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
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