On this day in 1916 and 1917

Martin O’Meara, Australia’s only Irish born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War was wounded in action three times in 1916 and 1917, with two of those occurrences being serious enough to require evacuation to England and subsequent hospitalisation.

Both evacuations occurred on 18 August, firstly on 18 August 1916 after he was wounded near Pozieres on 12 August 1916, and secondly on 18 August 1917 after being wounded near Messines.

He returned to the Western Front following both evacuations, and returned to Western Australia in November 1918.

Sadly, he suffered a serious mental breakdown from which he never recovered and died in Perth in December 1935. He story is told in biography The most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen, which was published in 2016.

Martin O’Meara VC starts rescuing the wounded…

Martin O’Meara, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, started to rescue wounded men from No Man’s Land near Pozières on 9 August 1916.

O’Meara was a scout with the 16th Battalion, and was patrolling No Man’s Land in the early hours of 9 August 1916, following a disastrous attack on German positions by the 15th Battalion the previous night, when he encountered many seriously wounded Australian (from the 15th Battalion)  and British (from the Suffolk Regiment) men. He was able to removed a number of them to safety during the course of the day. The 16th Battalion attacked the same German positions that evening, with better results.

O’Meara remained with the 16th Battalion in the front line until 12 August 1916 when the unit was withdrawn, and was himself wounded on 12 August 1916.

On 8 September 1916, whilst he was recovering in hospital in London, the announcement was made that  O’Meara had been awarded the Victoria Cross for his actions the previous month:

HIS MAJESTY THE King has been graciously pleased to award the Victoria Cross to the undermentioned soldier:-

No. 3970 Private MARTIN O’MEARA

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 this time. He showed throughout an utter contempt of danger, and undoubtedly saved many lives.

O’Meara returned to Australia in November 1918, but suffered a serious mental breakdown and spent the rest of his life in several mental hospitals in Perth. He died in 1935.

Martin O’Meara’s story is told in The Most Fearless and Gallant Soldier I Have Ever Seen, published in 2016.

Six Australians presented with VC medals at Buckingham Palace

On 21 July 1917, in the forecourt outside Buckingham Palace, King George V presented six Australian Victoria Cross recipients with their medals. The Australians were Captain James Newland (12th Battalion), Sergeant John Whittle (12th Battalion), Corporal George Howell (1st Battalion), Private Jorgen Jensen (50th Battalion), Private Bede Kenny (2nd Battalion) and Private Martin O’Meara (16th Battalion).

Martin O’Meara VC at Buckingham Palace.

The King also presented a number of  Victoria Crosses to non-Australian recipients.

The presentation ceremony started at 11.00am and lasted nearly one and a half hours, with the Times newspaper reporting that:

Each man’s name was called singly, and Colonel Clive Wigram read a summary of the record of services for which the V.C. was awarded. Perfect silence was maintained until the King had actually pinned on each decoration, shaken hands with the recipient, and said a few congratulatory words.

A couple of years ago , whilst researching my biography of Martin O’Meara VC, I stumbled across some old footage of him getting his VC from the King. Click here to have a look. O’Meara appears at about the 21 second mark.

 

 

 

 

 

Biography of Martin O’Meara VC now on sale at discounted price

We’re getting close to the 100th anniversary of Martin O’Meara VC’s presentation with his Victoria Cross medal by King George V at Buckingham Palace in London. O’Meara was presented with his medal on 21 July 1917.

He was Australian’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War, and received the award for bravery at Pozieres in August 1916. Born in Lorrha, County Tipperary, O’Meara travelled to Australia before the First World War. He enlisted at Collie, Western Australia, in 1915, and joined the 16th Infantry Battalion after training at Blackboy Hill near Perth.

O’Meara returned to Western Australia in November 1918 but suffered a serious mental breakdown shortly after his arrival. He spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals in Perth and died in December 1935. He is buried at Perth’s Karrakatta Cemetery,

To commemorate this anniversary I’ve taken 20% off the price of The most fearless and gallant soldier I have ever seen, my biography of Martin O’Meara VC.

Click here to purchase the book. 

It will be available at the discounted price until 21 July 2017.

