Twenty three thousand Australian casualties, over six and a half thousand dead. That was the cost to capture Pozieres and nearby Mouquet Farm over 7 bloody weeks in 1916. Now, one hundred years on, we can still wonder at the courage of people like British born John Leak, South Australian Arthur Blackburn, New Zealander Tom Cooke, Englishman Claud Castleton and Ireland’s Martin O’Meara. From across the British Empire they called Australia home. Of the five, two returned home, one was killed but lost in the soil he fought to defend, one is buried in a nearby British Cemetery, and one was claimed by the war 17 years after it ended.
This is the story of the lives of these men who won the Victoria Cross in an area noted by historian Charles Bean as “more densely sown with Australian sacrifice than any other place on earth”.
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John Leak was Queensland’s first Victoria Cross winner. Unlike many VC recipients who were lifted from obscurity as their lives were scrutinized by historians, much of Leak’s pre-war history remains elusive. He was possibly the son of a miner, possibly born in Portsmouth England, possibly in the year 1892 and he might have had a brother in Canada. Hazy beginnings aside, Leak was a teamster from Clermont in Queensland when he enlisted at Rockhampton in January 1915.
On 23 July 1916 while Leak’s 9th Battalion was pushing forward they met heavy resistance from an enemy bombing position supported by two machine guns. The enemy bombs (grenades) outranged the Australian’s, keeping them in check. It was here that Leak leapt out of the trench and, ignoring the enemy machine gun fire charged the position and flung three bombs into the post. He then jumped into the enemy post and bayoneted the remaining resistance.
Counter attacks followed that drove the Australians back. During this period Leak covered the staged withdrawal with such aggression that the trench was retaken soon after reinforcements arrived. It was for this action that he was awarded the Victoria Cross.
During fighting at nearby Mouquet Farm on 21 August, Leak was severely wounded and evacuated to England. He returned to his unit in October 1917 but was gassed in March 1918, effectively ending his active service. He married Beatrice May Chapman prior to his return to Australia in 1919 but little more is known of this short lived union. He worked for a time in Queensland after the war before moving to New South Wales, South Australia then Western Australia.
In 1927 he married Ada Victoria Bood-Smith in Coolgardie, Western Australia. This marriage lasted the test of time. Life after the war had its challenges for this quietly spoken veteran but he and Ada made a formidable couple. In the harsh South Australian outback in July 1927, where John and Ada were working as well borers, their first child Ada was born. Sadly she died just 7 months later.
They eventually retired to Crafers in South Australia. Leak’s health began to deteriorate in the final decade of his life. On 27 September 1964, emotion overcame him when he learned that his wife of almost 40 years had died on the train after visiting him in hospital. He followed her on 20 October 1972. They were survived by seven of their children.
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