Thursday 26 April 2018

'Uncle' Jack Leslie will soon be made a knight to remember

Sir Jack at home in Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co Monaghan
Sir Jack at home in Castle Leslie, Glaslough, Co Monaghan
POWS: Sir Jack Leslie( bottom row/furthest right) with other prisoners of war in Eichstatt, Germany, in 1944. He was released the following year

Barbara McCarthy

The 98-year-old World War II veteran Sir John Leslie was shocked when he found out he would be appointed a chevalier (knight) of the National Order of the Legion of Honour, France's highest medal.

"Well that's just wonderful. That's a very high honour. I had no idea," he said when his nephew Mark Leslie handed him a letter from the French Ambassador to Ireland. In it, Jean-Pierre Thebault wrote that Leslie would be honoured for his 'significant personal contribution in the defence of freedom of France during World War II.' He will receive his medal at a bestowal ceremony in the French Residence in Dublin on November 9 among friends, family members and dignitaries.

Mark Leslie made a file of papers Sir John had given to him and sent them to the French ambassador. Speaking in the family home in Castle Leslie, Co Monaghan, Mark said that the ambassador had been looking for Irish war heroes who may not have had the recognition they deserved.

"It's for that horrendous battle at Boulogne-sur-Me and the five years you spent as a prisoner of war in Germany." Mark told his uncle. The decoration was established by Napoleon in 1802.

'Uncle Jack,' as his family calls him, served with the Irish Guards at the Tower of London, Buckingham Palace and Windsor Palace before being called to fight in France. He wrote in his book, "Never a Dull Moment," in 2008, that he had privately hoped that Hitler was bluffing about the war. "On September 3, 1939 (when Britain declared war on Germany), my heart turned to stone."

"Jack went straight to war from a party in St James's Palace in 1940. Winston Churchill needed more men, everyone was at war already. He went from a tux into uniform within hours," Mark said.

Jack's men's mission was to delay the Germans from reaching Dunkirk, which was achieved with the help of the Welsh Guards. "The Germans moving north up the coast met battalions of the Rifle Brigade and the Sixtieth, at Calais and were held up for 24 hours. By the time they reached Dunkirk, the entire Allied armed forces of 300,000 had managed to escape."

Unfortunately he was captured by German soldiers and went on to spend five years in poor conditions in camps across Germany.

In an act of bravery, Jack Leslie sent a postcard to Winston Churchill, his first cousin once removed, saying: "So many of us would be grateful if you could, by chance arrange the repatriation of prisoners. We know that our trivial discomforts are as nothing compared to the suffering world, but we feel a change could favour us."

The postcard, which hangs in a war museum in London, could have got him killed, but he took the risk for his men, Mark Leslie said.

Jack and his men were released from Moosberg, Lower Saxony in 1945. He returned to Glaslough a hero after the war, where he settled into life at the family home. "I just did gardening and things like that for a while," he said.

Born in New York in 1916, Jack travelled to Ireland with his parents on the White Star Liner when he was just three to live in Castle Leslie, which was built in the 19th Century for the Leslie clan, who had been living on the estate there since the 1600s.

During the late 1940s, he embarked on a world tour before settling in Rome in the 1950s, where he bought a 1,500-year-old monastery. He returned to Castle Leslie in 1994, 40 years later - to embrace the quiet life.

There was a fat chance of that happening, as 'Uncle Jack' became the oldest raver in the village when he discovered a passion for dance music. "I went to the local town one night. They were playing this boom boom music. I liked it a lot," he said. He travelled to Ibiza, where he celebrated his 85th birthday at Privilege, the world's biggest nightclub.

He rose to global notoriety when he unwittingly announced the wedding plans of Paul McCartney and Heather Mills outside Castle Leslie in 2002. "They're getting married on Tuesday, but it's a secret," slipped from his tongue to the world's media.

Referred to by Senator David Norris as 'gloriously eccentric', the Leslies attracted poets, writers and artists to the estate throughout the years. During the 1960s, Mick Jagger emerged from Glaslough Lake naked only to be spotted by a group of hysterical schoolgirls.

Jack's niece Sammy turned the castle into a five-star hotel during the 1990s, when she began a massive refurbishment project.

A highlight for many guests has been an impromptu guided tour by Uncle Jack, the war hero, writer, art expert and raver.

Sunday Independent

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