Humble war hero copped battering
Scars of war: Bernard (Barney) O'Reilly. Picture: Supplied

Bernard (Barney) O'Reilly was not one to speak of his deeds during World War 1.

It came as something of a shock to his family when they discovered the extent of his war service and it seems the consequences of war weighed heavily on his mind in his later years.

Barney had arrived in Australia from Ireland about 1905 and found work in the Eastern Goldfields before he enlisted in November 1914 for his adopted country and joined the 16th Battalion.

He embarked in February 1915 on the transport vessel Itonus and landed at Gallipoli as part of the attack launched on Turkish positions on April 25. Barney's best friend was killed alongside him not long after.

In May, his unit was thrown at the Turkish defences up steep cliffs at the Bloody Angle. There were heavy casualties but Barney survived. But his luck ran out in May when he was wounded in the shoulder during the battle for Quinn's Post.

He rejoined the battalion in July but appalling living conditions in the trenches in the last months at Gallipoli inevitably led to illness. He got jaundice and was evacuated from the peninsula.

In the reorganisation of the Australian Imperial Force before leaving for France, Barney was promoted to corporal and assigned to the 12th Machine Gun Company.

He was soon thrust into action at Pozieres, coming under heavy barrages. Barney's emplacement managed to hold position in a battle that one veteran said presented sights "enough to haunt a man for the rest of his life".

For his gallantry Barney was awarded the prestigious Russian Cross of St George. After he was presented with the medal he was carried from the parade ground by fellow soldiers and was soon promoted to sergeant.

In February 1917 he had what could almost be considered good fortune when he was wounded again, this time in the thigh. An extended convalescence in an English hospital meant he was not with his unit when it suffered horrific casualties at Bullecourt, one of the country's greatest military disasters.

He recovered sufficiently by October to be thrust back into action at Passchendaele in Belgium, a place that became synonymous with mud, death and unspeakable suffering.

During this time he was awarded a commission and became an officer in the AIF in 1918. He served in the line during 1918 at Villers-Bretonneux, Hamel and Proyart.

He was wounded for a third and final time in the attack on the Hindenburg Line and was fit only for "sedentary work" when the war finished in November 1918, having seen as much front-line service as anyone in the AIF.

Barney married army nurse Beatrice Howe, who came from his native Cork, in London in 1919. They had six children and lived much of their later life in Armadale.

A quiet, gentle man, he almost never spoke about his war experiences, invariably deflecting questions about a subject that was all too painful to talk about. He had numerous operations for his war injuries and in the 1960s X-rays showed shrapnel still in his body.

Barney O'Reilly died in 1975.

Edited by Malcolm Quekett. Greg O'Reilly is a grandson of Bernard O'Reilly

The West Australian

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