For Thomas Joseph Flinn the Great War was a great adventure which he was fortunate to share with his mates as his family and friends were always his first priority.
On November 30, 1915, an advertisement appeared in the local Grenfell newspaper calling for expressions of interest from men willing to enlist after the end of the January harvest, and this notice, or one similar, together with another possible drought-induced crop failure, may have prompted Tom, 20, and his mates, Earl and Len O’Connor, to make the train journey from Grenfell to Cootamundra. The promise of a regular income may have seemed too good to refuse, especially since the drought had made farming a difficult prospect and money was probably short for the Flinn family. And thus, Tom enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on February 15th, 1916, at Cootamundra.
Tom, Service Record number 1909A, was born in Holbrook, NSW, one of 96 men who enlisted from the small rural town, previously Germanton. He was the youngest of three sons, who along with six sisters, lived on the family property, Bellevue in Grenfell. After training in Holsworthy, NSW, Tom, and the O’Connor’s embarked for England from Sydney on June 23, 1916, as 3rd reinforcements for 56th Battalion, on board Barambah, having marched 27 kilometres with their packs.
Above: The Barambah and Unidentified troops on the deck of the Barambah.
The Barambah arrived in Plymouth on August 25, 1916, and training commenced on the Salisbury Plains in England’s south-west. Tom and Earl were transferred to the 35th Battalion in September and both men arrived in the trenches at Armentieres in late November 1916. The Battle of the Somme was in its final days when the new recruits arrived at the freezing French battlefield, and while the battle may have ended, the trenches were still exposed to shell-fire and enemy raids which, when combined with the weather, made the conditions dangerous.
For the men of the 35th Battalion, their first major involvement was the Battle of Messines on June 7, 1917. This victory in the Flanders region of the Western Front resulted in gaining control of the Messines ridge overlooking Ypres. Tom wrote to his mother shortly after the battle, telling her he was in the best of health and that “We have been over the top at last…I will never forget the 7th [June] for some time. I was in the first wave and we advanced about a mile…. There were plenty of Germans about…they put up their hands and we took them prisoner.”
In August Tom wrote another letter, this time to Mrs Hancock, Earl’s sister. Earl, Tom wrote, “was wounded on the 20th July, and I gave a hand to carry him out on the stretcher… I never saw anyone with such courage…. Earl will be in a bright and peaceful land.” Earl O’Connor is buried in Steenwerck, Belgium.
By October, the 35th had moved to Passchendaele in the Ypres sector. The goal was to force the Germans eastward however the weather and the enemy prevented the 35th from gaining any ground. The unit diary of the 35th Battalion October 12th shows that the 35th suffered a heavy barrage of machine gun fire as they attempted to take their line, losing 19 men and a further 81 injured. The overall gain was 200 yards. They were finally forced to withdraw due to heavy losses; 508 men commenced the battle. 90 remained at the end.
While on furlough in Scotland early in 1918, Tom wrote home to his brother Tim, saying “I am still in Glasgow and … I have almost forgotten that there is a war on.” As with all his letters he opened this letter with his best wishes for all at home, telling them that he was well. His letters didn’t dwell on the misery of war, instead telling of the adventure they were on, possibly a deliberate measure to ease his mother’s concern. His letter to Tim describes the battle at Ypres and he restates his sentiments from a previous letter, “I don’t want to see another Ypres or anything like it” and then to reassure them he says, “don’t think we are sad and downhearted, we are just as happy as ever.”
Back in Grenfell, Tom’s mother had received news from the war. A former teacher from the local Sandy Creek school and member of the Bellevue Tennis Club had died on April 18th. A letter from his mother recounted to Mrs Flinn her son’s praise for Corporal Flinn as having “valiantly upheld the honour of Piney Range”. A postscript to the article mentions James Flinn, Tom’s cousin, as a gas victim. Similar news was soon to reach home about Tom.
On April 1, 1918, the battalion was in the trenches near Villers-Bretonneux. The unit diary for April 17th describes constant heavy artillery shelling and gas bombardments. The diary notes “all gas precautions were taken”, however, 36 mustard gas casualties, including Tom, were recorded. Following treatment at hospitals in Le Treport and Le Havre, Tom returned to his unit after the victory at Villers-Bretonneux. He was hospitalised again with trench fever and finally re-joined his unit at Hamel in the days before the battle of Amiens.
The extensive August War Diary shows the 35th immersed in this significant battle and by August 22nd the 35th was in Bray-sur-Somme having marched at 2:15 am and experiencing heavy enemy fire from 3:45 am until late into the evening. Tom was severely wounded in the right arm and was transferred from the 10th General Hospital at Rouen to Southwark Military Hospital in Dulwich, England.
Southwark Military Hospital
Tom had written a brief note home on August 15th in which he said, “I think we have almost finished the job over this side…I had a great experience, but I got no souvenirs as I went over in a tank”. Tom, however, had previously managed to secure at least one souvenir which he sent home to his father, John. A brief article in the Grenfell Record on March 26, 1918, details a proud father showing “an automatic pistol taken by his son Tom from the body of a dead German officer, when scouting about 700 yards out on No-man’s Land, with a mate who was wounded in the leg, and Tom Flinn carried him into camp”.
For Tom his war was now, thankfully, finished as he remained in England, convalescing, until he was able to be transported home on the Czaritza on March 16, 1919. Tom was awarded The British War Medal (left, below), the Victory Medal (centre) and the 1914-1915 Star (right).
The 35th battalion lost 581 men, while 1,637 were wounded. Members of the battalion were awarded one Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George, three Distinguished Service Orders, 17 Military Crosses, 10 Distinguished Conduct Medals, 72 Military Medals, six Meritorious Service Medals, 28 Mentions in Despatches and four foreign awards.
Tom and other returned servicemen were given a welcome home party on August 20, 1919, hosted by residents of Pinnacle and surrounding areas. Each soldier was given a framed commemorative certificate and each were recognised as heroes by the many attendees. Prior to Tom’s departure, his father John had subdivided, his 2400 acres into 4 separate farms, one for each of his sons, Mick, Tim and Tom and one for himself. It was to this farm that Tom returned after the war. He was married and then widowed in 1929 and married again in 1936 and had ten children. Tom Flinn died In Forbes in 1985 aged 89.
Tom’s war was about doing what he needed to do but at all times thinking about others. His family at home, and other friends in the war, were always prominent in the letters sent to his family However Tom summed it up well at the welcome home party when he responded to the well-wishers saying, ‘he was pleased to be back with his old friends.”
The family of Tom and Doris Flinn:
Sr Mary Clare Flinn, died 2017, Young NSW.
June Margaret Flinn married Gary Power. They have one son, John, and three daughters Kieran, Angela and Elizabeth.
Patricia Ann Flinn married David Simmonds. They have one son, Kerry, and a daughter, Tammy.
Gloria Helen Flinn married Ronald Alchin. They have one daughter Kim. Gloria died in 2018.
Frederick John Flinn married Carol. They have two sons, James and Matthew, and two daughters, Tanya and Tracey.
Michael Thomas Flinn married Susan Parker. They have two sons, Michael and John, and three daughters, Maria, Deborah and Angela. Michael died in 1999.
James Patrick Flinn. Died 1958 aged 10 years.
Margaret Robin Flinn married Alan Little. They have two sons, Harry and Christopher, and a daughter, Stephanie.
Monica Mary Flinn married Peter Sweeney. They have two daughters, Cherie and Rebecca.
Dianne Elizabeth Flinn married Rodney Stephens. They have three daughters, Jessica, Emily and Clare.