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James Leach VC

 James Leach VCFollowing the declaration of war with Germany on 4 August 1914 the 2nd Battalion Manchester Regiment, then stationed at Mullingar, Ireland, received its orders to mobilise for active service. On the 13th the battalion entrained for Dublin, leaving Ireland on the 14th and arriving at Le Havre during the afternoon of the 16th. Since their arrival they had fought at Mons, stood the brunt of the battle of Le Cateau, taken part in the terrible retreat that followed and fought again on the Marne and the Aisne. From 11 October the 2nd Battalion had been undergoing severe fighting a few miles to the north-east of Bethune and had suffered heavy casualties. At about 4.30 am on the 22nd the battalion was ordered to Festubert as divisional reserve. On their way they were ordered to make a counter-attack to assist 15 Infantry Brigade in the vicinity of Rue Du Marais. They eventually checked the enemy advance by maintaining a line within one hundred yards of them until midnight.

Historic Occasion

Now, a battalion of worn-out and exhausted men, they were ordered the following day to withdraw and hold a new line which had previously been prepared by the Royal Engineers and which extended half-a-mile along the road leading north from the cross roads one mile east of Festubert. They continued to hold this position for the next few days with just a few casualties. On the 26th the 1st Battalion Manchester Regiment took over trenches to the left of the 2nd Battalion. This was a historic occasion being the first time that the two battalions had met since Alexandria in 1882. Unfortunately there were many casualties resulting from heavy enemy shelling. Shelling continued on the 27th. Through every hour of 28th October the German artillery continued shelling their trenches, thumping at the thin line of the 2nd Manchesters. It continued throughout the night and redoubled in intensity on the morning of the 29th.

In the thin light of dawn the German infantry attacked in overpowering strength against the centre and right of the Manchesters and against the Devons on their right. Soon intense hand to hand fighting took place in the front line trenches manned by ‘A’ Company. The Germans succeeded in occupying the centre forward trench in the charge of newly commissioned 2nd Lieutenant James Leach; but the right forward trench, commanded by Captain Evans (1), repulsed the attack made on them. Leach and his men withdrew to their support trench where they gathered themselves and were able to prevent a German attempt to over-run their new position, driving the enemy back to the trench which they had just won. 2nd Lieutenant Bentley (2) and Lieutenant and Adjutant Reade (3) plus eighteen rank and file were killed in this action.

It was now determined to try and retake the trench occupied by the enemy. Leach accompanied by Sergeant Hogan, a quiet veteran of the Boer War, and ten of his men who volunteered to go, went forward but the Germans, determined to hold on to what they had won, made a spirited defence and another two Manchesters went down under this hail of fire. It was certain death to go on and the Manchesters withdrew. Once again the Lieutenant, Sergeant and their volunteers went forward with great courage but the enemy were too well placed, the fire too strenuous and hot; the counter-attack failed once more.

Fighting from Traverse to Traverse

Leach in Trenches, Eighteen germans taken prisonerLeach and Hogan decided to have one further attempt but this time they decided that numbers were an obstacle and meant more chance of losing lives. At about 3.30pm the two went out alone, creeping along the communication trench until they reached the forward trench. Fighting from traverse to traverse they gradually drove the Germans back in a frenzy of firing. Deaf, dazed but resolute the two brave men fought their way through the narrow confines of the trench. Leach, armed with a revolver, was able to shoot around the corner of the traverses without exposing himself whilst Hogan watched the parapet to ward off any attack from above, since it was quite possible that the Germans might climb out of the trench and attack the two from above or behind; nothing untoward happened and they advanced to the next section. Taking their stand at the next corner they repeated the manoeuvre, Leach now having to fire round the corner with his left hand. During their progress Hogan put his cap on the end of his rifle raising it above the parapet with the object of letting his comrades know how far they had progressed so that they would not fire on the area of the trench which had been retaken. All the time the Germans kept up, what Hogan later described as an inferno of bullets, and at places there was fierce hand to hand fighting between the enemy and the two Manchesters. Eventually the Germans were driven back into the left traverse and could go no further and it was at this stage that they gave up. Eight of the enemy had been killed, sixteen unwounded men and two wounded taken prisoner.(4)

