Think Piece: Bulletproof

Source: Sharon Cleary, published on Thursday 4 May, 2017.

ACCU Staff shot March 2015One hundred years ago, in the early hours of 3 May 1917, Leo Cleary prepared himself for the 2nd Battle of Bullecourt. He went over the top at 3.45am along with his mates, running like hell across ‘no man’s land’ hoping to find a break in the wire, an empty trench and the chance to fire off a few well-placed bullets into a surprised enemy.

Last week I attended my local Anzac Day Dawn Service and reflected on the life of Leo Cleary, a young man from my family who served in France 100 years ago. I stood respectfully among perhaps 2,000 others who, like me, had come to honour Australian servicemen and women with whom they had a connection.

Leo was from Malvern, Victoria, the youngest boy in a family of eleven that included his seven sisters and two brothers. His parents, Edward and Jemima were Irish Australian Roman Catholics who no doubt would have been tuned in to the conscription debate raging between outspoken Melbourne Archbishop Daniel Mannix and Australia’s pro-conscription Prime Minister, Billy Hughes.

Leo volunteered on 2 July 1915 listing his trade as ‘Art Metal Worker’. He’d served three years in the Victorian Senior Cadets and due to his ‘teeth’ was almost knocked back. That and the fact he was just five feet five and half inches tall – not quite the height required in August 1914 at the outbreak of war, but lowered since, as casualty lists grew. As he was only 18, his parents had to grant him permission to enlist.

Leo’s papers record a stint in hospital for conjunctivitis a few months before Bullecourt. It appears his severe eye infection may have been brewing since 10 September 1916, when he sought medical assistance for defective vision. Due to the impact of gas and shells used throughout the battles at Pozieres and Mouquet Farm, it is not unreasonable to assume his eye issues were a result of this exposure. The Battle of Pozieres had been Leo’s initiation into the Great War.

The First Battle of Bullecourt in which Leo had fought had been a dismal failure. The newly developed tank weapon supposed to clear the way for advancing infantry went nothing like the plan. A 66% loss rate was the result, with more than 1,250 men captured; one third of all Australians taken prisoner in the Great War. Despite this, it was decided Bullecourt should be tried again.

What goes through the mind of a young 19 year old as he prepares himself for a battle that will start in pitch black and require him to run directly toward an enemy he cannot see? I imagine there was a defining moment where his whole being struggled between courage and fear knowing that courage must win. A moment that only those who have faced it will ever know.

The moon was full the night of 3 May giving the Germans a distinct advantage. Positioned on the far left flank of the 6th Brigade, in front of the 21st Battalion, LCPL Cleary, like many of his colleagues, was met by heavy machine gun and rifle fire from German positions to the east. German artillery fell directly in front of them.

At Second Bullecourt the 22nd Battalion lost 16 officers and 422 other ranks. Lance Corporal Leo Joseph Cleary was one of them. An eyewitness account describes how Leo died:

“…A bullet caught him right through the heart, killing him instantly… I do not know place of burial, as there was a heavy barrage on at the time…The ground was held and he was sure to have been buried later.”

In 1922, Leo’s Father claimed his youngest son’s decorations. They had been duly sent to him along with a copy of Where the Australians Rest, a government publication describing the memorials on which those with “no known grave” were commemorated. Leo’s remains were among the ‘missing’ despite the knowledge his death had occurred in battle. In due course his name was inscribed among his mates of the 22nd Battalion on the walls of the Australian National Memorial at Villers–Bretonneux, where I would see it 98 years later – perhaps the first in my family to do so.

Like so many other 19 year olds who died in the Great War, Leo was not bulletproof that day. He remained on the other side of the world, in a field where he has no known grave. His personal belongings were never located, despite a mate having written to the family to tell them he’d collected them, as he’d been with him when he died. Learning that a mate was with Leo when he died probably brought more comfort to the family than finding his personal belongings.

Like most of us, I want our governments to seriously question committing our servicemen and women to conflict. But I also understand that because of who we are, because of our history, our geographical location, our wealth, and our hard-earned experience, that we will be called to war. This combined with our morality and values will compel us to go – just as Leo was.

For the past three years I’ve been working to engage South Australians with the Anzac Centenary. Not to glorify war. Nor to encourage recruitment into the defence forces. That’s not my role. Rather, to provide an opportunity for as many of our servicemen and women and their families as possible, to share their Anzac stories at this time. A time of national reflection on the cost of war. By gathering their stories we honour the young men and women who, like my Great Grandfather’s Uncle Leo, gave their all.

At the end of the Anzac Day Service, I noticed a young man wearing service medals on his left lapel. For a moment I thought he must have been wearing a relative’s medals on the wrong side, but later it dawned on me that of course they were his. It’s not often I’ve seen young servicemen and women in their civilian clothes at an Anzac Day Dawn Service. I wished I had had the courage to shake his hand and to thank him for his service. I will be sure to next time.

When these remarkable young men and women join our defence force, they take the Oath of Allegiance to Queen and country making themselves available for war. Like us, they don’t go seeking war. War comes to them. And when it does we need them to be ready and we need to thank them from the bottom of our hearts for having the courage and fortitude to stand up on our behalf; just as we need to continue to thank and remember all those like Leo, who went before them.

‘When you go home, tell them of us and say,
for their tomorrow we gave our today’

John Maxwell Edmonds (1919)

Lest we forget.


Sharon Cleary is a content creator for print and web-based media. In 1993, she established her own media production company, Nettle Noise & Pictures through which she has produced print, video and web based content for both government and community clients. She moved with her family to Adelaide in 2004, taking up roles with Adelaide Film Festival and South Australian Film Corporation. She is currently Manager, Anzac Centenary Coordination Unit within Veterans SA.