Gallery: The First World War hero who was saved from a German bullet by a humble notebook
- Credit: contributed
This is the tale of two brothers. Both soldiers. One returned to Suffolk unscathed, to a heroes’ welcome. The other, a butcher’s apprentice before joining up, had a very different story. Steve Russell reports.
They grew up in rural Suffolk, the sons of a man who worked the land, and their childhoods were shaped by the cycle of the seasons. Then war came and their lives marched to the beat of a different drum.
Jack Leggett was born in 1892. He was William John, strictly speaking, but everyone called him Jack.
Parents Robert and Ellen established their home, livelihood and family of six children at St Edmund’s Farm, Brundish – about half a dozen miles north of Framlingham.
Jack had an apprenticeship at Richard Garrett & Sons, the huge engineering company at Leiston with an international reputation for its manufacturing prowess. He joined the 4th Battalion of The Suffolk Regiment at 20 and, when conflict broke out, was called up for duty on August 5, 1914.
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For much of the First World War he was responsible for the transportation of supplies using horses – weapons, ammunition – during all weathers and conditions and around the often-muddy trenches of the Western Front.
Jack spent four years in France and Flanders, awarded the Military Medal late in 1917 for bravery in the field, and later a bar.
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After the armistice he was stationed in Germany until the autumn of 1919, as part of the army of occupation.
In the October he was part of the celebrations on the Cornhill in Ipswich as the returning Suffolks were given a heroes’ welcome and a homecoming parade.
Soldiers of the 4th Battalion had seen action at most of the key – and infamous – points of engagement, such as Givenchy, Neuve Chapelle, Ypres, the Somme and Passchendaele.
Jack, a sergeant, was part of the escort to the colour party during the Ipswich parade. In the December, he was finally discharged from the army.
Work was hard to find and so the return to civilian life wasn’t easy. On the plus side, Jack had managed to avoid serious injury. He married Sybil in 1922 and created his own carpentry business, with wheelwright and wagon-building work. He was also the local undertaker. Son Harold was born in 1924 and a daughter in 1928.
And then there was his brother, Frederick.
Born early in 1895, at a farm in Bressingham, Fred became a butcher’s apprentice. He volunteered for the army early in 1915, reporting to the 4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment in Ipswich as Private 3453 Leggett.
Writing to his mother from the drill hall in Portman Road, he says “I passed, as you will see by address, and have got my khaki and boots, so I have sent my other clothes off tonight to Framlingham station. “I am quite comfortable. We sleep in the drill hall and live very well…
“You might send my shaving set and hairbrush, best boots and shirt and about three pairs of brown socks. I expect I shall have to send my washing home, but I expect we shall not stop in Ipswich long.
“There will not want to be conscription if the recruiting go on as it is in Suffolk. The artillery is full up and a lot of them have got to join the infantry.
“There were fifty who joined the 4th Suffolks yesterday with me, and have been several today. There is several of the wounded 4th Suffolks here, which got wounded at Neuve Chapelle, but are better and are getting ready to go back again.”
That’s from one of five of Fred’s surviving letters. They’ve been kept by the family and are now in the care of Barbara Jerrey, who lives near Halesworth. Fred’s brother Jack was her grandfather.
A mixture of cheerfulness, concern for his family back home in Suffolk, everyday domestic detail and a growing awareness of the human cost of war – he didn’t always feel our boys were led by the best people – their pathos is wont to bring a tear to the eye.
Soon, he was sent to France. Fred rarely moaned. His letters expressed gratitude for the parcels dispatched to the battlefields by his mother, bringing comforts such as homemade soft cheese, shortcakes and cocoa.
Like his brother, Fred would be awarded the Military Medal and bar for bravery.
In July, 1916, he was wounded and lay seriously ill in a hospital in Rouen. That’s not half the story, though.
Fred said he owed his life to a notebook, purse and papers in his breast pocket that took the impact of the bullet to his chest.
Barbara has them – and the sight of them tells the story much better than words.
In a leather pouch is the bullet itself – thin, sharp, vicious.
The purse/wallet is one of those concertina-d affairs. The bullet cut through all the compartments, tearing crazy Christmas-tree shapes in the fabric, and took a chunk out of the clasp.
The leather-bound notebook also helped slow the momentum of the bullet that would otherwise doubtless have killed the young soldier. Its pages are filled with pencil-drawn lists of the men with whom he served and their prowess at shooting about a century ago.
There are marks for shooting with a Winchester telescopic sight from 200 yards, for instance. The strength of the wind is also noted.
They are amazing, and incredibly tangible, glimpses of the reality of war.
Fred was subsequently sent back to England, to recover at the 2nd Western Hospital at Lily Lane, Moston, near Manchester. He returned to France when he was fit, this time in the uniform of The Cambridgeshire Regiment.
Many of his letters home are incredibly poignant. In the spring of 1916, before he was injured, the lance corporal wrote was optimistic about length of the war, “for I don’t think it will last many more months”. By the summer of 1918, he couldn’t imagine when the guns might fall silent. “Suppose it will end one day… I think most of us take it as a regular job now, and no fear of getting the sack, unless Fritz gives us it”.
For Fred, the end – not the kind anyone would want – was only about three months away.
On August 25, 1918, he was injured once again. He was later sent back to England, to Wigan Royal Infirmary. Sadly, on September 22, he died of his wounds and pneumonia.
The hospital sent a wreath to Suffolk for his military funeral on the 27th. It was held at Wilby church, the next village to his home, where the family worshipped.
Fred was given full military honours. The 6th Volunteer Battalion from Stradbroke fired three shots at the graveside and a bugler played the Last Post.
There was but one small comfort for his parents: the fact their son’s body was in England and that they knew where he lay. Many families were denied this.
“There had been no mention of a sweetheart, but an unidentified young nurse’s photo was with his personal papers,” wrote Dorothy Leggett many years later. The wife of Fred’s nephew Harold, she preserved and collated much of this family history.
In a summary of Fred’s war, Dorothy wrote: “There had been no mention of a sweetheart, but an unidentified young nurse’s photo was with his personal papers.”
When Dorothy died in 2008, daughter Barbara Jerrey became custodian of the wealth of memorabilia. It includes neat schoolbooks, belonging to the brothers’ father, Robert, thought to date from 1862. There are also grandfather Jack’s medals and Suffolk Regiment cap badges.
Although she never knew him, Barbara can’t help being moved by Fred’s story.
“It was just all so sad that, having survived the first bullet, to go back… he was just 23 when he died.”