Ken McLeod was just 2 years old when his father, John, passed away. He has very few memories of his father, but a century-old diary of his experiences at war has helped to keep his memory alive. Ken spoke to Rebecca Ryan at last week’s Anzac Day service at the Enfield Presbyterian Church.
“Undisturbed bodies after a few weeks seem to sink down into little heaps looking like huddled up bundles of old clothes. These brave chaps never hesitated to clamber over the parapet and face certain death, for it was a forlorn hope, and not a man reached the Turkish trenches. Very few got back, and they were wounded.”
When Ken McLeod reads these words from a diary written in the trenches of World War 1, they have extra poignancy for him.
The diary was penned by his father, John McLeod, and it is the only way he has been able to learn of his father’s experience of war.
“Because he died in 1942, I don’t remember him,” Ken said.
“What we know of his time overseas is in his diaries.”
John grew up in Fairlie and attended Timaru Boys’ High School. He studied law in Christchurch but, on his doctor’s advice, moved to Queensland, hoping a warmer climate would improve his asthma.
He worked in a variety of jobs in Australia, and was a survey chainman when he enlisted with the Australian Imperial forces in January 1915.
After training at Enoggera military camp and Broadmeadows signalling school, the 28-year-old was assigned to the 4th Regiment of the 9th Battalion.
From January 4, 1915 to May 21, 1917 he recorded his experiences of war, starting from the moment he signed his attestation paper in the enlistment process.
Easter Sunday 1915
Leaving about middle of next week. Many of us, no doubt, not coming back. A queer mixture of men. There is the adventurous element that could not resist the allurement of a fight. There are the men getting on to middle life, mild failures in their own calling, who recognise this as their supreme chance to make good. There are husbands tired of married life; husky young fellows tired of the monotony of home looking forward to the trip; “spielers” on the make; genteel clerks and the like, who find it very trying to associate with the ‘working class’ but who joined up for shame’s sake; many grey platoons of Australian workers, out of work, in the game because it means a steady job and steady pay.
McLeod landed at Gallipoli on May 27, 1915. His duties there alternated between sentry duty, sapping front line and support trenches, and running messages. His diary entries are interspersed with details of the soldiers’ manoeuvres and how they struggled on meagre food rations. Others tell of the relentless physical demands and weariness the men faced – and casualties of his comrades.
June 26, 1915
McGuinness rolled over and over down the hill like a shot rabbit. They carried him away on a stretcher. His head wobbled and blood trickled from his open mouth. Death is not always beautiful .
August 27, 1916
Trench life on Walkers Ridge is awful. Since the gallant charge made by the 8th & 9th Light Horse their dead have lain where they fell between the trenches and the stench is sickening. Looking through a periscope from the bomb throwers sap one can see dead bodies thick as sheaves on a harvest field. Incendiary bombs, petrol and lime have been freely used to destroy the bodies, and remains of accoutrements, uniforms and rifles can be seen slowly smouldering among portions of dead bodies. Occasionally a clip of cartridges will explode in the fire, like a packet of Chinese crackers .. It is sights and smells like this that sicken one of war and its glory.
His diary entries also included drawings and he often used poetry to express his feelings.
September 2, 1915
The Turkish had their armistice
And would grant us one in a trice
But we’re too proud to ask
Our mates like start, a sad reproach
But guns are near to bar approach
To weave this shroud is nature’s task
As fondly as a lover
Rank weeds and flowers cover
The dead that lie unburied
In silent ranks and serried
Out there in Poppy Gully.
In November, he was given a “blue ticket” and hospitalised, suffering from oedema and anaemia. He wrote of his relief to be out of the trenches.
November 13, 2015
What a relief to shed dirty verminous clothes, plunge into a hot bath, and then slip into sweet clean new outfit of shirt, pyjamas, socks, slippers. A haircut now and I will feel civilised again.
He rejoined his battalion in January 1916 and in June he sailed for France, landing at Marseilles and then the Somme. He was wounded in Pozieres in August and sent to England for hospital treatment.
August 13, 1916
Aeroplane brought down. Moved to the trenches in Pozieres. Wounded in the afternoon while bringing up gear .. Lay some hours in sap .. Rough passage to Contalmaison First Aid Post. Then in Horse Ambulance to Bicourt clearing station. Fixed up here with splints and bandages.
A cable home to his mother read “injuries slight”, but it was nine months before he was back on parade.
His diary ends on May 21, 1917 with the caption: “Put on next draft for France, leaving this week. Am packing this note book in parcel and posting it home. I wish I could follow it there.”
Recent research revealed he had a desk job in Rouen until he was hospitalised with bronchitis in March the following year, and again spent time in England.
“We always assumed that he must’ve gone back to the trenches, but recently discovered he had a desk job,” Ken said.
He saw further service in France in various administrative roles in 1918 and returned to Southampton shortly after the Armistice. He returned to Australia on Port Melbourne as “ship staff” and received his discharge papers on October 22, 1919.
When he returned to New Zealand he was granted land at Coal Pit Rd, Enfield as part of the land ballot for returned servicemen.
In 1928 he married Isobel Marshall and they had three children: Joy, Calum and Ken.
Ken was just 2 when his father died on November 26, 1942, aged 55.
Like many returned soldiers, John did not talk about his experiences. The family’s knowledge of his involvement mostly comes from his diary and letters.
“But nobody in the family knew what he did when he went back to France.”
They suspect there is another diary, but it had never been found.
Isobel donated the diary to the Turnbull Library in 1975.