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.