A COMMEMORATION Ceremony was held at the Returned and Serviceman’s League Memorial area of the Ballarat New Cemetery on Saturday. The service was to honour the Centenary of the death of Australia’s first military aviation casualty, Lt. George Pinnock Merz. Dux of the first School of Aviation commenced at Point Cook in 1914, Merz and his New Zealand copilot, Lt William Burn, were killed by hostile Bedouin tribesmen, when they were forced to land in Mesopotamia because of engine failure. Their bodies were never recovered. The unveiling of the plaque was undertaken by Air Commodore Tracy Smart, Australia’s highest ranking female air officer, as she is an accepted authority on the history of Merz. Members of the Merz family as well as officials of the RAAF Museum Point Cook, the RAAF Association, the Australian Army History Heritage Unit, the Victorian Deputy Commissioner of Veteran Affairs and local Returned and Servicemen’s Leagues were amongst those at the commemoration.
George Merz was born in the Melbourne suburb of Prahran on the 10thof October 1891, the middle child of three and only son of George and Annie Merz. When George was 6 or 7, the family moved to Raglan Street in Ballarat where he was educated at State School No. 34 in Humffray St. George was a gifted student and duxed the school in 1905.
After graduating from Hummfray St, Merz attended Grenville College, another small but highly regarded school.
George was accepted into the University of Melbourne to study medicine in 1909. Air Cdre Tracy Smart said according to his niece, Alice Greetham, who was at the commemoration on Saturday, he decided upon medicine because he had a genuine wish to help people. “The storm clouds of war were gathering as George prepared for his final exams in August 1914. Earlier that year, Australia’s first new military flying school, the Central Flying School (CFTS) had opened at Point Cook,” Air Cdre Tracy Smart said in her speech. “When applications were announced for the First ever Australian military flying course, Merz was convinced that he had to take up this opportunity, and discussed the matter with his parents. In a letter to the War Historian CEW Bean in 1922, George Merz senior recalls “…he asked me to let him take up flying for 3 months as he had 5 years hard years studying for Medicine. The wife and I allowed him to go….”” In February 1915 the Australian government agreed to send a small team of aviators to support the British effort in Mesopotamia, now known as Iraq.
By April 1915 the Mesopotamian Half-Flight, a unit of 45 personnel was formed and the four pilots were selected Capt Petre, Capt White, Lieutenant Treloar and Lieutenant George Merz. Upon his arrival, Merz, like his colleagues, was granted a commission in the Royal Flying Corps and temporarily appointed to the Indian Army in order to avoid confusion in the multi-national force, as was Lieutenant William Burns, an Australian born NZ Army officer trained as an observer who had also joined the Half Flight. Although the British forces were victorious, the casualty rate was high, and a makeshift hospital was established. It was here that George Merz put his medical skills to use, flying by day and treating patients by night, including the night before his death. On the 30th of July 1915 Merz and Lieutenant William Burn left Nasiriyeh to return to Basra. They never arrived, and two days later their plane was found badly damaged, with no trace of the airmen. A court of inquiry determined that the men had been forced to land due to engine trouble, after which they were attacked and killed by a group of hostile Bedouins. Merz thus became the first Australian airman to die on operations. “Despite extensive searches, the bodies of the two men were never found but they have not been forgotten. They are commemorated on a special memorial in Basra recognising the 40,500 Commonwealth servicemen who died in Mesopotamia during the war and who have no known grave,” Air Cdre Tracy Smart said.
“Although he was one of over 60, 000 Australians killed in World War 1, George Merz lived his 23 years to the full, and has left his mark as the epitome of the talent that Australia lost in the “War to end all Wars”.”