Remembering William O’Reilly
British Columbia native does research project on Placentia soldier
Earlier this summer Carson Jones was looking for someone.
The 17-year-old had just been named a winner of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize, a scholarship that would take her to battlegrounds and monuments from the First World War scattered across England, Belgium and France in August.
The Delta, B.C. resident was one of a group of students from Canada, the United Kingdom and France required to conduct a series of research projects and present them on the tour from Aug. 7-21.
“They called on the phone and said you get a trip to Europe to visit the war memorials and battlegrounds,” said Jones. “It was pretty awesome.”
She was combing through the online First World War database provided by the Rooms in St. John’s when she found what she was looking for. Or rather, she found who she was looking for.
It was the name William O’Reilly, a private in the Newfoundland Regiment from Placentia.
“We have a lot of family members today with the last name O’Reilly, so I kind of just started there,” said Jones. “I knew I had family members from Newfoundland who served in the war.”
She was struck by the fact the memory of O’Reilly exists not because of a headstone – he doesn’t have one — but through a series of letters from home and a plaque with his name on it,
“I find that a lot of those people get forgotten because they don’t have the representation. They’re just a little name on a plaque in France,” said Jones.
O’Reilly became the subject of her “Bring the Soldiers Home” project. It was one of three research projects undertaken by Jones once she discovered she was awarded the prize. She also did papers on Mulberry Harbour and Julian Byng.
For the soldier project, Jones was responsible to visit their burial site and present to the group on the life of the fallen, as well as present a tribute to them.
“It could be a poem or a letter,” she said. “I chose a letter.”
Who was William?
Private William O’Reilly enlisted with the Newfoundland Regiment in February of 1916.
Hailing from Placentia, the 21-year-old was not married and no children. O’Reilly left behind his mother Margaret as he set off for Europe in the middle of the First World War.
In November of 1917, the outpost where O’Reilly was posted was taken by German troops. On Dec. 3, 1917, he was deemed to be missing.
Just over a month later on Jan. 17, 1918, he was presumed dead.
Jones was struck by the fact the only pieces of O’Reilly that remain are a handful of letters from his mother and friend Daniel Bird. Margaret O’Reilly wrote looking for information on her missing son, while Daniel tried to provide that information.
“I found it strange that all that was left of William were papers,” said Jones.
Standing on front of the Caribou monument that bore O’Reilly’s name, she read her letter aloud, perhaps for the first time.
“I am able to hold your life story within my hands. However, I know that there is so much more to your story. By reading these letters it has been made clear to me that you were dearly loved by family and friends,” she said, her voice solemn.
She finished with, “You deserve to be remembered. You did Newfoundland and the entire nation of Canada a great service. We will remember you, Willie.”
Jones wrote as if they were family. Maybe they were distant cousins.
For her, it was surreal feeling speaking those words. It is something that will stick with her for the rest of her life.
“I’ll always remember it,” said Jones. “It was completely surreal and a strange feeling.”
Delta, B.C., student Carson Jones walks through trenches during her visit to Europe as a part of the Beaverbrook Vimy Prize last month. Jones had to complete three research projects, one of which centred on Placentia solider William O’Reilly, who was presumed dead in the First World War.