Image of James LeachIn a later interview Leach described how having driven the enemy through to the last traverse he was surprised to hear a voice calling in English ‘Don’t shoot, Sir! The speaker turned out to be one of his own men who had been taken prisoner in the morning. He had been sent forward by the German officer to say that they wished to surrender. Leach made them take of their equipment and run back to the main British trench. When the two emerged from the trench neither had been wounded although Leach’s cap had been knocked to pieces and the scarf he had worn round his neck shredded. Some companies of the Bedford Regiment and Munster Fusiliers came up in support of the Manchesters, and about midnight the line of trenches had been taken over by 2nd Battalion 8th Gurkhas. Both James Leach and John Hogan were recommended for the award of the Victoria Cross which was gazetted on 22 December 1915.

The citation for the award reads:

For conspicuous bravery near Festubert on the 29th October 1914, when after their trench had been taken by the Germans and after two attempts at recapture had failed, they voluntarily decided to recover the trench themselves, and working from traverse to traverse at close quarters with great bravery, they gradually succeeded in regaining possession, killing eight of the enemy, wounding two and making sixteen prisoner.

On 16 November the battalion took over trenches from the French to the east of James Leach VCWulverghem where for the next 48 hours they were very heavily shelled. Lieutenants Robert Horridge (5), H W Nicholson (6) and Corporal P Faulkner were all killed and twelve men wounded. Lieutenant A J Scully (7) and 2nd Lieutenant Leach were both admitted to hospital. On 18 November Leach was shown to be suffering from concussion and two days later was sent home and admitted to the Lady Evelyn Mason's Hospital for Officers at 16 Bruton Street, London.

The 2nd Battalion war diary of 30 December records receiving a telegram dated 26.12.1914 from 14 Infantry Brigade:

2/Lieut J E Leach and No. 9016 Sergt J Hogan both 2nd Manchester Regiment awarded Victoria Cross for conspicuous bravery near Festubert on 29th October. Notification appeared in London Gazette dated 22nd December. Convey Divisional and Brigade Commanders warmest congratulations.

In the same war diary Lieut Colonel James includes:

The Commanding Officer is very pleased to have received the highly favourable remarks by the Corps, Divisional and Brigade Commanders recently issued on the behaviour of the Battalion in the field which has culminated in the bestowal by His Majesty of the Victoria Cross to 2/Lieut J E Leach and No. 9016 Sergeant J Hogan. While single deeds are thus rewarded, we must remember the record of a Regiment is the combined result of cheerful effort and unfailing devotion to duty, on all and every occasion both in the field, in billets and in barracks of every individual member of the battalion.

James Leach – Early Life

James Edgar Leach was born at Bowerham Barracks. Lancaster on 27 July 1892. At the time his father, then age 32, was a Colour-Sergeant in the King’s Own (Royal Lancaster) Regiment (8) and had married Amelia Summerfield in 1891. James had three younger brothers William, Robert and Cecil and a young sister Louisa Victoria,(9) all born in Lancaster and living at the barracks. James went to school at Bowerham Council School from July 1897 until July 1901. When James was born his father was away on active service with the 4th Militia Battalion King’s Own in South Africa.(10) The battalion returned to England in late July 1901 and it is likely that Colour Sergeant Leach then took his discharge from the Regiment as Mrs Leach with her children moved to Manchester in July 1901. Nine year old James went to Moston Lane Municipal School (11) from the day that it first opened on 20th August 1901 until leaving in 1907 when it is understood that the family moved to Leicester. His brothers William and Robert were also educated at this school. His headmaster at the time, Albert Mercer, later described the young Leach as having been ‘a quiet gentlemanly boy, never in a scrape’. James Leach VC promoted to Lance Corporal
Three years later in August 1910 Leach enlisted at Northampton in the Army Reserve joining the 3rd (Special Reserve) Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment on a six year engagement. On his enlistment papers Leach gave his trade as fishmonger. Whilst in the Special Reserve he obtained his Army 2nd and 3rd Class Certificates of Education and the 1st Class Certificate on 31 May 1911. This initial experience of soldiering must have suited the young man as on 22 December he enlisted in the regular army on a seven years engagement with the Colours and five in the Reserve, reporting at the Regimental Depot of the Northamptonshires two days later. His choice of Regiment could have been influenced by his Mother’s connections with Northampton where she had been born.


