William Knox Leet VC


William Knox Leet was born at Dalkey, Co Dublin, on 3 Nov 1833. His father was the Rev Edward Patrick Leet. William's mother was Sarah Knox, from a wealthy family who had set up the Rev Edward as rector in the new parish of Dalkey. They had seven children who all bore the name Knox Leet. William and his four brothers all became soldiers. He was commissioned into the 13th Light Infantry as an ensign on 4 July 1855 and promoted to lieutenant on 1 Feb 1856. He was with the regiment in Malta and Gibraltar, in the depot companies, but in July 1856 they went to the Cape of Good Hope. When the Indian Mutiny broke out the 13th were sent to Calcutta.

William's first active service was in the latter stages of the campaign under Lord Mark Kerr. He was with the battalion and on the staff of various columns during the Central India and Trans-Gogra operations including Gorakhpur and Oudh. He was present at Amorah on 17th and 25th April 1858. He was also at Nugger on 29 April, and for his work at both Amorah and Nugger was mentioned in dispatches. Other actions that he attended were Jugdespore, Toolespore, Tirhoot and the Nepal Terai, including the two engagements at Bootwall. He was appointed adjutant on 2 Aug 1858 until 20 June 1864, and was station staff officer at Dum-Dum in 1863.

There followed a period of 11 years in England and Ireland during which time his mother died, in 1866, and he married Charlotte Sherlock in Cork on 12 April 1871. Their first son, Bertie Fielding, was born in 1873. Captain Leet played tennis well, and won a cup at Wimbledon. When the 1st Battalion sailed to South Africa in 1875, William remained in England because the two depot companies that he commanded were attached to the 2nd Battalion. However he went out to South Africa in 1878, arriving on 14 May so that he was with the battalion for the Sekukini campaign in October. In December they marched to Utrecht and became part of Evelyn Wood's column no.4 for the Zulu War. Wood put Major Knox Leet in charge of a unit called Wood's Irregulars. They were disaffected Zulus, prepared to fight against King Cetewayo. He commanded them from 7 Feb to 5 May 1879.

Before the column was involved in hostilities William had the misfortune to wrench his knee joint during a tug-of-war competition between the officers of the 13th and the 90th. When the troops moved out to attack Hlobane, Wood told William to stay behind, but he doggedly carried on, mounting his horse and placing himself at the head of the 2nd Battalion of Wood's Irregulars. On the top of Hlobane mountain the force had to make a hasty retreat down Devil's Pass. Leet's horse was shot and he was unable to walk so he managed to get hold of a pack horse, unload it and mount up. This was also shot and he had to find a third. This one had no bridle but he managed to mount up and make the precipitous descent. The Zulus were close behind as men and animals scrambled down in panic. Major Leet remained calm enough to rescue a young officer called Metcalfe Smith of the Imperial Light Horse. This officer had lost his horse and was in such despair that he was about to shoot himself rather than be speared by an assegai. Leet pulled him up on to the back of his exhausted horse and they tried to make their escape. At one point they came to a sheer drop and had to turn back. They would have been killed by their pursuers but for the bravery of Lieut Duncombe, one of Leet's officers in the Irregulars, who held back the Zulus with his revolver. He did not survive, but his action gave Major Leet time to get away.

For this incident, Major Knox Leet was awarded the VC. But there was no rest for the (temporarily) crippled Leet because the next day he commanded two companies of the Irregulars at Kambula in a 4 hour battle. He later returned to England and was presented with his medal on 9 Dec 1879 by Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle. He was promoted to brevet lieut-colonel on 29 Nov 1879 and lieutenant-colonel on 1 July 1881, at the age of 47. He and Charlotte had a second son, Dudley on 2 June 1881 but Charlotte did not have long to live; she died on 16 June 1886. William was appointed commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion on 1 May 1883. He was promoted to Colonel on 29 Nov 1883 and took the battalion to Burma where many of them died of disease. On 1 May 1887 he handed over command to Lt-Colonel Cox, and was promoted to major-general on 1 July, as well as becoming a CB. He retired to South London and died at Great Chart near Ashford in Kent on 29 June 1898 at the age of 65. The photo shows him in regimental dress uniform as a lieutenant-colonel in 1881 with his VC and medals for the Indian Mutiny and Zulu War. He was a short man who, whenever possible, was mounted on his horse to avoid being over-shadowed by his men.


Regimental Details | Commanding Officers




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by Stephen Luscombe