When is a stretcher-bearer not a stretcher-bearer? Debunking the ‘myth of O’Meara VC’

So when is a stretcher-bearer not a stretcher bearer? When he’s Martin O’Meara VC, of course … a machine gunner, scout, observer and scout but never a stretcher bearer.

The myth that O’Meara was a stretcher-bearer has been debunked, and should be abandoned.

O’Meara was awarded the Victoria Cross for actions during the battle for Mouquet Farm in August 1916. The citation for the award of Martin O’Meara Victoria Cross published on 8 September 1916 is quite clear:

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.

This account provided the basis for subsequent newspaper reporting in Australia and elsewhere with the focus being on his role in going out and rescuing wounded officers and men.  There was no mention of him being a stretcher-bearer; merely that he saved lives. None of the testimonies of 16th Battalion officers supporting his nomination for the Victoria Cross refer to him as a stretcher-bearer.

The stretcher bearer myth seems to have been further fueled by comments given by Martin O’Meara in an interview given by telephone from the Woodman’s Point Quarantine Station and reported in the West Australian on 8 November 1918. In this interview he stated that ‘I went out to do what I could for the poor chaps that were lying all around waiting for the stretcher bearers … I went down to the cookers and got some hot tea and went out again with a stretcher and brought in more.’ O’Meara clearly indicates that he was not a stretcher-bearer, but that he did rescue men using a stretcher. This also suggests that O’Meara was assisted by other men, as it would be almost impossible for him to have rescued others using a stretcher without another man to assist him. These men could have included actual stretcher-bearers or other scouts or regular infantrymen. Battalion stretcher-bearers were specially trained soldiers attached to infantry companies, and the term ‘stretcher-bearer’ is a specific function, and does not refer to a soldier who simply assists in evacuating the wounded using stretchers.

A major culprit in the development and perpetuation of the stretcher-bearer myth was Cyril Longmore, a former AIF officer who wrote a history of the 16th Battalion’s wartime actions. Its brief reference to O’Meara note that:

For conspicuous bravery during this period Private Martin O’Meara was awarded the Victoria Cross. He carried ammunition to the front line under a heavy barrage and, as a stretcher-bearer he brought in many wounded officers and men from No Man’s Land.

A comparison of Longmore’s book with the 16th Battalion’s official war diary maintained by the Commanding Officer suggests that Longmore relied very heavily on this diary for his history and that much of the material was not corroborated by other sources, even though former members of the battalion in Western Australia could have been readily available to provide first-hand accounts of actual events. The reference to ‘as a stretcher-bearer’ appears to have been made up on the basis that O’Meara rescued wounded men. The circumstances of O’Meara’s Victoria Cross seem only to have been verified against the award citation that appeared in the London Gazette in September 1916 and not against the recommendation made by Lieutenant-Colonel Drake-Brockman in August 1916.

Longmore’s history of the battalion was serialized in a Perth newspaper during 1937, and the myth of the stretcher-bearer seems to become entrenched from that time onwards. A newspaper report at the time that Martin O’Meara’s Victoria Cross medal was presented by the 16th Battalion Association to the 16th Battalion (Cameron Highlanders of Western Australia) in August 1940 noted that O’Meara won the medal ‘as a stretcher-bearer with the 16th Battalion’. This article probably relied on Longmore’s battalion history as a source of information, albeit inaccurate, on Martin O’Meara. This inaccuracy persisted, and the Western Mail of 6 May 1943 noted that ‘It was at Pozieres that the late Martin O’Meara gained his well-earned VC as a stretcher bearer with the 16th Battalion.’

The stretcher-bearer myth persists to this day in a wide range of books and articles, although some references are a little more pragmatic. Many other works that touch on aspects of Martin O’Meara’s life, however, perpetuate the stretcher-bearer myth without question. As a Victoria Cross recipient, references to Martin O’Meara abound in a wide range of books and articles relating to the AIF on the Western Front.

The stretcher-bearer myth was given a degree of legitimacy when Lionel Wigmore et al. included it in their information on Martin O’Meara in the reference work on Australian Victoria Crosses, They Dared Mightily, that was published by the Australian War Memorial in 1963. It also includes another more obvious error, recording that O’Meara served with the 16th Battalion from the Gallipoli campaign in 1915 through to the fighting at Le Verguier. They Dared Mightily was subsequently revised and condensed by Anthony Staunton and republished (with the same title) in 1986 and republished again (as Victoria Cross: Australia’s finest and the battles they fought) in 2005.

O’Meara’s entry in the 1988 Australian Dictionary of Biography indicated that he was ‘acting’ as a stretcher-bearer, an ambiguous reference suggesting that he was doing the duties of a stretcher bearer but that he might not have actually been one.

The truth is that Martin O’Meara VC spent most of his time on the Western Front as a scout, observer and sniper, and most of his time in Egypt as a machine gunner. He was never stretcher-bearer. His duties as a scout, observer and sniper involved him patrolling No Man’s Land gathering intelligence, kidnapping (and killing) German soldiers, and making preparations for attacks.