At the beginning of 1915, at Cuinchy, immediately south of the La Basseé Canal, a large scale German offensive took place on 25 January forcing British troops 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 attack made four days later on 29 January was repulsed with heavy losses.
During the evening of 30 January, 2nd Bn Coldstream Guards (CG) took over the front line with 1st Bn Irish Guards (IG) in support east of the La Basseé-Béthune Road. These positions were very difficult to defend as the terrain was flat and much water-logged, with the collection of some thirty brick stacks, 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 forcing back a company of CG and, after a counter-attack by British troops at 04.00 hours was stopped by the Germans, a further British attack was planned for 10.15 hours. When the leading guardsmen faltered in their advance, a small supporting party of Irish Guards advanced in support. L/Cpl Michael O'Leary, 2/Lt Innes's orderly, was with his officer and on the command to advance, O'Leary ran on, out-distancing the men with him, and climbed the railway embankment, fired five times at the German machine-gun crew at the barricade, killing them. At a second 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 railway embankment and ran towards the Germans. He was spotted and as the crew attempted to turn the machine gun towards him he shot three men. The remaining two crew members immediately surrendered, not knowing that O'Leary had now fired all the cartridges in his magazine. O'Leary then returned to the start line with his prisoners 'as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park'.
He was presented with the Victoria Cross by the King at Buckingham Palace on 22 June 1915. His VC was the first to be won on the Western Front in 1915 and also the first such award to be won by a member of the Irish Guards.
Michael John O'Leary was born on 29 September 1890 in County Cork, Ireland and, after service in the Royal Navy and the Irish Guards, he was serving with the Royal Northwest Mounted Police in Canada when war broke out.
After the award of his VC he did much recruiting work for the Army before being promoted to Second Lieutenant and serving in Salonika and Macedonia with the Connaught Rangers before retiring from the Army in 1921.
He had a varied career in Canada and England between the Wars serving as a Captain at the start 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.
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 image kindly contributed by Peter Batchelor.