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VCs of the First World War: The Western Front 1915
By Peter Batchelor, Christopher Matson
The History PressCopyright © 2012 Peter Batchelor and Christopher Matson
All rights reserved.
Cuinchy, France, 1 February
The year 1915 opened in northern France with the opposing forces facing each other in water-logged trenches and fortifications, separated by a narrow strip of no-man's-land. At Cuinchy, immediately south of the La Bassée Canal, the British line formed a salient from the canal on the left, running east towards the Railway Triangle (formed by the Béthune–La Bassée railway and the junction of another line towards Vermelles), then south to the La Bassée–Béthune Road, where it joined French positions (see map here).
There had been a number of German attacks in the Cuinchy sector during January, culminating in a large-scale offensive on 25 January when the enemy penetrated into the above salient, forcing men of the 1st Scots Guards and 1st Coldstream Guards (CG) (1st Bde) back to partially prepared positions 500 yards west of the Railway Triangle. The Germans renewed their attacks on 29 January but were repulsed with heavy losses.
During the evening of 30 January the 4th (Guards) Bde moved forward to take over the front line, and 2nd CG, 2nd Bde, took over the thousand yards of front line in front of the ruins of Cuinchy with 1st Irish Guards (IG) in support. 1st IG were allocated positions east of the La Bassée–Béthune Road and in the centre of its line was a collection of huge brick stacks, originally 30 feet high. There were nearly thirty of these stacks, five held by the British and the remainder in German hands; converted for defence, they were connected by a complex system of trenches and saps. Apart from these stacks the area was flat and difficult to defend; the only raised areas were the canal and the railway, because it ran on a 16 ft high embankment, separated from the canal by a tow-path.
The right of the German line rested on the Railway Triangle. A little over 200 yards to the west was the area known as the Hollow: a narrow 20 yard wide strip lying to the south of the railway embankment. At the western end of the Hollow was a canal lock, which was crossed by the railway via a girder bridge, and about 60 yards east was a brick culvert through which the tow-path was reached. No. 4 Coy, 2nd CG, held the left of the line with its flank on this culvert. In the early hours of 1 February, a German attack was directed at the CG which forced No. 4 Coy to retire to a barricade erected in the Hollow.
A British counter-attack was organized and at 04.00 hours fifty men of CG supported by No. 4 Coy IG attacked along the towpath, and the Hollow. This attack was halted 30 yards short of the enemy position near the culvert. The Irish Guards lost all the officers from No. 4 Coy. 2/Lt Innes, No. 1 Coy IG, was ordered forward to take command of the survivors of No. 4 Coy and to withdraw them to the railway bridge, leaving a party holding the barricade in the Hollow. Innes himself stayed at this barricade.
Orders were issued by 1st Bde to retake the lost position at 10.15 hours and after a 15 minute artillery bombardment the counter-attack began. Fifty men of CG led the assault followed by thirty men of No. 1 Coy IG under Lt Graham; the men carried filled sandbags, spades and two boxes of bombs as their task was to consolidate the position once it was captured. No. 2 Coy IG maintained covering fire and 2/Lt Innes, with his small party, was ordered to maintain his position. As the CG advance faltered, 2/Lt Innes was ordered to lead his men forward, which he did 'in a very bold manner'.
L/Cpl Michael O'Leary, 2/Lt Innes's orderly, was with his officer in the Hollow. On the command to advance, O'Leary ran quickly on, outdistancing the men with him, mounted the railway embankment, fired five times at the German machine-gun crew at the barricade, and killed them. At a second enemy barricade, 60 yards further on, another enemy machine-gun was preparing for action. The ground between the two positions was too marshy for a direct approach so O'Leary again climbed the railway embankment and ran towards the Germans. He was seen by them and as they attempted to turn the machine gun towards him he shot three of its crew. The remaining two Germans immediately surrendered, not realizing that O'Leary had now fired all the cartridges in his magazine. He then returned to the original line with his prisoners. According to a witness, 'O'Leary came back from his killing as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park'.
The IG Battalion War Diary says, 'This was a fine piece of work and he [O'Leary] has been recommended for reward.' O'Leary's reward was the Victoria Cross which was gazetted on 18 February and he was presented with it by the King at Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1915. His VC, the first won by a member of the Irish Guards, was the first to be won on the Western Front in 1915.
* * *
The third of four children, Michael John O'Leary was born on 29 September 1890 at Kilbarry Lodge, Inchigeela, 10 miles from Macroom in County Cork, Ireland. His parents Daniel and Margaret ran a small farm where Michael worked after attending Kilbarry National School and at the age of 16 he joined the Royal Navy. Attached to HMS Vivid he served for some years before being invalided out with rheumatism in the knees; he returned to work on his father's farm for a few months before enlisting in the Irish Guards on 2 July 1910.
