When I contemplate the randomness of war, two concepts immediately come to mind. During the Great War, a story of a battle-hardened sergeant was relayed back to Australia. The tough digger believed there were only two sorts of days in the trenches: the one where it didn’t matter what you did, you weren’t going to get hit; the other where it didn’t matter what you did you were going to cop it. His comment before each hopover stays with me – “C’mon boys! Let’s see what sort of day it is!”
The other is a more recent scene from the black comedy Blackadder Goes Forth…Private Baldrick is scratching away at a bullet. Captain Blackadder enquires as to what he is doing. “You know how they say that somewhere there’s a bullet with your name on it?…Well I thought that if I owned the bullet with my name on it, I’ll never get hit by it. Cause I’ll never shoot myself…”
War makes men cynical. But not without good cause.
Certainly, some soldiers lived like the proverbial cat. Jack Halligan was definitely one of those whose life seemed to come down to numbers and luck…
Born at Ballarat in January 1896, John Halligan was the third child and eldest son of Andrew Thomas Halligan and Isabell Main Chalmers. His parents were both born locally – Andrew in Sebastopol and Isabell in Ballarat itself. Their origins were also clearly defined: whilst his mother was of Anglo-Scots ancestry, the Halligans were Irish, with connections to Dublin and Tipperary.
Andrew Halligan worked as a bootmaker and the family home was at 613 Sebastopol Street in central Ballarat. The family also continued to grow with the birth of a further seven children – all except baby Isabella surviving to adulthood. There was a considerable age gap between Jack and the youngest children, but it is clear that he doted on his siblings.
There were a number of State Schools within walking distance of the Halligan home, but Urquhart Street was the nearest and it was perhaps one of the finest in the city at that time. Young Jack received his formal education at the school, coming under the influence of the headteacher, Charles Reddin.
Whilst at Urquhart Street, Jack also began his military career. School cadets gave a great grounding for boys of that era, and Jack received an early initiation into what was expected in the armed forces. When Major-General John Hoad, Inspector-General of the Australian Military Forces, visited Ballarat in January 1907, the cadets attached to Dana Street, Pleasant Street and Urquhart Street State Schools received a full military inspection by the Boer War veteran. After the inspection, the boys were all invited to the City Hall by Mayor James Brokenshire, where they were entertained with light refreshments, which, apparently, they ‘partook with great enjoyment.’
Jack’s participation in the military continued on to the Senior Cadets and the Commonwealth Military Cadets – it was this form of training that was to contribute significantly to Australia’s overall military strength during the Great War.
Having completed his elementary schooling, Jack left Urquhart Street to begin working as a boot salesman at Oliver’s in Bridge Street, one of the best-known shoe shops in the city.
When the war broke out, Jack was working at Broken Hill in outback New South Wales. He had transferred to the town’s 82nd Infantry Regiment, and was initially on duty at Port Augusta in South Australia. Like so many young Australian men, Jack was anxious to go to the front. He returned to Ballarat to enlist on 26 October 1914.
Jack certainly looked younger than his age, so, even though he “aged” himself a year to 19-years and 9-months, he still required his parent’s consent. Whether it was with pride, trepidation or a mixture of both, Andrew and Isabell Halligan signed ‘…We hereby give our consent to our son John Halligan serving in the Australian Expeditionary Force…’
Doctor Paul Dane conducted Jack’s physical at the Ballarat Recruiting Depot. He noted that the young recruit passed all the stringent requirements for joining the Australian Imperial Force at that early point in the war: Jack was 5-feet 7¼-inches tall, weighed a rather light 138-pounds, and had a chest measurement of 31 to 34-inches. Although the portrait Jack later had taken did not reveal his colouring, Dr Dane was able to tell us that the young lad had a fair complexion with grey eyes and auburn hair. His religious denomination was given as Church of England.
Having been passed fit, Jack formally signed his oath, swearing to ‘well and truly serve our Sovereign Lord the King,’ the following day and immediately went into camp. He was with a depot battalion until 3 January 1915, when he was assigned as private, number 1355, to the 2nd reinforcements for the 7th Infantry Battalion.
It was clear from the outset that, despite his youth, Jack Halligan was earmarked for promotion. He had not left Australia before he was promoted to the rank of corporal on 1 February. The very next day he boarded the troopship Clan MacGillivray at Port Melbourne to begin the voyage to Egypt.
During the trip a small publication called the “Clan News” was issued daily. Amongst the offerings was the following verse by Lieutenant F. E. W. Ireland, which was dedicated to the members of the 2nd Reinforcements (men of the 2/5th and 2/7th Battalions were both onboard the Clan).
