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.

Private Frederick Tremlett’s diary mentions O’Meara

It was a great privilege the other day to read through the pages of the diary kept by the 16th Battalion’s Private Frederick Tremlett during his First World War Service. The diary came to light when an elderly relative of Tremlett passed away recently.

Frederick Tremlett was a scout and worked closely with Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War.

Tremlett mentions O’Meara in the diary a couple of times.

Of most interest is the entry of 11 August 1918 in which Tremlett, O’Meara and another soldier bury a soldier called Morgan.

Private Arthur Morgan of the 16th Battalion scouts was killed in action on the afternoon of 8 August 1918, as told in my biography of O’Meara. Morgan was originally buried at Morcourt  by his mates but was reinterred at the Heath War Cemetery after the war.

Arthur Morgan had been awarded the Military Medal earlier in 1918.

Martin O’Meara VC’s condition improves … for a while.

The treatment of returned servicemen in Western Australia’s mental health system was a topic of some discussion during the early 1902s. An army hospital, ‘Stromness’ at Mosman Park, housed some of the men but more severe cases were accommodated at the Claremont Mental Hospital.

In early 1924, following lobbying by the RSL together with critical coverage in several Perth newspapers, the returned servicemen at Claremont were moved from the main wards to another ward (known as X Block) on the hospital campus.

This group of men included Sgt Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War.

On 19 May 1924 representatives of the RSL visited the men at X Block and reported that had been an improvement in the men’s conditions since the move; they also made specific reference to Martin O’Meara’s condition:

We are glad to report that the improvement in certain individual cases has been excellent … a V.C. hero, who before the R.S.L. took action to have the change brought about was deemed to be in a hopeless condition and was addicted to violent outbreaks, is now enjoying the limit of freedom, and spends most of his days in the open grounds tending a garden. It is hoped that he will soon regain the full vigour of his health and be well enough to return home. (Daily News, 26 May 1924, p.2.)

O’Meara, however, did not return home; he was to spend more than ten more years in mental hospitals in Perth, at Claremont, and then at the newly-built Lemnos Hospital, and then back to Claremont in late 1935. He passed away at Claremont in December 1935 and was buried at the nearby Karrakatta Cemetery. His Victoria Cross medal is held by the Army Museum of Western Australia at Fremantle.

Martin O’Meara’s story is told in a biography, published in 2016.

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.


Remembering the Irish ANZACs

It was good to see the Irish tricolour flying proudly at Perth’s Kings Park the other day, when Irish Minister of State in the Department of Justice and Equality, David Stanton TD, visited the park.

Minister Stanton was in Perth for a short visit that included laying wreaths at Western Australia’s State War Memorial. He laid two wreaths: one at the Flame of Remembrance and another at a nearby memorial plaque for Martin O’Meara VC, Australia’s only Irish-born Victoria Cross recipient of the First World War. It was also good to have the Commanding Officer and the Regimental Sergeant Major of the 16th Battalion, the Royal Western Australian Regiment (16RWAR), attend the wreath laying. That battalion is the direct descendent of the 16th Infantry Battalion with which O’Meara served between 1915-1918.

Martin O’Meara, a Tipperaryman, was one of an estimated 6,000 Irish-born enlistees in the Australian forces during that war. A useful database of Irish-born Australian serviceman is hosted by the University of Sydney.

I was also privileged to meet Minister Stanton whilst he was here in Perth, and to present him with a copy of my biography of Martin O’Meara VC.