Born in Young in 1879, John Bermingham grew up in the peaceful surroundings of country New South Wales. He soon showed a strong aptitude for working with machines, and eventually gained considerable expertise and employment in the field of mechanical engineering. With wife Sarah, daughters Annie and Edith, and sons Martin and Harry, the family settled in Narromine before the war.
Perhaps feeling that family duties outweighed those of King and Empire, John resisted the notion of joining up when war broke out in August 1914. Yet like so many others following the failure of the Gallipoli campaign and the resulting heavy losses, by early 1916 he had made his mind up to go and ‘do his bit’. Travelling to Cootamundra, the 36-year-old Bermingham enlisted in the AIF in March 1916 (No. 2128), and was allotted to the 4th Reinforcements for the 56th Battalion. By the end of April he was learning the routine and drill at the recruit training depot at Goulburn. The 4th Reinforcements, numbering around 150 men, left Sydney in early September aboard HMAT A15 Port Sydney. They arrived in the UK at the end of October and were immediately sent for a stint with the 14th Training Battalion at Hurdcott near Salisbury.
Bermingham finally joined the 56th Battalion in France as a private, just prior to Christmas 1916 as one of the coldest winters in memory set in. Put into C Company, he apparently was present for all the battalion’s major battles during 1917, including Louverval (April), Bullecourt (May) and Polygon Wood (September). It was at Bullecourt on 15 May that John was wounded in the face by shrapnel and badly concussed during the intense German bombardment. Yet he recovered quickly, rejoining the battalion a week later.
After surviving the terrible conditions in the mud at Passchendaele, Bermingham went into a rest camp late in the year and soon afterwards received some much-needed treatment on his dentures. Then in January 1918 he suffered a bout of stomatitis; a painful inflammation of the mouth or gums often caused by poor dental hygiene. Following his recovery, John’s medical problems were then compounded by terrible knee pain that set in around April. A court of inquiry found that he was he suffering from chronic synovitis and there was no suspicion of self injury. This was routine, since malingering was rife during the war and soldiers were very inventive in creating self-inflicted conditions to get themselves away from the front. But John had had problems with his legs ever since they had both been broken a few years before the war and the court was satisfied there was nothing suspect in this case.
Perhaps due to warmer weather in the summer and benefiting from a prolonged rest, John eventually recovered from his knee troubles, and remarkably, was well enough to rejoin the battalion by the end of August. Days later, on 2 September, the 56th Battalion went into action at Peronne, one of their biggest and last battles of the war. During the successful attack on this key town on the Somme, the battalion suffered heavy casualties, including almost fifty dead. One of those killed was John Bermingham. While no official account of what happened has survived, John’s son Martin apparently heard from one of his father’s comrades after the war. This man, an eye-witness it seemed, said that Bermingham had initially been wounded in the leg by a shell. Unfortunately as his comrades were then carrying him to safety, he was shot through the head by a sniper and killed outright.
* Many thanks to John’s great-grandson, Darren Bermingham for providing additional information and the photographs.