Australian Dictionary of Biography

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John Francis Donnelly (1885–1962)

by K. R. White

This article was published:

John Francis Donnelly (1885-1962), soldier, grazier and auctioneer, was born on 28 June 1885 at Bywong station, Gundaroo, New South Wales, son of Patrick Joseph Bede Donnelly, grazier, and his wife Aimée Stewart, née Massey. He was educated at St Patrick's College, Goulburn, and returned to the family property. At 19 he enlisted in the local militia, the 3rd Light Horse Regiment, and in November 1905 was commissioned second lieutenant in the unit (now the 7th Light Horse). Promoted lieutenant in 1908, he resigned two years later to join the permanent staff of the Australian Military Forces as a staff sergeant major. He served as an instructor in Eastern Command (New South Wales) until World War I.

On 1 September 1914 Donnelly was appointed to the Australian Imperial Force as a regimental quartermaster sergeant with 1st Division headquarters. He embarked for Egypt that month and reached Gallipoli on 28 June 1915 but within a week was slightly wounded and evacuated. He returned to Anzac and was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the 9th Battalion on 4 August. Because of his administrative ability he remained a platoon commander for only two months, and in October was promoted lieutenant and posted to 2nd Division headquarters as an aide-de-camp and camp commandant. After the evacuation from Gallipoli he filled several staff appointments until 14 March 1916, when he was promoted captain and transferred to the 2nd Pioneer Battalion as adjutant. He embarked for France that month and until the Armistice remained with the 2nd Pioneers; he became a company commander in February 1917 and was promoted major in March. His unit was frequently in the firing line, either building defence works or taking part in offensives. On 3 May 1917, during the 2nd battle of Bullecourt, he commanded several of the battalion's companies while they dug a 1150 yard (1052 m) communication trench from the railway near Bullecourt to the Hindenburg line. Working under heavy shell-fire and continuously hampered by carrying parties using the half-dug trench, they completed the task in seven hours. Charles Bean considered this 'one of the finest achievements of the Australian pioneers'. Donnelly was wounded next day but remained on duty; he was awarded the Distinguished Service Order in the King's Birthday honours in June and was also mentioned in dispatches three times during the war.

On 17 February 1919 he was promoted lieutenant-colonel and commanded the 1st Pioneer Battalion from then until its disbandment. Donnelly returned to Australia in July and his A.I.F. appointment ended in November when he also took his discharge from the A.M.F. in the rank of warrant officer. He returned to Bungendore, New South Wales, and became an auctioneer. In 1923 he married Ellen Margaret Cranney at Queanbeyan. Having rejoined the militia as a major in the 7th Light Horse Regiment, he commanded the unit in 1922-28. He was awarded the Volunteer Officers' Decoration in 1931, and was placed on the retired list with the honorary rank of colonel in 1941. In the late 1950s he moved to Canberra where, survived by his wife, a son and two daughters, he died of cancer on 18 September 1962 and was buried in Canberra cemetery with Catholic rites.

Select Bibliography

  • C. E. W. Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1917 (Syd, 1933)
  • London Gazette, 2 Jan, 4 June, 23 July 1917, 11 July 1919
  • Pastoral Review, 16 Aug 1918
  • records (Australian War Memorial).

Citation details

K. R. White, 'Donnelly, John Francis (1885–1962)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1981, accessed online 23 February 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 8, (Melbourne University Press), 1981

View the front pages for Volume 8

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


28 June, 1885
Gundaroo, New South Wales, Australia


18 September, 1962 (aged 77)
Canberra, Australian Capital Territory, Australia

Religious Influence

Includes the religion in which subjects were raised, have chosen themselves, attendance at religious schools and/or religious funeral rites; Atheism and Agnosticism have been included.