William Knox Leet VC

by Richard Snow
William Knox-Leet was born at Dalkey, County Dublin, Ireland, on 3 November 1833, though his service papers state Armagh, Ireland. His father the Reverend Edward Patrick Leet, was the local rector. Edward married Sarah Knox, from a local wealthy family in 1825. The Knox family had set Edward up as the rector of the new parish of Dalkey and it appears that their price was that each of their daughter's children should carry their name.

William had four older brothers, Edward, John, George and Henry, who all entered military service. He also had two sisters, Sarah and Mary.

William joined the 13th (Somersetshire) Light Infantry as Ensign on 4 July, 1855. His service record tells us that he was acquainted with Latin, Greek and Hindustani, the latter probably picked up during his service career in India. He was posted to the 1st Battalion, and promoted Lieutenant on 1 February 1856. He was in Malta from 17 March until 19 June 1856, moving to Gibraltar with the depot companies from 20th June to 8th July. On 24 July the 13th and 89th Regiments were ordered to proceed to the Cape of Good Hope and the former embarked on the steamship 'Imperatriz' on 7 August bound for Port Elizabeth. The troops were sent as it was wrongly believed that a Kaffir war was imminent. Headquarters were established at Grahamstown on 10 October. The summer of 1856-7 was spent training, road making, and developing soldiers' gardens. Lt. Colonel Lord Mark Kerr also weekly examined the junior officers in history, strategy, tactics and geography.

William was at the Cape from 8 February until 5 November 1857. Whilst there, news of the Indian Mutiny which broke out in May 1857, reached the Regiment in August. The headquarters of the Regiment with 500 N.C.O.s and men left for Port Elizabeth on 22nd August, leaving Captain Tyler with 237 other ranks at Grahamstown. On arrival at the coast, the Regiment discovered that the steamship 'Madras' only held 400 men, so Major Cox and 100 men were left behind to bring on the rest of the battalion left at Grahamstown. In November they collected at Port Elizabeth, including William Knox Leet. The nine officers and 252 men, under Major Cox, formed the left wing. They embarked on HMS Megeara on 6 November, arriving in Calcutta on 18 January 1858.

William's first service was rendered during the Indian Mutiny campaign of 1858-59, being present at eight engagements. He served with his battalion under Lord Mark Kerr,and as staff officer with various columns during the Central India and Trans-Gogra Operations, including Gorakhpur and Oudh. He was present as orderly officer to Colonel Cox in the actions at Amorah on April 17 and April 25,1858.

The left wing of the Regiment under Colonel Cox were at Amorah, 70 miles west of Gorakhpur, and they formed part of the 'Sarun Field Force' under Brigadier Rowcroft. On 17 April they engaged the enemy near Belwah village. The mutineers were dispersed in intense heat with a loss of 200-300 men and a 6- pounder gun. The 13th lost two men wounded. On 25 April they were engaged again, the camp being attacked by three columns of the enemy. This attack by around 4000 men with 4 guns, was easily repulsed.

The Sarun Field Force marched on 27 April to Captaingunge and on 29th, some of the enemy assembled in the town of Nugger, some six miles away. A column under Major Cox was sent to deal with around 1000 men. The left wing 13th Light Infantry was made up of 5 officers and 151 men under the command of Capt. Kerr. The enemy were dispatched with regimental casualties amounting to one sergeant and one private injured.

At Nugger William acted as staff officer to the field force on April 29, as he did at Amorah on June 9. On 30 April,Major Cox wrote; "Lt. Leet acted as staff officer to my entire satisfaction." He was mentioned twice in Brigadier Rowcroft's dispatches published in the London Gazette on 28 July and 16 November 1858. These were published in General orders by Lord Clyde, commander in chief in India for 'conspicuous steadiness and zeal in carrying and explaining orders under heavy fire' at Amorah, and for performing the duties of staff officer most satisfactorily at Nugger.

In the attack on and the retreat from the fort of Jugdespore on 28 October 1858 he served as adjutant of the 13th Light Infantry, being mentioned in an unpublished despatch by Lord Kerr. He also took part in the engagement at Toolsepore on 23 December, and in the operations at Tirhoot and the Nepaul Terai, including the two engagements at Bootwall on 25th March and 28th March 1859. For these services he was awarded the Indian Mutiny medal with Central India clasp.

