1914-15 Star, Impressed to “1228 PTE M. E BYRNE. 32 BN. A.I.F.”
British War Medal, Impressed to “1228 PTE M.E. BYRNE. 32 BN. A.I.F.”
Victory Medal, Impressed to “1228 PTE. M.E. BYRNE 32 BN. A.I.F.”
Born in 1881 at Liverpool, New South Wales, Michael Edward Byrne was a single man and a driver by trade upon his attestation for the Australian Imperial Force on the 19th July 1915, enlisting at Blackboy Hill, Western Australia as Private 1228 of the No. 16 Depot Company. On the 9th August 1915, the 32nd Australian Infantry Battalion was raised for service in the First World War, and on the 16th August Byrne was taken on strength into the ‘D’ company of the 32nd – the ‘A’ and ‘B’ companies were recruited from South Australia, and the ‘C’ and ‘D’ from Western Australia. Following several months of training at the Blackboy Hill Training Camp, ‘C’ and ‘D’ company was moved to Adelaide aboard the H.M.A.T. ‘Indarra’, and embarked at Adelaide for overseas service on the 18th November 1915; Byrne embarked aboard the H.M.A.T. A2 ‘Geelong’ and disembarked at Suez, Egypt one month later on the 18th December 1915.
The 32nd Battalion arrived amidst the aftermath of the Gallipoli campaign, which saw a reorganisation and expansion of the A.I.F. in preparation for its dispatch to France and Belgium to take part in the fighting against the Germans along the Western Front. Byrne would be considered amongst the last of the Australia soldiers to receive the 1914-15 Star, as the 32nd arrived just under 2 weeks before the eligibility cut off (31st December 1915).
In Egypt, the 32nd Battalion became part of the newly formed 8th Brigade, 5th Division. For several months they saw further training; Byrne is noted to have missed several parades on the 16th and 17th of March 1916, forfeiting 2 days’ pay – the beginning of a military career of misdemeanours. After nearly half a year stationed in Egypt, the Battalion was shipped to the Western Front – Byrne embarked at Alexandria aboard the ‘Transylvania’, disembarking at Marseilles on the 23rd June 1916, and was stationed for a further month in the north within the Armentières sector. On the 6th July 1916, Byrne was reported away without leave from 9:15am until his arrest for drunkenness at 9:50pm – he was awarded 28 days Field Punishment 2 and forfeited a further day’s pay. Although speculation, his drunkenness may have been because of anxiety before the Australians saw proper combat.
On the 16th July 1916, the 32nd saw their first commitment to action on the front – after three days of taking up position in the trenches the Battalion took part in the fighting around Fromelles, being part of the 8th Brigade’s initial assault on the extreme left of the front. The plan was focused around a position known as the “Sugarloaf”, the German salient at Fromelles – the small size and height of the salient gave the Germans strategic visuals of no man’s land on either flank. As reported, during the Attack on Fromelles, Byrne was wounded in action with a gunshot wound to the left hand and wrist on the 19th July, and was evacuated via the 15th Australian Field Ambulance Company and admitted to the 3rd Canadian general hospital at Boulogne. Byrne was discharged from hospital and re-joined the 32nd Battalion on the 15th August 1916.
During the action at Fromelles, Byrne was amongst 718 casualties that the 32nd suffered — a third of the Battalion’s total casualties for the entirety of World War I. and as a result the Battalion was forced into mainly supportive roles for the remainder of 1916. Despite not taking part in major conflicts, the 32nd still continued to suffer further casualties through the attrition of trench warfare.
On the 21st November 1916, Byrne suffered a fracture to the right fibula/tibia in an accident when collecting water; he was transported to England nine days later on the 30th November, embarking from Rouen aboard the ‘Western Australia’. Arriving at Davenport on the 1st December, he was admitted to the ‘American’s Wom. W.H.’ (?) and then later moved to the 2nd Auxiliary Hospital at Southall. Although eventually discharged on the 15th February 1917 and then moved to the Australian Command Depot no. 2 at Weymouth, Byrne was unfortunately admitted once more to Hospital on the 4th April 1917, this time to the Bulford Hospital, for Venereal Disease.
Finally, Byrne returned to France aboard the ‘Southhampton’, marching out to his unit on the 25th June 1917 and arriving on the 1st July. During his time away, the 32nd spent a bitter winter undertaking defensive duties on the Somme and in May found itself in a protecting the flank during the Second Battle of Bullecourt. Only one month after his return, Byrne was reprimanded for being away without leave on two separate occasions – on the 2nd and on the 4th August 1917, being awarded a further 24 days forfeiture of pay, and a further 21 days of Field Punishment no. 2, by Major C.T. Knight.
During a slight lull in combat, likely as a consequence of the harshening climate of the 1917-18 winter, Byrne was admitted to the 43rd Field Ambulance with severe bronchitis, evacuating back to England via Camiers – he was given furle from the 21st November to the 5th December and ordered to report to the Australian 1st Command Depot at Sutton Veny. Byrne did not return to duty on time and was awarded 28 days Field Punishment no. 2 and a further forfeiture of pay, now totally at least 42 days, by Lieutenant Colonel G.H. Knox.
Following a few months at Sutton, likely serving his field punishment, Byrne left the 1st Command Depot on the 19th February 1918 and transferred to the Training Brigade at Deverill, England, only to then be punished again for being away without leave at Sandhill and was awarded another 7 days’ pay forfeiture by Major O. Fuhrman. Byrne finally re-joined the 32nd Battalion on the 20th August 1918 but was then attached to the 5th Australian Mobile Veterinary Section from the 24th August to the 13th October – consequently, Byrne was not present for the 32nd Battalion’s final engagement of the war between 29th September and 1st October at the battle of St Quentin Canal. The Australians would be taken out of combat until the cessation of the war with the Armistice of the 11th of November 1918.
In January following the end of the war, Byrne was moved to England dangerously ill with pneumonia of both lungs – he was admitted to the Queen Alexandra Military Hospital on the 26th of January 1919. Tragically, Byrne later passed away on the 3rd February 1919 at the age of 39 – the report states the following:
“Patient made a hard fight for recovery was never unconscious took nourishment well all through his illness… on the morning of the 2nd Feb patients temperature rose again to 101 fah, his respirations became very shallow & hurried, & his pulse which had up to that time been fairly strong & regular became accelerated… Post Morten examination revealed presence of extensive Pneumonia (Broncho-Pneumonic type) of both lungs & Pleurisy on the right side, also enlarged fatty kidneys. Enlarged heart & fatty liver also rupture of both Recti abdominalis muscles.”.
W.H. Burke. Lt. Col. I.M.S.
Michael Edward Byrne, son of Mary Ann Mcfarline, is buried in the Australian Military Burial Grounds in Brookwood Cemetery, Surrey, and was given a proper Military funeral. His name his memorialized on the Australian War Memorial Panel 120.
A topical story for a private of the 32nd Battalion who experienced repeated reprimand for bad behaviour and who suffered greatly due to illness, eventually leading to his death. Surviving the great war only to die to illness following the Armistice is certainly a tragic, bittersweet sign off to an interesting military career. One may speculate that Byrne’s continual absence was likely because he met a lover in France, especially since he was unmarried upon embarking from Australia – this often happened during World War I and sometimes resulted in stories of misbehaviour such as this one. Medals loose and unmounted, uncirculated due to posthumous awarding.