Wednesday 18 March 2009 by Sue Jamesion. 23 comments
, First World War, Private Records, People

When Leonard Walter Jackson of Neutral Bay joined the AIF on the 6th of August 1915, he must have been one of the youngest Australians ever to enlist in our military services. Using the assumed name Richard Walter Mayhew, and claiming to be an 18 year old orphan, young Leonard, who was born on 27th August 1901, was actually 13 years 11 months and 10 days old on the day he "signed up".

Len's older brother, Harry Melville Jackson, had enlisted in the AIF in January 1915 and another brother, Dudley Jackson, also joined up in August 1915. When their father Joseph, a veteran of the Sudan campaign of 1885, realised what his 13 year old son had done, he took the unusual step of enlisting himself, to follow his young tear-away to Egypt and keep a watchful eye on him. Joseph, not surprisingly, also had to lie about his age - he claimed to be 44 years and 11 months old, when he was actually 52!

When the eldest of the Jackson boys, Harry, died whilst a prisoner of the Germans in August 1916, from wounds received at Pozieres, Joseph admitted to the military authorities that he was overage for active service, and that his son Leonard was serving without his parents' permission and was underage. (By this time, father and son had been serving side by side in the 55th Infantry Battalion since early 1916). To quote a letter written by Dudley Jackson MM in 1964, "[When my father] heard of my elder brother's death...he decided in fairness to my mother to go back to Australia." Both Joseph and Leonard were discharged, and returned to Australia aboard HMAT Ulysses in March 1917.

On 4th March 1918, 'Richard Walter Mayhew' again enlisted in the AIF, this time claiming his age was 21 years 3 months. A photograph of 'Richard' is held by the State Library of NSW.

Private records held in the Australian War Memorial's collection which were used to uncover the story of Leonard Walter Jackson, include 1DRL/0379 and 3DRL/3846. Relevant service records can be found online through the National Archives of Australia.


Tim Cook

Thanks for this post Sue. Must have been a real thrill to piece this story together. I am presently researching and writing a unit history of the 55th Battalion AIF - one has never been published. I find the type of information you have posted to be really interesting as it helps to 'personalise' the experiences of the brave men (and boy in your case!) that served with the Battalion. Are you happy for me to use this material (with appropriate acknowledgement of course!)? I've had a look through the service record of Joseph and Leonard and in all likelihood they would have both taken part in the Battalion'a action at Fromelles and in manning sections of the front line in the months that followed that terrible battle. The face of 'Richard' in the photograph shows him to be pre-maturely aged - doubtless a reflection of the strains of his previous military service.


Who was the oldest WW1 digger? My great-grandfather Walter Sage was, I've been told, the second oldest: who pipped him?

Mal Booth

Thanks for this post Sue. Nice to see you still blogging!

Sue Jamesion

To ChrisB - A quick glance at your great-grandfather's Service Records shows him as enlisting in 1916 at the age of 43 years and 7 months. (726A Private Walter Sage). If that was his correct age, then Joseph Jackson would have well and truly pipped him, at age 52. However, if you know that great-grandfather Walter was 'fibbing' about his age, and was actually older than he claimed to be, then we may have a closer race than it appears! Please let us know. As it was common practice for men to lie about their age in order to enlist in the AIF, (as evidenced by the Jackson family) we may never know who was really the oldest WW1 digger.

Annette Gaykema says:

Or there was Maurice Sutherland (13380) who claimed to be the oldest WWI digger apparently signing up at the age of 60 (an article was written in the newspaper about him) but his age is recorded on his service record as 44. On the 19.8.17 his service record states that "when on water-cart duty, noticed he was too much exhausted to keep up with cart, and has since become very weak and breathless on the least exertion". This reason was recorded as "age and strain". He was declared as medically unfit for service and discharged on 15.12.17. The reason given was "age and debility".

fred thompson

did the youngest guy, len see active service? it is apparent from my own family that underage enlistment was the usually thing, my grandfather Harold Lesie McLeish enlisted at 14yrs 8mths, wounded in france, discharged underage 1918 still under 17 years of age His cousin Albert McLeish enlisted at age 16 lucky for him by the time he completed his pre battle training in England the war ended and he returned home I wonder just how many underage soldiers there where in WW1 and how many never really got found out

