Service Number: 4146
Enlisted: 30 August 1915, Melbourne, Victoria
Last Rank: Private
Last Unit: 57th Infantry Battalion
Born: Barry's Reef, Victoria, Australia, 6 November 1896
Home Town: Blackwood, Moorabool, Victoria
Schooling: Barry's Reef State School,Victoria, Australia
Occupation: Bank clerk
Died: Hit by shell, Polygon Wood, Belgium, 27 September 1917, aged 20 years
Cemetery: No known grave - "Known Unto God"
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Menin Gate Memorial (Commonwealth Memorial to the Missing of the Ypres Salient)
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World War 1 Service

30 Aug 1915: Enlisted AIF WW1, Private, SN 4146, Melbourne, Victoria
7 Mar 1916: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 4146, 23rd Infantry Battalion, Enlistment/Embarkation WW1
7 Mar 1916: Embarked AIF WW1, Private, SN 4146, 23rd Infantry Battalion, HMAT Wiltshire, Melbourne
27 Sep 1917: Involvement AIF WW1, Private, SN 4146, 57th Infantry Battalion, Polygon Wood

Help us honour John Neil McCracken's service by contributing information, stories, and images so that they can be preserved for future generations.

Biography contributed by Elizabeth Allen

John Neil McCRACKEN was born at Barrys Reef, Victoria in 1896

His parents were John McCRACKEN & Helen Amelia NEIL

Biography contributed by Evan Evans

Ballarat & District in the Great War

It took Helen McCracken more than two years before she was able to sit down and write a few words about her soldier son. As the old saying goes, he had been the apple of her eye; her firstborn. Love and pride mixed readily with grief that left a grinding, echoing emptiness. Nothing could ever soften the loss of a “Mother’s boy.”

John Neil McCracken was born at Barry’s Reef on the edge of the rugged and picturesque Lerderderg State Park on 6 November 1896. He was the eldest of six children born to John McCracken and Helen Amelia Neil. Although John was born at Hepburn Springs and Helen at Barry’s Reef, the ancestry of their children was pure Scots-Irish, with the McCrackens hailing from County Antrim in Ireland, and the Neils from Aberdeen in Scotland.

When Neil was a boy, Barry’s Reef was still a thriving little community – with successful gold mines, a State School, representative football and cricket teams and plenty of pubs. Legend has it that the name of the town originated from the exiling of Barry Francis from nearby Blackwood following a drunken brawl. After walking for an hour north of Blackwood, Francis set up camp. His lodging place proved fortuitous, as he soon discovered gold – and Barry’s Reef was born.

The McCrackens and the Neils were made of stern, pioneering stuff and provided well for their families working in the local gold mines that sprang up as a result of Barry Francis’ good fortune.

I will let Helen McCracken take up the narrative…
‘…Pte John Neil McCracken was born at Barry’s Reef, Mt Blackwood and spent his boyhood there, he was very clever at school and also very popular, his school mates named him “The bold hero” – a name he has deservedly earned…’

In 1906, the Barry’s Reef State School, where Neil was a student, was awarded the prize for the Best School Garden in the Inspectoral District. The children, under the praiseworthy influence of their head teacher, Mr A. T. Knight, had, over the years, transformed a barren, soil-less area into a garden that was admired around the district. Neil McCracken was just like those plants – positive input was having excellent results.

For two years after completing his formal schooling, Neil worked at the school as a pupil teacher, continuing to develop his own education in the process. ‘Prior to enlisting he was clerk in the Commercial Bank, Ballan.’

Neil’s military training included six months with the Senior Cadets of Melbourne’s 51st Infantry Regiment and a further six months with the Ballan troop of the 70th (Ballarat) Infantry. Due to his home being some distance from the catchment area, Neil was, however, exempt from training. This did not dampen his desire to join the army when a need arose. He was sworn in at Ballarat on 11 August 1915, but a second set of Attestation Papers were produced at Melbourne on 8 September.

