discipline in the A.I.F. must either be upheld or abandoned. Besides the high spirit of the troops there existed a very different cause of trouble. A much graver class of crime was appearing--heavy drinking, desertion, attacks upon natives, in some instances robbery. In an extraordinary proportion of cases the serious trouble came from one class of man-the old soldier. A large number of these men were not Australians, though a set of Australian criminals and sharpers was added to them. The Australian name was suffering heavily from their drinking and slovenliness. The New Zealand force had suffered from a similar class, but steps had been taken to expel it. Some New Zealand officers were by now encouraging their men to have nothing to do with the Australians, but to show by their neat dress and sobriety that there was a wide difference between the two forces. This attitude, which was to some extent supported by the New Zealand commanders, led to a certain coolness between Australian and New Zealand troops in Cairo. General Maxwell drew the attention of General Birdwood to the conduct of a section of the Australians, and Birdwood, through General Bridges, wrote appealing to their finer spirit not to let their country’s reputation suffer at the hands of a small minority. Early in January about 300 men of the 1st Australian Division were absent without leave in Egypt. Though they were technically deserters, they could not, under the Australian regulations, nor indeed in fairness, be shot. At this critical moment in the history of the A.I.F. Bridges was compelled to choose some other punishment to be the extreme penalty among its members. That upon which he decided was the sending of a man back to Australia to be discharged from the army. In order to avoid criticism, or the raising of questions as to why the men were returned, he asked the official war correspondent to write to the Australian newspapers a letter explaining the position. This letter came as a shock to Australia, and was keenly resented by the greater part of the force. But the wisdom of the step which Bridges took was never questioned. His country knew why these men were sent back, and no man, returned for having endangered its good name, ever raised his voice in Australia.”
Following from the above, the 1st Battalion War Diary for the 7th & 8th of January has the following entry:
“Leave stopped for whole Division on account of number of absentees.”

4th January: Still with Headquarters Signallers training.

6th January: Arabs weeping & wailing for their dead preparatory to celebrating their Xmas which takes place next day.

8th January: Wind blowing very badly – sand & dust awful.

10th January: Witnessed Mahammed burial. Very interesting.

20th January: D. Carter knocked Billington out for giving him up.

8th February: Battalion route march along Mena Road for about six miles then branched to the right through fields & native villages. Chief village named Esma. After a 12 mile march we bivouacked within a short distance of the Sakkara Pyramids. After lunch of bread & butter we made an attack on the sand hills where (we) entrenched & held the position all night. At 9am we started to march back to camp.

12th February: Left camp 9am for 4 days bivouack – arrived at place about 1pm. Had dinner & rested till 5pm when we took up a position in the sandhills in defence of 2nd Battallion who was to attack us next morning. Operations finished 2pm next day.

14th February: Church parade at 9am.

(1st Battalion Band leading Battalion to Church Parade, Mena 1915)

Started on a night route march round one of the nile canals above the Sakkara Pyramids. We marched all night & attacked a position near the Pyramid. We then had breakfast & afterwards resumed operations in an attack on the 2nd Battalion which lasted till 1pm. We rested all the afternoon and then next morning we were addressed by the Brigadier who said he was pleased with our work & said it completed our brigade training; but unfortuately small pox had broken out amongst us and we would not be able to go to the front till the disease was stamped out. Left for Mena about 9am and arrived 12.30pm. In the afternoon we all had to be vaccinated again. The last three days have been resting.

20th February: General leave for 1st Battalion. Borrowed 50 piastres from the Major. Geoff Lomas, Alan Tindale, H. Reaves & I went to Cairo. Reaves & I went out to the Citadel. Marvelous sight. Saw and talked with some Indian soldiers who had been wounded at Ishmalia. Went to pictures at night. Alan & I were struck by two pretty French girls and tried to catch their eye. Bill Barry & I climbed the Great Pyramid. Met Jim Greenwood half way up. Had my photo taken on top of the Pyramid.

28th February: 3rd Battalion left for destination unknown.

8th March: Met P. Wise & Colin Hall from Tamworth.

18th March: Jack Cairns got tight and found his way into Major's tent about 3am in mistake for his own. He has been chaffed a deal about it since. All our tent on guard except Charlie Lee, Sid Samson & myself.
Nocturnal Indiscretion
By Laurie Favelle
Ah Jack, you're such a pain!
Grog goes down your throat
Like bathwater down a drain;
And when it explodes within your gut
The powersupply is shorted within your brain.
Major Dawson loves you like a son
But, he does prefer to sleep alone.
While he'll usually forgive exhuberant fun,
And frequently looks the other way,
When you snuggle up into his bed
Sober quick, and quickly run!
19th March: On fatigue all day. Went to pictures at night with Bill Barry. They staged a native dance called the Kan Kan & we pulled them off the stage.

25th March: Met Norman Fraser from Bega. Also met Eric Ritchie.

27th March: Fraser & I went to the gardens and saw two boats captured from the Turks at the canal. Afterwards went into the city & had a good time.

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