Martin O’Meara VC … the machine gunner

Sergeant Martin O’Meara, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, was a machine gunner in Egypt before serving on the Western Front as a scout with the 16th Battalion.

From 3-22 April 1916, whist serving with the 4th Machine Gun Company, he attended a machine gunners’ course at the Imperial School of Instruction at Zeitoun near Cairo.  Those men selected to attend the machine gunners’ course were required to ‘have some aptitude for the work, be of good physique, keen and intelligent.’
Studio portrait of soldier with a Vickers Machine Gun

The men trained on the Vickers machine gun, a water-cooled, tripod mounted weapon capable of firing some 450 rounds of .303 inch ammunition (the same as used by the infantry’s Lee Enfield rifles) per minute. The gun’s team consisted of one man firing, one man feeding the ammunition belt into the gun, and several other men who were responsible for carrying ammunition and supporting the gun’s movement. Martin O’Meara was one of 57 4th Machine Gun Company men who attended the three-week machine gun course, passing the course as a first-class machine gunner. He subsequently served with the 4th Machine Gun Company on Suez Canal defences.

Martin O’Meara returned to the 16th Battalion shortly before it sailed for France, and received his Victoria Cross for actions near the village of Pozieres during the first part of August 1916.

Martin O’Meara’s life is told in my biography of this brave man, which is available until midnight on 25 April at the special price of $18.75 – a discount of 25% off my normal retail price by clicking here. It’s also available from Amazon by clicking here.

The 16th Battalion prepares for Bullecourt

On the evening of 7 April 1917, the 16th Australian Infantry Battalion (part of the 4th Australian Infantry Brigade which was, in turn, part of the 4th Australian Division) moved into sunken roads to the north and east of Noreuil, only a few kilometres from the Hindenburg Line, with A Company moving into outpost lines to relieve other units in the railway cutting area just south of the Hindenburg Line.

At this time a Private, Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, was a member of the 16th Battalion’s Scouting Section.

The Allied forces were pursuing the German forces towards the Hindenburg Line, and the next moves would be a series of attacks on the Hindenburg Line itself.

On 8 April 1917, the 4th Division headquarters ordered that ‘strong patrols suitably supported’ would be sent out on 9 April 1917 to determine the strength of German forces on the Hindenburg Line.’ The 4th Brigade war diary later recorded that ‘Strong patrols are being sent out by the 4th and 12th Aust. Infantry Brigades tonight to ascertain if the HINDENBURG Line is held.’

The area south-east of Bullecourt where 4th Brigade  patrols were carried out on 9 April 1917 (taken in 2015)

These patrols set off from the forward positions held by 4th Division units; the 16th Battalion was located along the railway line to the southeast of Bullecourt at this time. At 9.00pm that night, a special patrol was mounted to reconnoitre the German lines. It consisted of Captain Albert Jacka VC of the 14th Battalion, and Lieutenants Frank Wadge and Henry Bradley of the 16th Battalion. The 16th Battalion’s war diary records that:

They got as far as the enemy’s wire and found that it was badly smashed in some places but in others it was still intact. They also reported that the garrison of the Hindenburg Line was very strong and that there were no signs of probable evacuation. They reported that there was considerable enemy movement in front of his own lines in the shape of strong patrols.

Although that particular patrol was described as an ‘officers’ patrol’, several ‘other ranks’ participated. As a battalion scout, it is possible that Martin O’Meara participated in this patrol, or one of the other similar patrols described earlier. He was certainly involved in some action on 9 April 1917 as he wounded in action that day with wounds to his face. He was evacuated to the Australian 4th Field Ambulance which had been operating just west of Bapaume but had recently moved and established a dressing station some three kilometres north-east, near the village of Favreuil, at 9.00am on 8 April. Favreuil was located some nine kilometres from the village of Bullecourt. Interestingly, the medical staff of the 4th Field Ambulance at this time included Major James Bentley, who Martin O’Meara would later encounter as a civilian medical officer at the Claremont Mental Hospital in Perth, after his return to Western Australia in 1918.