16th Battalion Scouting Section formed 100 years ago

The Australian 16th Battalion’s scouting section was formally established on 27 June 1916 when a group of men selected from across the battalion paraded at Canteen Farm south of Erquinghem at 9.00am.The group included Private Martin O’Meara, who was later awarded the Victoria Cross and was Australia’s only Irish-born VC of the First World War. O’Meara’s membership of the scouting section was a key factor in his Victoria Cross; he was conducting scouting duties at the time of the bravery that led to his award.

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Martin O’Meara and five of his colleagues from B Company joined the section along with eight men from A Company, six men from C Company, five men from D Company and one man from the battalion signallers.

The function of the battalion scouts was described in a Divisional Order:

When a battalion is in the trenches those observers and snipers will work in pairs, either in the front line trench or from supports of other positions slightly in rear and will be independent of the ordinary trench garrison. Their special work will be the location and subduing of enemy snipers, the location of enemy M.G’s and observing posts, general observation and reporting of the progress or otherwise of work on the enemy’s front and support trenches. The patrol men will be about 6 in number and will be volunteers from among the battalion Scouts. Their special task will be to gather all information concerning the enemy up to and including his parapet, including precise topographical details, frequent reports on enemy’s wire, location of enemy’s observation posts, M.G. emplacements, listening posts, etc. Permanent, well concealed and protected observation posts may be constructed with the sanction of the C.O. at the direction of the Scout Officer for the use of himself and his observers, if he thinks that adequate observation cannot otherwise be obtained. The Scouts may be required to remain in the trenches after the Battalion has been relieved, in order to carry on and hand over all information to the next Battalion.

The first Scouting Officer was Lieutenant Bill Lynas, the battalion’s Intelligence Officer. Originally from New Zealand and of Irish stock, Bill Lynas had been working at a mine near Marble Bar in Western Australia’s remote north when he enlisted in September 1914. He had served with the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli and in Egypt and had been commissioned after the battalion had withdrawn from Gallipoli to Egypt. Bill Lynas was later described as eagerly participating in his new role, and was ‘never happier than when he was out in No Man’s Land patrolling along the enemy wire in search of scalps.’

Who was Mary Murphy?

The death of Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, in December 1935 prompted efforts in both Australia and Ireland to track down a certain Miss Mary Murphy.

Mary had been mentioned in O’Meara’s will and was to (subject to a range of conditions) keep his Victoria Cross medal. It seems that efforts to track her down were not successful; the West Australian on 26 January 1939 reported that “it has been found impossible to trace the whereabouts of the Miss Murphy”.

I needed to identify Mary Murphy whilst researching my coming biography of O’Meara, so I started digging around.

My investigations found that Mary Murphy had lived a few miles from O’Meara in County Kilkenny, Ireland, when the Irish census was taken in April 1911. She had been acquainted with O’Meara at the time but he had moved to Australia in late 1911 or early 1912 and she had moved to England in 1913 or 1914. Mary’s family in England (who provided much useful information) suggest that O’Meara wanted to marry her.

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Mary Murphy as a nurse.

She was nursing at a hospital in Caterham, south of London, in 1916 when he was hospitalised in London after being wounded on the Somme. It seems that they met again at this time, and then again when O’Meara visited England in July 1917, August-October 1917 and September 1918. It seems likely that O’Meara gave her the VC medal in July 1917, at the time he received it from King George V at Buckingham Palace, and that she returned it to him in September 1918 just before he returned to Australia.

O’Meara had made a new will in November 1917, in which he left the medal to her, so she obviously meant a great deal to him. Perhaps he still had thoughts of marrying her? Events, however, turned out very differently: he returned to Australia in November 1918 and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals after suffering a breakdown, and she married an English soldier whom she had met during the war and settled down on the English midlands. O’Meara’s VC medal was passed to the 16th Battalion in the early 1940s and is now held by the Army Museum of Western Australia.