From 2 August 1858 until 20 June 1864 he was adjutant, 13th Light Infantry. On 22 December 1862 the 1st Battalion, moved to Dum Dum via Agra, arriving on 21 January 1863. William became station staff officer until 8 October 1863, when the headquarters and four companies proceeded to Fort William, Calcutta. He had returned from India on 3 March 1864. He then became captain on 4 November. On 14th February 1866 his mother, Sarah Knox died at Rathdown. From 1 August 1867 to 10 March 1869 the two depot companies of the battalion were based at Shorncliffe, where William was instructor of musketry with the 10th Depot Battalion. Then under the command of Captain Knox Leet they proceeded to Winchester and were attached to the 7th (Rifle) Depot Battalion. From 20 August 1870 to 29 September 1871 he returned to Gibraltar. On 12 April 1871 William married Charlotte Elizabeth Anne Sherlock at the Church of Holy Trinity ,Cork, Ireland. His first son Bertie Fielding Knox Leet was born on 26 April 1873 at Youghal, Cork. On 30 September 1871 he became musketry instructor at the School of Musketry, Hythe. Then From 1 July 1872 until 30 September 1877 he was deputy assistant adjutant general and quartermaster at Cork, Ireland.

As a keen tennis player, he won a cup at the All England Lawn Tennis Club, Wimbledon, although his son Dudley beheved that his father also won a silver cup whilst serving at the School of Musketry.

The 1st Battalion, 13th Light Infantry sailed to South Africa and arrived in January 1875. Wilham Knox Leet arrived at the Cape on 14 May 1878, having been promoted brevet-major on 1 October 1877, and major on 1 May 1878. Whilst in South Africa, his father Edward died on 8 June 1878, a widower and clerk in holy orders aged 79.

William took part in the Sekukuni Campaign in October 1878. The various actions failed to bring about the downfall of Sekukuni, a Bapedi chief, who lived in the north-east Transvaal. Shortly after this, the 1st 13th Regiment reformed and marched to Utrecht on 13th December, 1878, joining Colonel Evelyn Wood VC to form part of No.4 Column ready for the Anglo-Zulu War of 1879.

Briefly at the start of the advance into Zululand, Major Leet commanded the depot set up at Balte Spruit Laager, 20 miles south of Utrecht on 3 January with two companies of his battallon, and two guns. They were relieved in February.

Colonel Wood had achieved success in gaining the defection of Chief Uhamu, half brother to King Cetewayo, along with members of his tribe. These Zulus were organised into a unit known as Wood's Irregulars. They were placed under the command of Major Knox Leet from 7 February until 5 May 1879. He served with Wood's Column throughout the war and was present at the Zunguin engagement leading his men in the storming of the Intombi Valley in February 1879. He was commended by Colonel Buller CB for the admirable manner in which he led his men.

He was now in camp at Khambula. At the end of February at the Athletic Sports he captained a team of 13th Light Infantry officers in a tug-of-war against officers of the 90th Light Infantry captained by Colonel Wood. Major Leet wrenched his knee out of joint whilst losing.

After this, Colonel Wood tried to persuade Major Leet to remain in camp whilst the troops moved to attack Hlobane. But he decided to go and joined the column led by Redvers Buller, leading the 2nd Battalion, Wood's Irregulars, on 27th March. Lt. Col. Buller with various detachments, including Major Leet and the 277 Irregulars were to attempt the eastern end from the Ityentika Nek, detaching Major Leet to block the western end, until the arrival of Lt.Col. Russell's party. By 7am Leet's men had collected 2,000 head of cattle, drove them down to the lower or western plateau, and handed them over to Russell's men. On reaching the top of Hlobane mountain, he was sent with Major Tremlett, R.A. to inspect the pass at the western end of the mountain. They came across Lt. Edward Browne, 24th Regiment, and a party of men. They told Major Leet that the pass down to Ntendeka would not be easy for mounted troops to descend by. Major Leet described what he saw as Buller and his men were chased across the plateau by the Zulus:

'Duller came up and said we had better mount our horses and get down the krantz (Devil's Pass) on to the lower mountain at once.... with so many men and horses to get down the operation at any time would have been an extremely difficult one, but with the enemy pressing on it appeared impossible... I looked at once to this lower mountain expecting to see Lieutenant Colonel Russell's force ready to cover our retreat, but not a man was to be seen and it immediately became apparent that a catastrophe was inevitable.'

