b. 1892 Portsmouth, Hampshire. d. 20/10/1972 South Australia.
John Leak (1892-1972) is a strange case as it is uncertain of when he was born. It is claimed he was born in Portsmouth on 1st March 1896 but there is no evidence for this. His headstone claims he was 76 when he died in 1972, but on his enlistment papers it states February 1892. Other sources state his parents were from South Wales which they left in 1886, but others state he was born in Queensland about 1894. Indeed, when John was asked, he gave different places of birth. When he was invested with the VC in November 1916, the Cardiff Times stated his mother was from Mountain Ash and father was called James from Brynmawr, and they emigrated to New South Wales.
As a result, the main facts about John’s life which can be found in evidence, begin with his enlistment at Rockhampton, Queensland on 28th January 1915. He was based at Enoggera Barracks, Brisbane before embarking on HMAT A55 Kyarra for the Middle East with 5th Reinforcement Group on 16th April. Having arrived in Alexandria, Egypt he moved camp to Heliopolis before taking part in the Gallipoli operations from 22nd June. He was evacuated sick on 31st August, and eventually made his way back to Britain to recuperate. He returned to Egypt the following March briefly, before heading for France where he landed at Marseilles on 3rd April.
On 23rd July 1916 at Pozieres, France, he was one of a party which finally captured an enemy strong point. At one assault, when the enemy's bombs were outranging ours, Private Leak jumped out of the trench, ran forward under heavy machine-gun fire at close range, and threw three bombs into the enemy's bombing post. He then jumped into the post and bayonetted three unwounded enemy bombers. Later, when the enemy in overwhelming numbers was driving his party back, he was always the last to withdraw at each stage, and kept on throwing bombs.
He was wounded near Pozieres on 21st August with a gunshot to the back and was evacuated to Britain from Calais aboard the Hospital Ship “Dieppe” on 13th September. He was released in October and was presented with his VC at Buckingham Palace by King George V on 4th November. John seems to have been badly affected by his war experiences and this was reflected in his disciplinary record. On 3rd January 1917 he was awarded fourteen days detention for entering the Staff Sergeants’ Mess at Wareham to demand drinks and refused to leave when ordered. He also went absent without leave between February and March 1917.
John embarked at Southampton for Le Havre on 9th October 1917 and returned to the 9th Battalion. On 1st November, the 9th were in the reserve trenches near Zonnebeke, when warned to move to the front lines. Just before the platoon moved, it was discovered John was missing. Six days later he was arrested in Calais among soldiers going on leave. He had no leave pass and claimed his papers had been stolen. He was tried by Field Court Martial on 23rd November and pleaded not guilty to desertion. He was found guilty and the court took his record, including his VC and previous offences into account and he was allowed to make a plea in mitigation. He was sentenced to penal servitude for life; for Australian forces this was the most severe punishment available. However, under the Army Suspension of Sentences Act, penal servitude could be suspended to allow the soldier to return to active service.
John re-joined the 9th from detention on 23rd December and was gassed near Hollebeke on 7th March 1918, and was evacuated to England, and the Military Hospital at Boscombe. He returned to France in June and was reported sick with bronchitis in August. His suspended sentence was reviewed in December 1918 and on Christmas Day was remitted. Five days later, he married Beatrice May Chapman at St John the Baptist Church, Cardiff. He applied to the Australian Government for assisted passage for his wife, but was refused. He was posted to Weymouth for recuperation on 15th January 1919 and embarked on HMAT Ascanius on 26th March for Australia. He travelled to Rockhampton, Queensland on 9th April and was received formally at the Soldiers’ Rest and Recreation Rooms next day. He was discharged in May 1919.
Beatrice was left behind in Wales and never joined him in Australia. Meanwhile, in Australia John was registered to sell firewood from The Commonage in the Allora District of Queensland. He eventually owned three leases in the region. The land was poor, but he managed to raise some sheep and did some market gardening. He was eventually granted government assistance. Although there is no record of his marriage to Beatrice being annulled, he married Ada Victoria Bood-Smith on 12th January 1927 at Coolgardie, in Western Australia. They had eight children. John moved frequently, working in Queensland, New South Wales, South Australia and then to Esperance, in Western Australia, about 1932, where he became a garage proprietor and mechanic. He retired in 1963, and his wife died the following year.
John suffered medical problems for the rest of his life after the war. In later years, he suffered from bronchitis and emphysema and died following a heart attack at Redwood Park, Crafers, Adelaide, South Australia on 20th October 1972. He was buried with Ada in Stirling District Cemetery, Adelaide. In addition to the VC, he was awarded the 1914-15 Star, British War Medal 1914-20, Victory Medal 1914-19, George VI Coronation Medal 1937 and Elizabeth II Coronation Medal 1953. In February 1967 a gunsmith and second hand dealer named Harris appeared in court in Carlton, Victoria for having three forged VCs. The Leak forgery had the number 2653 instead of 2053 and was smaller and lighter. Harris was fined $A40 plus costs and forgeries destroyed. The whereabouts of his real VC is not known.
LOCATION OF MEDAL: NOT PUBLICLY HELD.
BURIAL PLACE: STIRLING CEMETERY, STIRLING, SOUTH AUSTRALIA. BLOCK 14-A.
Rockhampton Memorial, Queensland
Portsmouth (courtesy of Steve Lee)