Victoria Cross : Lieutenant L D McCarthy, 16 Battalion, AIF

Place Europe: France, Picardie, Somme, Peronne
Accession Number REL/02518.001
Collection type Heraldry
Object type Award
Physical description Bronze
Location Main Bld: Hall of Valour: Main Hall: Somme Advance 1918
Maker Hancocks
Place made United Kingdom: England, Greater London
Date made c 1919
Conflict First World War, 1914-1918

Victoria Cross. Engraved reverse suspender with recipient's details and reverse cross with date of action.

History / Summary

Lawrence Dominic 'Fat' McCarthy was born at York, east of Perth, Western Australia probably in 1892, although the exact date of his birth is unclear. The son of Florence and Anne (nee Sherry) McCarthy, he was placed in at the Catholic Clontarf Orphanage in Perth after his mother died in 1898. McCarthy had a Catholic school education followed by four years farming under the tutelage of a Mr John White at Jennacubbine, north of Northam. He served for two and a half years in the 18th Light Horse Regiment (Western Australian Mounted Infantry). Before the outbreak of the First World War, he was working as a contractor at Lion Mill, later renamed Mt Helena.

McCarthy enlisted in the AIF 16 October 1914 at Black Boy Hill Camp on the outskirts of Perth. He was posted to the newly formed 16 Battalion (Bn), part of 4 Brigade (Bde) as private 422 in 'C' Company. Before long, his large physique earned him the nickname 'Fat'. The battalion embarked for Egypt from Melbourne on HMAT A40 Ceramic on 22 December 1914 and arrived at Alexandria on 3 February 1915.

Following training 16 Bn landed on Gallipoli late on 25 April. For the next five days the battalion was charged with holding Pope's Hill against determined enemy attacks. The day after landing the battalion's machine guns were destroyed by 'hostile fire', but were replaced the next day. The defence of Pope's Hill cost the battalion dearly before they were relieved on 30 April and moved to a rest camp in Monash Valley.

Here there was little respite as the position came under constant enemy sniper fire from Dead Man's Ridge. The two days of 'rest' at the camp cost the battalion a further 50 casualties. On 2 May the brigade took part in the assault on Baby 700, a commanding position held by the Turks, which overlooked Australian positions in Monash Valley. The battalion was tasked to take the Bloody Angle, the ridge above the right hand gully at the head of Monash Valley, between Pope's Hill and Quinn's Post.

At 6.30 pm on 2 May, the battalion moved up the valley close to Quinn's Post. A supporting naval bombardment initially prevented any serious Turkish defence, However, as the battalion neared the top of the ridge they were met with intense enemy fire. By mid-afternoon the following day it was clear that the attack had failed, at great cost. Two days after landing on Gallipoli the battalion had a fighting strength of 29 officers and 966 other ranks; by the evening of May 4 this had been reduced to 9 officers and 298 other ranks. McCarthy survived the assault on the Bloody Angle and was promoted to lance corporal on May 15, and then to corporal on 19 July.

Between 6 and 8 August, 4 Bde took part in the attack on Hill 971. In the early hours of the 8th, a concerted effort was made for the summit. The attack was another costly failure. The difficulty of the terrain was largely underestimated, made worse by geographical planning errors. At one stage the left flank of the brigade was left entirely exposed where, historian Charles Bean notes, 'only severe fighting by the 16th Australian Battalion kept [the enemy] from enveloping the rear of the column.' By the time the Australians were ordered to withdraw, the brigade had suffered over 760 casualties in what Bean recounts as 'one of those "black days" which most deeply affect the spirits of soldiers.' 16 Bn alone lost 118 officers and men.

On 1 September, McCarthy was promoted to sergeant though general debility caused his evacuation to Egypt nine days later and he did not rejoin his unit at Gallipoli until 13 November.

After the evacuation of Gallipoli in December the brigade moved to Egypt for rest and further training while the AIF was reorganised and expanded. On 1 June 16 Bn embarked for service in France on the Western Front.

