One hundred years ago, less than four months after Ireland’s Easter Rising, a 30 year-old Irishman from County Tipperary was caught up with tens of thousands of others in the bloody Battle of the Somme. This was Martin O’ Meara, whose tragic and sad story has captivated many. My personal story of discovery is here: Discovering Martin O’Meara V.C. & The Psychological Cost of World War One. Martin O’Meara had left the small rural farm in Co Tipperary where he was raised and eventually ended up in Western Australia. Not far from Perth, he enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force and was sent to France. The very first action the encountered by the 16th Battalion was on the killing fields of the Somme, at Mouquet Farm near Pozières, France. On these days a century ago, between Wednesday the 9th and Saturday 12th August 1916, Martin O’Meara astonished his Australian Expeditionary Force officers with acts of daring bravery and courage. His military records contain eye witness accounts of his actions during battle as follows:
“On the night of 8/9 August, I saw Private O’Meara go out into ‘No Man’s Land’ where it was being severely shelled and remove wounded to places of safety where he rendered first aid and subsequently assisted to carry them down to the Dressing Station. I personally saw him remove not less than 6 men, mostly of the 15th Battalion, A.I.F. and the Suffolk Battalion. One of the wounded whom I saw him remove in this is Lieut. Fogarty of the 15th Battalion . A.I F.” – Captain Ross Harwood.
“Late in the afternoon of the 12th instant, after my Company had been relieved in the front firing line, I noticed Lieut. Carse of the No.4 Machine Gun Company, lying wounded in a sap which was at that time out off from the rear by a very heavy barrage. In order to go to the assistance of this officer No. 3970 Private O’Meara with great gallantry and utmost fearlessness went through the barrage and subsequently assisted to bring him down to the Regimental Aid Post” – Captain A McLeod.
“On the morning of the 11th August, O’Meara was on scouting duty in ‘No Man’s Land’. At this time some three machine guns were firing over the section of ground which he was examining, and it was also being very heavily shelled with H.E shells. About ten minutes after I saw him going over the parapet into ‘No Man’s Land’. I saw him return carrying a wounded man whom he had found lying in a shell hole in ‘No Man’s Land’. Having dressed the wounds of this man he returned to ‘No Man’s Land’ in pursuance of his duty as a Scout. My notice was again drawn to this man on the morning of the 12th when the section of trench occupied by my company was being heavily bombarded by H.E and Shrapnel. I withdrew the garrison to either flank from one portion that was in process of being completely obliterated which subsequently happened; one man failed to get out in time and was buried. O’Meara, despite the overwhelming fire, at once rushed to the spot, extricated the man concerned and thereby undoubtedly saved his life. During the advance of the Battalion, on the night of 9/10th a number of men were wounded and left lying on the ground over which the advance had been made and subsequently on the 11/12th runners and carriers who had occasion to cross this area were wounded there. I saw O’Meara on many occasions on the 10/11/12th August search the ground for wounded to whom he rendered first aid, and whom he subsequently brought in or assisted to bring in “ – Major P Black.
“I saw O’Meara on a number of occasions attending to or bringing in wounded men from an area over which the Battalion had advanced and from ‘No Man’s Land’. I estimate that the number of men rescued by him is not less than 20. At times when he was carrying out this work of mercy, the shrapnel and machine gun fire was intense beyond description. I cannot state who these men were – they were mostly members of the 15th Battalion, A.I.F and the Suffolk Battalion , but I am able to identify Lieut. FOGARTY of the 15th Battalion , A.I.F to whom he rendered first aid and whom he subsequently brought into trench.This officer had been wounded and had been lying in ‘No Man’s Land’ for about 4 hours: the enemy fire at this point was so dense that it had been impossible to make a search for wounded, but such conditions did not deter O’Meara “ – Lieutenant F. Wadge.
