Private 16/5482 Frederick Cecil Leach
16th Battalion (The Queen’s) Lancers
Frederick Leach was born in 1887 in the village of Smallburgh. The 1901 Census records that he was the eldest son of Henry and Sarah, who had another two sons, Henry and Basil and one daughter, Ethel. Henry senior was the landlord of the King’s Head Pub in the village and in 1914 Frederick was 27 years old. We know that Frederick was a pre-war regular as his occupation is listed as ‘Army 16th Lancers’ in the 1911 Census. This correlates to the 16th (The Queen’s) Lancers, which was one of the very first units to go to France when war broke out.
The 16/Lancers were based in Curragh, Ireland where they had been dealing with the upsurge of Nationalism, showing that the troubles on that island are nothing new. They, along with the rest of 3rd Cavalry Brigade, had been mobilized on the 10th August 1914. As the BEF embarked it is not as widely noted that the King sent a message to his troops, it said,
‘You are leaving home to fight for the safety and honour of my Empire. Belgium, whose country we are pledged to defend, has been attacked, and France is about to be invaded by the same powerful foe. I have implicit confidence in you, my soldiers. Duty is your watchword, and I know your duty will be nobly done. I shall follow your every movement with deepest interest and mark with eager satisfaction your daily progress; indeed your welfare will never be absent from my thoughts. I pray God will bless you and guard you, and bring you back victorious.’
The whole Regiment embarked on the 15th August on the Leyland Liner “SS Indian”. They were actually sent off in much pomp and circumstance, which must have been strange to the soldiers who had only recently treated the locals as potential enemies. They landed at Le Harve in France on the 18th August where they were met with much enthusiasm from the French and they entrained the next day heading for Jeaumont via Amiens-Mauberge. For the next two days they marched from Cousolre to Bray and were eventually billeted at Estinne au Val. On the 22nd August, they moved out towards Bray and their war started.
The rapid advance over the last few days was one of the things that thwarted the planned Schlieffen advance. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was not a large body of men, it only totalled 80,000 men, and to this end, the French commander-in-chief Joseph Joffre had placed this small but highly trained army on his left flank, where he believed there would not be any fighting.
The history of the 16/Lancers states,
‘The original design of General Joffre, who was in supreme command of the Allied Armies in France, was to maintain the positions which he held from Namur to the Swiss frontier, and to wheel his left wing, consisting of the 5th Army and the British Corps, to the right, pivoting on Namur, against the right flank of the German advance, and to join up with the Belgian Army along the line of the Schelde. The German plan of campaign was to effect a great wheel of their right, pivoting upon Thionville, and after rolling up the French line to attack Paris.’
The plan called for the French to take on the brunt of the German Army, but they were bloodily repulsed and the advance of the BEF stopped on the 23rd August at the Mons-Conde Canal and this is where their first, major battle took place. For it was at Mons that the British 1st and 2nd Corps met the German 1st Army commanded by General Von Kluck. The Germans attacked the BEF and vied to cross the canal in order that they could capture the main bridges there.
But the BEF had no hope of holding Mons and by 1300hrs of the 23rd August 1914, the British were retreating as the Germans had managed to cross the canal and gain footholds, from this the British would continue to withdraw and this became known as the ‘Retreat from Mons’. The French Army was capitulating in other sectors and the BEF ran the risk of being outflanked on both sides as the Germans gained ground. They had to retreat and the order was given by French in the early evening.
Over the next few days the 16/Lancers were in action, witnessing their fellow cavalrymen of the 2nd Brigade being wasted in a futile charge to assist the beleaguered 5th Division where it was estimated that the 9/Lancers and 4/Dragoon Guards suffered 60% casualties. The 16/Lancers themselves came under artillery fire on numerous occasions as they acted as the rearguard to their brigade.
The BEF was, by now, carrying out a fighting withdrawal and many units were ceasing to exist. The rapid advance made by the Germans had to be checked somewhere and it was also becoming more and more difficult to stop to rest. The French were now also in headlong retreat along with the Belgians and the 16/Lancers moved south past Le Cateau where plans were being made to place a British rearguard to protect the bulk of the BEF. The Battle of Le Cateau occurred on 26th August with the Germans placing heavy pressure on the British. By the afternoon, the British rearguard was at a risk of being overrun and it was only the arrival of French cavalry that prevented this.
That night, the Allies withdrew to Saint-Quentin with the British having sustained 8,000 casualties; the infantry especially paid a heavy price. This battle was to be fought in some respects as though Wellington and Napoleon were facing one another again. This is because trench warfare was still a thing of the future and so it would be fought by two standing armies with very little cover.
The Lancers history of WWI had this to say about Le Cateau.
‘Unfortunately it was next to impossible to convey orders to many of the company commanders in the firing line, and as these with the usual obstinacy of the British soldier, never thought for a moment of quitting their position till they got them, numerous platoons and even companies were left behind, and these fought on until they were surrounded and the few unwounded survivors overwhelmed and made prisoners. The Gordon Highlanders were the worst sufferers in this respect, for some 500 with their commanding officer were surrounded and, after a desperate attempt to fight their way through, were eventually obliged to surrender near Bertry.’