‘…To the Men Who Fill the Gaps.
We came to town one summer’s day, me and my old pal, Jim,
To join the blooming A.I.F., patriotic to the brim!
We hung around the barrack square, till we were sick and sore;
But when we reached the doctor’s lair, we were not shown the door-
And, with other coves, we did a bunk to Broadmeadows depot there;
But what with wind, and dust and flies, ‘twould make a Padre swear.
That we had a great reception, there was not the slightest doubt ;
And loud the war cry ” Bread and Jam” and ” Stew,” some blithers shout.
They decked us out in dungarees, and heavy tans, ” What Ho !”
A false white hat, you’d quite agree ‘twould make the breezes blow;
And then began from morn till night,
“Squad Drill, and Form Fours right,
Knees raise; Walk on your toes.”
It gave a bloke the joes.
At last, to the Reinforcements’ lines they suddenly shifted us:
Rifles, new equipments fine, it made the depots cuss.
And then we got our black and sea-kit bags – small stuff in galore,
New uniform; the shouts and cheers would beat the breakers roar.
And now ’twas time to make a move to the front to join the boys,
We left amids’t a dust storm – the depots made the noise.
We didn’t have no march through town no show parade so fine;
We moved almost unseen to join the firing line,
Except, I should say, the faithful few, who dashed for the old Port pier,
Who sent us away both sad and gay, with many a sob and cheer.
The “First,” the “Second” will do their job, there ain’t no doubt, perhaps:
But, to them, thro’ the desert we’ll lob,
The Men Who Fill The Gaps…’
‘The men who fill the gaps’ were soon to become ever more essential.
The troops were preparing for the proposed attack against the Turks at Gallipoli. On 4 April, the 7th Battalion left Mena Camp for Alexandria. Organisation spread them across four transports, with Jack Halligan onboard HT Mashobra. A large invasion flotilla of ships sailed for the Dardanelles on 5 April. They arrived at Lemnos six days later, where they awaited the gradual convergence of the complete invasion force.
At 4am on 25 April, Jack Halligan sat quietly waiting as the transports anchored off Gaba Tepe. An hour and a half later he and the rest of the 7th Battalion were being towed ashore to begin the attack at ANZAC Cove. In a blur of half-light, with heavy fire coming from the entrenched Turks, utter confusion led to the battalion becoming mixed with other units. Many didn’t even make it to the beach. Jack was one of the lucky ones – 153 of his comrades did not make it through that first day.
The 7th suffered further losses when it was deployed in the attack at Cape Helles on 8 May. Open terrain gave little protection to the charging troops and this time Jack wasn’t so lucky. Sketchy details of when he was actually wounded were conveyed to his mother in Ballarat, who forwarded an urgent cable to the Secretary of Defence in Melbourne asking for particulars. The best they could offer was that Jack had been wounded in action sometime between 8 and 11 May. He was carried out to HMT Braemar Castle on 13 May suffering bullet wounds to his arm and foot. The Braemar Castle evacuated the wounded to Malta, where Jack was admitted to the Military Hospital at Imtarfa four days later. From there he was able to write a letter to his mother…
‘…I was very lucky to only get wounded, as we lost pretty heavily, but you may be sure so did the Turks. One of my mates, Sergt Huff, had the top of his head blown off. He was only a couple of yards away from me. I have got two clean bullet holes, one through the right foot and another through the forearm. They went right through without touching a bone.
I don’t think the Turks will hang out much longer. They are getting it too hot for them to last long. They would be nowhere without the German officers. They are game cows without a doubt, and up to all sorts of tricks.
Our lads are doing great work. We surprised the ‘Tommies’ and the French, I think. In our last charge when I was wounded we passed over a trench full of French, and they sat with open mouths looking after us. They can’t understand us. I heard one of the naval officers talking after the charge of Sari Bahr, and he called us ‘the White Ghurkhas’. He is not far wrong, either, for nothing will stop them unless it is a bullet.
Bob Lindsay was shot dead on the first day we landed. Bert Rich, Reuben Hooley, and a lot more of them from the 8th were in the charge last Saturday week (8th May), but I do not know how they got on.
Malta is a great little place, the people can’t do enough for us. We are quartered in a barracks turned into a hospital. It is nice and quiet – a bit different from the thunder of the guns in the trenches…’
(*Carl Wilhelm Huf; 20 year-old farmer from Lancefield Junction; DOW 13 May 1915)
In his next letter from Imtarfa, Jack was able to give a better idea of his condition.
