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John Patrick O'Brien (1892–1974)

by R. E. Cowley

This article was published:

John Patrick O'Brien (1892-1974), soldier and line inspector, was born on 23 February 1892 at Woodville, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand, son of Patrick O'Brien, labourer, and his wife Mary, née Hogan, both Irish born. Nothing is known of his early life. On 30 October 1913 he joined the Postmaster-General's Department in Australia as a lineman and enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force as a sapper in the 4th Signal Troop, 4th Light Horse Brigade, in February 1915. In Egypt his troop was allotted to the newly formed 2nd Divisional Signal Company and in August O'Brien accompanied it to Gallipoli.

On the formation of the 4th Divisional Signal Company in Egypt in March 1916, O'Brien was transferred to it as a corporal and in June embarked for France where the company took over communications for the 4th Division at Merris on 11 June. During operations at Pozières he was awarded the Military Medal for laying and maintaining telephone lines under shell-fire, and for a similar act at Flers during the winter of 1916 he was awarded a Bar to the M.M. He was promoted sergeant on 10 April 1917 and for bravery while in charge of construction and maintenance parties on 7-14 June at Messines, Belgium, he was mentioned in dispatches. During operations of the 4th Division at Ypres he showed remarkable disregard for danger and took charge of working parties constructing buried cable routes from Divisional Headquarters to the line brigades and supporting artillery. The scale of these cable-laying operations was enormous. The cable had to be dug to a depth of six feet (183 cm) to minimize the effects of shell-fire; it had to be dug at night and usually by working parties of tired infantrymen. For his efforts in these conditions his company commander, Major J. E. Fraser, described O'Brien as 'leaving no stone unturned to immortalize the password of the Signal Service “communication at all costs”'.

On the night of 28/29 September 1917 at Zonnebeke a working party of 400 men was on its way to bury cable when a heavy enemy barrage commenced. Sergeant O'Brien volunteered to go through it to meet the party. Much depended on their work that night as an attack was to begin next day. He passed through the barrage safely and conducted the party to work. Later that night another barrage fell upon these men, causing casualties and cutting the cable. He again volunteered to go through the barrage to arrange for further cable and on his own initiative brought up supplies. The work was completed and when tested all seventy pairs of cable required for that part of the divisional communication system were found to be in good order. He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, promoted warrant officer on 4 October and commissioned second lieutenant on 6 November.

During the German offensive from March 1918 at Albert and Dernancourt, France, as divisional lines officer O'Brien personally supervised his sections and maintained communications through the extremely heavy barrages of 5 April. Again in the words of Major Fraser, 'the importance of good communication on this eventful day, which decided the fate of the Great German Onrush, and the results which he showed for his efforts, brought this gallant officer the Military Cross'.

After the Armistice Lieutenant O'Brien married Christina Urquhart on 28 November 1918 at Glasgow, Scotland, according to the forms of the United Free Church. They embarked for Sydney where he resumed employment with the P.M.G. as a lineman and later as senior lineman. In World War II he was appointed a lieutenant in the Australian Corps of Signals in February 1940 and was promoted captain and major in 1941 and 1942. In August 1942 he joined the 2nd A.I.F. and was promoted temporary lieutenant-colonel (substantive November 1943) commanding Fortress Signals, New South Wales Line of Communication Area. From October 1943 to March 1945 he commanded Queensland Anti-aircraft and Fortress Signals. He resumed work with the P.M.G. in May 1945 as a line inspector with the Dubbo (New South Wales) division. In June 1950 he became line inspector at St Leonards, Sydney, and after retirement on 22 February 1957 was awarded the Imperial Service Medal. P.M.G. records show that he made a very effective contribution to the efficiency of the department in the lines field. He developed many standard methods of jointing cables and he established the first school for cable jointers in New South Wales.

For the last twenty years of his life, O'Brien lived at Padstow, Sydney. He died at Bankstown on 19 May 1974, survived by a son and two daughters who presented his medals to the Royal Australian Corps of Signals Museum at Watsonia, Melbourne.

Select Bibliography

  • R. D. Williams, World War I Distinguished Conduct Medals to Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • R. D. Williams, World War I Military Crosses to Australia (Melb, 1982)
  • R. D. Williams, World War I Military Medals to Australia (Melb, 1984)
  • Government Gazette (Commonwealth), 19 Apr, 15 July 1917, 27 June, 27 Nov 1918, 17 Oct 1957
  • London Gazette, 1 Jan 1918, supplement, AIF list 279
  • J. H. Thyer, Royal Australian Corps of Signals: Corps History 1906-1918 (manuscript, 1974, Australian War Memorial)
  • 4th Divisional Signal Company, war diary, 1914-18 (Australian War Memorial)
  • recommendations for honours and awards, 1914-18 (Australian War Memorial)
  • Prime Minister and Cabinet, file 56/1747, part 2 (National Archives of Australia)
  • private information.

Citation details

R. E. Cowley, 'O'Brien, John Patrick (1892–1974)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1988, accessed online 21 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11, (Melbourne University Press), 1988

View the front pages for Volume 11

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Life Summary [details]


23 February, 1892
Woodville, Hawkes Bay, New Zealand


19 May, 1974 (aged 82)
Bankstown, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.