‘…When asking his parent’s consent to enlist his mother demurred on account of his youth, not having reached his 19th birthday. His answer was, ‘Mother, when I see the wounded returning, I feel I am hiding behind them and that is cowardly. I must go and fight for you and my sisters.’…’

Both parents signed their consent for Neil to join the AIF on 22 August. He named his father as his legal next-of-kin and stated that, although he lived in Blackwood, he was employed by the Melbourne Harbour Trust.

Physically, as they say, there wasn’t much of Neil McCracken – at just 5-feet 4½-inches and 128-pounds, he really was just a slip of a lad. But he could expand his chest to 35-inches, which was more than enough to see him passed fit. The medical examination, which was conducted at Melbourne on 11 August, also included the descriptive information that Neil had a dark complexion, grey eyes and brown hair; he also had a scar on the side of his right eye, a mole on his left cheek and four vaccination marks on his left arm. He’d also been raised according to the teachings of the Scottish Presbyterian Church.

Having successfully been accepted into the AIF, it then became the province of the authorities to place the young man in the most suitable military training camp. The first entry did not occur until 20 December, when Neil joined the Light Horse at Seymour. Two days later he was posted to Q Company of the 5th Depot Battalion.

Early in the New Year, Neil was transferred through to the main camp at Broadmeadows, where he was allotted to the 10th reinforcements set for the 23rd Infantry Battalion. His paperwork was completed with the allocation of a regimental number – 4146.

On 7 March 1916, the 10/23rd Battalion, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel J. J. Hanby, sailed from Port Melbourne onboard the troopship Wiltshire. They were halfway through the voyage to Egypt, on 21 March, when Neil committed a serious if entirely understandable offence – he fell asleep whilst on sentry duty. Lieutenant-Colonel Hanby had no hesitation in ordering the young soldier into detention for 72-hours.

Neil reached Egypt in the midst of the major expansion of the AIF. On 4 April, he was transferred to the 15th Infantry Brigade and received his full posting on 20 April, when he was taken on strength of the 57th Infantry Battalion at Hogsback near Ismailia on the west bank of the Suez Canal.

In preparation for the transfer to France, the 57th was divided in two parts for the purpose of embarkation. A and B Companies, under Major Charles Denehy, left Moascar by train at 7:20pm on 16 June. They reached Alexandria where the transport Kalyan was waiting at dock. The Transylvania was nearby, waiting for the remaining companies. Neil boarded the Kalyan and was soon exchanging his cotton drill clothing for a heavier serge uniform.

The voyage to France was uneventful, and after a week at sea, the Kalyan drew into the harbour at Marseilles on 24 June.

Within weeks of arriving on the Western Front, the 57th Battalion was thrust into its first major battle at Fromelles on 19 July. There had been little chance for acclimatising ahead of what was to prove the most disastrous 24-hour period in Australian history. Fortunately, the 57th was allocated a supporting role in the battle, but was then subjected to the strain of holding the line in the sector after other units had been decimated.

Neil served without major incident throughout that period, but he was beginning to struggle with a lack of news from home. The problem became such a concern, Helen McCracken wrote to Base Records asking for the address to be checked, as ‘…he is quite depressed at not getting any letters for home and I have written every week, also his brother and sister, who are away from home…he is a boy very fond of home and he takes it very hard not receiving my letters…there must be about 60 letters somewhere for him…’

Sadly, this was far from the only time this occurred – I’ve encountered many a letter concerned at the lack of mail getting through to boys at the Front.

The 57th arrived in the frontline near Gueudecourt on 23 November and the companies were spread across Rainbow, Rose and Needle Trenches. They’d only been there a day when young Neil suffered a superficial gunshot wound to his right thigh. He was transferred back to the 38th Casualty Clearing Station at Heilly where he was admitted for treatment. His mother later referred to him being ‘buried on the explosion of a shell…in the battle at Pozieres (sic),’ which indicates he provided her with this information.