He was placed on the Reserve after his three years' Home Service with the 1st Battalion and applied to join the Royal North-West Mounted Police (RNWMP), Canada. On 2 August 1913 he was engaged, as constable no. 5685, for a three-year term in the RNWMP at Regina, Saskatchewan. He soon displayed his courage, taking part in a two-hour running battle with two gunmen; after their capture, he was presented with a gold ring which he wore for the rest of his life.
He was granted a free discharge from the RNWMP on 22 September 1914 in order to rejoin the British Army. Returning to England, he was mobilized on 22 October, going to France on 23 November to join his battalion, 1st Irish Guards. After only a short time in France, O'Leary was Mentioned in Despatches for gallantry, and was promoted lance-corporal on 5 January 1915; on 4 February he was promoted sergeant in the field after his VC-winning action. An item appeared in the New York Times of 28 May 1915 reporting that an artilleryman serving at the front had written to a friend, 'Sergeant Michael O'Leary, V.C. was killed in the last battle'.
O'Leary's bravery captured the public's imagination and a large reception was held in Hyde Park, London, on Saturday 10 July 1915. Thousands of Londoners turned out and accorded him a hero's welcome. Among other tributes the Daily Mail published a poem about him, a ballad about his exploits was performed before the King, and a short play was written by George Bernard Shaw. On his return to Ireland, O'Leary was greeted by crowds at Macroom but when his father, a strong nationalist, and a prize-winning weightlifter and footballer in his youth, was asked by a reporter to comment on his son's courage, he replied, 'I am surprised he didn't do more. I often laid out twenty men myself with a stick coming from the Macroom Fair, and it is a bad trial of Mick that he could kill only eight, and he having a rifle and bayonet.'
After receiving the award of the Cross of St George, 3rd Class (Russia), in August, O'Leary was commissioned into the Connaught Rangers as a second lieutenant on 23 October. On a recruiting drive in Ballaghaderrin, Ireland, he was jeered by Ulster Volunteers, an incident which led to questions being asked in the House of Commons on 6 December. Serving with the 5th Bn Connaught Rangers in Salonika, O'Leary was again Mentioned in Despatches, and after a posting to Macedonia retired from the Army in 1921, his final service being at Dover with the 2nd Battalion.
Leaving his wife Greta and two children in Ireland, he returned to Canada in March 1921, reputedly to rejoin the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (the name of the RNWMP since February 1920), but for reasons unknown he did not do so. Instead, he first gave lectures on the war and then spent a brief period in a publishing house before joining the Ontario Provincial Police during 1921 as a licence inspector for the enforcement of prohibition, a post he held for two years. His wife and twin boys having joined him, O'Leary was then appointed sergeant of police on the Michigan Central Railway, stationed at Bridgeburg, Ontario, at a salary of £33 per month.
As he later informed a Daily Mail reporter:
I was with Michigan Central for two years. Unfortunately on the railway I came into contact with bootlegging and smuggling interests ... A detective has to take bribes to keep his mouth shut or else people are out to get him.
O'Leary was arrested in 1925, charged with smuggling an alien into Buffalo, USA, from Bridgeburg; after a delay of some months the court acquitted him of the charge. In the autumn of the same year he was again arrested, charged with 'irregularity in a search for liquor'. He spent a week in an American jail but was again acquitted at a later trial. He was not reinstated in his job by the Michigan Central Railway.
After he had been unemployed for several months, the authorities at Hamilton, Ontario, advanced the money (£70) for passage to Ireland for O'Leary and his family and in October 1926 his wife and four children sailed from Montreal, on the Letitia, for Ireland, where an uncle had promised to look after them. O'Leary stayed in Canada having been promised a 'suitable position' by the Ontario Attorney General and worked in Hamilton for a time, during which period he suffered several bouts of malaria, contracted in Salonika. Finally, he left Canada. The British Legion heard of his parlous state and employed him for some time as a packer in its poppy factory in England.
In 1932, while he was working as a commissionaire at the Mayfair Hotel, Park Lane, London, he took part in the 'Cavalcade Ball' held there in aid of the 'Journey's End' home for disabled officers; together with A.O. Pollard VC, he served tin mugs of rum to the distinguished audience.
He continued working at the hotel until called up from the Reserve of Officers in June 1939 and went to France with the BEF as a captain in the Middlesex Regiment. He was invalided back to England before the evacuation at Dunkirk, transferred to the Pioneer Corps and put in charge of a prisoner of war camp in the south of England. Discharged from the Army on medical grounds in 1945, he returned to civilian life as a building contractor, in which trade he worked until his retirement in 1954.
He attended the Victory Parade in June 1946 but at the 1956 Centenary VC Review held in Hyde Park, London, he was impersonated by a man in a bathchair.
