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.

The let­ter

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.

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