Monday 19 April 2010 by robvan. 7 comments
News, Personal Stories, Family history

In the lead up to Anzac Day on 25 April, the thoughts of many Australians  often turn to members of their own family who served during the First World War. The Australian War Memorial's databases hold a rich source of detail for  families who may want to learn more about the service of their relative.

I was asked recently by ABC radio about what can be found online and in the Memorial's collections to help tell us the story of someone's military history. I was given the name Private Leonard Granrott to use as an example. The following story has been pieced togther from Private Granrott's personal service record, the published unit history of the 38th Battalion and the Memorial's online collections. The links to the online source material thoughout this story represent only a small cross section of the Memorial's total online collections.  

Matchbox that saved Leonard's life

The story of Private Leonard Granrott:

Private Leonard Granrott was 25 years of age and working as a painter in Brunswick, Victoria when he enlisted on 8 March, 1916. He was to serve with the 38 Infantry Battalion which was a Victorian unit. Although Granrott was from Melbourne the 38th was very much a country unit with its heart in the Australian bush. The men trained at the Epsom racecourse at Bendigo and Leonard would have practiced jumping in and out of trenches there and slept in one of the many white tents pitched under the gum trees.

When his training was completed Leonard Granrott embarked for overseas with the rest of his unit. The 38th Battalion left on 20 June, 1916 from Melbourne on the HMAT Runic. Relatives and friends of those who sailed crowded the Port Melbourne pier to wave good bye.  Every vantage point of HMAT Runic was described as being covered with khaki as the men swarmed up into the rigging. The story and official history of the 38th Battalion A.I.F describes that from the pier hundreds of reels of coloured paper ribbon were thrown aboard and “thousands of flags, scarfs and handkerchiefs gladdened a scene which could so easily have been a sad one”.

Leonard and his younger brother Jack were brought up by their mother Florence after their father died of Appendicitis in 1903. Only a few days after the Runic sailed from Melbourne, Leonard’s brother also enlisted to serve. Jack however, was discharged as medically unfit before he could embark.

On the journey over Leonard became ill with influenza and had to spend many months recovering in hospital in England. It wasn’t until February 1917 that he was recovered enough to rejoin his unit in France. He left from Folkstone, England for France on 4 February and spent at few days at the 3rd ADBD in Etaples before rejoining the 38 Battalion on the 9th February 1917. Many Australians were stationed at Etaples during the war and the place was often nicknamed “eat apples”.

During the harsh winter of 1916–17 the battalion was involved in several raids of the German trenches. In March, Leonard moved with his unit out to the Belgium front.  From 13 May the men of the 38th Battalion were moved into Ploegsteert wood in Belgium. The unit history of the 38th Battalion describes entering the wood was like walking into fairy land. It was mossy green and sunny and carpeted with flowers. Not far from Ploegsteert wood, however, the men of the 38th Battalion would soon fight their first major battle at Messines between 7–9 June, 1917.

The Messines Ridge overlooked the British Salient at Ypres. The Germans who occupied this high ground could see the British positions. The objective of this battle, therefore, was to remove the Germans from the ridge. On 7 June the 38th Battalion moved through four well-marked and reconnoitred routes via Ploegsteert wood through to the front. On this night the woods were less like fairy land and more like a nightmare.  During this battle 500 men of the 3rd Division were exposed to phosgene gas in Ploegsteert Wood. When the men of the 38th heard the “soft pat pat” of exploding gas-shells they put on their gas masks. They marched past gasping horses and mules and struggled to breath themselves in their masks. The heavy load of rifle, ammunition, tools, and rations, and the excitement of the occasion, caused heavy breathing and much distress.

By 3:10 am on the 7th June, the 38th Battalion were in position to attack. They were divided into three waves for the battle. Leonard Granrott was to be in the first wave. The men jumped off from their positions wearing gas masks and reached their objective ‘Ungodly trench’. The 2nd and 3rd waves were to pass through ‘Ungodly trench’ and their objective was the ‘Black Line’.

The men advanced behind a timed artillery barrage. The signal to start was a massive explosion created by 123,500 pounds of explosives of ammonal, placed in 19 tunnels which had been dug under the German lines during the preceding two years by Canadian, Australian and English miners. The mass explosion obliterated the enemy and the advance was largely unopposed. The height overlooking the Ypres Salient were now able to be occupied.

By the morning the 38 Battalion had two major strong points established. The black line had been dug 7ft deep and was fire stepped in places. During this advance the 38th captured 7 machine guns and two 7.7 cm field guns.

It is unclear from the sources when Leonard was hit but on the 7th he was severely wounded. He received multiple gun shot wounds including one which punctured his right lung. He was evacuated to London and spent a year recovering in hospital. He was eventually discharged to Australia in 1918 as medically unfit.

He received the British war medal and the Victory Medal for his service.


Leonard john Riley

Thanks, For the time you have taken to put this together. There must be so many stories like this that makes us feel proud to be Aussies. I could not imagine what our troops went through.Im glad he made it home, I'm one of his grandsons. Regards, L.J.Riley Boddington. W.A.

Andrew Riley

Well, That was my Grand father. Good thing he lived.

Robyn van Dyk

I have attached a photograph of a matchbox holder that probably saved Leonard's life. The Riley family sent me the photograph. They knew that he had been wounded but the details had been lost over time. According to their family history Leonard was carrying this in his left breast pocket while on the front. Notice the indentation made by the bullet that wounded but did not kill him.

Norman Rogers

A wonderful piece of history, and very well done. I think that the comments added so far make this a very interesting article. Would it be possible for all concerned to join in and add an enhanced version of this incident? It would be great to verify that this was the matchbox holder and the perspective of the family. Thank you.

Peter Riley

I have the Matchbox holder and the matchbox that is inside, along with a letter from Leonard's daughter Leila, telling me the box saved his life. This photo was sent to Robyn after she published this story. It is an honour to have found out the information that the War Memorial have on record. Lest we forget.

Janet Symmons (Nee Riley)

Having read this many times over the years,what an amazing story.
Our Grand Parents and Parents told stories when we are growing up and over time they became hard to remember. So a very big thankyou for sharing his story. Like John I am sure there are many more stories out there. They should all live on and never be forgotten. I am one of his grand daughters. Perth WA.

Luke Granrott

I am a proud distant relative of Leonard, his story in well known to our family now Following the story on ut