With the centenary of the outbreak of World War I approaching in 2014 the John Oxley Library has been fortunate to receive the diaries of a young World War I soldier, Gunner James Toohey, from South Brisbane.
James Toohey was born in 1895, the son of Peter Toohey and Kate O’Kane of Logan Road, South Brisbane. Toohey Forest in Brisbane’s south is named after the family. Before World War I James was a telephonist and enlisted on 7 September 1915 as a gunner with the Field Artillery Brigade 3, Reinforcements 14. His unit embarked from Sydney on board the RMS Osterley on the 15th January 1916, arriving in Egypt in February. Toohey saw active service in France and Belgium and was awarded the Military Medal for his actions on the 28th June 1918 near Merris in Northern France. During a heavy artillery barrage he kept the lines of communication open between the forward observation posts and Battalion Headquarters for over three hours, assisting in the success of the operation. The medal was for the bravery and ability which he displayed.
The two small diaries cover the period January 1916 to September 1917 and detail his journey from Australia to Egypt and active service on the front lines in France and Belgium. The entries in late July 1916 cover the Battle of Pozieres and are truly harrowing:
July 22nd – Heavy bombarding all day and night it was like hell let loose. Our infantry charged and captured the village of Pozieres.
July 23rd – I left with Mr. McDonald at 3am and went up to the O.P. to try and observe by signal how far our infantry had reached. I was on the lookout when a shell burst just handy and a piece of high explosive struck my steel helmet and knocked it flying. There was intense fighting all day the Germans striving hard to regain their lost ground but our men too good for them.
July 24th – Intense fighting still continues but we have still got the village.
July 25th – The Hun has redoubled his efforts to regain his lost ground using every means conceivable, gas, shrapnel etc. but he has again been repulsed by the Anzacs who took the advantage of securing another trench. There were a couple of hundred prisoners taken today. During the evening I was out in the “Valley of Death” watching for signalling from the “Chalk Pit”. Pozieres and Contalmaison are razed to the ground.
The second diary, covering the period January 1, 1917 to September 30, 1917, contains a list of the wounded and killed at Passchendaele on the 31st July. There is also an account of James’ leave spent in Ireland with extended family, providing a sharp contrast to life at the front, not so far away. Toohey survived the war and returned to Australia in April 1919. The diaries were donated to the library by his grandson who has also served with the armed forces.
The James Toohey diaries (Acc: 28848, Box 17209) have recently been digitized and will be available shortly through our catalogue.
Lynn Meyers – Original Materials Librarian, State Library of Queensland