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Just Ask: Western Front descendant pieces together Dad’s military history

Michael Ryan pictured front right at age 18 with his fellow bank clerks, before he enlisted in the army


Posted on 20 June 2018

After the First World War, it was customary not to talk about the war. People tended to ‘broadbrush’ their experiences of the front line or focus on light-hearted details.

Michael Ryan from Brisbane was one of those men, plucked from a promising career as a bank manager and sent to the other side of the world as a pay clerk for the Australian Imperial Force.

Today, his son Len, 70, is piecing together this military history and, like many descendants, he’s hit a few obstacles along the way.

Encouraged by publicity for the Anzac Centenary Commemorations (1914-18), Len obtained his father’s service records from the National Archives of Australia.

When the parcel arrived in the mail he was intrigued, and then disappointed as he found that much of the handwriting was illegible, either in squiggly script or abbreviations, such as “MOut” (marched out), “NYD” (not yet diagnosed) and “CCS” (casualty clearing station).

Len Ryan pictured with his father Michael's service records and photographs

Undeterred, Len consulted the Research Centre at the Australian War Memorial, where volunteers can help interpret materials, and he went back to his relatives to ask more questions about his father’s service.

Reminiscences and old photos in Ipswich, Queensland, complemented the story that was emerging in Canberra.

The story so far

Michael Ryan, a 27-year-old accountant, enlisted in March 1916 and attended Corporals’ School at Enoggera Barracks, Brisbane. At Pinkenba Wharf he boarded HMAT Itonus, bound for France and the 25th Battalion.

But, fate intervened. By the time Michael Ryan arrived in France in January 1917 he had contracted a series of serious conditions including a glandular illness and a staphylococcus infection.

After several months in quarantine he was attached to the Overseas Training Brigade in various parts of England, including Perham Downs.

Further research in other sources, including books, gave Len an insight into these ‘proving grounds’ which trained men for military service or prepared them for a return to the front line.

One Australian soldier observed in the book, Fit to Fight:

“This was a bull ring, and every man for himself. All the personnel had seen active service and were being hardened off ready to go overseas again. A wrong word or action on the part of anyone would have sparked off a war …”

Michael Ryan survived his time in the Permanent Cadre of the Overseas Training Brigade and worked his way up to the rank of sergeant.

Michael Ryan pictured during his service

After the Armistice, he was transferred to the Australian Headquarters in Horseferry Road, London, and was then seconded as a military pay clerk into the Commonwealth Bank.

For a year, while waiting for a passage home, he found himself in central London which was experiencing high unemployment, civil unrest and post-war reconstruction.

At the same time, the Australian Government had embarked on its own repatriation strategy, headed by General Sir John Monash, and a stable income was a vital part of the program to return ex-service men and women to civilian life.

Sergeant Ryan applied for early repatriation, based on his health, and a year after Armistice, he returned to Australia on the SS Ypiranga.

Awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal, Michael Ryan settled back into life in Brisbane, working for the Post Master General’s Department.He had a War Services Home in Taringa where he found peace in his garden, and he worked hard for other veterans, serving as the state secretary of the Temporary and Permanently Incapacitated Soldiers’ Association.

Michael Ryan died in 1963 when his son Len was about to begin his senior certificate. Len left school early and joined the Queensland public service so he could support his mum.

Len was among the thousands of Australians at the Anzac Day Service in Villers-Bretonneux this year, and his search for more information about his dad’s military service continues.

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