I could have called this 'Leighterton - a part of England that is forever Australian'. For in many ways, it is true and has been the first day these Aussie boys landed here back in World War One.
You might never know, not unless you accidentally wander past this place. But you would have to venture through this tiny village of Leighterton. Past the farm, the limestone cottages, the church that stands centre stage and out the other side. On to tight lanes and acute angled corners. To see past the gravestones that stand in the cemetery on the edge of the village. To see the rows of white Portland stones that line row upon row in the graveyard. Signs of service, of memorial, of men who came to this place from far away and never left.
It is serene, for beyond the boundaries are the wide open fields that extend as far as the eye can see. The open plains of the Cotswolds; only broken by the low stone walls that trip the eye from time to time. Birdsong, the occasional tractor, maybe the hidden hum of traffic from the main road that lies hidden to this village. But these men are left to time; only broken once or twice a month when remembrance or memorial comes to them.
It is the propeller which stands out. An airplane propeller. Abutted to the front of a gravestone. For to know what happened here, one hundred years ago, you would have to imagine the burr of aeroplanes. The brilliant hum and whine are they swoop and dive across these wide open skies.
For here at Leighterton, the only war dead are they, the Australians who came to Britain to play their part in a war. There are 23 of them. 23 who never made it home again. The men of the Australian Flying Corps (AFC) who died here during the Great War.
Their names read long:
Lieutenant Geoffrey Allen Dunster, Australian Flying Corps
Air Mechanic 1st Class Sydney Harold Banks-Smith, Australian Flying Corps
Aircraftman 1st Class Henri Louis Buland, Australian Flying Corps 2nd Squadron
Warrant Officer Thomas Clutterbuck, Australia Flying Corps
Air Mechanic 2nd Class Lindsay Gordon Cubbins, Australian Flying Corps
Second Lieutenant Roy Lytton Cummings, Australian Flying Corps
Air Mechanic 2nd Class Francis Gordon Davis, Australian Flying Corps
Second Lieutenant Robert Alexander Dunn, Australian Flying Corps
Air Mechanic 2nd Class Edgar Thomas Filmer, Australian Flying Corps
Cadet Charles Clarence Frederick, Australian Flying Corps 5th Training Squadron
Second Lieutenant Sydney Charles Fry, Australian Flying Corps 8th Training Squadron
Cadet Ernest Howard Jefferys, Australian Flying Corps 6th Squadron
Cadet Thomas Llewellyn Keen MC, Australian Flying Corps
Second Lieutenant Cecil Charles Lewis, Australian Flying Corps
Air Mechanic 2nd Class Roy Nelson Victor McGuffie, Australian Flying Corps 7th Training Squadron.
Air Mechanic 2nd Class George Francis Jack Needham, Australian Flying Corps
Second Lieutenant William Parkes, Australian Flying Corps
Cadet Roy Nelson Pillow, Australian Flying Corps 7th Squadron
Lieutenant Charles William Scott, Australian Flying Corps
Second Lieutenant Oscar Dudley Shepherd, Australian Flying Corps
Lieutenant George Robert Thompson, Australian Flying Corps
Lieutenant Patrick George Walsh, Australian Flying Corps
Lieutenant Jack Henry Weingarth, Australian Flying Corps 4th Squadron
For Leighterton had an aerodrome, which was used by the Australian Flying Corps as a base during the Great War. The land had been cleared by the Canadian Foresters in 1917 and hangars and buildings built there on what was the Duke of Beaufort's land at Leighterton.
Australia was the only British Dominion to have its own flying corps in the Great War. Number 1 Squadron (Australian Flying Corps) served in Palestine in the Middle East and Numbers 2, 3 and 4 Squadrons flew on the Western Front in France and Belgium. But before there were pilots, they had to train.
There were four training squadrons based in Gloucestershire, Numbers 5 and 6 Training Squadrons A.F.C. at Minchinhampton, north of Leighterton and Numbers 7 and 8 Training Squadrons A.F.C. at Leighterton itself. Those four A.F.C. squadrons formed the 1st Training Wing A.F.C. with its headquarters and there was an A.F.C. hospital in Tetbury. Not too far from Leighterton.
When flying training ceased on 15th March 1919 and the A.F.C. departed from Southampton on board the P & O boat SS Kaisar-i-Hind on the 6th May 1919 heading for Melbourne and home on the 16th June 1919; their loss from the local community was palpable. For the community of Australians had made themselves right at home, socialising and integrating themselves in with the local towns and villages. They played football and cricket against local teams.