‘…I did not escape as lightly as I thought. The bone in my foot is shattered to a pulp. The doctor tells me it will become right in time, but that it will be a good while yet. At present it is much swollen, being about twice the size it ought to be. Personally, I feel it will never be properly right again; but I do not think it will affect me much. It will be hard luck if I have no more fighting to do, for it is not bad fun. I think I was able to account for one or two Turks, for I’m not too bad with the rifle. My arm is just about right now: the wound has closed up…’
In another letter Jack wrote of the death of another Ballarat boy, Lance Corporal Reg Mounsey,
‘…Most of the chaps who were in that charge and who knew Reg, were either killed or wounded. One lad told me Reg was shot in the thigh and that the bullet travelled right down his leg and emerged below the knee. That, however, appears very improbable, and I think he must have been wounded in two places. He was killed in the attack at Cape Helles on 8th May, one of the most gallant pieces of work in the war. I have not seen much mention of it in the newspapers, but we lost more men that afternoon than at the landing. I myself was wounded there…’
On 20 July, Jack was discharged to Pembroke Camp to continue his convalescence. The damage to his foot was still considered ‘serious.’
After another month of care, Jack boarded the transport Southland on 20 August to return to Egypt. He arrived at Alexandria on 25 August and was immediately sent to the Overseas Base at Mustapha. Five days later he was onboard the transport Karoo headed back to ANZAC.
When Jack rejoined the 7th Battalion on 9 September, the unit was in the trenches at Lone Pine. However, after just over two weeks in the line, he was forced to report sick to the hospital at Sarpi Camp on 26 September suffering from influenza. From there he was transferred to the 2nd Australian Stationary Hospital at Lemnos.
Safely over the illness, Jack was discharged to duty and returned to his unit on 1 October. He remained on the peninsula until the evacuation, being one of the last batch of troops to leave ANZAC.
Shortly after his 20th birthday, Jack wrote to his mother…
‘…As you no doubt heard all about the Gallipoli evacuation, it is no use my describing it. We got off quite easily. I was on the Peninsula until the last night. Everything passed off without a hitch.
We are now back in Egypt, but well away from civilisation, and by the look of things we are likely to remain here for some time, although they say we will see some fighting here. It will be a bit better than Anzac, though, as we are much nearer our base.
Most of us would give a few years of our life to get back to Australia, even for a month or so; but it seems a long way off yet.
I celebrated my birthday a few weeks ago. I was in the desert when your welcome parcels came to hand; the socks, &c, come in very handy, as the water is short, and washing is a rarity.
You have no idea how we look forward to letters from Australia, and if one does not receive any on mail day it is a great disappointment.
You will notice I have received another stripe, and am now a sergeant. I have 52 men under my charge, and at present am acting as platoon commander…’
Jack was in Serapeum when he received that third stripe on 7 February 1916. But further changes were in the wind. The re-organisation and expansion of the AIF following the Gallipoli Campaign was being put into action, with experienced veterans and new recruits being mixed to form new battalions. As a result, Jack Halligan was transferred to the newly raised 59th Infantry Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir on 24 February.
For the Halligan family it was comforting to hear news of Jack via one of his mates, Ted Cannon.
‘…Somehow I seem to come across pals wherever I go. On the way here I met Sergeant Jack Halligan, from our neighbourhood. He is in good nick despite the two wounds received over on the Peninsula…’
Whilst the “blooded” units began the move across the Mediterranean to France, the newly formed battalions were kept in Egypt where they received the advantage of further training. Jack continued to move through the ranks with promotion to company sergeant major (as warrant officer II) at Moascar on 5 June. His advancement was as a direct result of the promotion of Creswick’s Dan Toohey.
The 59th Battalion arrived at Alexandria in the wee small hours of 18 June and immediately boarded the transport Kinfauns Castle. The ship pulled away from the dock later in the day, but they did not sail for Marseilles for three days.
Due to an intense U-boat presence, the Kinfauns Castle made a number of stops during the voyage – first at Marsa Scirocco (Marsaxlokk) on Malta, and then at Corsica, before making its way carefully along the coastline and across to Marseilles. Possibly the most exciting event of the trip was the discovery of a stowaway…
The men had been onboard ship for eleven days by the time the ship pulled into the French port of Marseilles at 10am on 29 June. Later the same day they entrained for the north of France. After three days they arrived at Steenbecque, southwest of the town of Hazebrouck.
On 5 July, there was minor excitement when the troops were inspected by Lieutenant-General William Birdwood.
The 59th was soon deployed in trenches forward of Fleurbaix from Pinney’s Avenue to VC Avenue. Whilst they experienced full-scale bombardment, nothing could have prepared them for events about to unfold.
