Monday, 18 January 2010

31769 Pte Harry Leeks, 9th Essex Regt


I met Harry Leeks in September 1981. He was one of four WW1 veterans living in a retirement complex in Chelmsford. I conducted a brief interview with him at his home and then returned a couple of years later with the then curator of the Essex Regiment Museum - David Jones - who conducted a more detailed tape-recorded interview. I have a transcript of that subsequent interview and the original is with the museum.

This post is a combination of official information taken from Harry's service record in the WO 363 series at the National Archives (and also accessible via, and Harry's own reminiscences. I have also transcribed a letter from nineteen-year-old Eva Lancaster, written to Harry whilst he was in France in 1917.

Harry Leeks in WO 363

Harry Leeks was the son of Harry and Emma Leeks and was born at Sudbury, Suffolk, on the 18th July 1897. (The year 1887 is incorrectly recorded on some of his papers). He attested with the Essex Regiment on the 17th November 1915 and received an armlet showing that he was a Derby Scheme volunteer. He was then eighteen years and four months old.

The following September, Harry was called up and joined the 3rd Battalion at Warley on the 4th of that month. His papers indicate that he was a boot repairer by trade and living at 16 Park Road, Chelmsford. His next of kin is recorded as his father who was then living at 8 Anchor Street, Chelmsford. This address was later crossed out and a new one - Hope Villas, Rectory Road - written there at in its place. Hope Villas still survive in Chelmsford and in fact, when I interviewed Harry, he was living only a stone's throw away from his old address.

Harry was given the Essex Regiment number 31769 and remained in England until the 7th December 1916, sailing for France the following day as part of a draft for the 9th Battalion. He received a gunshot wound to his back at Arras on the 9th April 1917 but after a short spell at No 3 General Hospital at Le Treport returned for duty with his regiment and re-joined the battalion on the 24th May that year. He appears to have then remained in France until 27th January 1919 when he was demobilised at Purfleet.

Harry's father died whilst his son was overseas, and there is a letter in his file from his mother (dated 26th November 1917) requesting that her son be allowed home on compassionate leave as her husband only had a few hours to live. I can find no evidence in the file - and do not recall Mr Leeks mentioning it when I met him - that he ever saw his father, although it appears that permission was granted.

Harry Leeks in his own words

I joined up at the drill hall in Market Road, Chelmsford and spent three months training at Felixstowe before being sent to France. The trenches there were terrible; mud and sludge. I was lucky that I just missed the Battle of the Somme but we were there for Arras and I saw the Essex Yeomanry get cut up, and it was absolutely wicked to see it. That was the last time they used the cavalry.

We went over the top on Easter Monday, 9th April 1917. One of our shells dropped two or three yards short and killed three or four of our chaps. I was hit in the back by a piece of shrapnel and fell into a shell-hole. As I was laying there, Captain Brown come up and said to me, "Advance this way, you've got the bloody wind-up. I'll count to three and then I'll shoot."

He fired three shots at me and the last one hit my tin helmet and sent it spinning away into no-man's land before he himself suddenly fell wounded. Later on I was picked up by stretcher bearers and taken to a nearby dressing station and it was here that I met my pal Private Roberts. He told me that he'd seen the incident with Captain Brown and that he had shot him. Captain Brown, who was also a Sudbury man like me, survived the war but spent the rest of his life in a wheelchair.

I was taken to a Canadian hospital just behind the lines and they told me that the shrapnel had just missed my spine. I was supposed to go to England but for some reason that never happened.

Letter from Eva Lancaster to Harry Leeks

12 Manor Road

July 16th 1917

Dear Harry

No doubt you will be very much surprised to hear from me, but I thought I would like to write to you, a few lines, and I hope you will not think I am putting myself forward in writing to you first.

Well in the first place, I hope you are feeling better. I was surprised to hear you had been wounded, but as time goes on let us hope you will regain your full strength. No doubt you were disappointed because you were not brought to England, but before long you may be coming home for good. When do you think that will be? I do not see much signs of the war ending, but very likely it will come when we least expect it. I have heard through your sister, Ethel, that you have a Lancaster in your company. My brother is a sergeant in the Machine Gun Corps so probably he may be attached to your regiment.

Have you seen any Chelmsford fellows since you have been out? It must be rather nice to come across some of those who you know, but it is not very often the case. I suppose you have heard about the air raid here last Saturday week. It is a sight I never want to see again. Of course, when we heard the siren we stopped work, and a few more girls and I rushed out and we counted twenty-three aeroplanes. I was struck, I thought perhaps there would be two or three, and they seemed to be up a fair good height. It seemed so dreadful to think that they come over to kill poor innocent people, and they seem to glide along so stately. I for my part would have liked to see some brought down, but they brought a few down on their way back.

I have a faint recollection that last year you told one your birthday was in July but I forget the date now, but I am taking the opportunity of wishing you a Happy Birthday. I cannot say Happy Returns for I am sure you do not wish that and let us hope that next year you may be spending it in England. Did you know Fred Monk is discharged from the army? He came home last Thursday. He looks so much better than he did. His heart is very weak and yesterday evening during the hymn he had to sit down.

Well I do not think that I have any more to write this time. I should be pleased to hear from you if you would care to write.

Now I must conclude, with kindest regards from

Eva (Lancaster)

Eva Lancaster's MGC brother was killed during the First World War and he has no known grave. Eva and Harry Leeks were married in 1927 and when I took this photograph of them both at their home on the 9th September 1981, they'd been married for 54 years. I saw the couple regularly until the winter of 1984. Eva Leeks died suddenly in December that year, and Harry died less than a month later. May they both rest in peace.

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