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 18, 2009

Jack's Diary - 25 August 1914 to 20 October 1914

The diary entries that follow have been transcribed from a photocopy of Jack's handwritten notes. By and large, his notes were easy to read and interpret with only the odd exception.
I have also included some historical commentary (any errors are my own) to provide context. I hope I have correctly acknowledged and attributed the material used for these purposes and extend apologies in advance where I have failed in this endeavour.
I would ask the reader to note that this work would not be possible without the resources made so freely available by the Australian War Memorial and the National Archives of Australia.
Finally, the odd original poetic contribution has been added, I hope with sensitivity. They are all my own work, in which case I accept the full force of any criticism.
Laurie Favelle
Canberra ACT 2009

Historical Comment
At this point it may be of help to have some understanding of the military formation Australia was attempting to put together in those early days of the war in 1914.

The military was charged with forming the 1st Australian Division. The main components of this Division were to be four infantry brigades, each brigade would have four infantry battalions and each battalion would have eight (later changed to four) infantry companies. In turn each company would be comprised of a number of platoons, usually four. In addition to the infantry component, the 1st Division would also have artillery, engineers, field ambulance, signals, transport and other support elements.

For the purpose of our story, what we end up with by April 25 1915 is the 1st Brigade (Jack's brigade) with battalions 1(Jack's battalion) to 4, 2nd Brigade with battalions 5 to 8, 3rd Brigade (to be the covering force & first ashore at Gallipoli) with battalions 9 to 12 and the 4th Brigade (later assigned to the NZ & Australian Division for the Gallipoli landing) with battalions 13 to 16. Each battalion consisted of approximately 1000 men.

What follows is a quote from Chapter 5 of the Official History by CW Bean. While it doesn't talk specifically of the formation of Jack's 1st Battalion, it serves to provide a clear guide as to the events taking place at the time.

At each Australian Capital, about the middle of August, the infant regiments began to take shape. In most cases the officer chosen to command one of them received between the 13th and 17th of August a telegram informing him of the fact, and instructing him to organise his unit and choose its officers. The brigadier, who had selected him, generally helped by suggesting a second-in-command, an adjutant (always a regular officer or adjutant of militia), and allotted him four permanent non-commissioned officers-often old British N.C.O.'s-to form the backbone of the regimental staff. The commanding officer then began to pick the rest of his staff, mainly from the militia officers who volunteered in the areas allotted to his unit, and on or about August 17th, all over Australia, the regiments, battalions, and companies of the Australian Imperial Force began to concentrate in some camp near the capital cities of the States. On Randwick Racecourse and the grassy sandhills of Kensington, both in the suburbs of Sydney; at Broadmeadows, a bleak, grassy plateau ten miles from Melbourne; at Morphettville in South Australia; at Enoggera in Queensland, Blackboy Hill in Western Australia and Pontville in Tasmania, for the space of one month the army was growing.

On August 13th Major A. J. Bennett, who had fought in South Africa, was ordered by Colonel MacLaurin, the brigadier, to organise the 3rd battalion of the 1st Infantry Brigade. The next day Major Bennett conferred with the brigadier, and selected from eight of the training areas of New South Wales most of the officers of the battalion. At 9a.m. on August 17th the chosen officers presented themselves, clothed in their militia uniforms, at the Victoria Barracks, Sydney. There, on the weather-worn asphalt of the parade ground, they found a swarm of men in every sort of civilian garb.

“Crowds of men,” writes one of the original officers, “jostling each other, laughing and talking excitedly, tall men, short men, youngsters just left school, men in the prime, and even a sprinkling of greyheads. Mostly their faces were bright, attentive and eager. . . . Sometimes one’s scrutiny met primitive faces, heavy-jawed, small bright eyes with a curious hard yet pathetic look. . . . Here and there stand men with quiet resolute faces and trim bodies, with an air of respect and control-the unmistakable stamp of the old soldier. Mark well the steady ex-Imperial men will form the nucleus of our N.C.0.’s.

“At length the shuffling, sorting and list-taking ceases. The men have all presented themselves before the second-in-command. He has seen each medical certificate of fitness and jerked out a few short queries. He turns to a knot of officers who represent our regimental staff so far, and they depart and sort out the men. Markers are called out. The regiment, so far about 300 strong, is told off into eight squads, the skeleton of a battalion. They are ‘shunned’ (called to attention), dressed, numbered, formed into fours, formed two deep, proved and stood at ease. Then steps forward a young militia captain who is to take charge and march them to Randwick Racecourse . . . and the 3rd Battalion of Infantry, no longer a name but a living entity, moves off in column of fours, a long sinuous serpent, to lunch and glory.”

