Corporal Leggett an early casualty on the Western Front

Name: William Thomas Leggett
Date: 1914
Unit: 1st Kings Life Guards
Location: Gheluwe, Belgium

William Thomas Leggett, who hailed from Goulburn in New South Wales, is thought to have been one of the first Australians killed in fighting on the Western front in World War I. He was certainly the first to die in the defence of Ypres, in Belgium.

Leggett was the oldest of 11 children and was born at Lithgow before his father, who worked for NSW Railways, moved to Goulburn in the early 1900s.

He had worked as an assistant at Goulburn Technical College, although he was a trained electrician and held a transmission/telegraphist licence. He left Goulburn in 1910 to help run an open air picture theatre in Surry Hills in Sydney.

He decided to travel and further his career in communications, so the following year Leggett left Australia as the wireless operator on an ocean liner, travelling via South Africa and America before disembarking in England. There, he joined the King's Life Guards in January 1912, although no one knows why he decided on this course of action. He graduated the following year and became an instructor at Aldershot Military School before being sent to Belgium.

In October 1914, Corporal of Horse William Thomas Leggett was killed in action at Gheluwe in Belgium, east of Ieper [Ypres].

His death is described in [the English translation of] a book by Belgian author Dirk Decuypere, Het Melheur Van De Keizer - 1914-1918, published in 1998.

German soldiers had entered the village of Gheluwe earlier in the day and had posted sentries in and around the tram station.

"It is close to 3pm when Captain Grosvenor, commanding officer of C Squadron, 1st Life guards, enters the village by way of the Dadizelestraat and is informed by civilians about the German presence," Decuypere wrote. "Grosvenor (wrongly) estimates their numbers at 30 or so. He investigates about the enemy positions and divides his squadron in two.

"First phase of the attack: to steal up on the sentries as close as possible and eliminate them.

"A first group approaches the centre of the village through the Beselarestraat: the advance guard on foot, rifles at the ready, followed by the remainder hanging low behind the necks of the horses.

"A second group - about 20 - leaves all the horses behind, and cautiously follows the tram track alongside Nieuwstraat towards the convent. This track will bring them straight to the tram station: the main target of the attack.

"The British are silently sneaking through the ditch towards the bend where the tram lines cross the road. There, the Life Guards jump out and swiftly cross the street, then move on across the Reutelbeke (a brook) and towards the Ieperstraat. The station is just across…

"In the centre of the village the first British shots ring out: one of the two sentries at the Café Hert falls to the ground. Sacristan Ghesquiere hears windows smash to pieces and cautiously watches outside. At Albert Vandamme's (now the town hall) he notices a British soldier standing still while 10 other British are warily running alongside the Vrouwstraat bend so as to get into Menenstraat. A vehement 10 minutes' exchange of fire in the latter street follows shortly after.

"A thoughful Life Guard who happens to meet up with scared villagers praying in the church at that moment, guides them through the sacristy door to the presbytery.

"Also at the station there is intensive gunfire. The Germans are totally surprised and retreat via the farm of Theophiel Ghesquiere (now Zuidstraat 430 and the houses at Vierhoeken (now Voorhoek).

"This is the best escape route towards Menenstraat and Menin. Corporal William Leggett is among the pursuing British Cavalrymen who reach the northerly hedge of the farm Ghesquiere when he is hit by a bullet. He spills from his horse and falls into the hedge, while his horse dashes away over the open fields."

After the skirmish the British moved on and the Germans returned to take over the village. Leggett was buried along with four dead Germans. In 1924, Leggett's body was moved along with British casualties to Harlebeke New British Cemetery.

The events that brought about Leggett's death are commemorated in a display at Gheluwe Cultural Centre.

William's medals and a photograph of him in Guards Dress Uniform are on display at St Clare's Cottage, run by the local historical society in Sloane Street, Goulburn, NSW.

The material for this article was supplied by Geoffrey Leggett of New South Wales


Last updated: 3 June 2019

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2019), Corporal Leggett an early casualty on the Western Front, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 14 August 2020, http://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/stories-service/australians-war-stories/corporal-leggett-early-casualty-western-front
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