Once a retreat had been ordered Leet informed Buller that it would be best to keep to the right hand side of the pass. The men of Leet's unit went down first, their C.O. remaining on the summit. The first few men were able to pick their own way down what became known as "The Devil's Pass", leading their horses. By the end it was total confusion.

Among the brave individuals who kept cool, was Major Leet, who put his own life at risk to save a colleague. He himself was already unable to walk,and would have been useless if he had not been able to remain mounted. Major Leet's horse was shot, so he caught hold of a pack-horse carrying ammunition boxes, which he managed to dislodge with his knife. When this horse was also shot, he grabbed a third, with no bridle. It was at this point that he saw Lt. A. Metcalfe Smith of the Frontier Light Horse on foot, and about to shoot himself. Leet swept him up behind him, and they rode downhill, eventually reaching Kambula safely. Major Leet was the only man in the column to ride up the eastern trail, and then descend the pass without dismounting.

Lt. A. Metcalfe Smith's letter dated 31 March at Kambula was published in the Illustrated London News:

"I am most anxious to bring to notice that, in the retreat from the Hlobane Mountain on the 28th, Major Leet of the 13th Light Infantry, who was quite a stranger to me, saved my life, with almost the certainty of losing his own life by doing so. We were going along the top of the mountain, pursued by the Zulus, when Major Leet said to Colonel Buller that the best way to get the men down was by the right side; and the Colonel said it was, and called out so to the men. However, everyone but Major Leet, myself, and one other man, kept on to the front of the mountain; while we began to descend on the right. Major Leet and the other man were on horseback, but I was on foot, my horse having been shot. When we had got down a little way a great many Zulus rushed after us, and were catching us up very quickly. The side of the mountain was dreadfully steep and rugged, and there was no pathway at all. They were firing and throwing their assegais at us while they rushed upon us. The third man (Lt.Duncombe of Wood's Irregulars) was killed about halfway down.

While I was running by myself and trying to get away from the Zulus, who were rapidly catching me up, I turned round and shot one with my revolver. I was then quite exhausted and out of breath, and intended to sit down and give up all chance of saving my life, as the Zulus were within a few yards of me. But Major Leet persisted in waiting for me, and called to me to catch hold of the pack-saddle he was riding, which I did. Major Leet then finding that I could not keep beside the horse, I was so done up and the hill so steep, insisted (though I told him it was no use) on stopping and dragging me up behind him on the horse, which was also greatly exhausted. By good luck, he escaped from the bullets and assegais of the Zulus and got near the Colonel's men, coming down the end of the mountain. Had it not been for Major Leet, nothing could have saved me, and I owe him the deepest gratitude, which I shall feel as long as I live."

The Times of Saturday May 17th reported as follows:

"Gallant deeds must be recorded in connection with this day's events. Major Leet, 1st Battalion, 13th Regiment, after losing his horse, mounted an Artillery pack-horse, and, taking a wrong turn in the descent from the western plateau of the Zlobani, found his course arrested by a sheer precipice. A few minutes before this he had taken up behind him another officer, whose horse was dead. Turning from the precipice, they must now face the enemy, who were hurrying down the mountain, assegai in hand, and escape seemed impossible; but closely following on foot came Lieutenant Duncombe, of Wood's irregulars, who had been obliged to abandon his wounded horse. Disregarding the entreaties of Major Leet to hold on to his horse. Lieutenant Duncombe remained behind, and deliberately shot three Zulus when within a few paces from him. Every moment was now of value, and the enemy halted, evidently cowed by the loss of their comrades. Urging his horse over the slippery rocks. Major Leet hurried down the mountain, the officer behind him holding him round the waist, and in this way safely joined the rest of the troops now in retreat over the plains below. Lieutenant Duncombe has never been seen again and doubtless was surrounded and assegaid."

