yeovil at War

William Crocker Leaver

His name is inscribed on the memorials of both Yeovil, Somerset and Yeoval, NSW

 

I am most grateful to Peter Tremain, of Yeoval, New South Wales, Australia, for the following.

 

"The most mysterious name inscribed on the Yeoval Great War Honour Roll is "W Leaver". There is little doubt that he was William Crocker Leaver (Service Number 1514) of the 45th Battalion, as some of the correspondence from the AIF to his next of kin (his mother) was addressed "Mrs AM Leaver, Waterloo House, Yeoval, New South Wales (NSW)".

However, the mystery arises because William's mother actually lived in Yeovil, Somerset, England, not Yeoval, NSW. In addition, no evidence has been unearthed of a link between William Leaver and Yeoval, NSW, apart from reports in various local papers including the Wellington Times and the Molong Express such as "Private W. Leaver, who enlisted from Yeoval, is included amongst those reported ill in the last casualty list". The mystery is compounded because he did not provide an Australian address on his enlistment papers.

William Crocker Leaver was born early in 1879, the fourth son of John Leaver of Yeovil and Anna Maria nee Crocker. William also had one younger brother and four sisters. His mother was about 41 years of age when William was born, while his father was about 39 years old. He attended Kingston Grammar School in Yeovil. His father was a currier (leather processor) and leather merchant associated with the firm Leaver & Crocker, and died at a relatively young age of 54 years in 1894 when William was just 15 years old, but his mother lived to 87 years of age. His parents were both born in Somerton, Somerset and were married there, but moved to Stroud, Gloucestershire, before returning to Somerton and then to Yeovil, where they lived out the remainder of their lives.

William was recorded as living with his parents and siblings at Waterloo House, 3 Huish Street, Yeovil, in the 1881 and 1891 censuses. However, at the 1901 census, he was living on the Isle of Wight – as a prisoner in Parkhurst Prison. The reason for his incarceration, or its duration, is not known. Parkhurst Prison was initially a training prison for children. A total of 1,500 boys between the ages of 12 and 18, referred to as "apprentices", were sent to colonies in Australia and New Zealand from Parkhurst Prison. It became an adult prison in 1863, holding young male prisoners. Parkhurst had a reputation as one of the toughest jails in the British Isles.

William emigrated to Australia on the steamship "Salamis" arriving in Brisbane around the New Year 1904/05. His immigration records show that he was a baker. Elsewhere it was stated that he was also a labourer and a confectioner. From 1905 to 1915, there are virtually no records of William's whereabouts or his activities in Australia. There was one report of a William Leaver being fined for a fight outside a Wagga Wagga hotel in 1912, but it is not certain that it was William Crocker Leaver.

William enlisted at Liverpool, NSW, on 27 November 1914. Like many Englishmen living in Australia at the start of the Great War, William enlisted early and he was the second soldier on the Yeoval Honour Roll to enlist. He gave his next of kin as his mother of Waterloo House, Yeovil. However, this was later changed to his brother Ralph Herbert Leaver, also of Yeovil. His statement on his enlistment papers that he had never been convicted by a civil power appears to be somewhat incorrect.

William was 5' 7½" (171 cm) tall and weighed 10st 5½ lb (66 kg). His attestation paper was marked "very bad teeth – absolutely necessary to be attended to". He stated that he was 30 years old, however he was nearly 36 at the time. William departed Sydney on 11 February 1915 with the 3rd Reinforcements of the 1st Battalion on HMAT "Seang Choon". By 7 May 1915, he had joined his unit on Gallipoli, but his first stay on the peninsula did not last long. Only 3 days after he arrived he was sent to hospital with dental caries, and then travelled back to Egypt.

After about five weeks of convalescence, William was sent back to Gallipoli and re-joined the 1st Battalion on 25 June 1915. However, he was only on the front for a short time before being hospitalised again with dental trouble. He also developed a "general weakness" resulting in six weeks of convalescence in Egypt.

William returned to Mudros on Lemnos Island near Gallipoli on 8 September 1915, but apparently did not return to the peninsula. He was classified as "permanent class B" in October 1915, which meant he was not fit for active service. He was transferred to the Essex Garrison Regiment which manned the garrison at Lemnos, performed patrol and guard work, and was associated with the bases of the UK 53rd and 54th Divisions.

