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Three Brothers: A Family at War

by Frances Thompson

2016 marks the centenary of the death of my great-uncle, Private Nicholas Leo McInerney, who was killed in action in one of the First World War’s most horrifying battles.

The battle of Pozieres is infamous for its massive death toll, cruelty and suffering.

Nicholas, a machine gunner aged 29, was among those thousands of Australians who died there, a place described by one eyewitness as an Australian graveyard.

He was wounded and died between July 23, the first day of the assault and July 25.

Nicholas Leo McInerney, service number 3419, was the eldest son of Patrick John and Anne Margaret (nee Eiffe) McInerney, a railway family, who lived in the Mid North of South Australia.

He was serving with his brother Michael John, my maternal grandfather. Michael was among the first to join the 10th Battalion at Morphettville in Adelaide in 1914 and served at Gallipoli.

Patrick McInerney, a telegraph linesman before he volunteered, was a sapper in the 5th Australian Division Signals Company. He was awarded the Military Medal.

No one is left to tell Nicholas’ story. No letters of his exist, nor any confirmed images.
I have a French postcard photo of an Australian soldier that has come to me from my family but it might not be Nicholas. However, it was always kept with his memorial plaque.

I have compiled this chronology using the official records of the Australian War Memorial (AWM), the National Archives of Australia and the Commonwealth War Graves Commission to mark the centenary of his death.

The most compelling records on Nicholas’ files are letters, mostly from his mother Anne McInerney, a widow, then living in Kapunda, seeking information about the fate of her first-born son.

Here is all I know.

Born: Nicholas Leo McInerney, December 17, 1886, Jamestown, South Australia.
Occupation: Packer, South Australian Railways.
Enlisted: July 26, 1915, Port Lincoln, South Australia aged 28 years and eight months.
Height: 5 foot 3 inches.
Weight: 152 pounds.
Eyes: Blue.
Hair: Dark.
Complexion: Fresh
Chest measurement: 35-37 inches.
Religion: Roman Catholic

Embarked: October 27, 1915, Adelaide HMAT Benalla.

Disembarked: Marseille, France, April 3, 1916. (via Egypt)

Then came the Somme…

September 28, 1916: Letter to the Red Cross Bureau from Anne McInerney.

“I have received information by letter from the trenches that my son has been wounded and posted as missing. I have not yet been notified by the military authorities and I have not received any letters from him for two mails and would be very thankful if you could assist me in any way by obtaining any information.
It was thought by the soldier who wrote me that he was wounded on or about the 25 of July.
Respectfully Yours.”

Perhaps unknown to Anne McInerney at the time, about a month after Nicholas was wounded and reported missing, her second son, Michael John was wounded and taken a prisoner of war. He was captured on August 22, 1916 in the battle of Mouquet Farm.

October 2, 1916: In a letter to the Minister of Defence from Anne McInerney, she repeats the news about her son, Nicholas, from the trenches and asks:

“ I have not been informed by the Defence Department re his (Nicholas’) injury and would like very much to know if there is any advice I should have received some time back and has been overlooked or if there is any information to be obtained now?
Respectfully yours…”

October 10, 1916: Letter to Anne McInerney from Officer In Charge, Base Records Melbourne.

“… I have to state no official report to any effect has been received respecting your son.
If you forward to this office authentic documentary evidence to the effect he has been wounded, upon receipt of same and if such action is warranted, inquiries will be instituted and the result when to hand will be transmitted to you.”

Four months pass and by mid-November records show no casualty has been reported.
Then, on November 21, 1916 records show Nicholas is “with unit”.

Sometime in late 1916, Anne sought the assistance of Labor Senator John Newland, whose son, Donald, was a captain in the 10th Battalion and was awarded the Military Cross. Senator Newland had worked for the South Australian Railways on the Broken Hill-Terowie line for more than 10 years. McInerneys may have known him in this capacity or through their railway community network.

December 28, 1916: Letter from South Australian Senator John Newland to Base Records, Melbourne.

“I would be glad if you will have enquiries made regarding the undermentioned – his mother, a widow, with 3 sons at the front (one a prisoner of war in Germany) would be glad to hear of him.
No. 3419, Pte Nicholas McInerney, 10th Battalion machine gunner … supposed to have been wounded in July last, his mother had letter to that effect from a lad who is now a prisoner. Shall be glad of early enquiries.”

January 4, 1917: To Senator Newland from Base Records, Melbourne.

“…No report of any description has been received concerning him, consequently from the official standpoint it can only be assumed he is with his unit.
If however definite authentic evidence at variance with the official advice can be produced immediate investigations will be made – without this I regret my instructions preclude any action being taken.”

January 4, 1917: Letter from the Red Cross Bureau, South Australian Division to Anne McInerney. For a third time, Anne is given hope her son is still alive.

“…we beg to state that we are in receipt of information from the Commissioners to the effect that this soldier is well and with his unit.”

Undated: Letter from Miss Neta Sands of Lyndoch, SA, to Officer in Charge Base Records, Melbourne.

“Can you give me any information of Pte NL McInerney as he was reported missing, as he is a friend of mine I would be very grateful if you would send me further information as soon as possible, we have had no word from him since last July.”

August 5, 1917: Officer in Charge Base Records, Melbourne to Miss Sands.

“….I regret to state no further information has been received since he was reported missing between the 23rd and 25 July last.
The overseas authorities are doing their utmost to trace members of the Force …further information regarding the soldier will of course be promptly communicate(sic) to his mother.”

September 5, 1917: Letter from Base Records, Melbourne to Anne McInerney.

“I regret to inform you that no further official news has been received.”

