Percy Ray O'Neill

Rank: 
Private
Regimental number: 
55676
Unit at enlistment: 
19th Battalion
Force: 
C.E.F.
Volunteered or conscripted: 
Volunteered
Survived the war: 
No
Date of death: 
October 30th, 1915
Cemetery: 
Ridge Wood Cemetery - Ypres, Belgium - II.L.II
Commemorated at: 
First Baptist Church, Grace Anglican Church, St. Jude's Anglican Church, I.O.O.F. Memorial Tablet and Obelisk Harmony Lodge, St. James Anglican Church (Paris)
Birth country: 
Canada
Birth county: 
Chatham-Kent
Birth city: 
Chatham, Ontario
Address at enlistment: 
48 Colborne Street, Brantford, Ontario
Next of kin address: 
Vancouver, B.C.
Trade or calling: 
Barber
Employer: 
Miller and O'Neill
Religious denominations: 
Church of England
Marital status: 
Single
Age at enlistment: 
29

Letters and documents

Circumstances of Casualty: Killed in Action.
Location of Unit at Time of Casualty: Trenches South West of St. Eloi.

BX November 18, 1915

Privates Percy and Vernon O’Neill Killed in Action – Well-Known Local Men Apparently Victims of Same Shell, Which Killed Pte. J. Lowes Reported Yesterday – All Three Were Members of Major E.H. Newman’s Company of the 19th Battalion – O’Neill’s Were Fine Type of Manhood 

Percy Ray O’Neill and Vernon Scott O’Neill, brothers, formerly of this city, have been killed in action. This was the sad news conveyed here through the medium of the official casualty list from Ottawa this morning.

The two young men were members of Major Newman’s company of the 19th Battalion, in which Pte. J.H. Lowes, reported killed yesterday, was also a member. Apparently the 19th has been in heavy fighting, but it is possible that the same shell which killed Lowes may have killed the other two, as it was reported yesterday from the front that at the time that Lowes was killed, three other members of the same company were also killed by the same shell, and in the official casualty list this morning these four names are given, with one other.

The better known of the two young men was Percy O’Neill. He was proprietor of The Senate barbershop on Colborne Street, was single and a member of Harmony Lodge, I.O.O.F.

Vernon Scott O’Neill, his brother, was a foreman at the Harvey Knitting Mills, Woodstock. When he heard that his brother had enlisted, he gave up his position there, and came to this city, enlisting with the same group of men in which his brother was. They were bright young Canadians of the highest type of manhood, and their loss will be keenly felt. 

Major Newman’s company left Brantford in October 1914, for Toronto, where it became part of the 19th Battalion. They wintered at the Exhibition grounds, in the Government building, just inside the Dufferin Street entrance to the grounds, where many Brantford people visited them during their long stay. Early this year the battalion went to England and was trained at Shorncliffe, leaving for France but a couple of months ago, and going almost immediately into the firing line. The casualties have already been heavy in this battalion.

In the official casualty lists the next of kin of Pte. Percy O’Neill is given as being at Vancouver and of Vernon Scott O’Neill as at Hamilton. The reason for this is that they have two sisters, one in each of these places, and to these the official notification was first sent. Another sister, Mrs. James Wilson, resides on Terrace Hill, in this city. His brother-in-law works as a moulder at Buck’s.

The official announcement of the death of Private James H. Lowes was made in the midnight casualty list. They were members of Grace Anglican Church here and sang in the choir of the First Baptist Church.

BX November 19, 1915

Four Men, All from Brantford Were Killed by one Hun Shell – Lowes, O’Neill Brothers and Stephenson Were Quartet – Corporal Stephenson Enlisted at Brantford in Newman’s Company with O’Neill Boys

Last Letter

That the four members of Lt.-Col. McLaren’s 19th Battalion, who were recently killed by the explosion of a shell, while the 19th Battalion, in which their company was, was in the first line trenches, were all Brantford boys was definitely ascertained today, the fourth being Corp. Howard McLean Stephenson, for two years a resident of this city.

