Monday, 7 April 2014

F is for Fromelles

Leslie Leister (1894-1916), the half-brother of my husband's grandfather, was one of the 250 soldiers who were killed at the battle of Fromelles in July 1916 and buried in a mass grave by the Germans after the battle.

Fromelles is said to have been the worst 24 hours in Australia's history. There were 5,533 casualties and about 2,000 men were killed in one night. (McMullin, Ross. "Disaster at Fromelles." Wartime 2006. Australian War Memorial. Web. 6 Apr. 2014. <http://secure.awm.gov.au/wartime/36/article.asp>.)

After the battle many men lay dead in the area occupied by the Germans. It was summer and the rotting bodies had to be dealt with quickly so the Germans buried the dead British and Australians in pits near a wood.  The Germans sent the identification tags of the soldiers they had buried to the Red Cross so relatives could be informed. Leslie Leister's name was on the Red Cross list.

Although many bodies were recovered after the war and reburied in Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries, the bodies in the graves at Fromelles were not. Lambis Englezos, an amateur historian from Melbourne, began a project to identify the grave site.  Eventually he convinced the Australian government to commission an excavation and the bodies were located and reinterred, with DNA samples taken for identification. 124 soldiers have been identified using DNA, forensic science and historical data.

In February 2009 my husband Greg received a phone call from a researcher and former police officer, Tim Lycett, about the excavation of the soldiers from the Fromelles battlefield.  Although there had been several news stories I hadn't paid any attention because at that time I didn't know there was a family connection. Tim worked with other researchers, including a genealogist called Sandra Playle, to identify men who might be buried in battlefield mass graves.

In November 2009, one of Tim and Sandra's stories appeared in an article in the Sydney Morning Herald.  They said about Leslie Leister:
But the real eureka moment was Lesley Leister: "It took months,'' says Playle. ''We had nothing but an adoptive name as a starting reference and still we uncovered the truth about his illegitimate birth, identified his true parentage, established his birth name and located his descendants. Oh, we did a little jig with that one!" (Totaro, Paola. "Face to Face with the 'lost' 85 Diggers of Fromelles." World News. Sydney Morning Herald, 7 Nov. 2009. Web. 3 Apr. 2014. <http://www.smh.com.au/world/face-to-face-with-the-lost-85-diggers-of-fromelles-20091106-i25h.html>.)
We had seen the gravestone of Greg's great-great-grandparents, John and Sarah Way (1835-1911 and 1837-1895), in Parkes cemetery. Their grandson Leslie Leister is mentioned, but as a nephew. Beside the Way grave is the grave of Robert Leister (1871-1925) and we assumed that Leslie was a nephew of Robert's and did not understand that he had a more direct connection to the Way family.

Gravestone at Parkes photographed March 2009.  The inscription reads: In memory of our dear father John Way died June 11, 1911: aged 76. And our dear mother Sarah Way died April 7,1895. Aged 58. Also our dear brother John, died April 21, 1896, aged 24. Erected as a memorial of our loving nephew Leslie Leister killed in action in France July 20,1916. Aged 22. At rest.


Greg's great-grandmother Sarah Jane Way (1863-1898) married twice.  Her first husband was Robert Whiteman, by whom she had two children. He died of pneumonia in 1884. Ten years later she married John Young (1856-1928) in Melbourne. Sarah Jane had also had a third child, Jack Walsh [Whiteman] born on 13 August 1894 at Parkes in New South Wales, just weeks before her marriage to John Young. The child's father is not recorded on the birth certificate. Leslie Leister was brought up in Parkes by Sarah Jane's sister, Eliza (1865-1940), who married Robert Leister in 1896.

The information to trace the family history is there in the World War I dossier, NAA:B2455, Leister Leslie. In his letters to the Defence department, Robert Leister always refers to Leslie as his wife's nephew. The linking document is a letter from the Mutual Life and Citizens Assurance Company at folio 52 which refers to his birth name. Without that information we might never have identified him.

folio 52 of NAA:B2455, Leister Leslie
We believe this is a photo of Leslie Leister. It was in a family album and Leslie is the only soldier who fits within the family tree who is not otherwise identified.

Leslie enlisted on 2 October 1915 at Holsworthy Barracks near Sydney.  He had been working as a postal assistant at Lambton, Newcastle, New South Wales. On 8 March 1916 he embarked for Egypt on the troopship HMAT A15 Star of England. In 21 April 1916 at Ferry Post, on the Suez Canal, he was transferred to the 55th Battalion. On 29 June he sailed with the 55th on HMHT Caledonia from Alexandria to Marseille. On July 19 he wrote to his adoptive parents from "somewhere in France" that he was quite well. Robert and Eliza Leister received that letter on September 9. On July 20 Leslie was dead, killed at Fromelles.

Photograph from the Australian War Memorial image id A01562.  Unknown photographer. Portion of the German 2nd line held by the 31st Battalion, AIF, throughout the night during the Battle of Fleurbaix which took place on 19 July 1916 and 20 July 1916. Note the attempt at consolidation. This photograph was taken during the morning of the 20th July whilst the Germans were re-occupying their old position. Note the three German soldiers at rear. Retrieved from http://www.awm.gov.au/collection/A01562/ https://www.awm.gov.au/blog/2008/07/18/the-worst-night-in-australian-military-history-fromelles/ : For a long time afterwards many would refer to the events about to unfold as the battle of Fleurbaix, but eventually the name of Fromelles stuck and today it is by that name that the battle is known.
Leslie Leister is one of the soldiers who was identified. His grave in the new cemetery is marked with the same inscription as his grandparents' grave at Parkes.

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