September 17, 1917: Anne McInerney responds and sends Base Records a letter from her prisoner-of-war son, Michael, which names a Sgt Corcoran, who it appears might be able to help in the search. She also states two other soldiers “spoke to 3419, Pte NL McInerney, after he was wounded.”

She said these men were Pte W Donald and Pte Fowler, both of 10th Battalion.

October 1917: Letter to Anne McInerney from Base Records, Melbourne.

“I return the letter which accompanied your report of (September) 17th ult. concerning the case of No. 3419…. Representations have been made to London and as soon as any further report is to hand you will again be communicated with.”

February 2, 1918: A court of enquiry found Pte NL McInerney was Killed in Action “in the field, in France”.

It appears his mother was informed of the findings around the same time because she wrote to protest the constant and worrying delays, including the lack of a death certificate, which she needed to finalise her son’s affairs.

April, 9, 1918: Letter and package from the AIF to Anne McInerney containing the late Pte NL McInerney’s personal effects.

Effects - ex kit store - book 8: Scarf, cards, pieces of ribband, prayer books, playing cards, Pr. bed socks, photos and military books.

June 27, 1918: Letter from Anne McInerney to Base Records, Melbourne.

“Some time ago an application was made for a death certificate … but the certificate has not come to hand.

It is now two years since this soldier was killed and six months since your office reported him such. Do you not think it is quite time your department gave this matter its due consideration?

I have two other sons abroad with the AIF. If any such trouble occurs where they are concerned and the department takes two years to finalise matters as they are at the present time doing then I, as a dependant on my sons, will be in difficult circumstances.

Neglected cases such as this do not give full due to those who have done their share nor any encouragement to others to enlist or aid recruiting.
I am yours etc…”

Anne is clearly exasperated and there is a hard edge to this letter. Her reference to enlistment and recruiting was a pointed political statement. Australia had held two referenda on conscription to boost the dwindling numbers of soldiers as death rates of young men and officers on the Western front soared.

Undated pension claim form entry describes Anne and Nicholas as “widowed mother-unmarried son”

Anne McInerney was granted a pension of two pounds a fortnight.

July 3, 1918: Letter from Base Records, Melbourne containing a report of the death of Pte NL McInerney.

Perhaps this is the long awaited military equivalent of a death certificate. No further correspondence from Anne McInerney is contained in the records. However, correspondence to her from defence continued for another 10 years.

June 24, 1921: Letter from Major J M Lean, Base Records, Melbourne to Anne McInerney.

“I regret very much that, not withstanding the efforts of our Graves Services Unit, we have so far been unable to obtain any trace of the last resting place of your son, the late N L McInerney…
I shall be much obliged if you will let me have … any letters or communications that contain any reference to the circumstances surrounding his death, particularly the locality at which it occurred, or where he was last seen alive.
The reason …is to identify, if at all possible, those bodies that are being recovered but which have nothing on them to definitely establish identification and thus obviate the necessity of interring them in the new Military Cemeteries under the heading “An Unknown Australian Soldier”.

1923: Anne McInerney signs receipts for Nicholas’ Memorial Plaque No 339458 and the Victory Medal. These plaques were often called “widows’ pennies” or “death pennies”.

Undated letter to the Secretary, Australian Grave Services Australia House, London from Principal Assistant Secretary Imperial War Graves Commission, Baker St, London:

“… in accordance with the agreement with the French and Belgian governments to remove scattered graves…it has been found necessary to exhume the bodies buried in certain areas.
Will you please inform the next of kin that the necessity for removal is much regretted but was unavoidable and give them every assurance that the work of reburial has been carried out carefully and reverently.”

September 13, 1928: Imperial War Graves Commission (Exhumation and Re-burial) Effects Form.
Inventory of Effects: Disc -119 N L ---IERNEY. 10th Batt AIF.

December 13, 1928: Letter from Base Records, Melbourne informing Anne the remains of her son had been found, more than 12 years after he was killed.

“ … during the course of recent exhumation work in the vicinity of Pozieres, the Imperial War Graves Commission was successful in recovering the remains of this soldier, which have since been interred with every measure of care and reverence in Plot 21, Row F, Grave 14 Serre Road Cemetery No. 2 near, Beaumont Hamel, France.”

No personal signature, or officer’s name and Nicholas, earlier referred to as “your son, the late N L McInerney” is now “this soldier”.

Nicholas’ great niece Kate Thompson-Bennett visited this grave in the 1990s, the only member of our family who has done so.

One of the most beautiful memorials where Nicholas is listed is the Roll of Honour at Adelaide Railway Station that is inscribed with the names of railway employees who served in the two world wars.

After the war…

Nicholas’ brother, Michael (Mac) McInerney was released from his German POW camp to England, via Holland. He returned to Adelaide in 1919.

In 1920 he married Hilda Gillespie, of Birkenhead and they lived in Cavendish Street, West Croydon.

Michael last served in the 3 Infantry Training Unit during World War 2.

He retained lifelong connections to the RSL in South Australia. He was president of the West Croydon Kilkenny RSL, in Adelaide’s Western suburbs and acted as an advocate for returned servicemen, helping them to secure their entitlements. He was also a councillor.
His first-born son, Desmond John, was killed by a Japanese sniper in the Ramu Valley of Papua New Guinea in 1943, aged 19.
Michael died in 1956, aged 67.

The third brother, Patrick, died in 1946, aged 55.

A fourth brother Laurence Eiffe McInerney served in World War 2 and was taken a prisoner of war by the Japanese. He died within a few months of his older brother Michael in August 1956.

Sources: Charles Bean, One man’s struggle to report the Great War and tell the truth, Ross Coulthart, Harper Collins 2014.

The Fighting 10th, Cecil B L Lock, Webb and Son Adelaide 1936.

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