Some of these men had transferred from other regiments and service such as Flight-Sergeant B. Walford who was Mentioned In Despatches by General Allenby for distinguished and gallant action in Egypt before being transferred to the 7th Training Squadron A.F.C.. From Kempsey, New South Wales, Lieutenant Herbert Crews gained his star and wings with the 7th A.F.C. Lieutenant George Viner Wicks was killed accidentally whilst flying on the 13th October 1918 aged 28 years. One of the Leighterton airmen, he was buried near where he crashed in Reading Cemetery in Berkshire. He was the eldest son of W. H. and A. M. Wicks of Marrickville, New South Wales. Captain Tregillies lost part of ailerons whilst flying above Leighterton, he landed successfully, got out and lit a cigarette. These were the airmen of the skies; he left the A.F.C. at the end of the war to teach flying
In December 1918, after the ceasefire was declared, the 'Flying Kangaroos' as they were affectionately known, put on a concert party complete with comedians considered by the locals to be witty, 'but not vulgar.' The money raised went to the Dursley branch of the National Federation of Discharged and Demobilised Soldiers and Sailors. When the Australians left Leighterton for home after a stay of about eighteen months, some of them remained behind to study at R. A. Lister's Sheep-shearing Machinery Department in Dursley for a couple of months.
Mr and Mrs Matthews ran a teashop in Church Street in Wotton-under-Edge which the Australians regularly frequented. Before they left, every member of the Australian force contributed to buy them a silver tea and coffee service. A last gift before they left for home.
The locals decried 'the Aussies have left us.' For at other A.F.C. bases, other men headed for home. They had been at Minchinhampton since February 1918, joining in with sports and leisure pursuits or if not creating plays and concerts raising money for charity. In the early morning in May 1918, they left with hundreds of locals cheering them on their way, and at the station heading for Southampton they were loaded down with tea, cake and iced buns. The Aussies responded, according to report, with their usual reply of 'Coooeee!' The locals had known them as they came and went, knowing that many they had known had given their life in action in France. In some ways, these men gave them a closeness to the war; a direct connection between the war and these villages of Gloucestershire.
The A.F.C. had trained over four pilots a week during their war when they were sent home. The only caveat was this, for those Australians who had enlisted early in the war with the Royal Flying Corps were by no means guaranteed entry into the new Australian Flying Corps.
The aerodrome and equipment left was put up for auction just after the Australians were despatched homeward and cleared, before being in use for the second of the great wars that century. The garage still remains on the main A46 road, which if you pass by, you may notice is named the Aerodrome Garage.
Long after the Aussie boys were gone, the British Legion continued to honour their fallen. Since at least 1921 when the girl guides and locals laid laurel wreaths and a golden chrysanthemums at the feet of those fallen souls. In 1922, the rector of Leighterton wrote a letter back to Australia to say that as long as he was rector, they would tend the graves of the fallen Australians at Leighterton; and that their souls would be remembered before God. In 1936, for example, a service was held at Leighterton Church followed by a parade to the cemetery to lay a wreath followed by the Last Post. Over 200 men and women from the Legion across the county came. The Duke of Beaufort gave a reading in the church. Sir Lionel Darrell and Sir Fabien Ware visited. In 1951, Mr A. J. Tovell of Brisbane, a former member of the A.F.C. in the Great War travelled to Leighterton to present an Australian flag to be used in the ANZAC service and then to be hung in the church; which it remains to this day. In 1994 the Prince of Wales unveiled a memorial to the Australians at Leighterton.
There is one more note to this: not far from Leighterton across the main road lies the tiny hamlet of Lasborough. There is a church and a country estate, a farm and a few houses. But buried in Lasborough churchyard is the final Aussie. He lies alone but is for all purposes of remembrance, remembered by all at Leighterton. His name was Keith William Stronach. He is perhaps the 24th. For more on him please read this blog.
There is a postscript to this. In 1930, Edward Baron Broomhall was laid to rest in Leighterton Church Cemetery. He was 38 years of age from Melbourne, Australia. Despite returning to Australia after the war, Edward had returned back to the UK, to the area he had become so
acquainted with during the war.
When he died in 1930, he asked that his remains be buried next to his mates left here twelve years previous. His coffin was draped in an Australian flag and his cap, belt and medals placed upon it. His farewell was attended by family and friends from Australia, as well as tributes from the local village, British Legion and many, many others.
I am going to do my best to investigate each one of these Flying Kangaroos, these men, whose last breaths were of Gloucestershire air, a century ago. I will update this as I go.