Local Identities

John Joseph O’Brien

By Carol Cameron, with research also from Michael Brereton, grandnephew of Daniel O’Brien – the brother of John Joseph O’Brien.

Descendants gathered at the Harvey Old Cemetery on 3 July 2021 to commemorate the service of World War 1 soldier, John Joseph O’Brien, and celebrate his life.

John Joseph O’Brien’s grave at the Old Harvey Cemetery. Photo courtesy of Janet Fiori.

Private John Joseph O’Brien 2650

11th Battalion (8th Reinforcements)

Australian Imperial Force (AIF)

3 March 1884 – 18 May 1920

Aged 35 Years.

Loved Husband of Sarah, Father of Kathleen,

John, Ernest, Gladys, Doris, Joan and James.

John’s family.

John was born in Homeward near Yea in Victoria, on 3 March 1884, the third child of six to an Irish-born immigrant father, Patrick O’Brien and an Australian-born mother, Susannah Marsh. They married in Ballarat, Victoria on 5 February 1879.

By 1895 both parents had died and gradually several of their adult children moved to Western Australia, some only for a time. It was here that John met and eventually married Sarah Brennen/Brennan, who was born in Manchester, England. They married at Cottesloe, WA, on 26 December 1907. Married life for them began at Kenny Street, Cottesloe Beach. John and Sarah moved within the State in the ensuing years – Kellerberrin in 1910 Muja near Collie in 1912 where John was employed as a mill hand at Buckingham’s Mill; and finally, in 1915, when he was working as a miner in Kalgoorlie, living with Sarah and his young family at 281 Collins Street. Their children were –

Kathleen Mary O’Brien, born 18 November 1908 at Claremont. Kath married John Allan Johnston and nine children were born to them. She died aged 44.

John Joseph O’Brien (Jnr) was born two years later on 9 February 1910 at Kellerberrin. He married Alma Castiglioni and died aged 38 years at East Fremantle. Little is known about John, though we do know he served in WW2 and through electoral roll records, that he moved around a lot, mainly between WA gold mining areas. In one record Doris O’Brien, his sister, was named as his next-of-kin.

Ernest James O’Brien was born at Muja in Collie on 3 January 1912, but tragically only lived three years due to measles and pneumonia, dying on 5 November 1915 at Cottesloe.

Gladys O’Brien was born the next year on 15 March 1913 in Claremont. She married William Edward Evans. Gladys died in 1999, aged 86, the mother of four.

Doris Eileen O’Brien was born on 22 March 1915 in Kalgoorlie, and was five years of age when her father died, as recorded on John’s death certificate. She married Reginald Joseph (Basil) Plummer. Doris lived to be 88 and was the mother of two.

Joan O’Brien was born in Fremantle on 21 March 1920 and was recorded as being two months of age at the time of her father’s death. She married Arthur John Barr. Joan lived to be 81 and was the mother of three children.

James Francis O’Brien was born in Fremantle on 12 June 1924. He married Marian (Marie) Betty Wilson née Yet Foy. Jim, the father of five children, died aged 87 in 2011.

On 23 June 1915 John Joseph O’Brien enlisted at Blackboy Hill, Western Australia, with the Australian Imperial Army for active duty during WW1.

Johns’ eulogy tells of his war years and his subsequent tragic death –

Eulogy for John Joseph O’Brien

John’s short life of 36 years was certainly impactive. He didn’t waste any time. He moved from Victoria to Western Australia, met and married his wife Sarah, fathered many children, had a few occupations and was assigned to Europe during World War 1. He was registered at enlistment as Private Number 2650 in the Australian Imperial Forces, assigned to the 11th Battalion (8th reinforcements) on  23 June 1915, at Blackboy Hill, Western Australia.

He was 30 years of age when he was sent to Egypt with a small contingent from his battalion. The main part of his battalion was sent to Gallipoli with the survivors meeting up in 1916 with his group on Lemnos Island. From there the 11th Battalion went to Fleubaix in France which was at about the same time and place that his brother Daniel O’Brien who had been living in Melbourne when he enlisted, was serving.

While John was in France he was sent to hospital for knee surgery, following which he was returned to France later in 1916, thankfully missing the Battle of the Somme. Later in the war, before he was captured, he had another stint in hospital for knee problems.

On 15 April 1917 the 11th Battalion was holding part of the front line near Cambrai, at a place called Louverval. The Battalion did not have a front line as such, but had fighting posts set up in shell holes in No Man’s Land. At dawn a surprise attack from the German lines surrounded the Battalion posts. The posts fought until out of ammunition, when the survivors were taken prisoner.

John was posted as missing in action on 16 April 1917, which must have been a shock to his wife Sarah, but four months later on 26 August 1917, it was confirmed and consequently recorded on his AIF file that he was a prisoner of war in Limburg, Germany, so it is likely that he was positioned in one of these posts when captured.

From April 1917 John was held hostage in a POW camp in Limburg, Germany, until he was repatriated to the United Kingdom on 26 December 1918.