Sue Jamesion

To Fred: yes, young Leonard saw active service - see Tim Cook's earlier response to this blog: "I’ve had a look through the service record of Joseph and Leonard and in all likelihood they would have both taken part in the Battalion’s action at Fromelles and in manning sections of the front line in the months that followed that terrible battle. " (Tim Cook) Thank you for the information about your own "boy soldier" ancestors. I see from your grandfather's service records that he had a rather close encounter with an enemy bullet! You may be interested in reading 'Boy soldiers of the Great War : their own stories for the first time' by Richard van Emden (2006)

fred thompson

can any one tell me if it is possible to find out where my grandfather was wounded i know from his record it said france but how to i find out i have the date and unit 21 nov 1917 and the 30th Bn the only major battle around that time is the battle of Cambrie would very much appreciate anyone help

Sue Jamesion

Hi Fred - I suggest you try sending your query to us at the AWM, using ReQuest , the Australian War Memorial's Research Centre enquiry service. Hope this helps.

fred thompson

thanks for your tip Sue, a request was done and i received an answer with a link to 30th bn war diaries and would you beleive it my grandfather is mentioned although not by name, his being shot was the only casualty on that day. thanks again

fred thompson

after everyones help i have put together this short story about my grandfather Joining up for the Great War, WW1 on the 1 Nov 1916, Harold Leslie McLeish told a few fibs, not unlike many other young Australian men. He told them, his father had died on 2 Aug 1901, which was 6 months before he was really born, that he was a coal miner, which may have been true, and had reached the ripe old age of 19 and 9 months, being only 14years and 8 months at the time. It worked and by the end of the month, he was soon on his way to England, departing Sydney aboard the slow, coal burning, HMAT. A72 Beltana on the 25 Nov 1916. The Beltana was a medium sized ship of 11,120 tons owned by P.O SN Co of London. A long slow trip taking 67 days, with the Beltana having an average speed of 14 knots (25.92 kph), to arrive Devonport in England and it was probably the 1st time that the young 14 year old had spent Christmas away from his parents, celebrating Christmas on board the Beltana. Harold spent the next 9 months training in England, with the 8th Training Battalion at Hurdcott, before being sent to France on the 24th Oct 1917. Arriving in France at Le Havre after departing England via Southampton and spending three days with the 5th ADBD in Le Havre. Harold was still over 150 miles away to the South west of his unit. A very young, No 4579, Pte Harold Leslie McLeish joined B Coy, the 30th Bn, 12 months to the day of Enlisting, Thursday 1 nov 1917, in Ouderdom about 15 miles south of Dunkerque (Dunkirk) at Camp Winnipeg along with 65 other rank soldiers as reforcements from the 5th ADBD in Le Havre. Giving the unit a strength of 42 officers and 921 OR’s (other ranks). The next two days where taken up with training, rifle drill, PT and mustard gas drills. Sunday was Church parade day. Soon they were on the march, heading off to the east south east, 5 Nov 1917, moving into tents and billets in the area of Abeele, a distance of seven miles as the crow flies, PT and BF continued with ceremonial drill as well, to instil discipline, for the next 4 days, with orders received on the 8th Nov to move to Locre (Loker) further away from the coast to the south east, just over 5 miles away, in a couple of days time. The Battalion continuing training, with Companies conducting ceremonial parades on the 10th of Nov. the unit strength fluctuating around the 927 OR’s, with soldiers being evacuated sick during the last 5 days. Harold and his unit were getting closer to the Front, marching to Wakefield Huts at Locre on the 11th Nov, and moving on again the next day to Neuve Eglise, with the unit being billeted in the town. The following day, moving still closer to the frontline. The 30th Bn relieved the 1st Queens Regiment in the Support