It’s August 23, 1918, and World War One 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 in York, Western Australia, on January 21, 1892, Lawrence Dominic McCarthy’s parents were father Florence, originally of Cork, Ireland, and mother Anne. Sadly his mother died when McCarthy was three, his father deserted him, and he 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. He also spent two-and-a-half years with an Australian Army Reserve unit, the 18th Light Horse. Subsequently, he moved to Lion Mill near Perth, where he worked at a timber mill.
He was employed at the mill cutting railroad ties for Western Australian Railways. In a nasty accident at the sawmill, McCarthy lost three fingers from his left hand. And he was working at the timber mill when WWI broke out.
When the U.K. and Germany went to war on August 4, 1914, Australia enthusiastically joined the British cause. And the young McCarthy was as keen as anyone to have a go at the Germans. But the Australian armed forces rebuffed him on his first try at joining them. They judged the injuries to his 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 he’d not only taken part in various sharpshooting contests but that he’d won them. This was enough to convince the military authorities to allow him to enlist.
This he duly did in October 1914, joining a new unit, the 16th Battalion, at Blackboy Hill Camp. McCarthy’s generous build led to him being known as “Fats” by his buddies. After training, Private McCarthy and his comrades sailed to Egypt in December 1914.
This posting to Egypt was in preparation for one of the major operations of WWI, the invasion of the Gallipoli Peninsula, part of modern-day Turkey. Then, it was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, an ally of Germany’s during WWI. British and Australian troops were to make a landing at Gallipoli with the plan being to take Constantinople, now Istanbul.
As well as British and Australian troops, the invasion force included soldiers from New Zealand and France. McCarthy’s unit landed on the Gallipoli coast on day two of the campaign, April 26, 1915. The campaign was not a success for the allies.
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 he recovered and returned to Gallipoli. He was there when the Allied withdrawal began in earnest in December and was one of the last of his unit to depart for Egypt on December 20.
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. 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, McCarthy fought in the Battle of Mouquet Farm, another hard-fought engagement with heavy casualties. In 1917 McCarthy now received further promotions, first to company sergeant major in March and then to a commission as a second lieutenant in April.
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 and was then evacuated to England. He spent three months there recovering from his wounds.
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 England as an instructor at the military base in Tidworth in southern England.
McCarthy might have remained in safely in England for the duration of the war. But instead, in early August 2018 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.
The 16th Battalion was pinned down by accurate fire from well-entrenched German machine gun posts. McCarthy decided to take matters into his own hands. With two comrades, he dashed across an open field towards one of the machine guns. Arriving first, he overcame the machine gunners, putting them out of operation.
He now battled his way along the trench adjoining the machine gun position, accompanied by one man from his battalion. They used hand grenades to clear the trench until they reached the safety of another Allied unit. 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. Back in London, McCarthy took time out to marry Florence Neville, whom he’d met while recovering from his wounds in England. The two settled in Australia in 1920. Dominic McCarthy died in 1975 aged 83 and was afforded full military honors at his funeral.