Remembering local servicemen – Alfred O’Neill


Albert Borella was one of 462 Territorians who volunteered to fight in World War I. Read the story of Alfred O’Neill, a miner from Pine Creek who was very determined to enlist and fought in the Battle of Messines, which was made famous in the Australian film, Beneath Hill 60.

Alf O’Neill was working on his gold mining lease near Pine Creek when war broke out in September 1914. Alfred volunteered for the war but was rejected by the Army because of bad teeth.  He had these fixed at his own expense, and then tried again, only to be rejected once more because of varicose veins; and he had also been badly burnt once before on the right leg.

Alfred tried a total of six times to be accepted before finally being taken into the Army on 5 April 1916 at the age of 31.

By this time the Army was taking enlistments in Darwin, and so unlike many of the early volunteers O’Neill did not have to pay his own fare to Queensland or another place where he could be signed up.

His acceptance was reported enthusiastically by the Northern Territory Times and Gazette on 13 April 1916:

 The Montoro took away a fine contingent, particularly of Pine Creek boys, and included in the names are those of several well-known identities, “Sandy" Anderson, “Reggie" Jones, Ernie Stephens, Frank O’Keefe, Alf O’Neill, Phill Martin, are all very familiar names and their doings will be watched with interest.

 Alf O’Neill…on the sixth time…accepted…is probably, the happiest man in the party. Men of the calibre of O’Neill should shame every slacker in the N.T. to drop his feeble excuses and enlist at once.

 Due to his mining experience Alfred was immediately posted to the 1st Australian Tunnelling Company of the Australian Imperial Force, and given the number of 5394.

On 20 September 1916 he embarked on HMAT Suffolk from Melbourne, and from January 1917 Sapper O’Neill was working in Belgium.  Apart from a brief period in April, sick in hospital, he remained with the Tunnelling Company until late that year.

Mining under an enemy’s defensive positions was not anything militarily new when applied on World War I battlefields, but it was brought to an art form there.

The main aim of mining was to covertly tunnel under an enemy’s defences, and then detonate explosives. On occasion it could also be used to let a surprise attack through defensive walls. It was difficult and dangerous work, and demanded the psychological ability to be able to cope with the confined spaces and darkness.

WWI underground mining began in early 1915 as British miners tunnelled towards the German lines using the ‘clay kicking’ method. A miner lay on his back with metal attachments to his boots, pushes his feet into the tunnel wall, and then brings the broken soil towards him. It was hot, hard work in oppressive surroundings but apparently relatively silent and efficient.

British journalist Philip Gibbs described the tunnellers’ working environment:

I had gone into the darkness of the tunnels, crouching low, striking my steel hat with sharp, spine–jarring knocks against the low beams overhead, coming into galleries where one could stand upright and walk at ease in electric light, hearing the vibrant hum of great engines, the murmur of men’s voices in dark crypts, seeing numbers of men sleeping on bunks in the gloom of caverns close beneath the German lines, and listening through a queer little instrument called a microphone, by which I heard the scuffle of German feet in German galleries a thousand yards away, the dropping of a pick or shovel, the knocking out of German pipes against charcoal stoves.

 On the Western Front the assault mine was bought to its ultimate form on the 6th of June 1917 in the Battle of Messines. Twenty-four mines had been dug – Australian miners were responsible for three positions.  Miners who had worked in the practice back in Australia were especially sought.

500 tons of explosive were packed into the tunnels. At 3.10am, all along the several miles of assault, the fuses were engaged.

The explosion was heard in London. An estimated 10, 000 Germans were killed in the blast, which was followed up by a massive infantry assault. The Battle of Messines was a major advance for the Allies.

After the war, the unit erected a permanent memorial in those cratered fields and it is still there today.

O’Neill was killed in action on 1 October 1917, although it is not known what caused this: the Company’s War Diary is missing, and his Service Record says nothing.  It was likely an accident of war. His family, living in Balmain Sydney, was presented with a Memorial Scroll, three photographs of him, and his medals.

Written by Dr Tom Lewis, Lead Historian on The Borella Ride