MARTIN O’MEARA, A Tipperary man who had enlisted in Perth, was awarded the Victoria Cross (VC) for carrying both wounded comrades and ammunition under shellfire at Pozières in August 1916. In 1919, he returned to Perth with three wounds and sergeant’s stripes. The 1963 reference work They Dared Mightily coyly notes that soon after the war ‘his health broke down completely’. What it did not reveal was that O’Meara also returned with ‘delusional insanity, with hallucinations…extremely homicidal and suicidal’. Committed to the insane ward at Claremont repatriation hospital, where he was usually held ‘in restraint’, he died in 1935, his sanity destroyed by the war. By then, another Western Australian VC, Hugo Throssell, had taken his own life in 1933. ‘My old war head is going phut,’ he confided to friends. Curiously, neither O’Meara’s nor Throssell’s trauma seem to attract much attention in the slew of books extolling VC heroes that have appeared in increasing numbers in recent years.
During the Crimean War (1854–56), Queen Victoria expressed a desire to recognise exceptional deeds in some tangible form. Previously, bravery had been recognised, if at all, inconsistently – by promotion, monetary reward or mere praise. Instituting a reward ‘For Valour’ – as the medal was inscribed – standardised the record of heroism: a classic Victorian device combining high notions of heroism with bureaucratic documentation.
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