After ten days out of action, Neil was discharged to duty on 4 December. Three days later he rejoined the 57th at Montauban Camp where the battalion was on fatigues with the Decauville Railway.

The men spent Christmas in billets at Ribemont and ‘Christmas Day was made as much a holiday as possible. Extra food, vegetables, beer, etc, was purchased and distributed.’ Still, there must have been a lingering sadness for those, like Neil McCracken, thinking of their families so far away.

Towards the end of January 1917, the 57th Battalion was back at Gueudecourt and occupying Needle Trench. Clearly, this was an ill-omened place for Neil – on 27 January, during retaliatory shelling by the enemy, he was wounded for a second time. On this occasion, he suffered shrapnel wounds to his eye, right arm and a second wound to his right thigh. He was transported to the 45th Casualty Clearing Station at Edgehill near Dernancourt. An ambulance train then carried him through to the 5th General Hospital at Rouen, where he was admitted on 29 January.
On 6 February, Neil was transferred to the Hospital Ship Lanfranc at Le Havre and embarked for England. The following day he was admitted to the 2nd Birmingham War Hospital at Northfields.

Still considered ‘far from convalescent,’ Neil was transferred to the 3rd Australian Auxiliary Hospital at Dartford on 10 March. The wounds to his arm and thigh were only in a fair condition at that time.
His condition was soon improved enough for a little hijinks – on 17 April, he absconded from the hospital ward and was absent for nearly four hours. He was caught trying to break back into the hospital just before midnight. The escapade was treated harshly by Lieutenant-Colonel H. Arthur Powell, who awarded the errant soldier 14-days confinement to barracks.
By 26 April, his wounds were healing well, but he was also being treated for deafness; his progress was ‘satisfactory.’ He was to spend a further six-weeks at Dartford before being discharged to furlough on 8 June.

Ultimately, his return to the Front was delayed by surgery for a deviated nasal septum in late June – minor surgery by modern standards, but maybe not so trivial in 1917.

It wasn’t until the end of July that Neil was finally pronounced fit to return to active duty. On 9 August, he arrived back in France and was processed through the 5th Australian Divisional Base Depot at Le Havre. When he reached his unit on 27 August, the 57th was resting behind the line at La Belle Hôtesse near Hazebrouck.

The men stayed at La Belle Hôtesse until 17 September. A route march through to Steenvorde took several hours and, due to the poor condition of the roads, was ‘very hard & trying on the feet.’ Consequently, Neil and his mates were very happy to final reach their new billets.

On 20 September, after an early start, the battalion was ready to move up in support of the 1st Australian Division’s attack outside Ypres. Due to the Australian success during the Battle of Menin Road, the 57th was not required.

Their turn came just a few days later in the Battle of Polygon Wood.

The morning of 24 September was spent in preparations for the move forward. At 3pm they set off for the Zouave Wood area; the march was completed without incident and the men waited for their next orders for the forthcoming operations.

Next day, the battalion was moved forward to Glencorse Wood. The enemy barrage was particularly intense from Clapham Junction through to the frontline and the men moved through it in sections, in single file with a 50-pace spacing. It was dangerous going and the battalion suffered heavily as a result with 30 men killed.

Zero-hour for the attack was 5:50am on 26 September. The enemy barrage caused considerable damage and some disorganisation, but the battalion commanders handled the situation well and were actively prepared for any German counter-attack.
The counter-attack, when it came, was quickly and effectively ‘smashed.’ However, there were still devastating consequences for those caught in the German barrage.

According to official sources, Neil McCracken was declared Missing in Action after roll call on 27 September 1917.

Sergeants Ray Howard and Walter Bennett were both with Neil during that final day. They’d received word that they were to be relieved that evening, but the German artillery suddenly put down an intense barrage. Howard noted that ‘things were getting pretty warm’ and Neil, along with two expat Irishman, James “Paddy” Hart and Henry Pace, and Private William Stokes, from Bendigo, all took cover in a shell hole.

