Lest We Forget

Private Frank Leach 1896-1916

For once I am writing a serious post because today is the 100th anniversary of the end of the First World War. Here in the UK we have marked the occasion very movingly. In my own village every lamp post bears a big poppy and there are displays in the churchyard and around the war memorial.

Village tribute.

My partner's great uncle Frank Leach was killed in the First World War during the Battle of the Somme. He was 20.  In 2016 on the 100th anniversary of Private Leach's death I wrote a piece for my local magazine. I include an excerpt from it below:

Private Frank Leach

Private Frank Leach, of the 8th Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment, was just 20 when he was killed in the Battle of The Somme in 1916.

My partner is his great-nephew, also called Frank Leach. We have Private Leach’s medals, a framed citation from King George V and a plaque inscribed with his name and the words, “He died for freedom and honour."

We also have his embossed brass tin, from the Princess Mary Gift Fund, which originally contained one ounce of pipe tobacco, twenty cigarettes, a pipe, a tinder lighter, Christmas card and a photograph of Princess Mary, the daughter of the king.  The boxes were paid for by a public fund backed by Princess Mary.

We have a copy of Frank’s birth certificate, his Bible and a photograph of him. It is the official photograph taken in Aldershot, where he did his training not long after he enlisted. He sits in his army uniform, a handsome, serious young man in the prime of life, staring into the camera lens. I often wonder what he was thinking as he posed for the photographer. Was he excited, scared, already missing his family? Was he thinking of a sweetheart at home, or of his mother, father, brothers and sisters? Who knows?

Frank Leach’s story is the same as that of thousands of young men, from all strata of society, mown down in the prime of life for the war that was supposed to end all wars.

He was born on February 13, 1896, at Morchard Bishop, the son of Walter, described as an agricultural labourer, and his wife Bertha.  Frank enlisted in Chulmleigh in 1914 at the age of 17 and at the time was working as a farm labourer at Saxons in Lapford, which is why his name is on two war memorials - at Lapford and Morchard Bishop.

I doubt very much whether he had in his short life travelled much further than Exeter. He was, we assume, a decent young man. He had a job and attended church, as we know from the Bible which was presented to him at Morchard Bishop Blue School at Easter, 1905, when he was nine. 

We are not sure when he was deployed to France but after enlisting in 1914 he would have received a few months of training at Aldershot.  What we do know is that by 1916 this young man was in France taking part in one of the bloodiest battles ever, the Battle of the Somme. It started on July 1 and on the first day alone the British Army suffered nearly 60,000 casualties.

Nineteen days later Private Leach was dead, killed in the biggest battle of the war during which more than a million men were wounded or killed. 

We know what happened on July 20, the day Private Leach died, from a report in the Devonshire Regiment Book. The 8th Battalion was in a place called High Wood. The Battalion had already been involved in a major attack and had retreated. After four days in reserve, they moved up to the front again on the evening of July 19.

In the early hours of the following morning, two Devonshire Regiment companies had started to crawl forwards towards the enemy. Between the two factions stood a field of standing corn. The Devons came under heavy fire from riflemen and machine guns hidden in the corn. The report says: "Anyone who stood up was hit at once, and it was difficult to get targets to fire back at, owing to the splendid concealment given by the standing corn."

Ironically, it seems that this young farm labourer lost his life thanks in part to a field of corn.

Private Leach was one of the 8th Battalion's 550 brave young Devonshire men killed in the Battle of the Somme. His meagre belongings came home to his mother but his body never did. He is buried in the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval, just a few miles from where the Battle of the Somme raged.

Private Frank Leach
February 13, 1896 to July 20, 1916

Each year there is a Festival of Remembrance at the Royal Albert Hall in London. This year was particularly poignant as it was the anniversary of the end of hostilities. Each year the festival is covered by the BBC and I'm not ashamed to admit that I spent much of the programme with tears in my eyes. You can watch it HERE, if anyone is interested.

The street outside my house.

A picture of the ranks of gravestones in a French cemetery.

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  1. What a fitting tribute to Private Leach. Those who lost their lives fighting for freedom should never be forgotten.

  2. You made that man come to life for those of us for whom he was just a statistic. Well done and a lovely tribute.

  3. Very nice tribute to your partner's great uncle. How sad his life was cut short like so many. I like those big poppies outside your house.

  4. How very sad. It's nice that you remember him.

  5. Thank you to everyone for your very kind and supportive comments. xx