line on the 13th Nov. It was now the 14 Nov and Harold and his unit were now in the Frontline, having relieved the 2nd Worchester Regiment, 1½ Company’s on the Frontline, with ½ Company at Pollard in support, ½ a Company at BHQ, another ½ company at Bethlehem Farm (From December 1914 until February 1915 Hitler stayed at the Betlehemhoeve #Bethlehem Farm# in Mesen.) and 1 Company at Bristol Castle (map 28 u6d) about 1 & ¾ miles east of Wulverghem, in reserve. The unit strength was boosted with 53 more OR’s. It also saw its 1st casualty since Harold joined the unit. It had been raining and the trenching were full with mud, although in the CO inspection of the Coy fronts on the 15th Nov, reporting they were in good condition but were allowed to fill with mud. Working hard, in the endless sea of mud and the constant rain, revetting trenches, laying duckboards and putting in Sandbags and “A” frames. The troops finally enjoyed a hot cooked meal after dusk, having been prepared at Bethlehem farm and carried to the front line after sunset. New support trenches were dug during the day. Having a complete change round, C Company on the Frontline left flank was replaced by D Company, while B Company, which included Harold, replaced A Company on the right flank. Enemy activity increased and the unit lost one officer KIA and 3 OR’s KIA, one officer wounded and two OR’s wounded on the 17th Nov. Work on the trenches never stopped and finally the trenches were looking in much better condition. More KIA’s this time 4 OR’s and 3 OR’s wounded as the enemy activity increased again on the 20th Nov. Finally relief as the 31st Bn took the place of the 30th Bn. It was during this relief action in Belgium, that Pte Harold Leslie McLeish was wounded with a gun shot wound to the left shoulder, aged 15yrs 10mths and 8 days being evacuated on the 25th Nov 1917. This ended his involvement with the 30th Bn in the field. (We also leave the 30th Bn war diary as well) Being evacuated to the 53rd Casualty Clearing station, before being put on the Ambulance train and taken to the 55th General Hospital at Boulogne, where he spent the next 20 days. Harold parents were informed of his WIA on the 7th Dec 1918. Christmas day 1917 was a busy one for Harold. Leaving on the Hospital Ship St. Denis for England on the 25 Dec, arriving at the Central Military Hospital at Fort Pitt in Chatham later that same day. After 10 days in hospital, Harold was granted 14 days furlo while at 4th Command Depot. Returning to 4th C.D. after his leave had finished he would remain at 4th C.D. until the 3 Apr 1918. Just 10 days before his 16th birthday, On the 3 Feb 1918 while in Command Depot, at Hurdcott, it was discovered that Harold was not yet 16. The day after his birthday 14 Feb 1918, he was Charged (A4) with being underage. On the 4 Apr he was transferred to the 2nd Command Depot at Weymouth, to await embarkation to Australia. A letter from Administrative Headquarters date the 9th Apr 1918, requested that Harold be put on the next available transport. Then finally on the 12 May 1918 he departed England, on the S.S. Ruahine, for a discharge at home for being under age. Harold Leslie McLeish was discharged in 2MD (2nd Military District) on the 19th Jul 1918. Aged 16 yrs 5 months and 6 days. For his war effort Harold was issued the British War Medal No 65594 and the Victory Medal No 63234. The above story is based on the facts contained in Harold Leslie McLeish’s military records and from the War Diary of the 30th Battalion AIF from 1st Nov 1917 to 21 Nov 1917. From the War Diary and the material in his service record he was the only casualty on the 21 Nov 1917.

Simon Kircher

My Grandfather Joseph Jones was in the 55th and I am really glad to hear about Tim Cook writing up the units history. Put me down for a copy when its done! My family always said pop was mad as he was wounded twice and they couldn't believe why he went back the second time. A little research at the AWM discovered how stories change over time. He was wounded twice but at the same time.............he was hit by two bullets!

mike english

I would like to know when the 55th battalion is due to be published.