Early in August the battalion was moved up the line near Albert to take part in the advance on Mouquet Farm, following the capture of Pozieres the previous month. This first action by 16 Bn in France began at midnight on 10 August. Following initial gains a German counter attack was launched early in the afternoon of the 11th, though it faltered under a determined defence by the battalion. By the time the battalion was relieved at 4 pm the following day it had suffered over 400 casualties and Mouquet Farm remained in German hands.

Later in August the battalion was again put in the front line for a further assault on Mouquet Farm. By now heavy rain had turned the landscape into a quagmire. A company report in the war diary of 16 Bn notes that after initial successes they were forced to retire in the face of German counter attacks. The report notes that ‘only about 5% of rifles could be fired at this stage, the ballance [sic] being clogged with mud and quite useless, Machine Guns were in a similar state.’ The battalion was finally relieved on August 30 with this second phase of operations costing it 231 casualties. Mouquet Farm finally fell on 26 September.

In January 1917, McCarthy was awarded the French Croix de Guerre for his services on Gallipoli and in France. He was promoted to company sergeant major on 8 March. On 2 April he suffered a gunshot wound to the left arm in fighting near Bullecourt and was evacuated to England for treatment. McCarthy did not rejoin his unit until 9 July. While in England he undertook officer training and was commissioned a 2nd lieutenant. He was promoted to lieutenant on 31 October.

In January 1918 McCarthy was seconded to the 13th Training Battalion. This was followed by a period at Tidworth, England where he attended a Lewis Gun Course at the Australian School of Musketry. He rejoined his unit on 8 August in time to take part in the Battle of Amiens. So decisive was the Allied victory in the battle that the German commander General Eric Von Ludendorff labelled it 'der schwarze tag' or 'the black day' of the war for the German army.

Later in August 4 Bde was again engaged in pushing the line forward. The thrust between 21 to 30 August toward Peronne by the Allied Third and Fourth Armies was, according to Field Marshal Sir Douglas Haig, 'a step forward to the strategic objective St. Quentin-Cambrai...'. The main thrust was by the Third, and elements of the Fourth Army to the north of the Somme, while the remainder of the Fourth, including 4 Bde, covered the flank of the main assault, south of the river.

On 23 August 4 Bde was placed on the right flank of the push, assisting the British 32nd Division and the Australian 1st Division in the capture of the line Herleville-Chuignes-Square Wood. 16 Bn, on the right flank of the 16th Lancashire Fusiliers, was charged to take Courtine Trench, near Madame Wood, west of the village of Vermandovillers. The opening barrage began at 4.45am and the troops surged forward. Although 16 Bn was detailed to move over 700 yards (640 metres) of ground 'thickly criss-crossed with enemy trenches', it reached its objective with little resistance.

Once in the trench, however, stiff resistance was met when a bombing party from D Company moved along it in an attempt to link up with the Fusiliers. After an hour of trying to dislodge the Germans from behind wire barricades either side of an 'island' formed where the trench split and remerged, the party's leader, Lieutenant Garret, withdrew to obtain more bombs (hand grenades) only to find that the supplies were almost exhausted. Several enemy machine gun strong posts could be seen covering a long section of the trench, including one on the earth obstruction. McCarthy, D Company's commander, decided to charge the emplacements himself and, together with Sergeant Frederick Robbins, tunnelled through the 'island' and engaged the enemy, to devastating effect.

By the time McCarthy and Robbins had finished accounting for any opposition and had linked up to the Fusiliers’ flank, they had gained over 500 yards (450 metres) of trench, captured five machine guns and taken 50 German prisoners. McCarthy alone accounted for over 20 more and was instrumental in the success of the action. Historian Charles Bean credits McCarthy's achievement as, next to Albert Jacka's exploits at Pozieres, 'perhaps the most effective feat of individual fighting in the history of the A.I.F.'. For his actions in the taking of the trench, McCarthy was awarded the Victoria Cross. For his part in the same action Robbins was awarded a Distinguished Conduct Medal. The recommendation for McCarthy's award reads:

