It’s August 23, 1918, and World War I rumbles on, still months from its conclusion. Lieutenant Dominic McCarthy and his men of the First Australian Imperial Force are pinned down by deadly German machine gun fire. Unless somebody comes up with an extraordinary feat of arms, the situation looks exceptionally dire.
Born to Irish parents in York, Western Australia, on January 21, 1892, Lawrence Dominic McCarthy didn’t have the best of starts in life. Sadly, McCarthy’s mother, Anne, died when he was just three, and his father, Florence, deserted him. This meant that McCarthy spent the rest of his childhood at Catholic orphanages and schools in Subiaco and Perth, both in Western Australia.
When he turned 13, McCarthy went to work on a farm at Jennacubbine, a village near the town of Northam, Western Australia. The orphaned teenager also spent two and a half years with an Australian Army Reserve unit called the 18th Light Horse. And subsequently, McCarthy moved to Lion Mill near Perth, where he worked at a timber mill.
At the mill, McCarthy was employed cutting railroad ties for Western Australian Railways. But in a nasty accident at the sawmill, McCarthy lost three fingers from his left hand. However, he was working at the timber mill when WWI broke out.
Now, when the U.K. and Germany went to war on August 4, 1914, Australia enthusiastically joined the British cause. And the young McCarthy was certainly eager to have a go at the Germans. Unhappily for the young man, though, the Australian armed forces rebuffed him on his first try at joining them. You see, the powers that be judged the injuries to McCarthy’s left hand to be too severe for active service.
But McCarthy would not take this rejection lying down. He went back to the recruiters, this time with proof that not only had he taken part in various sharpshooting contests, but he’d won them too. This, then, was enough to convince the military authorities to allow him to enlist.
And McCarthy duly did just that in October 1914, joining a new unit – the 16th Battalion – at Blackboy Hill Camp. There, McCarthy’s generous build led to him being known as “Fats” by his buddies. Then, after training was complete, Private McCarthy and his comrades sailed to Egypt in December 1914.
This posting in Africa was in preparation for one of the major operations of WWI: the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula – a part of modern-day Turkey. Back then, the area was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, which was an ally of Germany’s during WWI. The Allies’ plan was to take Constantinople – now known as Istanbul – with British and Australian troops landing at Gallipoli.
In fact, as well as containing British and Australian troops, the invasion force included soldiers from New Zealand and France. Subsequently, McCarthy’s unit landed on the Gallipoli coast on day two of the campaign, April 26, 1915. But the campaign was not a success for the Allies.
You see, the Ottoman forces put up a much stronger than expected resistance, and the Allied forces never made it off the peninsula. After some eight months of bitter fighting, the Allies abandoned the campaign, and their soldiers returned defeated to Egypt.
In fact, illness had meant that McCarthy was evacuated back to Egypt in September 1915 – although not before he’d gained a promotion to sergeant. But the Australian soon recovered and returned to Gallipoli. And McCarthy was there when the Allied withdrawal began in earnest in December. What’s more, he was one of the last of his unit to depart for Egypt on December 20.
Then, in June 1916, McCarthy’s 16th Battalion was posted to the Western Front in France, where the horrors of attritional trench warfare were by now well established. McCarthy took part in the Battle of Pozières in August – an action that took place as part of the Battle of the Somme. It was a ferocious fight for the Australians, resulting in some 22,900 casualties. In fact, such was Australia’s loss, the country’s official war historian, Charles Bean, wrote that Pozières “is more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on Earth.”
Also in August, meanwhile, McCarthy fought in the Battle of Mouquet Farm, which was another hard-fought engagement with heavy casualties. And in 1917 McCarthy received further promotions – first to company sergeant major in March and then to a commission as a second lieutenant in April.
But having hitherto escaped unscathed in the fighting, McCarthy was finally wounded the very day after he received his officer’s commission. He was hit at a place called Bullecourt in northern France before then being evacuated to England. McCarthy spent three months on British soil while he recovered from his wounds.
And having returned to health, McCarthy rejoined the 16th Battalion in France on July 9, 1917. In November he was made a full lieutenant and was also given the French Croix de Guerre. Then in February 1918, he was sent back to the British Isles as an instructor at the military base in Tidworth in southern England.
And McCarthy might well have remained in safety in England for the duration of the war. Instead, though, in early August 1918 he returned to his battalion in France to take part in a major Allied attack: the Hundred Days Offensive. And on August 23, McCarthy found himself close to Madam Wood, not far from the northern French town of Vermandovillers.
There, the 16th Battalion was pinned down by accurate fire from well-entrenched German machine gun posts. But the predicament was not enough to stop McCarthy, who decided to take matters into his own hands. Along with two comrades, he dashed across an open field towards one of the machine guns. Arriving first, McCarthy overcame the machine gunners, putting them out of operation.
McCarthy, accompanied by one man from his battalion, now battled his way along the trench adjoining the machine gun position. They used hand grenades to clear the trench until they reached the safety of another Allied unit. After this courageous charge, no fewer than 20 Germans lay dead, another 50 had surrendered, and five machine guns had been knocked out.
For this outstandingly courageous – and effective – feat, McCarthy was awarded Britain’s highest decoration for valor, the Victoria Cross. Even the Germans, it seems, were impressed by McCarthy’s bravery. The Battalion historian later said, “The prisoners closed in on him from all sides… and patted him on the back!”
McCarthy remained in the trenches until fighting ceased on November 11, 1918. Now back in London, McCarthy took time out to marry Florence Neville, whom he’d met while recovering from his wounds in England. In 1920, the two settled in Australia, where they then lived out much of the remainder of their lives. Dominic McCarthy died in 1975 aged 83 and was afforded full military honors at his funeral.