In January 1911 Leach joined 2nd Battalion Northamptonshire Regiment, transferring to the 1st Battalion on 15 March. Promotion quickly followed and in November 1911 he was appointed Lance Corporal and in February 1913 (12) awarded the Acting School Masters Certificate. He passed classes of instruction in Transport Duties in November 1913 and in Sanitary and Water Duties in February 1914. Promotion to full Corporal followed in June 1914. His military employment sheet for March and April 1914 show him as being ‘clean, sober, reliable, hardworking. Trained as battalion scout, has a schoolmaster’s certificate and is employed as a signaller’. His father died in Leicester in 1913 and his mother at about the same time.

At the outbreak of war in August 1914 Corporal (9265) Leach J was serving with the 1st Battalion in Blackdown, Aldershot. The Northamptonshires were part of 2nd Brigade in 1st Division and following mobilisation they landed at Le Havre, France on 13 August. Although they were present at Mons, the battalion had not been engaged and went through the great retreat with just a handful of casualties. All this changed on 10 September when the battalion, acting as part of the advanced guard for the Division, moved forward to Courchamps and was engaged in the action at Priez. The battle of the River Aisne commenced on the 13th lasting until the 18th and it was for his bravery and distinguished conduct during the days of battle that Leach was promoted Sergeant. He was also Mentioned in Despatches. (LG: 17.2.1915 p167) Promotion in the field quickly followed for three of the Northamptonshires when Company Sergeant-Major Phillpot, Company Quartermaster-Sergeant Eden and Sergeant Leach were selected to be awarded immediate commissions for their services in the field. On 1st October Leach was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in the Manchester Regiment; hardly given time to obtain his new uniform he joined 2nd Manchesters at Dieval on 9 October.

Ill-health and Tragedy

As a result of the close quarter fighting on 29 October Leach received treatment for concussion at the Lady Evelyn Mason's Hospital in London. He was discharged on 11 December 1914 and waited for a medical Board at Caxton Hall to be held on 17 December. Whilst convalescing in England he was temporarily placed on the strength of the 3rd Reserve Battalion Manchester Regiment (13) at Cleethorpes. His promotion to Lieutenant was made on 11 December 1914. Leach went to Manchester on 12 February 1915 and visited Moston Lane School where the boys enjoyed an hour of excited hero-worship – to quote the report in the Manchester Guardian of 13 February. A Guard of Honour, composed of Boy Scouts, met him at the school and after speaking to the boys he was presented with a fountain pen subscribed to by the boys and masters. The boys were given a half-day’s holiday in his honour whilst their hero went on a recruiting tour of Manchester. The following day to London to receive his decoration from King George V at Buckingham Palace.(14) Three days later he addressed an open air meeting in St Peter’s Square, Manchester.

James Leach VC (seated centre) at the school of signallingLeach was back in France with 2nd Manchesters on 15 April 1915 rejoining the battalion in trenches in the Ypres area where they relieved the 1st East Surreys. His health was certainly still causing problems as the battalion war diary records on the17th 2/Lieut J E Leach VC to hospital sick. So within a week of having returned to the front he sailed from Boulogne on the St Andrew on 20 April for England. Following a medical board in June he was reported as being fit for light duty in the open air but not to be detailed for duty with the Expeditionary Force until reported fit for service abroad pending another medical board to be held on 21 July. The result of this board held at Purfleet was that he had been granted sick leave until 1 September. However this was cut short as he received a telegram from the War Office instructing him to report on 20 August to the Army School of Signalling, then based in Caius College, Cambridge.James Leach with group of soldiers

Four months later his first marriage took place in Cambridge on 23 December 1915 when he married a local girl Gladys Marguarite Digby. The following month he and his 19 year old wife visited Lancaster where the new local hero was presented by the Lord Mayor with an illuminated address and a solid silver tea tray and service from the citizens of Lancaster. Mrs Leach was also presented with a handbag containing a gift of treasury notes. However this was to be a brief marriage as Gladys Leach died shortly afterwards.(15)

Quite when his appointment with the Signalling School terminated is not known but he was promoted temporary Captain on 1 January 1917. Presumably through his posting to the 3rd Battalion at Cleethorpes he had met Josephine Pansy Butt the younger daughter of William Walter Butt, a wealthy trawler owner living at Fernlea, 47 Wellholme Road, Grimsby. They were married at the Parish Church in Old Clee, a village between Cleethorpes and Grimsby on 3 March 1917.

