SAPPER JAMES JOSEPH LEONARD
13TH OCTOBER 1918 AGE 30
BURIED: CAMBRIN MILITARY CEMETERY, FRANCE
This inscription comes from a very patriotic poem called Nationality, written by Thomas Osborne Davis (1814-1845). Verse one declares that a nation's voice is a solemn thing and should be respected. Verse two states that a nation's flag, unfurled in the cause of Liberty, should be guarded "till Death or Victory" - with the assurance that anyone who dies defending it will have an honoured grave:
No saint or king has tomb so proud,
As he whose flag becomes his shroud.
Verse three insists that God gave nations the right to defend themselves with the sword against a foreign yoke.
'Tis freedom from a foreign yoke,
'Tis just and equal laws,
Which deal unto the humblest folk,
As in a noble cause.
So far so good, this is England fighting for her liberty against the fear of a German 'yoke'. Except that it isn't. The nation entitled to her voice, entitled to just and equal laws, is Ireland, and the foreign yoke belongs to England.
Thomas Osborne Davis, the author of the poem, was an Irish nationalist whose nationalism was based on shared Irish culture and language rather than on Catholic Emancipation or full blown independence and republicanism. He was in any case a protestant, as were Charles Stuart Parnell and Roger Casement, two other Irish nationalist figures.
The Leonards were a Roman Catholic family from Brackaville, a rural community near Coalisland, Co. Tyrone. Who knows what the family's politics were but throughout the twentieth century Coalisland was an IRA stronghold. However, many Irish people were prepared to fight for Britain because they believed John Redmond who told them that English gratitude would ensure they were rewarded afterwards with independence. And many Irish people fought for Britain because they didn't want independence.
It's not possible to tell what motivated James 'Joe' Leonard to enlist - money, adventure, escape, principle. He was an early volunteer, his medal card shows that he was entitled to the 1915 Star having arrived in France on 29 September 1915. This was well before the British suppression that followed the Dublin Easter Rising in April 1916.
Leonard served throughout the war with the 157th Field Company Royal Engineers, part of the 16th (Irish) Division. The war diary exists and shows that in October 1918 the Company were based in Auchy constructing pontoons for crossing the Heutedeule Canal and attempting to stop a leak or a 'cut' in the canal bank. The diary for 13 October records:
"No. 3 [Section] in canal cut .Sprs Leonard and Dunnington killed and the stopping of the leak was not successful."
It sounds as though there was some kind of accident in which Leonard and Dunnington were killed. There is certainly no mention of any enemy action that day. By the way, the War Graves Commission gives the date of his death as the 12 October, the war diary as the 13th.
Mrs Sarah Ann Leonard, Sapper Leonard's mother, chose his inscription - or did she? In the 1901 census neither parent were said to have been able to read.
May Ireland's voice be ever heard,
Amid the world's applause!
And never be her flag-staff stirred,
But in an honest cause!
May freedom be her very breath,
Be justice ever dear;
And never an ennobled death
May son of Ireland fear!
So the Lord God will ever smile,
With guardian grace, upon our isle.
NATIONALITY verse four