John O'Brien tended to the grave of his brother, Private Stanley O'Brien, of Collinsvale, Tasmania, who was killed in action in 1918.

The chances of finding the grave

With millions of war dead and unknown soldiers from World War One buried in cemeteries throughout the Western Front, preparing to visit a particular grave in France or Belgium involves time, research and planning.

In 2014, the Honourable Craig Farrell, MLC, (Member of the Tasmanian Legislative Council), visited the Western Front as the representative of the Tasmanian Parliament on the Frank MacDonald Memorial Study Tour. Each member of the Study Tour researches a soldier and Mr Farrell had researched Leonard Templeton of the 4th Machine Gun Company.

The night before Mr Farrell left Tasmania for the tour of France and Belgium World War One sites, his friend Ken O’Brien visited and brought his father’s collection of maps, paybooks, photos and shrapnel from his time in the battlefields.

“The most touching of these items was a tiny photo of Ken’s father, John, tending the grave of his brother Stanley. We tried to imagine how he felt,” Mr Farrell said.

“Travelling through the French and Belgium countryside, we began to realise the scale of human loss and infrastructure devastation the First World War brought to this land.  We visited thousands of graves but also drove past thousands more.  Because we had not researched Stanley O’Brien we thought the chances of being able to visit him were remote.”

During the last few days of the tour, Mr Farrell discovered that Private O’Brien was buried at Heilly Station Cemetery in France, and that the Frank MacDonald Study Tour was scheduled to visit the cemetery for pilgrimages to the soldiers studied by students, James Thompson and Julia Walter.

“We hoped to be able to find Stanley and leave a cross from his Tasmanian family,” Mr Farrell said.

Five Tasmanians killed on same day

As James Thompson found his soldier and prepared to present his research about Lance Corporal Morton Beswick, Mr Farrell looked up Private Stanley O’Brien’s grave on the plan at the  cemetery entrance.

After walking along the rows, he thought it was an amazing coincidence that Private O’Brien was buried in the same row as James Thompson’s soldier.

“Searching the row, we were astounded to find Stanley buried right next to Corporal Beswick in a group of five Tasmanian soldiers who were all killed on the same day; probably good mates fighting the same fight.

“The emotion we felt when speaking to the group about Stanley and his brother John was very unexpected.  We were very privileged to be there and his family back home were thankful we could visit his grave,” Mr Farrell said.

Private Stanley Gordon O’Brien was a farmer from Collinsvale. He enlisted on 10 March 1916 and left Hobart on the “Berrima” on 1 July the same year.

Private Stanley O’Brien was a member of the 40th Battalion.  He was killed in action on 28 March 1918 in France.

Private O’Brien’s legatee was his mother, Mrs Eliza Jane Smith, of Collinsvale.  She was sent his wallet, photos, playing cards and a lock of hair.

Caption: A copy of the original photo of John O'Brien tending to the grave of Private Stanley O'Brien (which was a wooden cross in World War One) was placed at  Private Stanley O'Brien's headstone, by Lee and Craig Farrell MLC. Student James Thompson placed his tribute at the grave of Lance Corporal Morton Beswick, who is commemorated next to Private O'Brien.