It was a short honeymoon and Captain Leach was back in France on 24 March, re-joining 2nd Manchesters on 15 April when the battalion returned to the trenches after three days rest and relieved the 1st East Surrey Regiment. Shortly afterwards he was sent on a Lewis Gun course and was back with the battalion on 19 June. On 24 August he was given UK leave until 2 September but at his own request this was also extended for the purpose of medical examinations. Following yet another medical board Leach was declared unfit for General Service duties and remained in the UK on three months light duties. His mental health was undoubtedly proving to be of great concern and during this period he spent some time in convalescence at Craiglockhart Hospital in Edinburgh. Whilst there he was pronounced permanently unfit for service and temporarily placed on 12 months half-pay of three shillings a day.

James Leach VCHis military service was rapidly coming to an end but in March 1918 Captain Leach was appointed Adjutant of the South West London Cadet Battalion affiliated to the 23rd London Regiment. On 24 July Lieutenant Colonel Myers of the Medical Headquarters New Zealand Expeditionary Force in London wrote to the War Office stating that Captain Leach VC had reported to him asking for a medical inspection prior to his next medical board and stated that this was desired by his medical board. This had been done and the report enclosed. The following day Leach applied to the War Office to be retired from the Army on account of medical unfitness.(16) Three months later approval was given for him to retire on retired pay on account of ill health contracted on active service. He was discharged in August 1918.

The Leach’s first son, James Walter Barry Leach,(17) was born on 1 June 1918 at 118 Norfolk House Road, Streatham and it is likely that the family then moved up to Grimsby to be near his wife’s family. After eight years army service it is probable that Leach found suitable civilian employment difficult to find during 1919 and 1920 but the life of the family was soon to change.

Auxiliary Force

Over the water in Ireland the Rule of Law was rapidly becoming non-existent. Between 30 June 1919 and 30 June 1920 some eighty members of the Royal Irish Constabulary and the British forces had been killed and the authorities showed little sign of control. On 11 May 1920, the Secretary of State for War, Winston Churchill, suggested the formation of a "Special Emergency Gendarmerie, which would become a branch of the Royal Irish Constabulary." No decision was taken at the time but in July the scheme was justified on the grounds that it would take too long to reinforce the Royal Irish Constabulary with ordinary recruits. The new ‘Auxiliary Force’ would be strictly temporary: its members would enlist for a year: pay would be £7 per week (twice what a constable was paid), plus a sergeant's allowances, and the men would be known as ‘Temporary Cadets’.

Accordingly the Auxiliary Division Royal Irish Constabulary (ADRIC) recruited from ex-officers who had served in the war, especially those who had served in the Army. Recruiting began in July 1920 and by November 1921 the division was 1,900 strong. These recruits were mainly unemployed veterans of World War I whose principal motivation was paid employment. Although they served in the constabulary they never acted as policemen; indeed they acted as an army of occupation. For the majority their service experience had been in trench warfare on foreign soil. Totally absent in their background was the role of the police as servant to the community in the protection of life and property.

On 6 January 1921, Leach joined the RIC as an Inspector (Cadet No.1240) (18) stationed at Glengarriff in County Cork. It was an area where the Black and Tans and the Police Auxiliaries were known for their tough counter-insurgency tactics, which included at times terrorising the general Irish population. Their tactics were often counter productive resulting in increased support for the IRA. Although a part of the RIC, the ADRIC were billeted and operated completely separately from the regular RIC and ‘Black and Tans’. Divided into companies each about one hundred strong, heavily armed and highly mobile, they operated mostly in the south and west, where IRA activity was greatest. They wore either RIC uniforms or their old army uniforms with appropriate police badges, along with distinctive Tam-o-Shanter hats.

Mrs Leach and young James lived there for a time in police barracks, which cannot have been very pleasant for either of them. Hardly a day passed without killings and ambushes on both sides. Shortly after Leach arrived a major incident was carried out by the Longford Column of the IRA when they ambushed two lorries containing seventeen Police Auxiliaries at Clonfin, between Granard and Balinalee. After a prolonged engagement four Auxiliaries were killed including three of Leech’s fellow Cadets. The greatest loss to the ADRIC was a similar ambush in Kilmichael, Co. Cork on 28 November 1920 where a total of seventeen ADRIC Cadets based in Macroom were killed.