This period also saw some misdemeanours including "committing a nuisance in camp contrary to standing orders", "insolence and obscene language to an NCO", "absent without leave" (six times) and "absent from parades" (twice). Most of the misdemeanours incurred confinement to barracks or field punishment, but he was once awarded 96 hours detention and fined 8 days pay.

By January 1916 he was back in Egypt with a "C" classification, meaning he was fit for home service only, and close to being sent home. However on 31 March 1916, he was transferred to the newly formed 45th Battalion, Australian Imperial Force (AIF) instead. The battalion trained in Egypt, and over the next five months William was again hospitalised for dental treatment and suffered two episodes of iritis (inflammation of the eye).

He did not sail with the 45th Battalion when they embarked for France in June 1916 as he was ill, but instead he was posted to a training battalion at Rollestone, England, ironically only about 70km from his old home town of Yeovil.

William rejoined the 45th Battalion in France on 3 October 1916. At this time, the AIF were stationed near Ypres in Belgium. The front near Ypres was relatively quiet at the time and enabled the AIF to recuperate after the horrors of Pozieres, however the 45th Battalion did carry out a successful raid on German trenches near Wijtschate on 15 October. Soon after, the battalion was sent to occupy the front line trenches north and northeast of Flers.

Flers village near Bapaume, and the surrounding area, was seized by the New Zealanders during the Battle of Flers–Courcellette on 15 September 1916. The taking of Flers was partly accomplished with the first use of a new weapon, the tank. An estimated 1,560 New Zealanders died in this fighting and the bodies of 1,205 of them were never found or identified. It is not surprising that this area is the site of two of the most important New Zealand monuments on the Western Front – the New Zealand Memorial to the Missing and the New Zealand Division Memorial in Longueval.

A series of attacks were launched by the 26th to 29th Divisions earlier in November 1916. These operations attempted to push the Allied position out of the low valley up to the Bapaume ridge for the winter, but the Flers fighting achieved little.

By this time the Somme battlefield had been deluged with rain and the attacks were made in atrocious conditions. The attacking waves of troops were sucked down by the cloying mud and thus, unable to keep up with their creeping artillery barrage, became easy targets for German machine-gunners and riflemen. Charles Bean described the battle as the most difficult undertaken by the AIF. This fighting brought to a close the great Battle of the Somme, the bloodiest in history.

Conditions in the trenches were atrocious. The first Australian units to make their way to the front line from rear camps, a distance of about eight kilometres, took between 9 and 12 hours. The men, wrote Charles Bean, "were worn out before they arrived’. Lieutenant Leslie Newton, of the 12th Battalion described the trenches near Flers as "half full of a thick, viscous mud, which made traffic almost an impossibility. There was literally nowhere for the men to sit down, and many of them spent the whole twenty four hours in a standing position with this wet, clammy mud up to, and in some cases, over their knees …sleep in the front line was almost an impossibility". Padre William Devine, 48th Battalion, wrote that "the German was no longer the great enemy, it was the winter".

The 45th Battalion took over the front line on 18 November 1916 at Grease Trench, Flers. William was wounded on 22 November 1916. He was probably in the front line for only a few minutes when the Germans bombarded his company as they entered the trenches for the first time on 22 November 1916. Two other soldiers were killed and 7 wounded in the barrage. William died four hours later at the advanced dressing station at Flers Alley, remarking that his wounds "were good enough for Blighty" (that is, severe enough to be sent back to England). He was 37 years old.

Despite dying away from the immediate front line, William has no known grave and is commemorated on the Villers Bretonneux Memorial. As well as appearing on the war memorial in Yeoval, NSW, Australia, William's name also appears on the War Memorial in the town centre of Yeovil, Somerset." [Although it is inscribed Leaver, W rather than Leaver WC.]

 

gallery

 

A postcard dated 1915 showing a map of the Dardanelles Campaign.

 

The Roll of Honour of the Australian Imperial Force.

 

The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of William Leaver.

 

The Australian National Memorial at Villers-Bretonneux, Somme, France.

The memorial is the Australian National Memorial erected to commemorate all Australian soldiers who fought in France and Belgium during the First World War, to their dead, and especially to name those of the dead whose graves are not known. Both the cemetery and memorial were designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. The memorial was unveiled by King George VI on 22 July 1938. There are 10,738 Australian servicemen officially commemorated by this memorial and named within the register.