The Pozieres Victoria Crosses

10 August 2016 by Craig Blanch

Twenty three thousand Australian casualties, over six and a half thousand dead. That was the cost to capture Pozieres and nearby Mouquet Farm over 7 bloody weeks in 1916. Now, one hundred years on, we can still wonder at the courage of people like British born John Leak, South Australian Arthur Blackburn, New Zealander Tom Cooke, Englishman Claud Castleton and Ireland’s Martin O’Meara. From across the British Empire they called Australia home. Of the five, two returned home, one was killed but lost in the soil he fought to defend, one is buried in a nearby British Cemetery, and one was claimed by the war 17 years after it ended.

This is the story of the lives of these men who won the Victoria Cross in an area noted by historian Charles Bean as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.

* * * * * * *

John Leak was Queensland’s first Victoria Cross winner. Unlike many VC recipients who were lifted from obscurity as their lives were scrutinized by historians, much of Leak’s pre-war history remains elusive. He was possibly the son of a miner, possibly born in Portsmouth England, possibly in the year 1892 and he might have had a brother in Canada. Hazy beginnings aside, Leak was a teamster from Clermont in Queensland when he enlisted at Rockhampton in January 1915.

On 23 July 1916 while Leak’s 9th Battalion was pushing forward they met heavy resistance from an enemy bombing position supported by two machine guns. The enemy bombs (grenades) outranged the Australian’s, keeping them in check. It was here that Leak leapt out of the trench and, ignoring the enemy machine gun fire charged the position and flung three bombs into the post. He then jumped into the enemy post and bayoneted the remaining resistance.

Counter attacks followed that drove the Australians back. During this period Leak covered the staged withdrawal with such aggression that the trench was retaken soon after reinforcements arrived. It was for this action that he was awarded the Victoria Cross.

During fighting at nearby Mouquet Farm on 21 August, Leak was severely wounded and evacuated to England. He returned to his unit in October 1917 but was gassed in March 1918, effectively ending his active service. He married Beatrice May Chapman prior to his return to Australia in 1919 but little more is known of this short lived union. He worked for a time in Queensland after the war before moving to New South Wales, South Australia then Western Australia.  

In 1927 he married Ada Victoria Bood-Smith in Coolgardie, Western Australia. This marriage lasted the test of time. Life after the war had its challenges for this quietly spoken veteran but he and Ada made a formidable couple. In the harsh South Australian outback in July 1927, where John and Ada were working as well borers, their first child Ada was born. Sadly she died just 7 months later. 

They eventually retired to Crafers in South Australia. Leak’s health began to deteriorate in the final decade of his life. On 27 September 1964, emotion overcame him when he learned that his wife of almost 40 years had died on the train after visiting him in hospital. He followed her on 20 October 1972. They were survived by seven of their children.

* * * * * * *

 

A young Arthur Blackburn, seated front left, with members of 10 Battalion prior to leaving Australia in 1914.

When the 68 year old Arthur Seaforth Blackburn died of cancer on 24 November 1960, it was an ill-deserved end to a truly remarkable life. Few writers could have imagined a life such as Blackburn’s as anything other than fiction.

He fought at the very front in two world wars and made his mark in both. Just 20 years before his death Blackburn, then 47 years old, raised a Second World War machine gun battalion, fought with distinction in Syria and, as the senior ranking British officer, accepted the surrender of the Vichy Forces on the fall of Damascus. 

He was then rushed to Java and with an ill-equipped rag-tag force he blunted the might of the Japanese advance for 3 days before becoming a Prisoner of War. He later gave testimony to the war crimes trials in Japan.

But this was just the finale to a career that began in earnest early on the morning of 25 April 1915 as a 10 Battalion scout. As dawn was breaking he was among the first to storm the beach at Gallipoli. In an observation that can only be described as understated, Blackburn recalled that “the shore came to life in a most unpleasant fashion for bullets starting whizzing in all directions.”

By day’s end he had achieved two rare feats; he had reached his objective at Third Ridge, a point further inland than any known Australian would gain for the entire 8 months of the campaign; and he succeeded in what most commanders throughout the entire campaign could only dream of - he had, albeit briefly, looked down from the heights upon the Turks.