At 6:45pm on 19 July, the first wave of the 59th Battalion, as part of the attack on German positions near Fromelles, hopped over the parapet. At five-minute intervals further waves left the trenches – each succeeding line was met with intense machine-gun and rifle fire concentrated from the Sugar Loaf. Despite the grievous losses and the unacceptable expectations laid out by the British High Command, the 59th Battalion faltered only just short of their objective.
The cost, however, was catastrophic. The 59th Battalion was decimated. In less than a few hours, 293 men of the unit were killed. When the 59th was relieved by 57th Battalion at 8am on 20 July, the roll was called and only 4 officers and 90 other ranks answered. Gradually, as things settled more managed to return to their unit – 8 officers and 202 men answered the next day, about a quarter of the battalion’s fighting strength
Miraculously, Jack managed to survive the carnage at Fromelles – the blackest day in Australian history. He was then selected for a special course of instruction at Wisques on 31 July. After subsequently receiving his commission, Jack was quick to write home to his family with the happy news.
‘…15 August 1916
I am still in the land of the living, and going strong. I must have a charmed life. We have had some severe fighting, as you will no doubt have judged by the heavy casualty lists. At present I am in a school of instruction, consisting of NCO’s and officers from each unit of the Second Army. I am lucky at being chosen, as only two out of our battalion are here. I will be in the school till the end of August. It is a great holiday after the stunt we have had, and we fully appreciate the good time we are having. I am sure you will be pleased to know that I have gained my commission as Lieutenant, which is to date back from 29th July…’
Jack completed his time at the School of Instruction and returned to his unit, which was still in the Fromelles sector at Rue-du-Bois, on 29 August. The 59th continued to patrol this area over the coming months.
On 6 October, the unit was in a position known as the Cellar Farm Dugouts. During the day, Jack Halligan, who had been carrying out his duties, was wounded in the face by an enemy sniper. He was admitted to the 15th Field Ambulance suffering a gunshot wound to the lower jaw. Luck seemed to be on his side once again – the bullet entered his lower left jaw, perforated his tongue, before exiting on the lower side of his right jaw. In the process it had caused considerable damage to both his jaw and teeth, but it could so easily have been far worse.
After being triaged at the No1 Australian Casualty Clearing Station, Jack was transferred to an ambulance barge and evacuated to the 7th General Hospital at St Omer. He was admitted there on 8 October.
Following assessment, Jack was marked down for evacuation to England. He embarked from Boulogne onboard the Hospital Ship St Denis on 14 October, and was admitted to the 3rd London General Hospital, Wandsworth, later the same day.
A Medical Board held at Wandsworth on 3 November, gave far more graphic details of the damage done to Jack’s face. Although the wounds had healed, an x-ray confirmed that the upper border of the inferior maxilla (the lower jaw bone) had been fractured and he’d also lost five teeth. What it failed to show was a fragment of tooth embedded in his left cheek. That eventually required surgery for removal.
Whilst Jack was waiting for dental treatment (the fitting of a denture), the injuries continued to cause trouble. By 1 December, the fragment of tooth had been removed, but although the wound had healed, his gums were still tender and inclined to bleed. By the middle of the month, the pain had increased to a dull throb. Further x-rays revealed a small spicule of bone. He also developed a severe ulcer on his right tonsil.
On 22 December, Jack had a further operation to remove this splinter of bone from his jaw. Fortunately, his throat was also continuing to improve. He was sent to the Officers’ Convalescent Home at Cobham Hall, in Kent, to aid his recovery.
After being fitted with the necessary dental plate, Jack faced a further Medical Board in London on 26 January 1917, where he was found to be fit to return to duty. He was discharged from Cobham Hall to the No1 Command Depot at Perham Downs on Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire.
Finally, after four months out of action, Jack sailed back to France on 10 February. He was still at the 5th Australian Divisional Base Depot at Étaples when he received news that he had been promoted to full lieutenant on 14 February.
The 59th Battalion was at the Intermediate Line in the Flers sector, when Jack rejoined them on 26 February.
During March the 59th were a part of the advance that followed the German retreat to the Hindenburg Line. Although they were not actively involved in the First Battle of Bullecourt, they did hold the Vaulx-Morchies line when gains were made during the Second Battle in May.
After being relieved from the line on 13 May, the battalion retired to billets at Vaulx-Vraucourt. The following day two officers, including Jack Halligan, and eight other ranks were selected to attend the 5th Divisional Infantry School.
On 15 May, Jack was on duty overseeing training in bomb-throwing, when he was involved in an accident. He was taken to the 1st Australian Field Ambulance, before being transferred to the 9th Casualty Clearing Station suffering a bomb wound to the back of his right knee.