O'Leary lived in the same district of London for more than thirty years, originally at Southborne Avenue, Colindale, but in later years at Oakleigh Avenue and Limesdale Gardens, Edgeware. He died at Whittington Hospital, Islington, on 1 August 1961 after a long illness and was buried at Mill Hill Cemetery, Paddington. After the funeral service at the Roman Catholic Annunciation Church at Burnt Oak, the coffin was saluted by Guards officers as it left the church and it was accompanied by a 'lone piper' through the cemetery. Six of O'Leary's seven children were at the funeral, including twins Daniel and Jeremiah, both winners of the DFC in the Second World War.
In July 1962 O'Leary's medals – VC, 1914 Star and Bar, BVM, with MID, BWM, Cross of the Order of St George, 3rd Class (Russia), Coronation Medals for 1937 and 1953, and Defence Medal 1939–45 – were presented to the Irish Guards by his family. Although O'Leary also wore his 1914 Star with a Bar, and always claimed that he was entitled to do so, his military records show he arrived in France one day too late for such entitlement.CHAPTER 2
THE BATTLE OF NEUVE CHAPELLE
On 15 February Sir John French asked the First Army Commander, Gen. Sir Douglas Haig, to draft a plan for an offensive with the line La Bassée–Aubers Ridge as its objective. Haig's subsequent plan of attack was for the Meerut and 8th Division (Indian and VI Corps respectively), to break through the German line at Neuve Chapelle between Port Arthur and the Moated Grange, and to fan out to right and left; the Lahore and 7th Divisions would assault on either side of the breach. The Cavalry Corps would then ride through to the Aubers Ridge and wheel right behind the enemy line, with supporting infantry consolidating along the Ridge. An artillery barrage was planned to precede the infantry attack: the German wire and breastworks were to be bombarded by nearly 300 field guns and howitzers, and the enemy batteries shelled by heavy artillery.
When the artillery bombardment began on 10 March the enemy wire and breastworks were largely destroyed, leaving significant gaps in the defences. Eight battalions advanced at 08.30 hours and in less than half an hour a breach some 1600 yards long was made in the enemy line. Problems arose on both flanks; on the right the 1/39th Garhwalis advanced in the wrong direction and attacked undamaged German defences, and on the left a 200 yard long stretch of the German breastworks was left untouched as two siege batteries had arrived too late.
The centre battalions were ordered to advance only 200 yards beyond the enemy breastworks and wait while the village was subjected to further shelling. This delay took away some of the advantage gained by the surprise attack. During the bombardment the Germans occupied some of the recently constructed machine-gun strongpoints (Stützpunkte) which were located 1,000 yards to the rear of their breastworks, and positioned 800 yards apart to cover much of the flat ground.
Having advanced through the village, the leading battalions were ordered to wait until both flanks of the attack could advance; consequently, the battalions supporting them could not advance as planned, causing a bottleneck west of Neuve Chapelle as several battalions were held up in the traffic jam.
As both Corps HQ were some 4 to 5 miles from Neuve Chapelle and separate from each other, up-to-date information took some time to reach the Corps Commanders, Rawlinson and Willcocks. It was not until early afternoon that Rawlinson became aware of the situation of his forward battalions and he ordered a resumption of the attack in conjunction with Indian Corps. However, the orders took three hours to reach the front-line battalions and so the attack did not take place until it was nearly dark. It failed.
A further attack was ordered for the next day. Due to poor artillery support, the gunners were unable to register their shots in the mist, and this, combined with the fact that the Germans had brought up reinforcements during the night, meant that this attack was also not successful.
The Germans launched a counter-attack early on 12 March, superseding a planned British attack ordered for that morning. The enemy attack was halted, with very heavy losses inflicted on the attackers. Because of poor communications, Army HQ received little accurate information about the German attack for several hours, and at 15.00 hours Haig, convinced that the Germans were 'much demoralized', ordered both Corps to 'push through the barrage of fire regardless of loss', and ordered 5th Cavalry Bde to move forward in support. Again the orders took some time to reach the battalions concerned and those which attacked were repelled with severe casualties. The action was called off later that night.
British casualties for the battle exceeded 11,600, with German losses almost as high. Virtually all the ground gained had been taken in the first three hours, and despite the unwieldy nature of the British force (under two Corps Commanders) operating in a relatively small area, and the poor and confused communications, the Battle of Neuve Chapelle was nevertheless significant for it proved to the French that the British were capable of attacking and were not just a defensive force.
Excerpted from VCs of the First World War: The Western Front 1915 by Peter Batchelor, Christopher Matson. Copyright © 2012 Peter Batchelor and Christopher Matson. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
The Battle of Neuve Chapelle,
Gobar Sing Negi,
E. Barber and W.D. Fuller,
H. Daniels and C.R. Noble,
Hill 60, Belgium,
The Battles of Ypres,
The Battle of Aubers Ridge,
The Battle of Festubert,
The Battle of Loos,