Roy Hurlstone

Thanks to everybody for submitting things about the 55th Battalion 1st AIF. My grandfather Frederick George Hurlstone was also a member. I would love to get the book when it comes out. I have recently found out that my wife's uncle also had a relative in the 55th. His name was Ernest Robert Dudley Shearan.

fred thompson

does anyone know of the largest family group (brothers, fathers, cousins, uncles) that went to fight in WW1 my family group consisted of the following: Brothers No 2405 Alexander McLeish enlisted on the 13 Sep 1915 (miner) No 4579 Harold Leslie McLeish enlisted on the 1 Nov 1916 (miner) WIA Brothers, and also cousins of above No 2398 Alexander McLeish MM enlisted on the 20 may 1915 (a farmer) No 3413 Robert Strang McLeish enlisted on the 9 Aug 1915 (Labourer) KIA No: 3204 William McLeish enlisted on 24th October 1916 (labourer) WIA No 7774 John (Jack) McLeish enlisted on the 27 Aug 1917 (labourer) WIA No 57634 Albert Edward McLeish enlisted on the 3 Dec 1917 (farmer)

Craig Tibbitts says:

Hi Fred, I'm aware of a chap named Stephen Brooks who is currently researching family members who served in the AIF. I think his work focusses mostly on brothers who died, but he may be able to help you, and you may have some useful info for him in return. His email is [ ] Cheers, Craig Tibbitts Research Centre AWM

fred thompson

thanks for that craig

Margaret Sutton

Hello - I am wondering why my Grandfather enlisted for WW1 under a false name when he would have been 20 years of age? I was always told he was underaged & thought this meant under 18? Would he have required parental permission if under 21? He enlisted under his Mother's maiden name and nominated his sister as next of kin but called her his sister in law? Wish I could ask him :)

Greg Howell

Hi I was asked by the Sutherlands to try and find out more information on Maurice Suterland mentioned in No. 5 above: Annette Gaykema: April 23rd, 2009 at 10:04 am Or there was Maurice Sutherland (13380) who claimed to be the oldest WWI digger apparently signing up at the age of 60 (an article was written in the newspaper about him) but his age is recorded on his service record as 44. On the 19.8.17 his service record states that “when on water-cart duty, noticed he was too much exhausted to keep up with cart, and has since become very weak and breathless on the least exertion”. This reason was recorded as “age and strain”. He was declared as medically unfit for service and discharged on 15.12.17. The reason given was “age and debility”. Does anyone know of the article in the newspaper mentioned. Cheers Greg

Frank Golding

This is most interesting but...I'm having a devil of a time trying to find just the basic facts about age. What were the rules about age in 1914? Did they change during the War? At what age did you need your parent's approval to enlist ... and to serve overseas? What if you had no parents? Help please!

Sue Jamesion

Hi Frank, and thanks for your interest. I believe you should find some of the answers to your questions here. And one of our intrepid AWM Information Services officers has hunted around for you and found the following: Instructions to Enlisting and Recruiting Officers Regarding Enlistment of Recruits in the Australian Imperial Forces: Youths under the age of 21 are not to be enlisted without the written consent of their parents, guardian or other person acting in loco parentis. Married men or widowers under 21 years of age will not be required to produce such written consent. If one parent is deceased or out of the country, a statement to that effect should be included in the certificate of the person who gives consent. When one parent is deceased and the other out of the country, the guardian should make a statement to that effect when giving consent in writing. If there be no legal guardian in Australia, the minor will not be enlisted without the written consent of the parents abroad. When both parents are deceased or out of the country the legal guardian should make that statement when giving consent in writing. If there be no legal guardian in Australia, then the minor will be enlisted on the approval of the Commandant in first case, and on the consent of at least one of the parents abroad in the other case. Cheers, Sue Jamesion – AWM


My GG Uncle served in the 55th Battalion and was killed in France in April 1918. I have just discovered in the Red Cross files that one eye witness says he was shot by "our own M.G.'s". Other accounts say he was shot by the enemy. I look forward to reading the unit history. There are some incredible stories to be re-told.


Hello Wondering how you would find out the name and record of someone who lied to get into WWI? My Grandfather's real name was Reginald Kingsley McBeath born 22 Nov 1895. He apparently signed up under a false name. The problem is he is deceased and noone seems to know his assumed name.. I know I am clutching at straws but you don't know unless you ask. Thanks