The growth of the units may be judged from the instance already given-that of the 3rd Battalion of Infantry. On Monday, August 17th, it marched to Randwick Racecourse 330 strong-20 acting-officers and 310 men. On August 18th three companies were formed; on August 20th they had grown to five. On that day the issue of clothing began. By the 22nd the battalion had I8 acting-officers and 503 men. On the 26th its rifles were issued, and next day five officers and five non-commissioned officers were sent to Randwick Rifle Range for instruction in musketry, so that they could teach the rest. On August 29th recruiting for the battalion in the country districts had commenced, an officer being sent to meet the trains and conduct the country recruits to Kensington Racecourse, where the battalion was now camped in tents. By September 3rd the battalion was complete-32 officers and 991 men. It was allowed to recruit 75 men over its strength, in order that unsuitable men could be discharged.

On September 14th it marched out for the first time with its brigade to the heathland overlooking the sea at Maroubra. It had now some of its waggons, 11 horses, and the two Maxim machine-guns which were then allotted to every battalion. On September 16th the brass band held its first daily practice. On September 20th the men’s paybooks were compiled. By September 23rd, when the battalion was five weeks old, musketry practice had begun, the battalion had its horses complete, and the order was issued for the embarkation of the men in the Aberdeen liner Euripides in Sydney Harbour, and for that of the horses and drivers in the Clan Maccorguodale. On September 27th orders were received to defer embarkation. The horses and drivers already on board the Clan Maccorgriodole were taken off the next day.

The same history, with variations, would he true of almost every unit in the young force. The units of the 1st contingent all over Australia were complete and ready to sail by September 21st.

The Joining
By Laurie Favelle
Shearer, teacher, factory worker
Ploughman, coachman, engineer,
Labourer, builder, Station Master
They came from far and near.

Men gathering for the great adventure
At town or city hall
And swore to country, god and king
To serve till end of war.

Then midst orders unfamiliar
They learned anew to walk and stand;
And so off they marched, "to lunch and glory"
Heads high, backs straight, all feeling rather grand.

25th August 1914: Enlisted from Murrurrundi – came into camp at Kensington

1st September: Leave stopped - 4th leave granted up to 4pm.


Historical Comment
The 1st Battalion War Diary has no specific entry for this date, but entries around this time describe constant recruitment and training. The battalion was based at Randwick Racecourse and so, Australians knowing where one's priorities should be, the entry for the 9th of September, a Wednesday, is worthy of note:

“All tents lowered by 9am as a Racemeeting was held.”


By Laurie Favelle
"You there...drop those tents,
Fold 'em right, the first time.
Get that kit an' move it fast
Now put it in the shed,
Get it outer sight,
In neat rows, yer mug!"

The sergeant major's face was red,
Woken early from his bed.
The regiment must disappear,
"Strewth, the bleedin' army's turnin' queer!"

The army clears the decks
And the bookies take their bets.
Its still a game!


26-27 September: Broke camp with Fred Banks and had a splendid time. Ordered on the SS Afric (A19) on Sunday 27th September. Strict medical and kit examination & complete issue given 26th September.
Embarkation delayed owing to transport difficulties until further notice.
Cessation of night parades – Brigade march through Long Bay. Another route march to South Head through Waverley, Coogee & Rose Bay. Pouring rain all the way.

6th October: Review of NSW Expeditionary Force, 8000 strong, through the city.

14th October: Told we will embark during week. Route march and bivouack at Long Bay.

Friday (probably 16th October -ed): Stan Asquith and I out on leave – met with funny experience coming back. The Colonel was waiting at main gate for those coming in late, so we tried to scale the fence. Asquith made enough row for a dozen men and then could not get over. A civ policeman was giving me a leg up & I was half way over when a sentry charged me and I nearly got his bayonet in the rear. It was laughable to see that copper doing 100 yards under....? We eventually got into camp from another part of the grounds without being caught.

A Good Cop
By Laurie Favelle
Colonel Dobbin was wise and just,
But men on leave he could not trust
To return to camp when they should;
He new they'd cheat whenever they could.

So when Stan and I tried to sneak in late
We spied the colonel at the gate,
And shrinking into shadows deep
Our continued freedom we sought to keep.

With a copper's hand we tried the fence,
But, when it came to climbing, Stan was dense;
It was the sentry's yell that spoiled the fun
And we bolted at a serious run.

I never knew a copper could run so fast!
Plenty of speed, but no style or class.
Lucky the sentry's charge was off the mark,
A bayonet's bite would spoil the lark!

17th October: Raining all day prevents visitors from saying goodbye to us.

18th October: Left camp at 9am marched to the boat – aboard at 10.30. The SS Suffolk left the Harbour at 4pm with the 2nd Battalion on board. The Afric with us, about 1500 on board, left at 5pm. Heavy swell outside heads. Had my first real experience of sea sickness but was alright next day. During the night we passed the suffolk. HMAS Melbourne passed us at Gabo Island.

SS Afric (A19) leaving Melbourne - pre WW1
White Star Line official card.

The Afric was sunk in February 1917 by the German U Boat U66, with the loss of 22 lives

(Image from )

19th October: Nothing to do but eat, read & sleep.

20th October: Passed Wilson's Promontory at 7am, great sight. Sea very calm like a pond. Medical inspection. Whales sighted during the evening.

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