Two days ago it was known that Pte. J.H. Lowes had been killed, along with three others. Yesterday word was received that the O’Neill brothers, Percy and Vernon, had also been killed by the same shell, and the last list of casualties gave the fourth man as Corp. Howard McLean Stephenson, of Windsor Ont.

While the late Corp. Stephenson resided in Brantford, he lived with Mrs. E. Gilliard, 25 Wellington St. As soon as Mrs. Gilliard saw the casualty list, she recognized the name, which was given under his mother’s address, 85 Gladstone Avenue, Windsor.

Stephenson was employed in the Brantford Scale Company’s plant before enlisting and his intention had been to come back here, as he left all his belongings with Mrs. Gilliard. They heard from him continuously since he left here up to six weeks ago, and until his death was reported they have had no further word from him.

The young man was only 24 years of age and decidedly popular during his sojourn in Brantford. He left Brantford in the fall of 1914, with Major Newman’s company, spent the winter in Toronto, where they became part of the 19th Battalion. Early this year he went to England, and was at the front about two months before he was killed. 

The Last Letter

In what is possibly the last letter he wrote, Private Percy O’Neill tells of some of the horrors of trench warfare. The letter was received just a few days ago by J.T. Whittaker, a close friend of Pte. O’Neill, while he was in the city. The letter reads:

October 18, 1915
Somewhere in Belgium, 

My Dear Jim,

No doubt, you think I have forgotten all my Brantford friends, but such is not the case, especially you. I often think of you all and the good times we have had together and I am looking forward when I shall return and have a few more of them. Life in the trenches is rather exciting at times, but not near so as we expected to have.

I have not had my clothes off since leaving England. You see we are going all the time. Our battalion is again in the firing line – our company in reserve. This part of the line was taken by the Princess Pats Regiment. Our line is about 100 yards from the Germans. Between these two lines are bodies of French soldiers. They have been there since last winter. I saw one headless body while out with our boys working repairing trenches. We can see bodies of French soldiers which I suppose had been there for some time. I am sorry I cannot tell you more, Jim, about the firing line. If I did the censors would not let it go through. But believe me, it is awful.

I am enclosing you a photo of yourself which I have carried since leaving Brantford. As you know you were my dearest friend. I thought you would like to keep it as a souvenir, as it had been in the trenches with me. Besides, it is the only way I can get a souvenir to you, as they won’t let us send any from here. No doubt you have seen by the Brantford papers that we have lost some of the boys from Brantford. Our major, Bert Newman, and captain had a very narrow escape. Our C.S.M. was killed by a bomb. (This refers to Col Sergeant-Major Mack.)    I was cutting one of our boys’ hair and talking about Brantford and the old barber shops, about 25 feet from the spot where the bomb fell. Gee! I was lucky, wasn’t I?  At this time we were in the most advanced part of the line. 

How is the opera house coming along?  Wish you all kinds of luck. A box for men when I return. So with kind regards to your wife and yourself I will close. 

I remain, yours as ever,

Percy.

BX November 25, 1915

Unfinished Letter from Late Private Percy O’Neill Received Here by J. Miller – Details Given in Another Letter, This from George Patte, of Tragedy That Wiped Out Lives of Four Young Brantfordites – Sad Story 

Full details of the death of Corporal Stephenson, the two O’Neill boys and Private J.H. Lowes are in hand today in letters from the battlefield – literally so. Mr. James Miller of the Savoy barbershop, who was a partner of Percy O’Neill, was the recipient of three letters this morning, one being a complete letter from Percy O’Neill, the second an unfinished one from him, and the third a letter from Corp. George Patte, telling of the manner in which they met their death, which was instantaneous, and of the funeral.

The letter written by Percy O’Neill to Harvey, with whom he worked, and to James Miller, was:

Somewhere

Dear Harve and Jim,

A few lines to let you know we are all well, but working hard. We have been in the trenches for some time. Life in the trenches is rather exciting at times, but not nearly so as we expected to have. I have only had my clothes off once since leaving England. I suppose you have heard the good news by this time. We were in the trenches at the time. I heard the bombarding by our guns. On our right we could see the flashes from our artillery. It was just like a lightning strike. Our part was the fake attack. We lighted bags filled with straw and sulphur. These were thrown over our trenches and smoked a long time. Our bombers threw smoke bombs over, keeping a cloud between our line and the Germans.

