Summer in France, 1918
During the summer fighting of 1918 the newly-arrived American soldiers proved they were the equal of any troops in the field. In defence they had shown themselves determined not to yield whatever the cost and in attack they were learning the hard grim lessons the British had learned at Loos and the Somme and the French had learned in the long siege of Verdun. When a Scottish division relieved an American division in one sector its men were saddened by the sight of masses of dead in American uniforms lying in regular lines. During the grim, hot summer of 1918 the American doughboys died in their thousands.
Among the dead that summer was Corporal Michael J. Leonard, of Athy, Co. Kildare, killed in action on 16 July, serving with Company F, 165th Infantry Regiment. In Father Duffy’s Story. A tale of humour and heroism, of life and death with the Fighting Sixty-ninth, the fighting chaplain, Francis Patrick Duffy, wrote of the action in which Michael Leonard was killed:
In Company F Sergeants Timothy McCrohan and Thomas Erb with Corporals James Brennan and John Finnegan led the fighting under Captain Kelly and Lieutenants Marsh and Smith. Bernard Finnegan and Matt Wynne refused to quit when badly wounded. William Cassidy, Company Clerk, who could not content himself with that work while the fight was on, and Corporal Michael Leonard, an elderly man who had volunteered when men with a better right to do so were satisfied to wave the flag — these too won great renown. They and the others routed the enemy out of the trenches, following them over the top and up the boyaits. Cassidy and Leonard were killed, and my old time friend, Sergeant Joe O’Rourke of H, and many another good man. Sergeant William O’Neill was wounded, but kept on fighting, till death claimed him in the heat of the fray.
Michael James Leonard was born at Shanraheen, Athy, on 15 May 1876, the son of James Leonard and Mary Walsh. The couple had married in Athy in 1862; a daughter Sarah was born in 1863 and another daughter Mary in 1866. Their addresses varied in this period from Clogarra, Athy and Salisbury, Athy. The family emigrated to America some time after as another daughter, Minnie, was born in New York City in 1870. Four more children – Michael, Christy, Katie and Mathew – were born in Ireland so the Leonards must have returned to Athy at some stage.
The family returned again to America in October 1884 accompanied by Mary’s elderly father Mathew Walsh. Michael Leonard became a naturalised American citizen on 21 March 1898. At that time Michael was employed as a Teamster and his witness to naturalisation was Peter Hammel, Clifton, Staten Island, NYC. The Hammel name turned up again in December 1902 when Michael married Annie Hammel, the daughter of Frank Hammel and Annie Duffy, also of Staten Island.
Michael Leonard was also a member of the 69th New York Regiment, a militia unit which had been formed in NYC by exiled Irish patriots, who wanted to train an Irish Brigade to free Ireland from British occupation. In 1860 Sligo-born Michael Corcoran was named Colonel of the 69th and gained fame when he refused to parade the regiment for the visiting Prince of Wales in protest against the British handling of the Irish Famine. Corcoran was placed under arrest, but the charges were dropped when the bombardment of Fort Sumter began the American Civil War.
During the Civil War the regiment became known as the ‘Fighting Sixty-ninth,’ a name said to have been given by Robert E. Lee at the battle of Malvern Hill. When he witnessed the arrival of the regiment on the battlefield Bobby Lee said, ‘Here comes the damned Fighting Sixty-ninth again.’ The 69th forced the retreat of an equally famous Confederate Irish regiment, the Louisiana Tigers.
Michael Leonard served with the 69th in the Spanish-American War of 1898, in which hostilities began in the aftermath of the internal explosion of the USS Maine in Havana Harbour in Cuba, leading to American intervention in the Cuban War of Independence. Of the crew’s 350 men and officers, 252 were killed in the explosion and eight others subsequently died. Among those casualties – dead, missing or injured – sixty-four men bore distinctively Irish surnames, or were natives of Ireland. Two of the uninjured also bore Irish surnames. Two of the dead were from Co. Kildare: fireman First Class Joseph Seery and Coal Passer Patrick Grady. This large percentage of casualties among those of Irish birth or descent made such a profound impression upon the poet Joseph Clarke that he penned the poem ‘The Fighting Race.’
On 24 May 1898 the 69th Regiment was ordered to Chickamauga, Tennessee, and subsequently moved south to Florida where it encamped at Palmetto Beach near the town of Ocala, which is now twinned with Newbridge. The regiment remained in Florida throughout June and July but heavy rains brought outbreaks of typhoid, which would be a constant aggravation. Michael Leonard’s service record remarked that he was ‘Sick in quarters June 19, in Hosp. June 17-18, illness in line of duty.’ The regiment never saw combat and remained in the south for the duration of the war.
When America entered WWI in April 1917 Michael Leonard was then aged thirty-seven, but it did not stop him re-enlisting at Manhattan’s 69th Armoury, on 13 June 1917. At the time he resided with his wife Annie and four children – Edward, Marguerite, Helen and Kathleen – at Belair Road, Staten Island and was employed as an inspector at the Brooklyn Railroad Company. He was promoted to corporal on 9 September.
For war service the 69th was renumbered the 165th Infantry Regiment, but still retained its Irish symbolism and spirit, and every member since then has been designated an honorary Irishman. As Father Duffy described non-Irish who join the regiment, ‘They are Irish by adoption, Irish by association, or Irish by conviction.’ The 165th Regiment embarked for France on 29 October 1917 and as Michael Leonard sailed past the ‘ould country’ he had last seen in 1884 the words of the ‘Fighting Sixty-ninth’ song would have felt ominous,
So farewell unto you dear New York,
Will I e’er see you once more
For it fills my heart with sorrow,
To leave your sylvan shore
But the country now it is calling us,
And we must hasten fore
So here’s to the stars and stripes, me boys,
And to Ireland’s lovely shore
The 165th’s troopship docked at Brest on 12 November 1917. Cpl. Michael Leonard was engaged at Luneville, Baccarat and Champagne before meeting his fate on 16 July 1918. The person notified of Michael’s death was his sister, Mrs. Minnie Zrimmer, Staten Island, NYC.