This gallant action was to earn Major Leet mentions in dispatches by Colonel Wood for "most distinguished courage, "and by Colonel Buller for "conspicuous and cool courage." He was nominated for a Victoria Cross, one of five awarded at Hlobane. This was gazetted 17 June 1879. The citation read:

'Major William K. Leet, 1st Battalion, 13th Regiment, for his gallant conduct on the 28th of March, 1879, in rescuing from the Zulus Lieutenant A. M. Smith, of the Frontier Light Horse, during the retreat from the Zlobani. Lieutenant Smith, while on foot, his horse having been shot, was closely pursued by the Zulus, and would have been killed had not Major Leet taken him upon his horse and rode with him, under the fire of the enemy, to a place of safety.'

The battle at Hlobane was disastrous. Fifteen officers and seventy-nine men had been killed, with many others wounded. Wood's Irregulars deserted that night. Within twenty-four hours, Leet was selected by Colonel Wood to command the redoubt at Kambula, a key position. He commanded two companies of his regiment, led by Captain W. H. Evans and Lieutenant E.J.Fownes, Laye's company of the 90th, and Nicolson's two mounted guns. The battle lasted around four hours, until the enemy retreated. Major Leet would not allow any ammunition to be wasted, he was always on the move.

Leet's name had been mentioned in dispatches in both actions, {London Gazette 28.3.1879 and 7.5,1879) and he received the brevet of lieutenant-colonel, the Victoria Cross and the medal with clasp. He took part in subsequent operations of the Flying Column, and was part of the square at Ulundi.

In early May 1879, Major Leet resigned his appointment. The following order was published:

'Major Leet, 1st Bn. 13th Light Infantry, having tendered his resignation of the appointment of Corps Commandant of Wood's Irregulars, in consequence of an accident which renders him temporarily unfit for active service in the field. Brigadier General Wood is obliged, though most unwillingly, to accept it. He desires to record his thorough appreciation of the good services done by Major Leet, and of his distinguished gallantry in the action at Zlobane on the 28th of March, when, at the imminent risk of his own life, he saved Lieutenant Smith, F.L.H., from the hands of the enemy'

William returned from the Cape on 6 September 1879.

Wood's speech as guest of honour at a Fishmonger's Company banquet was quoted in the Illustrated London News on 4th October 1879:

'Beresford, Browne, Leet, and Buller are now well-known names, and I am proud to claim them as comrades. You all know how they gained their Victoria Crosses. In each case they carried off soldiers who must else have fallen under the Zulu assegais. You probably do not know, however, that when Major Leet took up on a tired pony the double burden, he incurred a double risk, because he went into the fight so crippled by a sprained knee that, once dismounted, he could not have made an effort to escape.'

Lieutenant Smith presented Major Leet with a silver cup for saving his life. On 9th December 1879 he received his Victoria Cross from Queen Victoria at Windsor Castle, together with Corporal Allen. This was the third VC to be awarded to the 13th Regiment. Leet arrived shortly after the other recipients. Groups of spectators gathered at the foot of the Round Tower, despite the wintry weather (snow was still lying in the Grand Quadrangle). Her Majesty the Queen, who was accompanied by Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice, and attended by Sir H. Ponsonby, Colonel Du Plat and the ladies in waiting, proceeded at 3pm. to the corridor for the ceremony. The recipients were named to the Queen by the Lord-in-Waiting and by Lord Chelmsford. Lady Chelmsford and Colonel Sir Evelyn and the Hon. Lady Wood were also invited. Her Majesty asked them questions about their heroic deeds before presenting their medals. The Queen withdrew after the ceremony, and the men were presented to Prince Leopold and Princess Beatrice, who had shown considerable interest in the proceedings. Later on the non-commissioned officers and men were entertained in the hall of the palace, leaving at around 4pm on their return to the Victoria Barracks, where they had been since their arrival in Windsor. As they passed down the hill and through the town, they were greeted by residents.