The following year he became known across the nation for his courage, leadership and inspiration when he was awarded the Victoria Cross. At Pozieres he succeeded in the near impossible when he led parties, often across exposed positions while under heavy fire, and captured over 300 metres of heavily defended enemy trench.

When not at war, Blackburn was a fierce advocate for veterans and their families.  

* * * * * * *

Thomas Cooke who was killed when he refused to give up his position in the face of overwhelming force.

New Zealand carpenter Tom Cooke migrated with his family to Australia in 1912. In February 1915 he enlisted into 8 Battalion, AIF and embarked for overseas later that same month. His wife and three children never saw him again.

At Pozieres on 24-25 July 1916, 35 year old Cooke was ordered to take his Lewis gun team to defend recently captured ground. It was a particularly “dangerous part of the line under the heaviest fire” and subject to determined enemy counter-attacks. Left to defend the position on his own when all of his party became casualties he refused to concede. He was found dead at his gun the following morning. As the fighting continued to rage his body was lost and he has no known grave.

His Victoria Cross was presented to his widow by the Governor of New Zealand in 1917.    

* * * * * * *

Claud Charles Castleton died saving his mates

Claud Castleton was fascinated by the world in general. Born in Kirkley England in 1893, the young 19 year old teacher set off for Australia in 1912, eager to explore the geography and nature on the other side of the world. He worked his way from Tasmania, up through the eastern states and continued on to New Guinea in the hope of finding gold to further finance his wanderlust. When war was declared he was put in charge of a small force for coastal defence duties including the protection of a Port Moresby wireless station. He returned to Australia in March 1915, enlisted in the AIF and served on Gallipoli with 18 Battalion.

By Pozieres he was with 5 Machine Gun Battalion and already admired among his men as an inspirational leader. On 28 July 1916, after a failed attack on the town, the Australians withdrew leaving many wounded behind. Unable to sit in the trenches listening to the cries for help from no man’s land, Castleton went out under heavy fire to rescue his mates and brought two to safety.

A letter to Claud’s father explains his final moments. “Amidst shrapnel and heavy machine gun fire, rifle fire and gas, he leaped out, and had rescued two wounded men, and was in the act of bringing in the third when, to our sorrow, he was hit by either rifle or machine gun fire. First aid men went to his assistance immediately, but could do no good; he had done his last”.[1]

He is buried in the Pozieres British Cemetery at Ovillers-la-Boiselle.

* * * * * * *

Martin O’Meara

 

Thirty two year old Martin O’Meara migrated from County Tipperary to Australia in 1911. He was a sleeper cutter in Western Australia when he enlisted in the AIF in August 1915 and was posted to 16 Battalion. He arrived in France on 9 June 1916, two months before the battalion’s first major engagement at Pozieres.

By 8 August 1916 the fighting at Pozieres had moved to nearby Mouquet Farm and 16 Battalion was ordered into the fight for the first time. Over four days between 9 and 12 August under the most intense fire O’Meara repeatedly went into no man’s land to retrieve wounded Australians. On a number of occasions he carried badly needed supplies forward under shell fire and sought out wounded on his return.

On one occasion he was seen leaving the trench to move across an area heavily shelled by enemy artillery and covered by three enemy machine guns to retrieve a wounded comrade. This was just one deed among many over those few days for which he was awarded the Victoria Cross.   

On the 12th, while the battalion was being relieved, O’Meara was wounded in the abdomen and evacuated to England. By war’s end he had been wounded twice more – a head wound near Noreuil on 9 April 1917 and severe shrapnel wounds on 8 August near Messines. He returned to Australia in November the following year.

The war exacted a terrible price on this courageous man. Soon after returning, his mental health broke down completely and he was committed into permanent care. He eventually died at the Claremont Asylum, plagued by voices, on 20 December 1935.  His death was officially accepted as war related.

 

[1] Letter quoted in Steve Snelling ‘In Search of Claud’, Eastern Daily Press, Saturday July 1 2006 (Sunday supplement) pp. 10-11