Our bombers were also active with hand grenades and rifle grenades. The object was to hold the Germans from reinforcing their right and left. I’ll bet they stayed there, too. You should have heard the rapid fire they turned on our parapet. They must have thought we were coming over. I was out the other day with a working party repairing trenches and came to two bodies of French soldiers, which I suppose had been there for some time. Now I am running short of news, so will have to ring off for now, hoping Jim and yourself are getting along right, and remember me to all, Tom and all the other boys that come in the shops, and with kind regards to yourself and Jim, I remain yours as ever,

Perc.

P.S. – Pat just came in while I was writing this letter and told me to be sure to remember him to you all.

Private Percy O’Neill’s unfinished letter to James Miller, which was

Oct. 21, 1915
Somewhere, 

Dear Jim,

Just a few lines to let you know we are all well and working hard. We have just come from the firing line. Our company has been in the dugouts the past week not far behind the first line and I see by the paper you have had the good news. We were in the trenches at the time and heard the big guns. We had filled bags with straw and sulphur. These were thrown over our trenches and smoked for a long time. Our bombers threw smoke bombs between our lines and the Germans were also active with hand grenades. The object was to hold the Germans from reinforcing their right and left. 

Here the letter ended abruptly, being left in its unfinished condition.

News of the Deaths

Details of the deaths were given in a letter from Corp. George Patte to James Miller as follows:

November 5, 1915
Somewhere, 

Mr. Jim Miller
Brantford, Ont.

Dear Friend Jim,

Well Jim old … hard letter to write, but it has to be done, so here it goes. You have had no doubt the official news of Percy’s and Vernon’s death by this time, and no doubt you are hoping against hope that there may be some mistake and I am only sorry, old boy, that I have to tell you that it is only too true. Percy, Vernon, Jack Knott and Jimmie Lowes were guarding a stream that ran through the German trenches to ours. They were to see that none of our boys touched the water for any purpose whatever for fear of it being poisoned. Corp. Stephenson and myself had a dugout in which we slept in about 10 feet away. We would come out of the dugout, he would sit on the step of O’Neill’s dugout and I would sit on the bench they had, and we would all talk. We were all there talking shortly before it occurred, when the word was passed down to go for our supper rations. We all went and I stayed down there, as my section was stationed in a bay in that part of the trench, and I always eat with them.
    
The O’Neill’s, Stephenson, Knott and Lowes went back and were eating supper when the Germans started shelling. The first four or five went over their heads, but they suddenly shortened the range and one cut through the parapet right above their heads. It killed the four instantly and wounded Knott pretty severely. They never suffered, Jim, for they never knew what hit them, and somehow or other, old man, words won’t come to me to tell you just how we felt and feel now. I helped to get their equipment off and sorted out their personal belongings which will be forwarded in time. Our officer, Mr. McKay and nine of us went out the next day to bury them. I being the only non-com in the place it was my part to throw the earth in when the chaplain said “ashes to ashes and dust to dust,” and Jim, I just can’t explain how I felt when I threw the earth in on those old pals of ours.

The four graves are all in a row, Percy and Vernon side by side. We are going to sod them over and make them look as nice as possible. Jim, I know how you feel and I want you to know also, Kelly, Harvey and all the rest that we all share the sorrow and loss that you feel. You probably did not know Stephenson and Lowes, but they were fine fellows, so we lost four of our best pals all at once.

Had a very close call myself the day after. W.R. Smith, West Brantford, and myself were in the dugout that Stephenson and myself had slept in, when a shell hit it, knocking over sandbags and covering us with earth. We were sure wearing horse shoes that day, for neither one of us were hurt, the only casualty being a big rat, which had its sides all ripped out. Found the nose of the shell sticking in the dugout. I am keeping it as a souvenir.

Now Jim drop us a line at once on receiving this, telling me of anything I could do and if possible will be only too glad to assist in any way. With all good wishes to yourself and boys, with sympathy, 

Your old pal,

Pat.

Corp. G.J. Patte,
No 55679
C Co., 19th Batt. 
4th Brigade,
2nd C.E.F. Army Post office, 
London, Eng.