100 years since 16th Battalion’s first Western Front death

Today is the centenary of the Australian 16th Battalion‘s first death on the Western Front.

Private Alfred Brooke, of the battalion’s B Company was killed when he was struck by lightning during a thunderstorm. Two other men were injured. The men had been digging trenches in the Bois-Grenier sector in northern France. Brooke was buried the next day at Erquinghem-Lys.

Brooke had been labouring in Fremantle, Western Australia, when he enlisted in early 1915. He had seen service with the 16th Battalion at Gallipoli, and was wounded there in August 1915.

Little is known of Brooke. He gave his birthplace as Wellington, New Zealand, at his enlistment and didn’t have any next of kin in Western Australia. His estate was granted to his landlady, Mrs Ada Hudson, after his death.

The 16th Battalion moved south to the Somme area in 1916 and suffered terrible casualties during attacks near Mouquet Farm in August 1916.

Letters from the front: Martin O’Meara writes to a friend in Australia

Martin O’Meara, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, left very little evidence from which we can piece together his tragic life.

Some of the most useful sources are the letters (and excerpts of letters) that were reproduced in various newspapers, particularly in Western Australia. Some of these letters appear to have been edited for publication, but this doesn’t altar their value.

Martin O’Meara at Buckingham Palace in July 1917

On 14 June 1916, whilst in the Bailleul area in northern France, Martin O’Meara of the 16th Battalion wrote a letter to a friend (whose identity remains unknown) in Western Australia in which he described hearing of his mother’s recent death. He wrote:

I heard from the old country a couple of weeks back, and learned of my mother’s death. I thought I would be able to see her once again in this world. Well, dear friend, don’t forget to look after your mother while she is with you, for when she is gone your best friend is lost. Don’t ever think yourself above taking mother’s advice. We may be going into action any day now, so don’t forget to say a prayer for all the fine lads in the trenches, all our fine Australian men in particular. We have plenty of work in front to do, but particularly pray that if we have to die that we get the assistance of God’s Grace and the intercession of His Holy Mother to die bravely and honourably, but above all, purely and then, by doing that in place of dying we shall commence to live a new life. [Daily News, 21 September 1916, p.6]

The letter tells of sorrow at the passing of his mother in County Tipperary, Ireland, and of the strength of his Roman Catholic faith. It also seems to reflect a degree of naivety; unlike some of his 16th Battalion, he hadn’t seen action at Gallipoli and seems unprepared for the horrors of the trench warfare that he was to face within a month.

The men of the 16th Battalion travelled to the Somme area further south during July 1916 and saw action during early August 1916 during the battle for Mouquet Farm. O’Meara was to received his Victoria Cross during that battle.

Link between Martin O’Meara VC and Michael Collins

Sometimes historical research unearths some particularly interesting things.

Whilst looking at the history of the Irish Volunteers and Sinn Fein in Lorrha, County Tipperary, during the First World War period as part of my biography of Martin O’Meara VC, I found an interesting link between the Australian war hero and General Michael Collins of the Irish Free State Army.

As a youngster Martin O’Meara lived in the same parish as another boy named Felix Cronin, son of the local National School teacher (who was also Felix Cronin). They would have attended church together and possibly school as well. Felix was five years younger than O’Meara.

 

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General Michael Collins
Martin in Australia c. Oct 1915
Martin in Australia c. Oct 1915

Felix Cronin was active in the Irish Volunteers and later Sinn Fein in the parish during the First World War, and ended up as a Major-General in the Irish Free State Army in the 1920s.

In 1925 he married Kitty Kiernan, who had been fiancee of General Michael Collins. Collins had been assassinated by anti-treaty rebels in 1922.

Martin O’Meara had left the parish sometime before 1911 and travelled to Australia. He had enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in 1915. He served in Egypt in early 1916 and then on the Western Front in France and Belgium in 1916-18. He died in Perth in 1935.

Two boys from the same parish but such different outcomes ….