The whole of the BEF continued to retreat and the 16/Lancers acted as the brigade rearguard for most of the time, continually moving, and often coming under fire they continued to move south. With the Allies in a certain amount of disarray the Germans began to set their sights on Paris. Relations between the French and the British at this time had reached an all time low and Sir John French was of the opinion that he must withdraw the BEF to reorganise. The French military saw this as a disastrous move and it was only after the direct intervention of the minister for war, Lord Kitchener, that John French relented and agreed to keep the BEF at the front so long as their flanks were not threatened.
As the Germans tried to surround Paris, their 1st and 2nd Armies went southeast of the capital and exposed their right flank, something which had worried the original planner of the Schlieffen Plan. The French commander Joseph Joffre noticed their error and he managed to get John French to agree to commit the BEF to assisting the French Army in attacking the Germans all along the front line.
On the 5th of September a desperate struggle ensued when the Battle of the Marne began. The BEF was now in an advance in what the Official History of the war termed the ‘Advance to the Aisne’ and this had begun on the 10th September when the BEF began to pursue the German 1st Army.
On the day Frederick Leach died the situation on the Marne had been decided when the French 6th Army had managed to stop the Germans.
And so with the Marne coming to a close and the 1st Battle of the Aisne about to begin, the 16/Lancers saw action around Chassemy situated to the north of the River Aisne and just east of Soissons.
The 16th Lancers history stating,
‘Instructions were received from General Joffre on the evening of the 11th to continue the pursuit on the front Bazoches—Soissons. The advance to be supported on each flank by the 5th and 6th Armies, General Maunoury being ordered to endevour to outflank the German’s right flank. Sir John French’s special orders were to seize the bridges over the Aisne and to occupy the high ground north of that river.’
16th Lancers War Diary,
’12/9/1914 Brigade moved to Serches. Regiment then sent to Ciry and forward to support the 5th Lancers on high ground by Chassemy. In the afternoon IL MG and “D” Sqn attacked with the Brigade dismounted “A” moving to the left to charge but the enemy firing from a wood “A” had to dismount as well. Withdrew to Ciry for the night. One man killed two wounded.’
It is not surprising that from all of this that Frederick’s death was only listed as ‘one man killed’. For a start, other ranks were not generally mentioned by name in the casualty figures in a war diary, but the situation was so fluid and hectic at this time that the war diary would have been very brief in content in any way. As in many cases it would not have been un-common for us to never know what happened to him had it not been for a letter written to someone who must have contacted the regiment on behalf of the family.
As with today, it was normal for the relatives to want to know more about what happened to their loved one. Many never found out, or the details were very sketchy. I can speak from experience when I say that it took until 1979 for our family to really start to piece together what happened to my Great Grandfather in WWI. However, many did write, or had others write to the units on the behalf of the family. In this case, I have been very lucky in having the privilege of reading and transcribing a letter that was written by one of Frederick’s comrades. The letter of enquiry had been written by a ‘Miss Holt’. I cannot specifically locate a lady with that surname and wonder if she had been staying with Frederick Leach’s father as a boarder.
The letter is dated the 15th May 1915 and was written by Staff Quarter Master Sergeant (SQMS) H Hunt.
To Miss Holt,
I received your letter enclosing Mr Leach’s address & I am writing to you to give you what news I can of his son when he was killed in action on the 12th Sept in the advance that followed the retirement from Mons.
I was in charge of a patrol of 8 A. Coy and men including pte Leach and our objective was to find out if the bridge over the river was intact or blown up by the Germans who were retiring over the Aisne at Venizel.
It was about a kilometre gone when the Squadron was halted and we got into the village alright but were fired from the cross on the square in the centre of the village and just round the bend of the road. As we could not proceed any further that way I tried to go round another road to gain the information I wanted but only with the same result being fired at by the enemy lying at a corner of the road.
After we got back to the 1st corner where we were fired on first Leach rode out to see if the Germans were still there and was fired on as he reached the bend. The bullet entering his body in the abdomen causing him to fall off his horse in the middle of the road and his horse galloped back to the remainder of the patrol. I waited a few minutes with the intention of rescue if possible but saw a resident of the village pick him up so went back the Squadron to report.
We got into the village later that day but found pte Leach had only lived ½ hour after being picked up and he was lying in one of the French houses. The Squadron had to go back some few kilometres that night but the next morning his own troop pushed on and prepared his burial and on arrival of his Squadron they halted and we laid him to rest.
His Squadron commander read the service and deeply respected his loss. The inhabitants of the village had made many wreaths during the night and the whole of the grave was covered with them. A cross was erected to mark the spot with his regt, no, and name, etc on it. I enclose a small sketch of the place and trust you will forward this letter for his father to read. I may add that Leach was a man who was well liked by his comrades who deeply regretted his death.
I beg to remain
H Hunt. SQMS
Frederick Leach now lies in Buzancy Military Cemetery which is situated to the south west of Chassemy and the cemetery is an amalgamation of graves of soldiers brought in after the war ended and those that were buried there when the 15th (Scottish) Division buried their war dead when Buzancy was liberated 28th July 1918. There are now 264 men buried here and Frederick can be found in Row III Grave A. 2.