The Faces of War

Photo of entrance to Gallipoli: The scale of our war
Photo of the entrance to “Gallipoli: The scale of our war” at Te Papa, Wellington until 2018

There has been quite a lot of press in the last two years about World War I (WWI) due to the centenary of events that occurred.  One recurring theme seems to be that everyone (male) went to war and most of them died or were tragically injured either mentally or physically.

That’s not quite true.

Which is good news for people like me who don’t really feel connected to WWI.  My grandfather did get there for the last 3 weeks (I’m not kidding) but he was married to his first wife then and it seems like it’s part of their history, not mine.

I did a quick presentation for the Kilbirnie branch of the NZSG on my Gran’s 5 maternal uncles and their war experiences in WWI.  Here’s the edited condensed version with some links.

The O’Callaghan Brothers

My gg-grandparents Jasper Pyne O’Callaghan and Winifred Alice Baker had 9 children.  Four girls including my g-grandmother Greta followed by 5 boys.  This post is the story of those brothers.  I’m going to do them in order of length of military service, rather than chronological age.

Jasper Warner O’Callaghan 1880-1933 – military service 4 years 112 days

Jasper Warner O'Callaghan - military uniform - cropped

Jasper, the second son, joined up in August 1914, less than a month after war had been declared.  He was a chemist living in Dunedin at the time.  By the beginning of December he was a Lance Corporal in the Otago Mounted Rifles and in Egypt.  He soon ended up in the NZ Medical Corps.

On May 20, 1915 he left Alexandria for the Dardenelles aka Gallipoli.  He was part of the Field Ambulance at Anzac Cove.

Jasper followed the war to France in 1916.  On 30 June, 1917, he was awarded the Military Medalion for acts of Gallantry in the field.  I haven’t managed to find any online detail of his actions.

To understand his war, you should read his service record in conjunction with the New Zealand Medical Service in the Great War 1914-1918.

In February 1918, Jasper was made a Sergeant.  On 13 December, 1918 he was officially discharged back in New Zealand.

In 1926 he married Alexis Allardyce and had two children before dying prematurely in 1933 of appendicitis (pre-antibiotics).

Thomas Robert O’Callaghan 1879-1944 – military service 2 years 129 days

Winifred and Thomas Robert O'Callaghan 1930s - cropped

Thomas and his wife Winifred in the 1930s

Thomas left his wife Winifred and three children to enlist in June 1916 – just before the Military Service Act 1916 was enacted allowing conscription.

When you read Thomas’ medical report on enlistment, you get the impression that given the choice, the Army would have said no due to eye problems.  But in 1916 they were so desperate for men they said yes and Thomas was in England for Christmas on the way to France.

But first, in January, Thomas spent time in hospital with conjunctivitis.  One of the amusing parts of his service record is the letter pointing out that he was in a Military Hospital at this point, not a Venereal Disease Hospital!  The stigma of a Venereal Disease Hospital was very great!

He joined up with the NZ Rifle Brigade in France.  To understand his war, you should read his service record in conjunction with the Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade.

In April 1918, Thomas was admitted to hospital with diarrhea and this heralded the end of his war.  In August he was on the Ionic heading back to New Zealand.  His continuing eye problems had given him a medical discharge.

Gerald Charles O’Callaghan 1882-1947 – military service ? days
Gordon Harcourt O’Callaghan 1884-1953 –military service 318 days

Photo of Gordon and Gerald O'Callaghan

Gordon & Gerald

Gerald and Gordon are known to their mother’s side of the family as “Winifred’s bad boys”.  I’m putting them together because their military experience was very similar.  In 1916, both were drafted.  Like around half of draftees, they appealed their drafts.

Gerald was living in Strathmore in Taranaki.  His appeal was reported in the Hawera & Normanby Star on 2 February, 1917:

Gerald Charles O’Callaghan, settler, Strathmore, appealed on the ground of undue hardship and religious objections, and asked for three months’ exemption. There was no appearance of-appellant, and the appeal was therefore dismissed.

Records after that are very thin on the ground. For a while I couldn’t find anything and thought maybe he had just gone bush – his occupation on the electoral roll at that time being bushman.  And then on Archive NZ’s Archway appeared his ballot, attestation and medical papers – in Christchurch, 22 May, 1917.

Gordon was clerk at Akaroa County Council.  His appeal was reported in the Akaroa Mail and Banks Peninsula Advertiser on 17 April, 1917.  The chair of the military board was not impressed with Gordon and the Council asking for 3 months to get affairs in order before he went off to service:

Mr Bishop said it was a much fairer thing to the Empire that they should take over such men to help them in the field. He alluded to the need of men which was pressing and even greater than the need for food. The Acting Prime Minister was urging the Board to send more men and it was his clear duty to send as many as possible.

Gordon was attested on 18 May, 1917 – four days before his brother.

Both were classed C2 – not suitable for active service overseas, but suitable for home service.  The reason given was their health – VDH.

VDH is Valvular Disease of the Heart.  It results from contracting rheumatic fever as a child, and is usually associated today with poverty and living in cramped conditions.  Given their father died when they were 13 and 11 respectively leaving 9 children, this was not unexpected.

For Gerald, this appears to be the end of his war.  He has no further records.

Gordon was given “leave without pay” until 14 January 1918 (9 months!), when he was expected to turn up for service.  He served until 30 November, 1918 when he was given a “Certificate of Leave in lieu of Discharge”.  He started out as a Private and ended up as a T/Cpl (Transport Corporal?)

Gerald and Gordon became “billiard hall proprietors” together in the 1930s.  Neither married nor had any (known) children.

William Bell O’Callaghan 1885-1960 – military service 0 days

William did no military service at all.  Like many others, he was given a Reservist classification in the draft.  In his case “Class C – Reservists who have two children”.

The O’Callaghan casualties

Winifred was lucky – she ended the war with all her sons still alive.  Her sisters-in-law were not so lucky.  The O’Callaghan brothers lost 2 of their cousins in the war:

Lest we forget.

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2 thoughts on “The Faces of War

  1. Alan Brace

    I am in possession of the death plaque for Denis William O’Callaghan , killed at Chanuk Bair 1915. Would any of the family wish to contact me re this.

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