John Joseph O’Brien (RHS) wearing a German Prisoner of War uniform. Photo courtesy of Matthew Chalwell.  

The type of camp that John was sent to was a Mannschaftslager (Enlisted Men’s Camp) for private soldiers and NCOs. The camp at Limburg, according to Wikipedia, held 12,000 men and was known to be a camp where Irish prisoners were concentrated for the purpose of recruiting for the Irish Brigade.

Once repatriated to England from the camp, it was recorded on his AIF file that John was to leave England on the H.T. Euripides, embarking on what looks like 12 March 1918, disembarking on 10 April 1919 in Fremantle, to be released from quarantine on Monday 21 April 1919.

The AIF had taken studio portraits of all repatriated prisoners in their uniforms. There has been a question about the uniform John was wearing in the picture, whether it was an Australian Army uniform or a Prisoner of War uniform. Apparently, all POWs were issued with a blue uniform in the camp so that they would be readily identifiable to their guards when working outside the camps. The Australian Museum had a photograph of some POW men which presumably does show John wearing the uniform provided by Germany.

John’s WW1 medals. L-R, The 1914-1915 Star, The British War Medal, 1914-1918 and The Allied Victory Medal.

Photo courtesy of John Plummer.

As a repatriated WW1 soldier, John was now eligible for Government land as a Soldier Settler and soon took up land at Benger, on Ommanney Road, which is now part of the South West Highway.

Eleven months and 9 days after landing in Fremantle, disaster struck for the young family.

South Western Times, Thursday, 20 May 1920, p.3 –

KILLED BY A TRAIN. Shortly after passing the 87 mile post between Harvey and Wokalup, the driver of the train, on the morning of the 18th instant noticed that while running over ballast there was considerable dust flying. The night was dark, the hour being 3.55 a.m. The train consequently pulled up, when the body of a man was found lying on his back, under the trailing engine bogie. With the assistance of the fireman and guard the man was removed and placed alongside the line after it was found that life was extinct. The train proceeded to Wokalup where the matter was reported to the station master who sought the aid of the Police Department. A constable was sent out to the scene of the accident and he brought the body to the Harvey Hotel. An inquest was opened at Harvey and after viewing the body, was adjourned until Tuesday when it will be conducted at Yarloop. It is learned that the deceased was John O’Brien, a returned soldier, who lately had taken up land at Benger.

An inquest was and reported in the South Western Times, 29 May 1920, p.3 –

Harvey Railway Fatality. An inquest was held on Tuesday in connection with the death of John O’Brien, of Benger, who was killed by the train on the night of the 18th May.

It was during the hearing of the evidence that O’Brien left his home at Benger, where he resided with his wife and five young children, to come to Harvey. He negotiated the seven miles, and while in Harvey attended to business matters with the Repatriation Committee and also secured the filling-in of his war gratuity form.

At about 8.45 p.m., after having missed the afternoon train, he stated his intention of walking home along the line but was advised by a man named Alex Tennant not to do so. He replied that he would be all right and left. An examination of the scene of the accident showed that the deceased had sat down nearby, apparently to have a rest. The jury returned a verdict of death by misadventure, no blame being attachable to anyone. O’Brien was 35 years of age. 

John Joseph O’Brien was buried on 19 May 1920 in the Old Harvey Cemetery, section 21 number 18.

By then Sarah had five very young children – Kathleen was 11 years of age, John 10, Gladys 7, Doris 5 and Joan was 2 months old.

A later report in the South Western Times, 15 June, 1920, p.3 refers to a fundraising event for John’s family –

A letter was read from Mr. A. M. Daglish [to the Harvey Road Board] to the effect that a social and dance to secure funds for the widow of the late Mr. O’Brien, who had been left with four [sic]children to support, would be held on June 24, and he asked for mitigation of rental conditions of the hall. It was decided to make the usual charge for the hall and to give a donation of 30 shillings from the three per cent fund to the case.

John’s life epitomised the celebrated life of the ‘Aussie Battler’- This phrase refers to a person who works hard to make a decent living in difficult circumstances, a person who refuses to admit defeat in the face of great difficulties.

The Australian poet, Ed Walker, in his poem ‘Birth of our Spirit’ wrote –

…‘They feel the spirit flowing as it pours out from the land,

and strangers can’t describe it for it’s hard to understand. 

It is a thing intangible, a thing of soul and mind, 

it’s there in dashing courage, or the slow determined grind. 

It’s bravery in a battle or compassion in a plight, 

and when there is a mad retreat it makes a stand to fight’ … 

We are privileged to have come to know him through these records, and to honour him this day, to acknowledge not only his life but that of his wife Sarah and each of his children, and in turn their children, and so to us gathered here today.

In the words of the Irish Blessing, John may well say to each of you today as his final farewell to his posterity –

May the road rise to meet you,

May the wind be always at your back, 

May the sun shine warm upon your face,

And the rain fall soft upon your fields, 

And until we meet again,

May God hold you in the hollow of his hand. 

The reverse side of John’s medals. Photo courtesy of John Plummer.