 

The ‘Gallipoli Sniper’ gets married in 1917

Private Billy Sing, the ‘Gallipoli Sniper’, married Elizabeth Addison Stewart on this day in Edinburgh, Scotland, in 1917. Billy was on leave from hospital in England when he visited Edinburgh and met Elizabeth, who was described on the marriage certificate as a ‘restaurant waitress’.

Billy returned to his unit, the 31st Infantry Battalion, shortly after the wedding and spent much of 1917 and 1918 on the Western Front. He returned to Australia in 1918 and took up land in central Queensland.

Elizabeth Sing remained in Edinburgh and subsequently had two children (a girl in 1919 and a boy in 1923), neither fathered by her husband. Travelling under a different name, she brought her children to Sydney in 1925 and died in Sydney in 1977 having spent her time in Australia living with (but not married to) an Australian merchant seaman who she’d met in Edinburgh in the early 1920s.

Sadly, Billy Sing had died in Brisbane in 1943.

Billy Sing’s story (but excluding material on Elizabeth’s fate after 1918) is told in John Hamilton’s biography Gallipoli Sniper.

 

The 16th Battalion’s first Western Front death

The Australian 16th Battalion lost only one man during June 1916 when, on 23 June 1916, a very heavy thunderstorm passed over the area occupied by the battalion in northern France and a lightning strike killed Private Alfred Brooke.  Several other men were injured.

Brooke was buried at Erquinghem, a nearby town, on 24 June 1916. He was the first member of the 16th Battalion to die on the Western Front during the war.

Alfred Brooke was originally from New Zealand but had been living at Fremantle, Western Australia, when he enlisted. Efforts to track down his family history have been unsuccessful.

Where’s Mrs Sing? An update on the lost wife of the ‘Gallipoli Sniper’

An interest in any sort of history is an invitation to be distracted by things we encounter, and I was  distracted a few years ago after reading John Hamilton’s biography of Australia’s ‘Gallipoli Sniper’, Billy Sing (published by Pan Macmillan). A Queenslander of English and Chinese descent, Billy Sing was probably Australia’s most famous and successful snipers of the Gallipoli campaign.

As told by Hamilton and others Sing had married Elizabeth Stewart (see picture below) in Scotland in 1917 but the ultimate fate of his war bride was unknown. Some accounts suggest that she travelled back to Australia to be with him whilst other accounts suggest that she never left Scotland.

Not one to be deterred from a mystery, I got distracted and started looking for Mrs Elizabeth Sing. And I reckon I’ve tracked her down.

She didn’t travel to Australia to be with Billy. Elizabeth Sing fell pregnant to another man (whose identity is unknown) in Edinburgh at the same time that her husband was making arrangements for her to sail to Australia to be with him. She gave birth to a daughter in Scotland in September 1919 listing Billy as the father on the hospital records (although this was impossible as he’d left Britain more than a year earlier).

She remained in Scotland and fell pregnant, again. A son was born in May 1923. Although hospital information provided by Elizabeth suggest that Billy was the father, this was not possible as he had been in Queensland since late 1918 and she had remained in Scotland. It is possible that the father of the boy was a Maryborough (Queensland) born merchant seaman of Swedish descent, although I need to check shipping records more throughly to see if he was near Elizabeth around nine months before the son was born. It seems as though she may have lived in the London docks area just before coming to Australia.

In 1925 Elizabeth and her children moved from Scotland to Australia (she travelled under a third surname, neither Sing nor the seaman’s surname) and she lived with the above-mentioned Australian seaman in Sydney. Still married to Billy, she assumed the seaman’s surname (as did the children) and they lived as if they were married.

Both of Elizabeth’s children married and themselves had children, and descendants live in Wollongong, Sydney, and further afield. The descendants that I’ve managed to track down and engage are, sadly, not interested in the connection with Billy Sing nor Elizabeth’s Sing’s Scottish background.

Elizabeth and her de facto husband died in New South Wales during the 1970s and Elizabeth’s son and daughter died within the last decade or so. Billy Sing himself died in Brisbane in 1943.

It seems that the mystery of Mrs Sing is close to being solved.