”I respectfully beg to draw your attention to the conduct of No. 3970 Private O’MEARA, M., during the recent operations of this Battalion. Private O’Meara is the most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen; besides doing the very arduous duties imposed on him, by reason of his being in the Scouting Section, efficiently and cheerfully, this man used to fill in his time bringing in wounded under all conditions. Private O’Meara is always cheerful and optimistic, will volunteer for any job, and can be trusted to carry any duty through with the utmost certainty. During Friday night’s operations I required more ammunition and bombs on the left Sector, most of the reserve stocks having been buried owing to there being no communication saps, and the perfect hail of shells that were blowing the parapets to pieces, I would not detail anyone for this job. O’Meara went on his own initiative to the Battalion Dump twice, returning with S.A.A. and Bombs; on his second return he managed to guide a fatigue party across and relieved us of our shortage. During these trips he located wounded men and carried 3 of them back to the Dressing Station. This man has been responsible for the evcuaton of at least 20 men under conditions that are indescribable.’‘ – Lieut. W. J. Lynas
”On the night of the 11/12th August, that section of the Front Line occupied by ‘D’ Company was intensely shelled. All communication trenches were blown in as well as cosiderable portion of the Front system of trenches. It was discovered that the supply of S.A.A. was very short, and that all bombs and flares for signalling purposes had been buried: An Infantry assault was expected to succeed the barrage. O’Meara volunteered to go down to the Regimental Dump and procure ammunition, bombs and flares. He made this trip twice and on both occasions staggered back under a very heavy load of the munitions required” – Lt. R.S Somerville
”On the evening of the 12th instant, after my Battaion had been relieved I met O’Meara near CHALK PITS going in the direction of POZIERS. He has previously been sent down as a guide to ‘D’ Company. When I asked him where he was going he informed me that he had just heard of 2 wounded men from the Battalion who had no been brought in from ‘No man’s Land’. He was subsequently seen by Lieut. Cook in the front trenches. The following day the attached note was received from him by my Scout Officer. During the latter stages of the relief of the Battalion a very heavy German artillery barrage was put down over the Communication trenches south of POZIERS. In order to carry out his mission of mercy this man voluntary returned through the barrage referred to after having reached a position of comparative safety.” – E Drake Brockman, Lieut-Colonel, Major-General, Comdg, 4th AUSTRALIAN DIVISION
The terrible fighting that took place at Pozières and Mouquet Farm over less than seven weeks resulted in 23,000 Australian casualties, with 6,800 dead. Charles Bean, an Australian war historian described some of the horror ..
The reader must take for granted many of the conditions – the flayed land, shell–hole bordering shell–hole, corpses of young men lying against the trench walls or in shell–holes; some – except for the dust settling on them – seeming to sleep; others torn in half; others rotting, swollen and discoloured.
Add to this the deafening noise, the exhaustion, the sights and sounds of screaming men, the rats, the trenches – this was a scene of horror that must have impacted all those who were there.
The image below was photographed on August 28 1916, at The “Gibraltar” bunker, Pozières. A fatigue party laden with sandbags heads for the fighting at Mouquet Farm. and shows the total devastation caused by the barrage of shells that rained down on the area.
Heading for the fighting at Mouquet Farm (Image Wikimedia Commons)
Martin O’Meara was awarded a Victoria Cross, the citation for which was published in the Supplement to the London Gazette of Friday 9, September 1916:
No. 3970 Pte. Martin O’Meara, Aus. Infy. For most conspicuous bravery. During four days of very heavy fighting he repeatedly went out and brought in wounded officers and men from “No Man’s Land” under intense artillery and machine gun fire. He also volunteered and carried up ammunition and bombs through a heavy barrage to a portion of the trenches, which was being heavily shelled at the time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger, and undoubtedly saved many lives.
I was delighted to have had the opportunity to see first hand the actual Victoria Cross presented to Martin O’Meara by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 21 July 1917.
O’Meara was wounded and was returned to England for treatment. Meanwhile news of his Victoria Cross award had reached Tipperary and there was great jubilation in the area. The local newspaper, the Nenagh Guardian of Sept 30, 1916, described him as ‘a bright lively boy full of frolicsome fun and a keen lover of sport’. He was welcomed back to Tipperary in October and on the 24th of that month he attended a meeting at nearby Borrisokane and thanked the gathering for their congratulations and for agreeing to take up a collection in his honour.