Leet was promoted brevet Lieutenant-Colonel on 29th November 1879 at Devonport and became Lieutenant-Colonel on 1st July 1881 aged 47. Whilst at Raglan Barracks, Devonport his second son, Dudley Knox Leet, was born on 2 June 1881. On 1st May 1883, Lieutenant Colonel Gilbert retired from the command of the 2nd Battalion and was succeeded by Lieutenant- Colonel Knox Leet. He became colonel on 29th November 1883, and was in command during the expedition to Mandalay, Upper Burma. William was based in Rangoon with the family before rejoining the Regiment at Mandalay from leave on 4 June 1885. He received the Indian general service medal, with Burma clasp, 1885-87. His wife Charlotte died on 16 June 1886. On 2nd April 1887, Brigadier-General East, commander 1st Brigade, published the following order:

'On the departure of the 'Prince Albert's' (2nd Battalion Somersetshire Light Infantry) from the Brigade under his command the General Officer Commanding desires to place on record his high appreciation of the services rendered by that Battalion whilst in Upper Burma. Colonel Knox Leet and all ranks of the Battalion carry with them) the Brigadier General's best wishes for their welfare in the future.' Signed G. Simpson, Lieutenant-Colonel, Brigade Major 1st Brigade, Burma Field Force.

In Burma the Battalion lost about 140 officers and men, many from disease rather than from enemy action. The Battalion left for Rangoon, then embarked for Madras, and proceeded to Belgium. Colonel Knox Leet was among officers mentioned in dispatches. On 1st July 1887 Lt Colonel W. Cox was appointed to the command of the 2nd Battalion in succession to Colonel William Knox Leet, V.C. who retired on 1 May 1887. He was appointed Companion of the Bath and honourary major-general on 1st July, 1887.

William was only short in stature as his great nephew Edward points out in a letter to the Regimental Secretary at Taunton dated 8 August 1951 in which he recalls that in 1916 an officer had approached him saying, "I would have known you anywhere by your hkeness to your father, and, if you will excuse me for saying so, you sit a horse exactly as he did, and, if I'm not going too far, you won't mind me saying that he never went on parade unmounted if he could avoid it, because like you, sir, he was a very short man, and was sensitive about it if you don't mind me saying so!" Whilst flattered, Edward pointed out that he was only a nephew and not a son.

In 1889 a Burma Memorial was erected in Taunton to commemorate those members of the 2nd Battalion who lost their lives during the Burma War. William was present when the memorial was officially handed over to the town authorities. He settled in South London, and his last will and testament were drawn up at 'Sunnyside', Ailsa Road, St. Margaret's Parish, Twickenham, on 13th January 1896. He died at Grove House, (now called 'Holders'), Great Chart, near Ashford, Kent on 29th June, 1898 at the age of sixty-five in the presence of his son Bertie Fielding. He had been a paraplegic for three years. He was buried privately in the churchyard there.

In his Will it states:

'To my beloved son Bertie Fielding Knox Leet I bequeath my Victoria Cross, Cross of the Bath and War Medals and Clasps, the silver cup presented to me by A.M. Smith, my military sword and scabbard and the gold medal which my father was awarded in Trinity College, Dublin to be preserved as heirlooms. I leave to my said son my Cornelian signet ring, my coral breast pin (cherub), my large likeness in frame, the painted likenesses of my father, mother and two sisters, and his mother's watch and chain (gold) and signet ring. To my beloved son Dudley Knox Leet I leave my bloodstone signet ring, my Guards watch, my coral bead breast pin, my carbuncle wrist links, my small silver cup won at Wimbledon, the Burmese dagger with ivory handle and silver sheath given to me by the Swabwa of Theban, and his mother's wedding ring.'

Probate of the Will was granted to brother Henry, a retired captain in the Royal Navy and his friend Robert Arthur Jalland on 2 September 1898. His effects amounted to £10,235 1s 11d.

Bertie married Elizabeth Snudden, former family housekeeper in 1908. William's will stated 'I desire that the young lady Elizabeth Maud Snudden (alias Moore) who has lost both father and mother and has done her duty as housekeeper so well to me and my family shall receive a year's salary (£25) free of duty and I commend her to my executors and trust they will endeavour to obtain employment for her similar if possible to that which she has held in my family so that she will be enabled to support herself independently of her family.' She died on 17 March 1930 at Farnham, Surrey, and Bertie died on 9 November 1950 at Farnham. Dudley married a Portuguese lady and went out to Mozambique, where he apparently grew cotton at one time. The last news of him was in the early 1950s when he may have had a family in Beira. He is believed to have had a daughter named Laura who died in the jungle of blackwater fever when still a child. William's last family descendant, his grandaughter, Mollie Starkey died on 22 January 1994.