P.S.: Enclosed you will find a letter I found in Percy’s kit bag; he [?]

BX November 3, 1914

They’re Proud of Him

Prior to his departure on active service, Percy O’Neill the popular barber of the Senate barber shop, was presented with a wrist watch by the other members of the Senate.  Accompanying the wrist watch, which was given in token of their esteem, and on the eve of his departure for Toronto with the Dufferin Rifles, was a laudatory address. 

BX November 22, 1915

Memorial Service Held at First Baptist Church – James Lowes, Percy O’Neill, and Vernon O’Neill Honored in their Heroic Death – Feeling Tributes by Rev. L. Brown to Their Sterling Character and Their Splendid Sacrifice for Liberty

The choral memorial service in the First Baptist Church in memory of three of the church’s young men who have fallen in battle – James Lowes, Percy O’Neill and Vernon O’Neill was marked by impressive solemnity. The church was packed to the doors with a representative congregation desirous of paying a last tribute to the memory of the young men. Many had to be turned away and all the aisles had chairs in them.

Very feeling and impressive was the sermon by the pastor, Rev. Llewellyn Brown, who spoke most highly of the three deceased heroes, who had all been killed by an enemy shell while doing their little bit. Appropriate and special music was furnished by the choir, which was assisted by the well-known Toronto vocalist Mr. Edgar Fewiston. Mr. Byers also sang, as did Mrs. Arthur Secord.

“The war is just beginning to come home to us,” said the pastor in beginning his sermon. “It is just beginning to hit us when the lists of dead and wounded come to us. We then realize more seriously the consequences than when we see the soldiers marching away to the station. Every day we pick up the papers and read in cold type the names of those we loved recorded amongst those lost in battle. Then the real seriousness of the situation begins to come home to us.”

Rev. Mr. Brown referred at some length to thoughts that come in connection with the pathetic passing of the three young men for whom the memorial service was held.

The first thought was – they did not die in vain. “Surely they died a noble and heroic death. They did not see the victory for which we pray, for which we are making our contributions both in money and men, but they did their bit to the desired end and died doing their duty. Many such lads have already fallen and more will fall before the last shot that will end the war is fired. These boys did not die in vain. Their death made it possible that the varied liberties and the perpetuation of these and those who have not enjoyed these liberties will come into them through their sacrifice. He who gives his life for his country will never have his name forgotten.

“It is by such men as we honor tonight at the post of duty, striking the last blow and being faithful unto death that the final victory will come and come no other way.”

The second thought was the price of victory – sacrifice. “The awful price of victory comes home to us as the losses are known. Values of money fade away before the toll of precious life. It stirs us to the deepest depths to think that we shall not see them again, shake their hand or enjoy their companionship. Yet in the love, as great as it is, there is a certain compensation that we would do well to ponder. Now how would it be if these and thousands of others were safe with us by our firesides tonight and we and our country doing nothing to save the situation?  There is such a thing as a man or nation saving his life to lose his soul. Thank God this cannot be said of Canada. Belgium can never say to Canada we called you and you refused, we stretched out our hand to you and you regarded us not.”

The third thought was the value of a good name. “It is such young men as these that make our Empire great. What more can I say of James Lowe, Percy O’Neill and Vernon O’Neill than that they were clean, honorable, good young men, Christian boys, every one of them, regular in their attendance at church, helpful in its works and faithful to their families, friends, their country and their God, “the memory of the just is blessed.”

The fourth and last thought was, “they have passed on to a blessed life to the world beyond of a faithful service here. While the future is largely wrapped up in mystery, there is something we know about it. We know that there is beyond this life a continuity of life, continuity of personality, a continuity of service. Before this they have received from their Captain these words that follow upon duty done – well done. “Be thou faithful unto death and I will give thee the crown of life.”  The pastor closed with these fitting words from Byron:

Britain’s awake,
The dead have been awakened, shall I sleep,
The worlds at war with tyrants, shall I crouch,
The harvest ripe shall I pause to reap,
I slumber not the thorn is in my couch,
Each day a trumpet soundeth in my ear,
The echo in my heart,
Who will go to take their place?