'This officer is especially brought to notice for his wonderful gallantry, initiative, and leadership on the morning of the August 23rd, 1918, when an attack was being made near Madame Wood, west of Vermandovillers (north of Chaulnes). The objectives of this battalion were obtained without serious opposition. The battalion on the left flank was less fortunate. Here several well-posted machine-gun posts were holding up the attack and heavy fire was being brought to bear on our left flank. When Lieut. McCarthy realised the situation he at once engaged the nearest machine-gun post; but still the attacking troops failed to get forward. This officer then determined to attack the nearer post. Leaving his men to continue the fire fight, he, with two others, dashed across the open and dropped into a disused trench which had been blocked. One of his two men was killed whilst doing this. He was now right under the block over which the enemy machine-gun was firing. The presence of head cover prevented the use of bombs. He therefore tunnelled a hole through the bottom of the block, through which he inserted his head and one arm. He at once shot dead the two men firing the gun. He then crawled through the hole he had made, and by himself charged down the trench. He threw his limited number of Mills bombs among the German garrison and inflicted some more casualties. He then came in contact with two German officers, who fired on him with their revolvers. One of these he shot dead with his revolver, the other he seriously wounded. He then charged down the trench using his revolver and throwing enemy stick bombs, and captured three more enemy machine-guns. At this stage, some seven hundred yards from his starting point, he was joined by the non-commissioned officer whom he had outdistanced when he crawled through the hole in the trench block mentioned above. Together they continued to bomb up the trench, until touch was established with the Lancashire Fusiliers, and in the meanwhile yet another machine-gun had been captured. A total of five machine-guns and 50 prisoners (37 unwounded and 13 wounded) was captured, while Lieut. McCarthy during his most amazing and daring feat had, single-handed, killed 20 of the enemy. Having cleared up a dangerous situation, he proceeded to establish a garrison in the line. Whilst doing this he saw a number of the enemy getting away from neighbouring trenches. He at once seized a Lewis gun and inflicted further casualties on them. The determined and daring conduct of this gallant officer saved a critical situation, prevented many casualties, and was mainly, if not entirely, responsible for the final objective being taken.'

The final citation, when gazetted, incorrectly placed Madame Wood to the east of Vermandovillers. 16 Bn historian, Captain C Longmore, noted that the action was met with the most extraordinary reaction from McCarthy's prisoners. Far from further resistance, the Germans actually congratulated him on his feat. Following on from the reports of the incident, sections of the media dubbed the award a 'super VC.' His own view of the action was more reserved. Responding to the congratulations of a fellow officer McCarthy reportedly remarked; 'Oh, it was nothing. I jumped into a trench and got the fright of my life when I found that it was full of Fritzies.'

In November he became ill and was hospitalised, rejoining his unit on 7 January 1919. Five days later he went to England on leave where he married Florence Minnie Norville in Somerset on the 25th. McCarthy was invested with his VC by King George V at Buckingham Palace on 12 July. That same year the London Times released Volume XIX of its comprehensive history of the war. Of the Australians it notes; 'Nothing could exceed the daring and initiative of these oversea soldiers...' Contained within the volume is reference to McCarthy's actions which 'were of the bravest and most resolute description, and they were conspicuous even amongst the many extraordinary single-handed exploits of the war.'

McCarthy embarked on HT Runic for Australia on 20 December, arriving in Fremantle on 29 January 1920, and was discharged on 6 August. The couple settled in Western Australia moving, in 1926, to Victoria where he worked for H. V. McKay Pty Ltd, makers of the 'Sunshine' harvester. The firm took pride in the fact that they employed three VC winners in 1931; McCarthy, Walter 'Wally' Peeler (Broodseinde Ridge, 4 October 1917) and Thomas Axford (Hamel, 4 July 1918).

In 1934, due to the Depression, the firm was forced to shed jobs and McCarthy was laid off. The following year he was employed by the Trustees, Executors and Agency Co. Ltd. in Melbourne, remaining with the company until he retired. In 1956 he attended the centenary celebrations for the VC in London and nine years later travelled to Gallipoli for the fiftieth anniversary of the Anzac landing.

McCarthy died at the Heidelberg Repatriation Hospital in Melbourne on 25 May 1975. He was survived by his wife. Their only child, Lawrence Norville McCarthy, had been killed on 20 May 1945 in Bougainville while serving as a lance sergeant with 24 Militia Battalion.

McCarthy's medal group came into the National Collection in 1975.