In order to clear Jack of any failure on his part as officer in charge, a Court of Enquiry was assembled at the 1st ANZAC Corps School on the day of the accident. The court absolved him of any negligence. Lieutenant-General Birdwood counter-signed the finding, “I consider this Officer was on duty and not to blame.”
Just twelve days later, Jack was back with the Divisional School.
In what can only be seen as the ‘inexplicable fortunes of war,’ on 30 May, only three days after returning to duty, Jack was involved in a second accident. This time, however, his luck had run out.
Rushed to the 56th (British) Casualty Clearing Station at Edgehill, suffering bomb wounds to his shoulder, neck, and leg, plus a perforating wound that had fractured his skull, Jack was listed as dangerously ill. There was very little that could be done and he died from his wounds the next day. His body was taken for burial in the Dernancourt Communal Cemetery Extension, southwest of Albert.
Back in Ballarat, his mother received a cable on the 6 June 1917, stating ‘Lieutenant John Halligan admitted hospital Thirtieth May gunshot wound head, neck, leg dangerous will furnish progress report.’ She was unaware that by then her 21-year-old son was already dead. The news the Halligan family dreaded was received six days later.
The sad, yet increasingly familiar tribute of lowering the flags to half-mast over the Ballarat City and Town Halls was performed once again on 17 June 1917 – this time in honour of young Jack Halligan.
Oddly, there appears to have been no enquiry into the accident. The only information that provided details of what occurred that day came from one of Jack’s comrades who later wrote to the Andrew and Isabell Halligan.
‘…Jack had a bad foot when the Battalion moved to the line the last time. He was left behind in charge of certain details and while instructing in bomb throwing he was lightly wounded by a piece of exploding bomb; but he returned again after a weak away and took up his old duties. He was instructing in throwing grenades from a trench and the bomb that did the damage was faulty, as directly the pin was released it exploded instantaneously in a man’s hand, and three were hit. including Lieut Halligan who was badly wounded in the head. I wish to express the sympathy of all who knew your son. His friendly disposition and his many examples of courage in the field gained the full respect of all who served under him. It seems hard that he should meet his death in what seemed to be a safe zone after passing through the many escapes of the field…’
Sister Robina Annandale, who had nursed Jack at the 56th Casualty Clearing Station, also wrote to his parents, and ‘paid a graceful tribute to the fallen soldier.’
Lieutenant Percy Chalmers, Isabell Halligan’s youngest brother, was, quite accidentally, the first of Jack’s family to visit the grave at Dernancourt. He wrote home to his mother – and Jack’s grandmother, Emily Chalmers, of the shock he felt when he discovered his nephew was dead.
‘…And now to come to the sad part. The other day we put up at a village, and I found that the 59th Battalion was just over the way, so I went across to see Jack Halligan, and they took me to see a beautiful cross ready to be erected on his grave. It was a great shock to me, as only a couple of months ago he was in the best of health. It is awful to think of the poor kid dying of wounds accidentally received after all he has gone through…’
In December 1917, Isabell Halligan wrote the following letter to Base Records.
‘…Since my boy’s death I have had a letter from a returned wounded soldier living in Port Melbourne telling me that only for my son’s bravery he would not be here today and saying that he heard while he was in hospital that he was decorated and I am told that he should have a long service medal. I do not know if this is right, or who I could write to find out. We have had a lot of letters all praising his bravery and daring. It seems too hard that he should be killed after all he had gone through…’
She was politely informed that at that stage no ‘special mention for distinguished services or conspicuous bravery’ had reached Australia. They concluded by saying that, ‘it will be a very pleasant duty on my part should such a communication from this Office be necessary in the future.’
Eventually, Jack’s personal effects were returned to his family. Amongst the many miscellaneous items of clothing and everyday equipment, Isabell found her son’s diary, plus the letters and photos he had kept with him.
In February 1920, General Sir William Birdwood, as part of his Australian tour, visited Ballarat to formally lay the foundation stone for our now famous Arch of Victory.
‘…Ballarat made high holiday for the occasion. The city was gay with bunting and other evidences of the peoples’ desire to acclaim the “idol of the Diggers” as one worthy of the greatest honours the people could bestow…’
A particularly poignant part of the service came with the presentation of a collection of bereavement cards from local families who had suffered the loss of one or more of their sons. One simple card bearing the words, ‘…Mrs I. Halligan, mother, late Lieut J. Halligan, 59th Batt late 7th Batt – Killed in France…’ was amongst the solemn trove.
It is unlikely that Bill Birdwood remembered the young officer, but there can be no doubt he would have been touched by so many black-edged cards and the messages they contained.