And in those moments of quiet desperation, luck is either with you or not. When a high explosive shell landed directly in the shell hole where the men were sheltering, the effects were catastrophic – Hart, Pace and young Neil McCracken took the full brunt of the blast and were killed instantly. Stokes was buried, but survived.

As Sergeant Howard later reported, ‘I can swear that a shell dropped and blew the shell hole to smithereens.’

Bennett also watched the event unfold at the closest possible range. ‘…I was in another shell hole alongside and I saw his body immediately afterwards. He was most severely wounded all over. I do not know if he was ever buried…’

Continued shelling in the area made it increasingly difficult to secure burial. In fact, there was no indication that Neil’s remains were ever seen again.
Notification that Neil was missing was eventually received by the 3rd Military District authorities in Victoria on 20 October. From that moment the agony of waiting began for the McCracken family.

Then the letters began to arrive; letters that, whilst sparing them the more graphic details, left no doubt as to what had happened on 27 September 1917. His parents learned that Neil had only just arrived back in the fighting line after being in hospital in England. They were also told that he had suffered a slight wound to his arm during the early stages of fighting at Polygon Wood and ‘his NCO’s tell how they tried to persuade him to go back, but he said he would stick to it a bit longer. When the Germans started a heavy barrage and a shell exploding buried him. He did his duty and more than his duty and it grieves us all to know we have lost such a true and a good mate, for he was ever one of the best of boys, so unselfish and manly…’

They were also informed that Neil had been attached to the Head-Quarters Grenadiers of the 57th Battalion at the time, and that he had been offered clerical work, ‘but would not leave his mates…’

A Court of Enquiry was held on 3 November 1917 to hear evidence into the fate of missing men of the 57th Battalion. Lieutenant Arnold Wadsworth later reported that they ‘had conclusive evidence that McCracken was dead.’ As a result, his status was altered to read: previously reported missing now declared Killed in Action 27/9/1917.

Despite this, the family was asked by Base Records to provide information they had received from the Front in relation to Neil’s fate. The standard request for information form, dated 18 February 1918, was completed by Helen McCracken. She included three letters written by Neil in the week prior to his being posted missing ‘as he knew I would be anxious concerning him.’ She also included a letter from an unnamed lance-corporal, who had written to her following her son’s death.

Clearly with his mother in mind, Neil had completed the Will section in the back of his paybook while he was still in England; he named his mother as his sole beneficiary. She was also granted a token pension by the Defence Department and received the sum of 14-shillings a fortnight.

Newspaper reports in 1920 stated that ‘only seven from the missing members of the AIF are unaccounted for,’ leading to many families raising questions with Base Records. Hope was raised for Helen McCracken, who seemingly misinterpreted the meaning of ‘missing.’ She wrote to Base Records on 6 February 1921, politely asking, ‘…Could you kindly advise me if during the search for missing ones anything has come to light regarding my son…I know a search is being made over the battlefields and would be grateful to know if you have received any information…’
There was, sadly, no hope; no reports of burial had been received. Neil’s name would later be commemorated on the Portland stone panels of the Menin Gate memorial to the missing in the town of Ypres.

After the war, the McCracken family moved to Pascoe Vale Road in Glenroy, Helen named her new home “Neilville” in honour and memory of her soldier son. She lived there until her death on 25 May 1934.
‘…McCRACKEN.- In loving memory of our darling son and brother, Private John Neil McCracken, who gave his young life for honour's cause, at Polygon Wood, on the 27th September, 1917.

Mother's boy.
Could I, his mother, have clasped his hand,
The son I loved so well;
To kiss his brow when death was near,
And whisper, dear Neil, farewell.
Sadly, a father is thinking of his
Soldier son so brave,
Who fought for the cause of freedom,
Who lies in a hero's grave.
Thank God for the faith that teaches
When the struggles of life are o'er,
We shall meet our Neil, our loved one,
And shall know him then once more…’