Colonel Hunt, regimental secretary in Taunton in the 1950s followed up every clue to try and obtain the medals for the Regimental Museum. It took over a year and correspondence with many relatives finally to get the approval of William's son, Dudley for his cousin Edward, then living in France, to hand over the V.C. and other medals to the Somerset Light Infantry Museum.

In July 1951 Edward, who was visiting his daughter, Mrs Lyall in Kensington, wrote to the Commanding Officer at The Somerset Light Infantry Depot in Taunton regarding an officer's address (Col. Cossens). Colonel Hunt replied and took the opportunity to enquire about the medals. In a reply dated 21st July Edward stated that by an extraordinary coincidence his uncle's decorations and medals came into his possession on July 19th - two days before his reply! On visiting England he decided to visit his cousin Bertie's widow, Mrs Dora Knox Leet, living at Rowledge, Farnham. She passed them on to Edward to ensure they remained in the family. By August Edward had returned to his home in Villefranche Sur Mer in France. In early November Dudley Knox Leet wrote from Portuguese East Africa to Colonel Hunt, promising to donate the medals. They had been kept in a heavy polished oak case with a bevelled glass front and lock and key. Dudley wished to keep the miniatures which did not include the CB. At the end of November Edward wrote again suggesting his daughter, Mrs Lyall, bring them across the Channel and then post them (registered) from London, without the case. On New Year's Eve Edward wrote stating that Mrs Lyall took them with her when she flew to London on 20th December but kept them over the Christmas mail rush. He states that he had been very poorly, six weeks on his back, but was hoping to spend the summer in Ireland. (He eventually made it to Dublin where he died on August 10th 1952.) The medals arrived in 1952. The V.C. is kept in a bank, under the safe keeping of the Trustees of the Museum. A replica V.C. and other decorations are now on display at the Somerset County and Military Museum in Taunton.

As part of the celebrations to mark the centenary of the founding of the order of the V.C., a special service was held in the church and at the grave side of St.Mary's, Great Chart on 22nd July, 1956 at 11a.m. The service was conducted by the Rector, the Rev. Reginald W. Lee. Led by Mr. R. Barnes, Great Chart branch of the British Legion paraded at the grave side, to which Mr. T. H. Harrison, representing the Legion, carried a case containing Major General Leet's V.C., C.B., Indian Mutiny, Zulu and Burma War medals. Mr. Barnes made the Act of Remembrance, and General Sir William Wyndham Green of New Romney read the citation. The grave was flanked by the Union Jack and St.George's Flag and under the inscription was hung a wreath of poppies: 'For Valour.' Also taking part were Mr. L. V. Chater and Mr. E. G. Kingsland, Church warden and the Choir.

The Vicar said "the stone had been newly cleaned, and a man from The British Legion laid beautiful new turf, and the ivy on the wall behind the headstone had all been clipped, and the surrounding part of the churchyard was mowed and rolled." For several years the local branch of the Royal British Legion kept the grave in good repair. In the early 1990s Graham Palmer, a church warden and ex-army man, had the grave restored. He got the Co-Op Funeral and Masonry Services, Ashford to give an estimate of a few hundred pounds, and invited the regiment to contribute. They asked him to put the work in hand, and it was done in late 1992. They took out the old letters, some of which were missing, refurbished the stone and cleaned it, and new lead letters were put in. The total cost was £347.80. The lettering reads: In Loving Memory of Major-General William Knox Leet, V.C.,C.B., of The Prince Albert's Somersetshire Light Infantry. Died 29th June 1898, aged 65 years.

William Knox Leet VC
Further Reading
Zulu War VCs: Victoria Crosses of the Anglo-Zulu War 1879
by James W Bancroft

The Somerset Light Infantry 1685-1959
by Liz Grant

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