'Better to be dissolved and be with Christ...'
Graham Clifford had heard all the stories about his tragic relative from Cork. But he had to travel to France to learn about him, and the Battle of Loos
It was over breakfast one morning in my father-in-law's home in Essex that he mentioned his grand uncle from Cork had been killed while serving for the British army in World War I.
The details were sketchy but the discovery of a fascinating letter sent from the front in 1915, announcing the death of Sergeant Major James Leahy, started a process which brought me all the way to his graveside in Loos, northern France.
At the outbreak of war the 27-year-old career soldier, the eldest of seven children born to William and Catherine Leahy of South Mall, Cork, was serving with the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers.
He, like so many other Irish soldiers, perished on the first day of the Battle of Loos, on September 25, 1915, shot as he rushed to the aid of Major John William Considine whose chest had been pierced by a German bullet. The largest British offensive mounted along the Western Front it was also the first time they used poison gas.
Unfamiliar with the use of this gas units dispersed it without consideration for wind direction – and, in some cases, the poisonous vapour blew back onto the British trenches with devastating consequences.
Amid the mayhem Sergeant Leahy bravely reached Major Considine but as he arrived to help a shot whizzed through the air hitting him in the chest.
In an extraordinary letter, to his father back in Cork, Fr Francis Gleeson, chaplain to the 2nd Munsters wrote "Thank God he is in heaven. I am glad he is dead ... Better to be dissolved and be with Christ than continue to live in the uncivilised world where external horror dwells and where brothers are set at brothers to fill the earth with corpses and blood-soak the soil in furious and irrational combat."
Described as 'a most exemplary Catholic' Leahy attracted the nickname 'my altar boy' from Fr Gleeson. The 'Cork Examiner' reported "he was looked on as a man of saintly life."
In total it's estimated that 59,247 men fighting for the Allied forces lost their lives in the Battle of Loos and, standing on the killing fields almost a century on, it's tragically easy to see why.
Those sorties across the open expanses by the Royal Munster Fusiliers and other regiments amounted to almost certain death. The flat lands were exposed and German machine gunners simply mowed down row after row of enemy soldiers.
In the Dud Corner cemetery in Loos I come across grave after grave of young Irish soldiers who lost their lives here in 1915 and 1916. In total there are 1,800 soldiers buried here of whom 1,100 are unidentified.
At the end of one row I find the final resting place of Sergeant James T Leahy. To his left is the grave of James Andrew Ronayne, a 24-year-old Lieutenant with the Royal Munster Fusiliers from Youghal in Co Cork. In many ways this co-incidental placement would have given solace to James' father who also hailed from the east Cork town.
Lieutenant Ronayne was also killed on the first day of the offensive in 1915 and on his headstone it's written 'the beloved only son of James and Elizabeth Ronayne'.
Back in Cork, the news of James Leahy's death came as a huge blow to the city. His picture appeared in the 'Cork Examiner' on October 9, 1915, and indeed his eloquent letters from the front were published in the newspaper frequently before his death.
In one, dated October 26, 1914, he wrote "I offer up an earnest prayer that each shot has sent another crowd of devils to their doom. No one knows the low, wicked deeds that these inhuman monsters are capable of committing."
Later he would tell of the numbness he felt in battle. "What sympathy I would have another time if I saw a person only slightly injured. Yet I looked on the dead Germans without a spark of compassion, because in this life and death it is a life for a life. While a battle is raging, everyone is bent on slaughter."
And on February 20, 1915, he tells graphically how he reacted under shell fire: "As a shell comes whistling towards you, your stomach seems to cringe up. You duck (as if that would be any good), you look around to see everyone doing the same. Then all laugh for being so foolish, but still it is what happens each time ...
"Do you remember how I would shrink from looking at a dead person nicely laid out on a bed? What about trying to sleep with dead chaps all over the trench, above, behind and next to you? But a dead soldier is different. He is like yourself – a bundle of muddy khaki, unless it is a shell – and then I draw a veil."
See our dedicated World War 1 section here.
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