In 1913 Saskatchewan, Canada, an Irish member of the Royal Northwest Mounted Police was given a gold ring as a token of recognition for his bravery in apprehending two fugitives after a protracted gunfight.
The Irishman was Michael O’Leary, and this would be just one of a series of courageous acts throughout Michael’s life, one of which in early 1915 would see him become the first member of the Irish Guards to be awarded the Victoria Cross.
The stage for O’Leary’s most famous feat of bravery was Cuinchy, a small village located south of the La Basseé Canal in northern France. In January 1915, German forces launched an offensive that drove British troops out of their trenches to defensive positions 500 yards to the rear. On January 30th, 1915, the Coldstream Guards and Irish Guards were sent in to take over from the beleaguered troops at Cuinchy.
On the morning of February 1st, the Germans attacked again, capturing important strategic positions. At 10:15am, the Irish Guards joined the Coldstream Guards and attacked the Germans. Bogged down with heavy equipment and hampered by marshy ground, however, they quickly began to suffer heavy casualties. Recognising the urgent need to silence the German machine guns, O’Leary took action.
Running ahead of his comrades, O’Leary reached the railway embankment that overlooked a German machine gun emplacement. As the gun’s crew poured fire onto the advancing soldiers, O’Leary fired his rifle five times, killing all five German gunners.
The first barricade dealt with, O’Leary charged onwards, reaching a second emplacement manned by a further five Germans. Spotting his approach, the gunners swung around in order to gun O’Leary down, however they couldn’t bring the gun to bear in time. O’Leary fired three more times, emptying his rifle and killing three Germans. The remaining Germans had no stomach to go on fighting the Irishman, and so surrendered. Contemporary reports describe O’Leary returning with his prisoners ‘as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park’.
Mentioned in despatches, the report on O’Leary’s bravery stated that ‘Lance Corporal O’Leary thus practically captured the enemy’s position by himself and prevented the attacking party from being fired upon’. O’Leary returned to London to be welcomed by thousands. Having received his Victoria Cross, he became an important figure in recruiting Irish troops for service on the Western Front, encouraging young Irishmen to aspire toward his status as a true Irish hero.