FRANK Ryan survived the German Spring Offensive of 1918 and the battle of Amiens, only to be killed a few weeks later during the last 100 days of the First World War.
His story was recently told in a Last Post Ceremony at the Australian War Memorial, on the eve of the 100th anniversary of his death. It was read by his great-nephew, Wing Commander Paul Gibbs, and his great-great nephew, Greg Kimball, was the MC for the ceremony.
Greg Kimball is the Memorial’s media relations manager and his mother, Gillian Kimball, is Frank’s great-niece. Her grandfather Denis was one of Frank’s older brothers and she grew up hearing stories about what a “wonderful fellow” he was.
“There was always a photo on the mantelpiece at my grandfather’s house,” Gillian said. “It was a big family … and we all knew about him, so obviously everybody had a photo of Frank on their mantelpieces.
“Frank was the youngest of the family [and] my pop used to talk about him. He used to say he was a lovely, very gentle, very easygoing man, who was very responsible and very sensible.
“My father always said that whenever they’d talk about Frank, they used to well up, and talk about what an all round bonza bloke he was.”
Francis Stanislaus Ryan was born into a large Irish Australian family on October 6, 1887, the seventh and last child of Catherine and James Ryan. His grandfather was a convict who had arrived in 1846, and the family went on to become well-known and respected members of the community in Goolma, a tiny village near Wellington in central west New South Wales.
Known to family and friends as Frank, he attended the local public school and boarded at St Stanislaus’ College in Bathurst, and then at St Josesph’s College in Hunters Hill in Sydney, before returning to the family firm, Ryan Brothers, of Goolma. His only sister, Ann Frances, had died of scarlet fever two years before he was born, and his father James died when he was only three.
The Ryan brothers were well-known sheep and grain farmers in the area and their mother Catherine ran the local post office, the village store and the Goolma Hotel.
By the time the First World War broke out, Frank was a well-respected shire councillor and his photograph is still displayed in the Gulgong Museum today.
His older brother Ambrose enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915 and went on to serve with the 8th Battalion. Francis followed suit, enlisting in Bathurst in September 1916, before embarking with the 7th Light Trench Mortar Battery on HMAT Shropshire from Melbourne on May 11, 1917; he later transferred to the 1st Battalion and sailed for France in November 1917.
“He did what everybody did,” Gillian said. “They joined up. But Ambrose went earlier than him – Ambrose was briefly at Gallipoli, but spent most of his time on a hospital ship with the mumps, and then they met up again in France. Ambrose was quite a lad, and he tended to get into a lot of strife, and Pop was the calming influence. They were together most of the time, and Ambrose was in the same battle that Frank was killed in.”
On August 23, 1917, exactly a year before he died, Frank wrote to his brother, Gillian’s grandfather Denis, from the Shaftesbury Hotel in London. “My Dear Den,” he wrote. “Am enjoying my leave immensely. The sights are grand and well worth coming to see. You cannot imagine how big this place is … The streets are thronged with women. I always thought Paris the most immoral city in the world but really a man could not imagine anything as rotten as this. Without exaggerating, bad women are as thick as rabbits in a big warren.
“I went down to the NSW Bank yesterday, and just as we got there the air-raid alarm was given, you should have seen all the people going into the tube railways. All the women officials in the bank were sent into the strongrooms under the bank. Soldiers take no notice and just walk about and don’t even look up [into] the air. Of course, I was an exception and chanced one eye … Fondest love to Mother and all Ryans.”
Twelve months later he was killed in action near Harbonnières in northern France at the age of 30.
In the early hours before dawn on August 23, 1918, Frank was with the 1st Australian Division when it participated in a successful assault on the German-occupied village of Chuignes. Attacking with the support of artillery and tanks, the infantry came under heavy machine-gun fire as they approached the German positions. These were outflanked and captured, but still inflicted a toll among the assaulting units. Although it was a success, the 1st Battalion lost more than 100 casualties during the attack. Among the 20 men killed was Lance Corporal Frank Ryan, who is buried at Heath Cemetery near Harbonnières. When he fell, his brother Ambrose was still fighting; he survived the war and returned to Australia on March 28, 1919.
“There were various different reports that came through,” Gillian said. “But from what my father was told, he was wounded in the knee, and then when the stretcher bearers went out, they were bringing him in, and he was hit by a sniper in the groin and he bled to death … It was just bad luck really, and the fact that the first gunshot didn’t kill him, it was just sad.”
Frank’s friend, Lieutenant Page, was with him during the attack and wrote to Frank’s mother describing how her son “gave his life for his country”.
“When we had nearly reached our objective we were subjected to very severe machine gunfire, but your son never faltered in the advance; he was one of ten men left with me who led the way in driving the enemy from the wood, and over the ridges,” Page wrote. “Just in front of Chuignolles we captured a railway line and a hospital. In the surrounding shell-holes and ditches we held on until relieved later in the day. This point was the most advanced one of the battalion, and it was at this important position, whilst holding back the enemy, that your son paid the price for doing his duty and setting an example to all. He was struck by a German machine-gun bullet; everything was done to save his life, a stretcher-bearer immediately attended to his wound, but unfortunately without avail … Your son was liked and looked up to by everyone with respect.”
An obituary back home in Australia told how the “sad news came to hand” and how it was left to a priest from Gulgong to tell Frank’s mother of his death: “The late Private Ryan was one of the best known identities of the district. He was a member of the highly respected Ryan family who have resided at Goolma for many years and was held in high esteem by his fellow councillors. It was not long after … he was elected that he heard the call, and prior to his departure he was formally praised by the councillors and towns people for the step he had taken.”
The family was left devastated by his death. It would be several years before his mother Catherine requested his service medals and his personal effects. She received a sealed parcel containing one prayer book, one wallet, a photo, cards, two crucifixes, two coins and four religious tokens – “very little to remember a young life lost”.
“It took my great-grandmother a long time to get his possessions, which weren’t much,” Gillian said. “There was a mix-up and they kept sending letters to the wrong people.”
For Gillian, it was important to visit his grave in France and pay her respects to the great-uncle she never knew. “My father had always wanted to go and never got there,” she said. “He was part of the family [and] they were very proud. It was so close to the end of the war … and you think, you just about made it through, and then, bingo … It’s just so sad.”
Lance Corporal Francis Stanislaus Ryan’s story was told in a Last Post Ceremony at the Memorial on August 22. His name will be projected onto the exterior of the Hall of Memory on October 13, just after 1am.