In July 2020, I visited the Australian Army Museum of Western Australia at Fremantle. A terrific facility, it holds machines, materials, medals and awards including the Victoria Cross ) awarded to Irish-born Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) sergeant Martin O’Meara, currently on loan to the National Museum of Ireland in Collins Barracks, Dublin.
The VC is a unique recognition introduced by Queen Victoria in 1856. All ranks are eligible for the award which was given for conspicuous valour in the presence of the enemy. As a mark of respect for the award, which is never referred to as a “medal”, every officer salutes VC recipients even if the recipient is a private. There have been (depending on criteria) 195 Irish recipients of the VC.
Martin O’Meara was a Tipperary native, born on a farm in Lissernane in the parish of Lorrha and Dorrha, usually just called “Lorrha”. His father, Michael O’Meara, was a Roman Catholic tenant farmer. Martin worked as a farm labourer and wood worker before working his passage on a steamer to South Australia in 1911, arriving at Port Augusta. He worked on the Transcontinental Railway before again boarding a steamer and making his way to Perth in 1914.
He was known as a quiet man, a committed Catholic and a supporter of Home Rule. He was also a teetotaller who sent money to his mother Margaret (nee Connors) back home in Lorrha. O’Meara’s work at Pinjarra dried up following state Labor government measures limiting access to timber. The union met to protest at the closure of sawmills, but the jobs dried up; O’Meara needed work.
In July 1915, aged 29, standing 5ft 7in and weighing 140lbs, Martin enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force (AIF) which was recruiting for reinforcements for the 16th Battalion. He boarded the steamship Ajana at Fremantle and sailing to Suez, Egypt, just before Christmas 1915.
On April 25th, while still in Egypt, it is probable that O’Meara read of events happening at home in Dublin where the Easter Rising was taking place. By June, O’Meara and his 16th Battalion were on their way across the Mediterranean to France. In late June 1916, he joined the 16th Battalion’s newly formed Scouting Section on the Western front. Allied forces had prepared a heavy week-long artillery barrage commencing on July 1st, the battle around villages that are now part of Australian history, raged and devastated a 30km front, turning the village of Pozières to “nothing but an ash heap” according to Australian military historian Charles Bean.
In the battle at Pozières, three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties; 6,800 men were killed or died of wounds
In early August, the 16th Battalion along with the 4th Division marched through the night to take up camp in “rain and under shell fire”. In the battle at Pozières, three Australian divisions suffered 23,000 casualties. Of these, 6,800 men were killed or died of their wounds. These losses are on the scale of Gallipoli and were sustained over seven weeks.
During the bitter and desperate battle at Mouquet Farm, about 2km from Pozières, Martin O’Meara performed repeated acts of bravery. There are many eyewitness accounts of the actions of O’Meara. They read, with withering clarity, of action; of bravery under the screaming bombardment, blackout and fire, during which O’Meara was himself struck and wounded.
The award of O’Meara’s Victoria Cross was published in the London Gazette, in September 1916, while he was in hospital recovering from his battle wounds. He returned to France in late 1916 and was wounded again at Bullecourt in April 1917. King George presented his Victoria Cross at Buckingham Palace on July 21st, 1917, almost exactly a year to the day since his deeds of valour on the Somme. Fortuitously, a film recording of this award ceremony was discovered a few years ago. After the ceremony, O’Meara returned to battle and was wounded again late in 1917. By then, news of his valour and bravery spread in Ireland and Australia. In his home county there were receptions and many newspaper reports.
On November 6th, 1918, as for all soldiers returning to West Australia, O’Meara was in isolation in camp in a bid to keep the Spanish flu out of Australia. O’Meara gave an interview by phone to the West Australian newspaper. “That was my first experience of war, and it was pretty hot,” he told the reporter.
O’Meara’s VC citation attests to the heat of O’Meara’s war, it reads:
“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 shelled at the time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger, and undoubtedly saved many lives.”
O'Meara was in isolation in camp in a bid to keep the Spanish flu out of Australia. "That was my first experience of war, and it was pretty hot," he told a reporter
Not long after returning to his adoptive home, Western Australia, O’Meara’s mental wellbeing deteriorated rapidly. His condition was recognised and noted as suicidal, homicidal and violent. He was treated at Claremont hospital in Perth and was frequently kept under restraint. By late 1920, O’Meara was discharged from the army, receiving a veteran pension plus an annuity for his VC. O’Meara died in Perth in 1935. He was laid to rest with military honours at Karrakatta cemetery in Perth.
We are indebted to Ian Loftus, Gerard O’Meara and Jeff Kildea for their work in researching and writing of the lives of Ireland’s Anzacs.
O’Meara’s story tells the tale of so many young men who, through a myriad of circumstances, found themselves on the battlefields of Europe in the 20th century. It’s hard to shake the feeling that the ferocious “heat” O’ Meara describes on the frontline, in no man’s land would surely have a lasting human impact. A young, but most of all, brave Irish man who risked his life to save other Irish, Australian and New Zealander lives on the Somme.
Sunday is Anzac Day. It is not a celebration but a commemoration – a remembering of the O’ Mearas, the Faheys, the Morgans and the thousands of others who fought and died. Peace, consolidation and forgiveness must be the cornerstone of modern nations if we are to be successful in building a world that lives in harmony. The mistakes of the 20th century cannot be repeated and the importance of remembering the humanity of those who bore the brunt of war remains eternal.
Gary Gray is Australian ambassador to Ireland