Private Martin O’Connor was accustomed to hard work – he was a second-generation miner from Queensland – but nothing could prepare him for the battlefields of the Somme.
O’Connor came from Mount Morgan, near Rockhampton, and worked as a ‘smelter’. The work was complex, tough and dangerous, blending crushed copper ore with chemicals in a blast furnace.
When the Mount Morgan operation slowed, he tried his luck out west in Mount Isa, the largest copperfield in Australia.
At the time, Queensland’s copper output was being sold to Germany, but that stopped with the outbreak of war in 1914, when it was allocated to the Australian Government for processing in British armament factories.
War also meant a change of circumstances for Martin O’Connor.
He enlisted in the AIF with his mate Duncan Logan, 22, during a ‘brisk’ recruitment campaign in August 1915. They both joined the 9th Battalion and, after serving briefly in Egypt, were transferred to France.
The 9th was one of Australia’s first infantry units raised during the First World War. The Moreton Regiment, as it was known, was made up entirely of Queenslanders. It held the line during the devastating landing at Gallipoli and, after the Anzacs’ withdrawal, was reinforced with men such as O’Connor and Logan.
In France, the Allies were entering the Western Front, trying to break through the Germans’ entrenched positions north and south of the Somme River.
The Battle of Fromelles (19-20 July 1916) would be remembered as ‘disastrous’ for the Australians, with more than 5,500 casualties – and no gain.
Three days later, Australia’s 3rd Brigade, including O’Connor and Logan, was tasked with recapturing the nearby town of Pozières.
The Australians spent 48 hours preparing for the attack under artillery and gas bombardment. On the night of 22 July, artillery from both sides engaged in a fierce battle; their fire power lit up the sky for miles.
At 12.30am, the Allied artillery struck targets behind the enemy line. The first two waves of Australians began their assault, capturing the Pozières trench system and the area south of Albert-Bapaume Road.
The 9th Battalion met intense resistance near the Old German Lines and had difficulty orientating in a landscape pummelled by shells. The enemy’s trenches, dugouts and machine guns were all concealed.
By mid-afternoon, the Australian troops had secured the village. The Battle of Pozières continued until 3 September, with more than 23,000 Australian casualties, including some 6,800 killed or dying of wounds.
Martin O’Connor and Duncan Logan were among those lost. The mates who had headed off to war together were both mentioned in the 236th Casualty List printed in Australian newspapers.
For a year, Private O’Connor was listed as wounded and missing. His mother, Nellie, wrote repeatedly to the War Records Office, seeking ‘some sort of proof’. A year later, a court of inquiry found he had been killed in action.