He rejoined the ANZACS but returned again to Tipperary in October 1917, where his demeanor was described as ‘strange’. He had failed to attend an event in Lorrha where his sister accepted a gold watch purchased from proceeds of the collection and the balance of £150. As a serving soldier he was not permitted to accept the money but it was held in trust for him. Martin was wounded three times during the war. He was returned to Australia in November 1918 before the end of the war and almost immediately was hospitalized suffering from a mental breakdown. At what stage did the breakdown happen? Was it after the Mouquet Farm actions for which he won the V.C.? Was it a slow process that began to overcome him while on active service? Reading the accounts above given by the officers in the field, one would wonder what drove him to be so courageous and to put himself in such danger to carry out the deeds in the first place. Did the breakdown happen before he returned to Australia? Was that the real reason he was sent home early? There are many unanswered questions regarding Martin and his mental illness. Shellshock was a relatively new phenomenon and was often seen as ‘malingering’ when displayed in regular soldiers. Treatment was in its infancy and there is no doubt but that his condition was both misunderstood and treated in a very basic fashion, certainly in the early days.
The bright lively boy full of frolicsome fun who ran and played in the green fields of Tipperary, the efficient,cheerful and optimistic soldier who went into battle, had gone mad. Martin O’Meara, the hero of Pozières was incarcerated in mental institutions for the rest of his days, often restrained in a strait jacket, often violent, often hearing voices. He died after 17 years in torment on 20 December 1935 and lies in this lonely plot in a vast graveyard in Western Australia.
After his death, the Catholic parish priest in Lorrha Co Tipperary went to court to have Martin’s bequest for the restoration of the old Abbey in the village set aside and instead used to provide a pair of confessionals in the Church with the balance to be used for the building of Redwood school. An ironic enough situation given that the local clergy did not attend the event held in Martin’s honour many years earlier. The £150 pounds had become £370. 9 shillings and 1 penny by 1939. £60 pounds was expended on the confessionals and after expenses of £8. 8 shillings the balance of £362.1s.1d was allocated to Redwood school. This was a substantial sum in 1939 – equivalent to about €18,400 in modern currency. It is to he hoped that the pupils of that school are familiar with the story of the local hero, Martin O’Meara who played sport in the area just as they do and who loved having fun, who so courageously looked after his comrades in terrible circumstances. It is to be hoped that he is more to them than a name inscribed on a local memorial in Lorrha village and on a small brass plaque in the Catholic church.
In Western Australia Martin O’Meara is well and proudly remembered nowadays by the Irish community, in particular Fred Rea of ‘The Australian Irish Scene’ and Ian Loftus and he is commemorated in Collie where he enlisted, as well as at the State War Memorial in Perth’s Kings Park on an annual basis. My good friend Leith Landauer who is a guide at Kings Park first introduced me to Martin’s story. She has done trojan work to highlight the sacrifice he made for fellow Australians. To mark the centenary of the actions that earned him the Victoria Cross, Ian has written a biography of Martin O’Meara dispelling some of the myths and exploring the real story of this Tipperary man, this Irishman who gave his life, body mind and soul to help others. The book is aptly titled The most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen and is available here.
Martin O’Meara V.C.
November 6 1885 – December 20 1935
Ar dheis Dé go raibh a anam
Oh, The Pity of War.
Wilfred Owen – Mental Cases
Who are these? Why sit they here in twilight?
Wherefore rock they, purgatorial shadows,
Drooping tongues from jaws that slob their relish,
Baring teeth that leer like skulls’ teeth wicked?
Stroke on stroke of pain, – but what slow panic,
Gouged these chasms round their fretted sockets?
Ever from their hair and through their hands’ palms
Misery swelters. Surely we have perished
Sleeping, and walk hell; but who these hellish?
– These are men whose minds the Dead have ravished.
Memory fingers in their hair of murders,
Multitudinous murders they once witnessed.
Wading sloughs of flesh these helpless wander,
Treading blood from lungs that had loved laughter.
Always they must see these things and hear them,
Batter of guns and shatter of flying muscles,
Carnage incomparable, and human squander
Rucked too thick for these men’s extrication.
Therefore still their eyeballs shrink tormented
Back into their brains, because on their sense
Sunlight seems a blood-smear; night comes blood-black;
Dawn breaks open like a wound that bleeds afresh.
– Thus their heads wear this hilarious, hideous,
Awful falseness of set-smiling corpses.
– Thus their hands are plucking at each other;
Picking at the rope-knouts of their scourging;
Snatching after us who smote them, brother,
Pawing us who dealt them war and madness
National Archives of Australia Records
Australian Dictionary of Biography
Charles Bean, The Australian Imperial Force in France, 1916, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918, Volume III, p. 728
Army Museum of Western Australia