John Joseph Cleary was born on the 27th December 1893 in the town of Listowel, situated on the River Feale in North County Kerry. The son of a sergeant in the Royal Irish Constabulary, he was one of fourteen children, five boys and nine girls. Cleary joined the Munsters in 1912 and was assigned to the 2nd Battalion with regimental number 9834. On the outbreak of war in Memorial Cross at the August 1914, he was a Lance Corporal and attached to C Company, at that time stationed at Malplaquet Barracks, Aldershot, Hampshire.
The 2nd Battalion RMF, Ist Coldstream Guards, Ist Scots Guards and Ist Black Watch, along with 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades, combined to form the Ist Division under Brig. General F.I. Maxse. The Battalion (Lieut. Col. J.K. O’Meagher) entrained at Farnborough and left for Le Harve via Southampton on board the Dunvegan Castle on the 13th August. From Le Harve they journeyed by train to Le Nouvion, arriving there on the 16th and going into billets in the village of Bone, three miles cast of Etreux. After a stay of five days, the Battalion marched north to the Belgian frontier, doing a double march of over forty miles on the 22nd August without undue fatigue. They remained in reserve during the fighting at Mons.
The retreat during the next three days was carried out in hot weather, the reservists especially being much galled by carrying the pack, but they “stuck it out” manfully – the number of stragglers comparing favourably with those of other units. Up to the 26th, though within hearing of heavy firing, the Battalion had done no actual fighting and it awaited impatiently the order to engage the enemy. Now it is occasionally given to a brigade the task of holding a division; likewise a division may detain an army corps, but for a single infantry battalion – or more correctly, three rifle companies plus a couple of field guns – to stem the advance of an entire German army corps, is probably an incident without parallel in modern warfare. Yet, throughout the day of August 27, the 2nd Munsters successfully carried out this incredible feat. During the course of the rearguard action, many of the survivors of the repeated German attacks fell back to the orchard by the main road near the village of Etreux. Captain C.R. Hall (A Company) took command. Seeing the enemy pressing forward to the east, he ordered a charge. A small party sallied forth. Though the Irish were outnumbered fifty to one, the enemy fell back in the face of the cold steel of the Irishmen. The little party then returned to the orchard.
The enemy now formed a complete ring round the remnants of the battalion. For the first time since early morning the machine guns were silent. Lieutenant Chute, having fought his guns to the last, was killed. Sergeant Johnson immediately assumed command and continued firing until the last cartridge was used up, then he took his guns in turn and smashed them to pieces. Ammunition was nearly exhausted, but the survivors, sparing every round, lined the four sides of the orchard and kept the enemy at a safe distance. It was now growing dark and tit was recognised that the situation was hopeless. At 9.15 p.m. four officers and 240 men, L/Cpl. John Joseph Cleary included, surrendered. The battalion’s ammunition had been exhausted and the wounded, many of them seriously, needed immediate attention. The Germans expressed their admiration for the heroic stand made by the Irish, but their Corps commander was furious when it was revealed to him the paltry numbers that had opposed him. Next day, as many as 1,500 enemy wounded were assembled in the village of Etreux. There are no figures available for casualties inflicted earlier in the day in the surrounding villages, but they are believed to have been considerable. When the last shot was fired, a space of twelve miles separated the 1 st British army Corps from the 10th German Reserve Army Corps – valuable time and space for the allies. Next morning saw the Germans fourteen hours behind their offensive programme.
Joseph Cleary, Lance Corporal, spent the remainder of the war in captivity in Fredericlifeld prisoner of war camp in Germany. Not all the soldiers were held in the same camp, many went to other camps, Limburg, Soltau, Giessen, the officers were housed in separate camps. (During Cleary’s internment as P OW., he was witness to Sir Roger Casement’s futile attempt to sway the loyalty of Irish POW’s to the German cause).
When war ended, Joseph Cleary returned to Ireland and took up employment with the railway company in Limerick. He later married a lass named Caroline Foley, who was the daughter of an R.I.C. sergeant. Remaining with the railway in Limerick, and eventually becoming Timekeeper, he retired in that post in 1959 at the age of sixty-five. He played an active part in the Trade Union movement, being promoted Branch Secretary of a section of the NUR. Along with being a staunch member of the local British Legion during the 1920′s, Cleary was also a member of the Old Comrades Association and in 1960, when ex R.S.M. John Ring MC, DCM died, Cleary was chosen to succeed him as Chief representative of the OCA – continuing in that capacity until his death in May 1970. His was responsible for organising Remembrance Day Ceremonies on November of each year. He is buried in St. Laurence’s Cemetery in Limerick.
John Cleary had two brothers who also served in the military, Patrick, who served with the Munster Fusiliers, (later transferring to the Sherwood Foresters) and Tom, an Army Veterinary Corps man. Taken from the files of E 0′ Sullivan, (edited).