This WWI Soldier Fought So Bravely, Even Captured Enemies Congratulated Him

This WWI Soldier Fought So Bravely, Even Captured Enemies Congratulated Him

Wyatt Redd - September 30, 2017

Every war is full of stories. There are stories of suffering, tragedy, or even just simple twists of fate. Most of all, there are stories of heroism. The horrors of war provide a unique opportunity for feats of individual courage and sacrifice. And the first World War, as one of the most horrific conflicts in history, is no exception. But even among all the tales of courage in the history of WWI, the story of Lawrence “Fats” Dominic McCarthy stands out. Singlehandedly killing twenty Germans and capturing 500 meters of enemy trenches, Mccarthy performed what one historian called “perhaps the most effective feat of individual fighting in the history of the Australian Imperial Force.”

McCarthy was born in Western Australia sometime around 1892. Unfortunately, both of his parents died within a few years of his birth. McCarthy was brought up in foster care and Catholic schools until he was 13 when he left to work as a farmhand. At 16, he lost several fingers on his left hand in a sawmill accident, which just goes to show how hard his early life must have been. Later, McCarthy contributed this hard upbringing with helping him develop the type of character that would later serve him so well in war.

But while McCarthy was making a living in the rough and tumble territory of Western Australia, tensions were rising back in Europe. In 1914, the assassination of Arch Duke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian nationalist provided the spark that set the entire world on fire. The complex system of pre-war alliances among the Great Powers soon pulled the United Kingdom into the war. Like many men in the British Commonwealth territories, McCarthy wanted to serve and tried to enlist in the Australian Imperial Force. However, due to his injured hand, he was quickly rejected on the grounds that he wouldn’t be able to shoot well enough.

This WWI Soldier Fought So Bravely, Even Captured Enemies Congratulated Him
Dominic “Fats” McCarthy. The Avon Valley Advocate

Never one to give up easily, McCarthy returned a few days later with half a dozen trophies he had won in shooting competitions to prove that, even with seven fingers, he could still shoot better than most people. So in October of 1914, McCarthy was enlisted in the AIF and shipped off to Egypt to join the rest of the Australian and New Zealand forces where he was given the nickname “Fats” for his large frame. But little did Fats and the other ANZAC troops know that the operation they were about to take part in would prove to be the bloodiest Allied mistake of the War.

The Gallipoli Campaign was an operation planned by Winston Churchill, who served as the head of the Admiralty at the time. The goal was to force open the Bosphorus straits and seize Istanbul. If successful, the campaign would make it possible to get vital supplies to the Russian Empire and the shock of the blow might even force the ailing Ottoman Empire out of the war. But from the first start, the operation was a complete debacle. And as soon as McCarthy and the men of the AIF hit the beaches, they found themselves trapped in a desperate fight for survival.

This WWI Soldier Fought So Bravely, Even Captured Enemies Congratulated Him
Fighting At Gallipoli. 6th Gurkha Rifles

Gallipoli was a good plan in theory but from the first moments of the attack, when a number of British ships ran into Ottoman mines and sank, the execution was a disaster. The idea was for ANZAC troops to mount amphibious landings and take the heights surrounding the straights. However, at nearly every landing site troops were dropped in the wrong locations and instantly ran against Ottoman machine gun defenses that turned the landing zones into torrents of death. The attack stalled, leaving hundreds of thousands of Allied troops essentially stranded in enemy territory.

That was where McCarthy found himself, trapped in the pocket at Gallipoli. Within a few weeks, the cramped conditions and difficulty of supply lead to outbreaks of disease that killed thousands of men. Even McCarthy was not immune from the danger and finally had to be evacuated in November due to an illness. Within a month, the rest of the AIF would follow and Gallipoli was declared a failure. Back in England, Churchill was forced to shoulder the blame and tearfully resigned, sure that his career was over. But just like McCarthy, the greatest trial of his life still lay ahead.

With the Ottoman front frozen in a stalemate, McCarthy’s unit was redeployed to France to take the line against the German army in what was turning out to be the bloodiest battle in history up to that point, the Battle of the Somme. The Somme began in July 1916 when the Allies, desperate to strike a fatal blow against the Germans, launched a massive offensive near the Somme River in Northern France. And within the first 24 hours of the offensive, there were almost 70,000 Allied casualties. McCarthy soon found himself thrust into this meat grinder at a little town on the front called Pozières.

The battle of Pozières began when the Allied high command needed someone to take the heights surrounding the town, which would give them a commanding view of the German position nearby. And it was McCarthy’s unit that got the nod. So in the early hours of July 1st, McCarthy, by now promoted to Sergeant, led his men through the gloom towards the heavily fortified German lines. The bugle sounded and the ANZAC troops hurled themselves against the German trenches. The fighting was intensely bloody as the men braved fields of machine-gun fire and barbed wire.

The men of the A.I.F began to fall in huge numbers. But rather than withdrawal, McCarthy led his men into near-suicidal attacks onto the German trenches. Tur The Australians even broke through German defenses twice but were driven out by fierce German counter-attacks both times with heavy losses. Finally, the troops managed to capture the city after an intense shell barrage that reduced it to rubble. But now the Australians were in an even worse position. Pozières was the only position on the entire line at the Somme where the Allies had gained ground at all. And the Germans were now determined to push them out at all costs.

This WWI Soldier Fought So Bravely, Even Captured Enemies Congratulated Him
British Troops at the Somme. History In An Hour

Turning their guns on the city, the Germans subjected McCarthy and his troops to some of the worst artillery bombardment that any Australian unit had ever faced. It was so fierce that one of the routes through the city soon got the nickname, “the street of death.” Over the next few weeks, the German army began a pattern where they would subject the city to a hellish artillery barrage and then mount a massive counter-attack. But through it all, the Australians managed to hold the city, though not without cost. Of the 23,000 men who had taken the city, over 5,000 were now dead. It was an event that motivated one historian to describe the ridge around the city as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth.”

For his unwavering courage and leadership during the fighting, McCarthy was eventually promoted to Second Lieutenant. He served in that role for the rest of the war, fighting in dozens of engagements across the front. One day, in August 1918, McCarthy found himself in the Madam Woods of France. There he received orders to lead his battalion in an assault on German positions. McCarthy and his men advanced through the woods, knocking out German machine guns and seizing trenches. Though McCarthy’s battalion managed to capture his objectives, he soon got word that another Australian battalion was pinned down under heavy machine gunfire.

McCarthy chose three men to follow and took off towards the German guns. For a guy with the nickname “Fats,” McCarthy was surprisingly fast and soon outpaced his companions. Alone, McCarthy leaped into the German trenches. Finding himself facing the German machine-gun position that was holding up the Australian advance, McCarthy attacked, lobbing grenade after grenade into the position until a blood-soaked handkerchief emerged, signaling the enemy wanted to surrender. In quick succession, McCarthy destroyed three more machine gun nests with a combination of hand grenades and sheer audacity.

When he reached the third machine gun, McCarthy found himself surrounded by twenty Germans. Instead of attacking, they were so impressed by his courage and fighting ability that they gathered together to pat him on the back and surrendered. When the smoke cleared, McCarthy had killed twenty men, captured fifty, and secured five hundred meters of trenches, all within twenty minutes.

Word of McCarthy’s actions earned him the highest decoration for bravery, the Victoria Cross. In November of that year, the war finally ended, putting a close to one of the most destructive conflicts in the 20th century. McCarthy moved back to Western Australia where he lived out his life working a number of quiet office jobs. Humble to the end, McCarthy rejected any attempt to describe his actions as especially heroic. As he once said, there is “a V.C. in everybody if given a chance.”