On 1 February 2015 a commemorative paving stone will be dedicated at Macroom, County Cork to mark the centenary of L/Cpl Michael O'Leary's VC winning action. This is the second such stone to commemorate Irish recipients of the VC in the Great War, the first being that to Maurice Dease dedicated in Dublin on 23 August 2014. By the end of 2018 all of the commemorative stones will have been unveiled in Ireland and all will be then incorporated into a monument at Glasnevin Cemetery, Dublin.
On 25 January 1915 a large scale German offensive took place along both sides of the La Basseé Canal. On the southern side, at Cuinchy, British troops were forced back to positions 500 yards west of the Railway Triangle (formed by the Béthune–La Basseé railway and the junction of the line towards Vermelles). A further enemy attack made four days later on 29 January was repulsed with heavy losses.
During the evening of 30 January the 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards (CG) - 4 (Guards) Bde, 2 Div - took over the front line with 1st Bn Irish Guards (IG) in support. These positions were very difficult to defend as the terrain was both flat and water logged with some 30 brickstacks, the canal and the 16ft high railway embankment being the only raised areas.
The enemy renewed their attacks in the early hours of 1 February and forced back a company of 2/CG at a post close to the canal. A counter-attack by British troops at 4 am was halted by the enemy with heavy losses to both the Guards companies involved. A further British attack was carried out and, after an intense ten-minute artillery bombardment just after 10 am, about 50 men of 2/CG advanced on both sides of the railway; the group was on the southern side of the canal followed by 30 men of 1/IG. When the leading Coldstream guardsmen faltered at an enemy barricade, a small party of No 1 Coy Irish Guards under the command of 2/Lt A C W Innes was ordered forward. L/Cpl Michael O'Leary, orderly to 2/Lt Innes, accompanied his officer and, on the command to advance, O'Leary ran on, out-distancing his comrades, and climbed the railway embankment. He fired five times at the enemy machine-gun position, killing its crew. At another barricade, 60 yards further on, another enemy machine-gun was preparing for action. The ground between was too marshy for a direct approach so O'Leary again climbed the embankment and ran towards the enemy gun. He was spotted and, as the men attempted to turn the machine gun towards him, he shot three of them. The remaining two crew members immediately surrendered, not knowing that O'Leary had by this time fired all the cartridges in his magazine. O'Leary then returned to the start line with his prisoners and,(in the words of CQMS Lowry) 'as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park'.
O'Leary's actions resulted not only in the re-taking of the ground previously lost but also a gain of over 50 yards. This new position enfiladed two enemy trenches which were then evacuated for about 150 yards.
Within days he was promoted Sergeant for 'Distinguished Conduct in the Field' and the Supplement to the London Gazette dated 18 February caried his VC citation:
No. 3556 Lance-Corporal Michael O'Leary, 1st Battalion, Irish Guards.
For conspicuous bravery at Cuinchy on the 1st February, 1915. When forming one of the storming party which advanced against the enemy's barricades he rushed to the front and himself killed five Germans who were holding the first barricade, after which he attacked a second barricade about 60 yards further on, which he captured, after killing three of the enemy and making prisoners of two more.
Lance-Corporal O'Leary thus practically captured the enemy's position by himself, and prevented the rest of the attacking party from being fired upon.
Sergeant O'Leary was later presented with the Victoria Cross by the King at Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1915. His VC was the first to be awarded on the Western Front in 1915 and also the first such award to be earned by a member of the Irish Guards.
Michael John O'Leary was most likely born on 29 September 1888 (his given age varies on various military documents) near Macroom in County Cork, Ireland and he received his education at Kilbarry National School. In 1909 having left his father's farm where he had been working he joined the Royal Navy but was discharged unfit with rheumatism in April the following year. Less than three months later he enlisted in the Irish Guards and as No 3556 served for three years on Home Service until, on the expiration of his Army service, he was transferred to the Reserve on 2 July 1913.