Peace and War

Following the peace treaty of December 1921 Leach returned to England in 1922 where his father in law employed him in a clerical capacity at the fish docks in Grimsby. Whilst there he studied and became an FCIS (Fellow of the Chartered Institute of Secretaries). A second son, Donald Anthony Leach (19), was born on 19 May 1925 at 8 Gertrude Street, Grimsby. Amateur theatricals appear to have been an interest of James Leach at this time and it was reported that a distinguished member of the cast of ‘A Message from Mars’ running at the Prince of Wales’ Theatre in Grimsby, was Captain Leach VC.(20)

The Palace Theatre in Grimsby was also visited by Leach. A review by Harry Shaw in the Grimsby Telegraph of 9th June reported that:

‘One does not care to revive memories of the war – in the main, at any rate. But ‘Khaki’ the show at the Palace this week recalls the brighter side of hostilities. ‘Khaki’ carries an attraction of a somewhat unusual but appropriate kind. Sergeant Issy Smith VC appears in the cast. During the interval at the first performance last night a little ceremony took place on the stage. Mr J W Henley, secretary to the Grimsby branch of the British Legion introduced Sergeant Smith to Grimsby’s own VC – Captain Leach. It is a coincidence that the captain and the sergeant gained the decoration whilst they were both serving in the Manchester Regiment. Both VCs briefly addressed the audience, voicing thanks for the cordial reception.

However there were many disagreements between Leach and Walter Butt which came to a head in 1927 when the family left Grimsby and moved to London where Leach with his recently acquired qualifications obtained employment with the Bank of England. A daughter, Josephine Anne Wendy Leach, was born on 22 November 1928 at 32B Grove Park Gardens, Chiswick, London (21). With the coming of the great depression jobs were cut and Leach lost his job with the Bank in 1930/31. He was then able to obtain employment for the next three years based in the Fanning Islands in the South Pacific as an accountant with a copra exporting company. During this time his father in law bought Mrs Leach a house at 55 Burlington Lane, Chiswick into which she and the children moved in 1932. Leach returned to England and London in 1934 and commenced employment with Foster and Braithwaite, a prominent firm of stockbrokers in the City of London.

Two years later Walter Butt died, leaving money to his daughter in trust for her three children. The interest on this amount was considered to be quite reasonable and James Leach decided that this was an opportunity and he could now afford to give up work and read for the Bar. Accordingly he studied and successfully passed his first two law examinations. However relationships between husband and wife deteriorated; aggravated no doubt because of his lack of contributions to household and education expenses, and in 1937 the two separated and were divorced in 1938.

Following the outbreak of war in 1939 James Leach worked for the Ministry of Aircraft Production but by 1943 had moved to work in the legal department of the Osram lighting factory in Hammersmith, living at 12 Sinclair Mansions, Richmond Way, Shepherd’s Bush. During this time he became an officer in the Roehampton Home Guard Battalion and married his third wife Mabel Folland,(22) whom he had met whilst working at Osram’s. Post–war Leach worked for the Danish Bacon Company at Thames Street in the City of London. He became honorary secretary of the Hatfield Chamber Music Ensemble which was directed by his nephew John Leach and was a Conservative member of the Hammersmith Borough Council between 1949 and 1955. Another of his interests was the Hammersmith Association for the Blind, of which he was a founder member and treasurer.

VC centenary celebrations were held in London in 1956.(23) The opportunity to entertain the Manchester VCs by their Regiment whilst they were assembled in London was taken by Colonel Charles Archdale and it was decided that they should be invited to dine with those officers of the Regiment who were then based in London. Accordingly a dinner was held at the Royal Empire Society on the evening of 28 June. Both James Leach VC and his wife attended the dinner and after Charles Archdale had spoken about the Regiment’s pride in her VCs and commenting upon this unique occasion James Leach spoke in response. George Stringer VC was present with his sister Mrs Wrenshaw, together with close relatives of Issy Smith VC, George Henderson VC, George Evans VC and Harry Coverdale VC. Acting as hosts representing the Regiment were Lieutenant Colonel Charles Archdale, Major & Mrs John Gunning, Major Rex King-Clark, Major Jerry Perez, Major Joe Flynn and Major Robert Clutterbuck.

