The summer of 1913 has been written up, by various columnists and others, as the last golden summer; with the horrors yet to come furthest from most people’s minds, attitudes were carefree and good times were had by many. They were certainly had by Leonard Wright who, alongside Percy Brimblecombe (see last month’s issue) enjoyed the glorious September weather at camp on Berry Head, Torbay with Lustleigh Scouts.
A “most enjoyable week’s camp” was had by all involved: taking part and winning their rifle match against the Torquay Scouts; being shown over a newly-built Brixham Trawler; enjoying evening songs and yarns around the camp fire; being treated to a display of rocket and life-saving equipment by the Brixham Scouts on the last evening. No doubt, Leonard was pleased to be sharing the moment with his cousin, and possibly best friend, Percy Bunclark, the Scout’s Patrol Leader.
Lustleigh Parish Magazine recorded the event, saying that it will “be long remembered by all who were fortunate enough to take part in it”. Less than a year later, though, Leonard and his cousin were at a camp of a different sort – on Salisbury Plain readying for war.
Leonard had been born in Lustleigh in March 1897; originally, the family was living at Brookfield, but by the time Leonard entered Lustleigh Primary School in 1900, they had moved to Moorwood on the Moretonhampstead road. At this point, Leonard had only one other sibling, Bessie, who was two years his senior; four years later, brother Cecil arrived on the scene.
The family unit was due to swell again in 1907, but his mother died, quite possibly in childbirth as new brother Reginald is recorded as being born and dying around the same time. It would appear that Leonard’s father, William, at least initially, tried to continue to raise their three children on his own, but found himself increasingly unable to cope. First, he sent Bessie to live with her aunt who ran a lodging house in Bovey Tracey; then, the following year, Leonard was being schooled in Drewsteignton while perhaps living with his cousin, Percy.
When he left school, Leonard was temporarily re-united with his father, working together as gardeners in Pethybridge. But then the call of war came and arm-in-arm with his cousin, Percy, he went to Moretonhampstead to enlist into the 1/5th (Prince of Wales’s) Battalion of the Devonshire Regiment. In October 1914, following the training camp on Salisbury Plain, they were sent to India where they spent two years at Multan. In March 1917, they left for Egypt and in June they crossed into Palestine where General Allenby was planning to capture Jerusalem by Christmas.
By the time the battalion was ordered to France in May 1918, Leonard’s battalion had encountered many ferocious battles, losing significant numbers of men; unfortunately, the change of theatre was not to bring about a change in fortunes.
The 5th Devonshires’ route to the Western front was a long one, working their way back through Egypt to Alexandria, then setting sail for Marseilles, landing there on June 1st. Following a train journey across the length of the country, they joined the 185th Brigade, 62nd (West Riding) Division at Mondicourt in the Pas-de-Calais department. The Battalion saw some comparatively light engagements during June before receiving the welcome relief of two weeks training at the beginning of July, but it proved to be the lull before the storm.
Orders then came to take part on what was to become one of the battalion’s most important actions in its Great War history: along with the rest of the Brigade, it was to join the French Army on the front line at Marne, to deal a blow to the enemy which proved to be the last major German offensive on the Western Front. The ensuing victory marked the start of the relentless Allied advance which culminated in the Armistice with Germany about 100 days later.
It was at 8pm on July 19th that Leonard’s battalion commander received his instructions on their tasks for the following day. By 8am, they were on the move encountering heavy enemy barrage as they made their way through the woods south-west of Reims. Although they reached their objective by 11.30pm, it was at the cost of over 200 casualties including the loss of 2 officers and 34 other ranks; as the battalion commander recorded “the operation was a good deal hampered as the enemy put down a hostile barrage, mistaking our stretcher parties for attacking troops”.
Unfortunately, Leonard was one of those stretcher bearers and was killed by an explosive bullet while carrying out his duty, thereby falling in similar circumstance to another cousin, George Bunclark (Percy’s brother) in Salonika the previous year. Percy, who was also a stretcher-bearer, mercifully survived this action, although he was gassed about a week later during the same campaign, but not before attending Leonard’s burial, possibly at Ecueil Farm Military Cemetery.
Such was the significance of the action at Marne, that the commander of the 5th French Army wrote a letter thanking the British army for their part in the “victorious counter attack which had just stopped the enemy’s furious onslaught on the Marne”. Paying his own tribute the following month, the commander of the 62nd (West Riding) Division wrote to the Devonshire Territorial Association in Exeter to record the worthy part that “the men of fine physique, soldierly bearing and splendid courage” played in the Great Battle of the Marne.
When the tragic news of Leonard’s death reached Lustleigh, it must have come as a particularly hard blow to his father, who was instead expecting news of Leonard’s return home for his first leave since departing for India four years earlier. Although not immediately, but perhaps later, his father was able to take comfort in the knowledge that his son had played a role in one of the turning points in the war, the beginning of the end, as Churchill would have put it.
“He was but a boy when he left Lustleigh to fight as a volunteer for his country”, recalled the Parish Magazine of September 1918”, “but all who remember him speak highly and with feeling of him. May he rest in peace. His record on earth is all honourable.”
Leonard rests in peace in Jonchery-sur-Vesle British Cemetery, west of Reims, where his body, along with many others, was reinterred after the armistice. His part in the war, and his sacrifice, is of course also remembered on the Lustleigh War Memorial.
Leonard Wright will be remembered on Friday 20th July when the Bell Ringers will sound a half-muffled peel in his honour.
Sources used in compiling this story have included:
- Commonwealth War Graves Commission
- Ancestry & FindMyPast
- Lustleigh Parish Magazine
- Lustleigh and the First World War
- The Keep Military Museum