Major Michael John O’Leary VC (29 September 1890 – 2 August 1961) was an Irish recipient of the Victoria Cross, the most prestigious award for gallantry in the face of the enemy that can be awarded to British and Commonwealth forces. O’Leary achieved his award for single-handedly charging and destroying two German barricades defended by machine gun positions near the French village of Cuinchy, in a localised operation on the Western Front during the First World War.Charging past the rest of the assault party, O’Leary closed with the first German barricade at the top of the railway embankment and fired five shots, killing the gun’s crew. Continuing forward, O’Leary confronted a second barricade, also armed with a machine gun 60 yards (55 m) further on and again mounted the railway embankment, to avoid the marshy ground on either side. The Germans spotted his approach, but could not bring their gun to bear on him before he opened fire, killing three soldiers and capturing two others after he ran out of ammunition. Reportedly, O’Leary had made his advance on the second barricade “intent upon killing another German to whom he had taken a dislike”.
Having disabled both guns and enabled the recapture of the British position, O’Leary then returned to his unit with his prisoners, apparently “as cool as if he had been for a walk in the park. For his actions, O’Leary received a battlefield promotion to sergeant on 4 February and was recommended for the Victoria Cross, which was gazetted on the 18 February:
At the time of his action, O’Leary was a nine-year veteran of the British armed forces and by the time he retired from the British Army in 1921, he had reached the rank of lieutenant. He served in the army again during the Second World War, although his later service was blighted by periods of ill-health. At his final retirement from the military in 1945, O’Leary was an Army major in command of a prisoner of war camp. Between the wars, O’Leary spent many years employed as a police officer in Canada and is sometimes considered to be a Canadian recipient of the Victoria Cross. Following the Second World War he worked as a building contractor in London, where he died in 1961.