On 23 April 1958 James Leach attended the Manchester Regiment bi-centenary celebrations at Warley Barracks, Brentwood but died four months later on 15 August. His funeral took place on the 21st at St Mathew’s Church, Shepherd’s Bush followed by cremation at Golders Green where his ashes were scattered. A bearer party and bugler were provided by 1st Battalion The Manchester Regiment. Also present from the Regiment were Majors Peter McEachran, John Gunning, Burrows, Lieutenants Mike Yemm and Miller together with three members of the London branch of the Regimental Association - Messrs Carling, Kemble and Stafford.(24)

(1) Captain Wilfred Keith Evans. He assumed temporary command of the battalion on 30 October 1914. Commanded 1 Manchesters in 1924. Later as Brigadier General CMG DSO appointed Colonel of the Regiment 1932/34. His sons Michael and Nigel both served in the Regiment.
(2) 2nd Lieutenant Clarence Leslie Bentley died age 20 on 28 October 1914. Son of Anne Mary Bentley, of Fulford Grange, York, and the late Alderman William Bentley JP. Commissioned from Sandhurst as war was declared. Commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial and the Manchester Regiment memorial plaque in the Memorial Chapel, Royal Military Academy Sandhurst
(3) Lieutenant John Henry Loftus Reade died age 33 on 28 October 1914. Son of John and Annabella S. Reade of Castletown, Co. Fermanagh. Mentioned in Despatches. Commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial and the memorial at Trinity College, Dublin.
(4) During the fighting between 21/29 October inclusive 4 officers and 48 NCOs of the battalion were killed; 2 officers and 48 men wounded; 28 men missing.
(5 ) Lieutenant Robert Horridge from Bolton. Buried in Dranouter Churchyard, Belgium as is Corporal Faulkner.
(6 ) H Nicholson. Cheshire Regiment attached to the battalion.
(7 ) Arthur John Scully. Later awarded the Military Cross & French Croix de Guerre. Retired as Major 14 April 1922.
(8 ) 2899 Colour Sergeant J Leach. 1891 Census Bowerham Barracks.
(9 ) 1901 Census, (31 March 1901) Bowerham Barracks, Lancaster.
(10 ) 4th King’s Own Royal Regiment served in South Africa between December 1899 and August 1901.
(11 ) Mark Hovell, author and social historian of The Chartist Movement, joined the school as a pupil-teacher at the same time.
(12) The Lion and Rose. 1913.
(13) Officers who had served overseas and then returned to the UK through ill health or other reasons were posted to the 3rd Reserve Battalion pending their move elsewhere.
(14 ) Sergeant Hogan received his VC at Buckingham Palace on 20th February 1915.
(15 ) Lancaster Journal 7th April 1916.
(16) Letter dated 25 July from 102 Norfolk Road, Streatham, London SW16
(17 ) Walter Leach. Commissioned in the Supplementary Reserve of the Royal Fusiliers in 1938 and served with 2nd Royal Fusiliers in the BEF. Badly wounded in the head during the retreat to Dunkirk, medically downgraded and spent the remainder of the war in military administration. Post-war became a Chartered Accountant. Died 1990.
(18 ) Royal Irish Constabulary Register – Extract. National Archives, Kew.
(19 ) Anthony Leach. Educated at St Paul’s School, London. He joined the Welsh Guards on 29 October 1943 and was commissioned into the Welsh Guards on 20 July 1944. Served with the 1st Battalion in North-West Europe and was wounded in October 1944. To Palestine as Captain in October 1945 with 1st Guards Brigade. Post-war to Cambridge where he read Agriculture and then became a farmer. To Australia in 1975. Died June 1999.
(20 ) Grimsby Evening Telegraph. 8 June 1925.
(21 ) Married Thomas Shapland, a stained glass artist. He died aged 41.
(22 ) Mabel Leach died in 1987.
(23 ) The Manchester Regiment Gazette. 1956
(24 ) The Manchester Regiment Gazette. September 1958

by Captain Robert Bonner