Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Private Robert William Leaf - Matakohe Memorial

Robert William Leaf known as "Willie" was the eldest of 5 boys and 1 girl.  Born and raised in Matakohe his father had been one of the pioneering 'Albertlanders', the name given to a thousand immigrants who arrived at Port Albert in the Kaipara harbour in 1862. 

Prior to enlisting Willie had been sheep farming with his younger brother Toin in the Kaipara region and together they enlisted at the beginning of October 1916,  embarking from Wellington on 2 April 1917.

They marched alongside each other into Sling camp, England,  Etaples camp, France  and then on 25 July 1917 joined the 2nd Battalion of the Auckland Infantry Regiment at Messines.  Less than a week later the brothers were separated by death,  when Willie was killed in action on 1 August 1917.   Months later on 27 March 1918 Toin was seriously wounded, receiving injuries to his face and right arm.  He ultimately lost an eye and was invalided back to New Zealand a few days before the Armistice was declared.

Willie's body was never recovered and he is remembered on the Messines Ridge (New Zealand) Memorial, Messines Ridge British Cemetery, Belgium.   His family back in New Zealand struggled with the fact that Willie had no known grave.  A line from a memorial poem placed regularly by the family on the anniversary of his death in the years following the war, shows the depth of their feeling and grief. 

 "But the unknown grave is the bitterest blow" 
They also placed notices in the New Zealand Herald asking returned servicemen for any information on Willie's death in the hope that his body would be located and given a proper burial.

New Zealand Herald, Volume LIX, Issue 18157, 1 August 1922, Page 1
Back in New Zealand Toin's suffered poor health as a result of the injuries he suffered in the war.  He died in 1929 of pulmonary tuberculosis.

Article image 
Auckland Star, Volume LX, Issue 154, 2 July 1929, Page 5
A further brother Alfred also served in World War One enlisting on 9 March 1917 and embarking on the 'Ulimaroa' on 26 July 1917, only days before his brother was killed in action.  Before departing he married Phyllis Grice on 19 June 1917.  Alfred survived the war but not unscathed.  

There is a note on his Cenotaph database record stating he returned to New Zealand with a nervous disorder caused by a train accident.  After looking at Alfred's service record I concluded the accident he was involved in was the Bere Ferrers train accident which took place on 24 September 1917.

A train carrying disembarked New Zealand troops from the 'Ulimaroa' and 'Norman'  was on route from Plymouth to Sling camp on the Salisbury Plain. The train stopped for signals at Bere Ferrers in Devon, when troops mistakenly got off the train thinking  they had reached their refreshment stop in Exeter.   The soldiers were hit by an oncoming express train as they alighted from the wrong side of the train.  Ten New Zealand soldiers were killed as a result of the accident.

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