O'Leary applied to join the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP) in Canada, was accepted and on 2 August 1913 engaged for a three-year term. As Constable No 5685 he was posted to Battleford, Saskatchewan and whilst serving there he was involved in a long gun battle with two robbers. After their capture he was presented with a gold ring. He was posted to Regina in May 1914 and, following the declaration of war with Germany, O'Leary was granted a free discharge from the RNWMP on 22 September 1914 to rejoin the British Army.
O'Leary sailed to England, where he joined his Regiment, 1/Irish Guards and he arrived in France on 23 November. With a draft of nearly 300 men he joined the 1/IG, who were then at Meteren, near Bailleul, on the last day of the month. Like many of the original BEF regiments the Irish Guards had suffered severely since the previous August – over 600 men killed, wounded and missing including 16 officers – and earlier in November had been reduced to some 160 rifles.
His service experience no doubt helped his career and he was appointed Lance-Corporal early in January 1915. (Some accounts state that he was Mentioned in Despatches not long after his arrival in France but the author has been unable to confirm this).
After the award of his VC O'Leary's deed was much publicised and he became a celebrity in the accepted sense of the word. Newsreel footage of 11 July 1915 shows him arriving for a recruiting rally at Hyde Park, London where over 60,000 people turned out to see him. Songs, poems and a play were written in his honour, posters and cigarette cards portrayed the young Irishman and a fund to support Irish widows and orphans was set up in his name.
The War was not going well for the Allies at this time and 'good news stories' were hard to come by so O'Leary was much employed by the Army in recruiting, and contemporary photographs show his transformation from 'country boy' to a smart NCO and later a junior officer.
He was commissoned Second Lieutenant in the Connaught Rangers in October and embarked on a recruitment drive along the West Coast of Ireland. In early 1916 he was posted to the Northumberland Fusiliers for further recruiting duties and in January 1917 O'Leary was posted to Salonika as a member of the 5/Connaught Rangers. It is probable that his usefulness in recruiting had waned so, perhaps, a forgotten hero was posted to a forgotten campaign. He was put in charge of scouts and snipers and one of his fellow officers was later critical of his abilities as an officer. (This criticism might easily be put down to the complete difference in backgrounds as the officer in question – Lt Jourdain - had a privileged upbringing). O'Leary was promoted Lieutenant on 1 July 1917 and was mentioned in Lt-Gen Milne's despatch of 25 Oct 1917.
Unfortunately O'Leary contracted malaria and was hospitalised when his regiment moved to Egypt in September. After an attempt to join the RAF in Egypt was unsuccessful a medical board later recommended that he should be returned to England. O'Leary sailed from Egypt in August 1918 and served with the 2/Connaught Rangers at Dover until June 1920 when he was discharged to the Reserve of Officers
O'Leary had a very varied and colourful career after he returned to Canada in 1921, working for a publisher, the Ontario Provincial Police and The Michigan Central Ralway Police. Frequent bouts of malaria affected him and eventually he sent his family back to Ireland and later followed them. He eventually settled in North London and served as a captain at the beginning of the Second World War for a brief period.
O'Leary died at Islington on 1 August 1961 and is buried in New Hill Cemetery, North-West London. His medals are held by the Irish Guards Museum having been presented to them by the family in 1962.
Today the area previously know as the Brickstacks at Cuinchy is in places overgrown, with some of the topography changed, but it is still possible to walk along the embankment area of O'Leary's daring exploit. A visitor to the nearby Cuinchy Communal Cemetery will find, in Plot I, Rows A and B, 25 men of both the Coldstream and Irish Guards who lost their lives 100 years ago on 1 February 1915. One might ponder how many more headstones would be here were it not for bravery of Michael O'Leary.
A much fuller account of O'Leary's career can be found in the updated edition of VCs of the First World War: the Western Front, 1915, by Peter Batchelor and Christopher Matson priced £9.99 and available in paperback from the WFA's Online Bookstore (in conjunction with Amazon) and from The History Press: www.thehistorypress.co.uk.
Article and images kindly contributed by Peter Batchelor.