This County Cork na­tive rushed a Ger­man ma­chine­gun nest sin­gle-handed

This Lance Cor­po­ral’s heroic ac­tions saved the lives of his com­rades, cap­tur­ing or killing ten Ger­mans in the process

History of War - - CONTENTS - WORDS AN­DREW BROWN

The men fixed their bay­o­nets onto the tip of their ri­fles and lis­tened to the rat­tle of ma­chine-gun fire that ham­mered in­ces­santly above their heads. The po­si­tion the Ger­mans held was strong; their troops had al­ready re­pulsed two counter-at­tacks by the Bri­tish forces. Many of the ca­su­al­ties sus­tained in these at­tacks had been caused by the two ma­chine-gun bar­ri­cades the Ger­mans had, which were only 55 me­tres (180 feet) apart.

The bar­ri­cades held five Ger­man sol­diers each, one to fire the deadly weapon while the oth­ers helped feed the am­mu­ni­tion through and pointed out po­ten­tial tar­gets. The ma­chine­guns could spit out up to 400 deadly rounds a minute and their pres­ence on any bat­tle­field dur­ing World War I had the po­ten­tial to al­ter an en­tire bat­tle’s bal­ance of power.

The 50 men of the Cold­stream Guards and 30 of the 1st Com­pany of the Ir­ish Guards had some sap­pers with wire cut­ters and sand­bags. These men were try­ing to suc­ceed where the first two at­tacks had failed. The Cold­streams went first and charged the 180 me­tres (600 feet) sep­a­rat­ing them from the Ger­man trench. Pep­pered with fire, their charge be­gan to fal­ter. The Ir­ish Guards rushed to join them and raced to­ward the en­emy, but there was one among them who quickly out­paced the rest. This fig­ure was Lance Cor­po­ral Michael O’leary.

O’leary was a keen sports­man from an early age, and par­tic­u­larly ex­celled in com­pet­i­tive weightlift­ing and foot­ball. Want­ing more from life than work­ing on the fam­ily’s farm, he joined the Royal Navy aged 16 where he ini­tially worked as a stoker. Af­ter serv­ing for sev­eral years an ill­ness – be­lieved to be rheuma­tism of the knees – forced him to leave the ser­vice and he re­turned home to Cork. How­ever, he was soon on the move again, join­ing the Ir­ish Na­tional Guard in 1909 and serv­ing with them un­til 1913. In Au­gust that year he em­i­grated to Canada (a jour­ney that took sev­eral weeks) and joined the Royal North-west Mounted Po­lice.

While em­ployed in the Cana­dian po­lice force he dis­played the brav­ery that would later see him come to in­ter­na­tional promi­nence, when he cap­tured two crim­i­nals fol­low­ing a long gun­fight. O’leary was com­mended for his ac­tions,

“NO WRITER OF FIC­TION WOULD DARE TO FAS­TEN SUCH AN ACHIEVE­MENT TO ANY OF HIS CHAR­AC­TERS, BUT THE IR­ISH HAVE AL­WAYS HAD THE REP­U­TA­TION OF BE­ING EX­CEL­LENT FIGHT­ERS AND LANCE COR­PO­RAL MICHAEL O’LEARY IS CLEARLY ONE OF THEM” Arthur Co­nan Doyle

pre­sented with a gold ring and was well thought of by his col­leagues. How­ever, he would not stay there long, as at the out­break of World War I he was given per­mis­sion to re­turn to Bri­tain to re-join the army. O’leary and his old reg­i­ment, the Ir­ish Guards were sent to the front in Novem­ber 1914 where they ex­pe­ri­enced the bru­tal­i­ties and harsh re­al­ity of trench war­fare.

The Ir­ish Guards were sta­tioned around the La Bassée dis­trict in France and were sub­jected to fre­quent Ger­man bom­bard­ments. On the morn­ing of 1 Fe­bru­ary 1915, the Ger­mans at­tacked Bri­tish forces where O’leary was sta­tioned and pushed them back. The ground they had gained was strate­gi­cally im­por­tant – in the grind of trench war­fare land was of­ten gained and lost fre­quently – but this ter­ri­tory had tac­ti­cal sig­nif­i­cance and would need to be re­taken. The 4th Com­pany of the Ir­ish Guards and the Cold­stream Guards at­tempted to do just that at 4.00am but the Ger­man bar­rage – in­clud­ing that from their two ma­chine-gun en­camp­ments – scythed them down. Part of the com­pany did make it back to their own trenches – some limp­ing, some crawl­ing – but the dam­age had been done.

O’leary’s 1st Com­pany, un­der the com­mand of Sec­ond Lieu­tenant Innes, were or­dered to or­gan­ise the sur­vivors of the as­sault party and as­sist the Cold­stream Guards in a sec­ond at­tempt to take back the ter­ri­tory. The Bri­tish ar­tillery com­menced what was at that point one of the con­flict’s larger bom­bard­ments, in or­der to break down the barbed wire in front of their trenches. Mean­while, the 2nd Com­pany fired at their en­emy to keep them in their trenches and pre­vent them from be­ing able to re­turn fire. This last point was im­por­tant be­cause the com­pany were pre­par­ing to charge straight at them and O’leary was about to dis­play stag­ger­ing brav­ery.

Ger­man sol­diers be­fore the first Bat­tle of Marne dur­ing WWI, Septem­ber 1914. The medals on the uni­forms sug­gest that the photo may have been staged

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