Michael Joseph PHELAN


PHELAN, Michael Joseph

Service Numbers: 2776, 2776A
Enlisted: Not yet discovered
Last Rank: Sergeant
Last Unit: 56th Infantry Battalion
Born: Humula, New South Wales, Australia, 1889
Home Town: Humula, Wagga Wagga, New South Wales
Schooling: Not yet discovered
Occupation: Labourer
Died: Killed In Action, France, 18 August 1918
Cemetery: Cerisy-Gailly French National Cemetery, France
Memorials: Australian War Memorial Roll of Honour, Wagga Wagga Cenotaph, Wagga Wagga Victory Memorial Arch
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World War 1 Service

2 Nov 1915: Involvement Private, SN 2776, 20th Infantry Battalion
2 Nov 1915: Embarked Private, SN 2776, 20th Infantry Battalion, HMAT Euripides, Sydney
18 Aug 1918: Involvement Sergeant, SN 2776A, 56th Infantry Battalion
Date unknown: Involvement SN 2776, 56th Infantry Battalion

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Biography contributed by Michelle Maddison

Michael was one of eleven (or twelve) children born to Michael Joseph Phelan and Margaret (née Griffiths).  Michael Senior was born in Ireland and migrated to Australia with his parents in about 1858.  The Phelan family settled on land in the current vicinity of Mount Erin (in Wagga).  Later, with his father and brothers, Michael selected land at Oberne, Mount Airy, Landsdowne and Ungarie.  He resided at Humula for several years (where Michael Junior was born) and then settled in Wagga, residing on Tarcutta Street.

Two of Michael and Margaret's sons enlisted during the war - in addition to Michael, Thomas also joined up, like his brother, signing on at the camp in Cootamundra. 

Michael embarked from Sydney with the 20th Battalion aboard HMAT A14 'Euripides' on 2 November 1915.

In February 1916, not long after his arrival in Egypt, he proceeded to join the 56th Battalion at Tel-el-Kebir.  The 56th Battalion was only raised on Egypt on 14 February 1916 as part of the ‘doubling’ of the AIF.  Half of its recruits were Gallipoli veterans from the 4th Battalion, and the other half, fresh reinforcements from Australia. 

Arriving in France in June 1916, the battalion entered the frontline trenches for the first time on 12 July and fought its first major battle at Fromelles a week later.  The battle was a disaster, resulting in heavy casualties across the 5th Australian Division.  Despite these losses, the men of the 56th continued to man the front in the Fromelles sector until September 1916. 

Michael’s attestation papers provide very little detail of his frontline experiences, perhaps suggesting that he had a fairly uneventful time throughout the latter months of 1916, into early 1917.  On 9 February 1917, he was promoted to the temporary rank of Corporal.  A month later, he attained the full rank.  In April 1917, Michael was again promoted, this time to Sergeant. 

In May 1917, Michael attends a School of Instruction, possibly in the field of gas warfare.  In July, he is granted leave in the UK.  Shortly afterwards, he receives further training at the Infantry Corps School in France, before rejoining his Battalion in November 1917. 

In January 1918, Michael was sent back to England, to undergo further training at Codford (14th Training Battalion).  From 17 January until 16 February, Michael attended the 17th Rifle Course at the Australian School of Musketry in Tidworth, also on the Salisbury Plain.  His service records note that he qualified 2nd Class and was judged as having ‘a fair working knowledge of the Lewis Gun’, a US invented light machine gun that proved popular with Australian troops at this time.

In April, Michael was still in England, where he had been attached for duty to a permanent cadre of the 14th Training Battalion at Tidworth.  He did not rejoin his battalion in France until 12 July 1918.  At this time, they were stationed on the Somme, in the region of Villers-Bretonneux.

A month after returning to the field, on 18 August, Michael was killed.  According to one eyewitness who was with Michael when he fell:

We were about four kilos in front of Harbonnieres, at the time.  A shell fell right amongst us, killing Sgt. Phelan, and wounding myself and three others.  A large piece of shell had gone right through his steel helmet and had penetrated the skull.  Death was instantaneous.  He was taken back to Battalion Headquarters to be buried, so he would certainly be buried in a Military Cemetery…[1]

A second eyewitness stated:

I knew him, he was called Mick.  The ground was held.[2] 

Michael was buried in Cerisy Gailly New French Military Cemetery, 5 miles east of Corbie, France.


[1] Private Frederick Cummings (3133), 56th Battalion AIF, interviewed by the Red Cross at Sutton Veny, 1918

[2] Lieutenant Alfred Heath, 56th Battalion, A. Coy, interviewed by the Red Cross at the 3rd London Hospital, 1918