Austin O'NEILL
Rank: Private
Number: 664
Unit: C Company, 22nd Battalion Australian Imperial Force
Date of Death: 26 March 1918
Age: 30
Cemetery: Berks Cemetery Extension, Hainaut, Belgium

Austin was born in Stockport in 1888. His parents, John and Bridget, had been born in Ireland in the early 1860s. They worked in a local cotton mill. At the time of the 1901 Census, the family was living at 5 St James Street, Stockport and, apart from 12 year old Austin, the family included his 19 year old sister, Mary and 16 year old brother, Peter, who both worked as cotton spinners.

Austin had emigrated to Australia and was working as labourer when he enlisted at Melbourne on 3 February 1915. His service file is available on-line at the Australian National Archives and this shows him to be a small man, only 5' 4" tall. He weighed 10 stone, 2 pounds and had a 35" chest. Austin had a dark complexion, black hair and brown eyes (and had a scar over one eye). He gave his religion as Roman Catholic.

After training, he embarked from Melbourne on board HMAT "A38 Ulysses" on 10 May 1915 and after acclimatisation, probably in Egypt, he went into action at Gallipoli on 30 August 1915. The invasion of the Turkish peninsula was a failure and, by early January 1916, all the troops had been evacuated and Austin arrived at Alexandria on the 7th.

On 1 March, Austin was found to be absent from his company. He was fined 2 days pay and had to undertake 14 days Field Punishment No. 2. This meant he would have to undertake additional duties, such as latrine cleaning, but also, for two hours of the day, his legs would be shackled while he undertook them. He re-embarked on 19 March with his Battalion arriving in Marseilles on the 26th for service on the Western Front. 

A month later, he was absent from the 9am parade and was given 144 hours Field Punishment No. 2. It seems as though he was still giving his officers some trouble as, on 27 May, he was again absent from parade and had to undertake another 120 hours punishment. He was also fined 10 pence for loss of his gas goggles.

On 5 August, Austin was wounded, being shot in the right buttock. He was treated at 3rd Casualty Clearing Station and 22nd General Hospital (at Camiers), before being evacuated to Britain on 16 August. He was admitted to a military hospital in Leicester and eventually rejoined his battalion on 2 December.

Between 30 December and 19 January, Austin was back in hospital suffering from trench foot. On 9 June 1917, he was back in front of the commanding officer, this time charged with insolence to an officer for which he received another 120 hours Field Punishment. In late August, he was allowed a period of leave. He was in London and, it would appear, got very drunk and troublesome. A fine of five days pay was the result.

In October or early November, he would have received news that his brother, Peter, had been killed in action on 23 October whilst serving with the 20th Battalion, Lancashire Fusiliers. Although Austin is commemorated on the South Reddish War Memorial, Peter is recorded on the main Stockport Memorial at the Art Gallery.

The Battalion's Official History records that on 7 March 1918, the Battalion moved into reserve positions near Ploegsteert (near to the border between Belgium and France). On the 11th, they took over the front line for four days. And then they moved back into reserve, although during the hours of darkness, they came forward to improve the trenchwork and re-lay barbed wire in No Man's Land. On the 23rd , they took over the front line again. The History notes that a number of casualties were caused by shells from German "minnies" (Minenwerfers - trench mortars).

A note in Austin's file records "The above mentioned soldier was leaving his dug-out at Warreton on 26 March 1918 when he was killed by a shell bursting close to the entrance. Death was instantaneous." As with many soldiers, Austin had declined to make a will, no doubt believing that to have done so would tempt fate. His Next of Kin as recorded by the army had been his brother but, after his death, this was changed to his sister, Mary, by then Mrs M A Cummins, 26 Hawkins Street, South Reddish.

He was originally buried very close to where he was killed at the Rosenburg Chateau Military Cemetery. This was closed in 1930 when it was established by the War Graves Commission that the site could not be acquired in perpetuity. The bodies were exhumed and reburied nearby.

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