Above: Bert O'Neill with the Governor General, Lord Richard Casey in 1966. Lord Casey had been Bert's Brigade Major during WWI. Courtesy of the Pakenham Gazette.
Corporal Bernard (Bert) O’Neill
Born: 1 September 1896 - Koroit, Victoria
Enlisted: 31 July 1915 aged 19
Unit: 8th Battalion, 13th Reinforcement (SERN: 4280)
Served: Western Front
Died: 1981 - Pakenham, Victoria
Bert was nearly 19 years old when he enlisted with his parents’ consent on 31 July 1915. At the time, he was a textile factory worker at Warrnambool. Previously, Bert had served one year with the militia and three years with the senior cadets, presumably while at school (1). Bert left Australia with the 8th Battalion 13th Reinforcement on 29 December 1915. After a period in Egypt, he was sent to France and taken on strength with the 60th Battalion on 27 July 1916. This was just a week after it was virtually wiped out at the Battle of Fromelles. The 60th Battalion saw little further action in 1916 (2). In May 1917, Bert was appointed as Lance Corporal, but in July was admitted to hospital with tonsillitis. It was later discovered to be diphtheria, which was highly contagious. He was therefore sent as a “diphtheria carrier” to Netley England to recover (3). Because of this, Bert missed the action near Ypres in late 1917, only rejoining his unit in January 1918. Within weeks though, the Allies were faced with the Germans’ “Spring Offensive” which aimed to deliver a “knock out blow” against the British and French. As part of the desperate Allied attempts to stop the German onslaught, the 60th Battalion was involved in the famous Australian counter-attack at Villers-Bretonneux, which at times involved hand-to-hand combat against the Germans. This action was instrumental in saving the strategically important city of Amiens. In June 1918, Bert was sent to train in the use of the Lewis machine gun. Later, he was transferred to the 59th Battalion when the 60th Battalion was disbanded. By this time, the War was almost over. Bert arrived back in Australia in late September 1919 and was discharged from the AIF in January 1920 (4).
By 1925, Bert was working as a labourer at “Springbank” in the Toomuc Valley (5). He met his future wife Agnes at the Pakenham races (6). Bert later went farm labouring in NSW, but by the late 1930s, he and Agnes had returned to Pakenham, where their children attended St Patrick’s Catholic School. Later, their daughter Kathleen joined the Presentation Sisters, the religious order which had charge of St Patrick’s School for many years. Indeed, Sr Kath eventually became principal of her old school. Bert was very active in the Pakenham RSL and in recognition of his contribution, was made a life member. He died in 1981, aged 84.
The assistance of Bert’s daughter, Sr Kath O’Neill PBVM is gratefully acknowledged.
(1) (3) & (4) NAA B2455 O’NEILL BERNARD
(2) “60th Australian Infantry Battalion” www.awm.gov.au/collection/U51500
(5) Ancestry.com.au - Electoral Roll - Flinders - Pakenham 1925 p. 20
(6) Information provided by Sr Kath O’Neill PBVM