Farm boy served in two wars
Two wars: John Owen Magee. Picture: Supplied

Much of the expansion of the WA Wheatbelt was brought about by the sweat and toil of men with axes.

And in August 1914, a young lad by the name of John Owen Magee was learning how to wield an axe at his father's property at Kulin when a horseman rode up and declared Australia was at war.

Magee's son-in-law, Peter Lee, of Atwell, told how Magee and a fellow axeman responded "who with?" The horseman told the startled country lads that the war was against Germany, it was expected to be over by Christmas so he was off to enlist, and galloped away.

When he was 17 Magee decided he, too, would join up and on August 23, 1915, giving his age as 21, he signed his papers.

But Magee's ruse unravelled and on September 23, 1915, he was discharged, "parents' consent withdrawn". Mr Lee noted it was a consent that had never been given and Magee's father collected him. Young Magee went back to the farm until his 18th birthday in November 1915, and then travelled to Narrogin and enlisted legitimately.

He sailed from Fremantle in February 1916 as part of the re-inforcements to the 28th Battalion but soon transferred to the new 51st Battalion and joined the fighting on the Western Front.

Mr Lee said Magee had various close calls, including when he and another man were standing in a trench talking when a German shell passed between them and buried itself in the bank without exploding.

Neville Browning's book on the 51st Battalion, For King and Cobbers, tells how the battalion attacked a German position near Noreuil, northern France, in April 1917. Magee had "negotiated the barbed wire entanglement and advanced on an enemy machinegun position ensconced in the sunken road, whilst firing his Lewis gun from the hip", Browning wrote.

Magee's son Owen, a Duntroon graduate who served in World War II, Korea and Vietnam, also wrote about the attack, which Browning quoted, saying that Magee "felt a blow 'like being hit with a cricket bat' as a bullet went through his little finger and then exited through the back of his left hand".

"He ran on, firing his Lewis gun and silenced the machinegun that was firing at him.

"Some time later someone helped him with his first field dressing, breaking the thin glass seal of the iodine phial and pouring the contents into the open wound before applying the bandage," Owen Magee wrote.

Mr Lee said that Magee later recounted how he had "walked back to a dressing station, holding his still dripping wounded arm up and telling all and sundry that 'I've got a Blighty' (a wound that would see him returned to England for treatment)".

He was sent to hospital and was soon to learn he had been recommended for the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his gallantry.

After a period in Britain training new recruits he returned to the front in April 1918 as the 51st took part in the April 25 attack to dislodge the Germans from Villers-Bretonneux.

In June, he was selected to join the Officers Cadet Battalion and was transferred to Oxford, where he remained until the war ended, and was commissioned.

Magee finally left England in July 1919. Mr Lee said Magee used a war service loan to buy the Kulin farm from his father.

In 1942 he was again called to arms, joining the RAAF and serving in northern Australia.

Mr Lee said Magee never talked about his WWI years except when a neighbour who had also been in the 51st visited, and the talk would stretch into the night.

John Owen Magee died in 1980.

The West Australian

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