About John Leigh Wells
John departed Sydney onboard HMAT Runic on 20 January 1916 arriving at Alexandria, Egypt, on 27 February 1916. Three weeks later, he was taken on strength as sapper with the 8th Field Company Engineers at Tel-el-Kabir.
On 17 June 1916, John proceeded with the unit to join the British Expeditionary Force in France onboard the troopship Manitou from Alexandria to Marseilles, arriving there on 25 June 1916. From Marseilles, the unit travelled by train to the Western Front, reaching Abbeville on 29 June 1916.
In the first week of July 1916 the company was put through gas demonstration, gas helmet practices and inspection of clothing and equipment. Thereafter, the company was engaged in clearing blocked communication trenches and general trench work in no man’s land. This was John’s first exposure to the horrors of war on an industrial scale. During the month of July the company suffered over 40 casualties including five dead and four missing.
In August 1916, John’s company was divided into multiple projects around Cellar Farm and Mine Avenue where heavy artillery had caused extensive damage, in an offensive later known as Battle of Fromelles. Most in the company were engaged in repair work, and some commenced on the construction of a concrete dugout for a Dressing Station to hold 12 stretchers. Casualties for the month of August were three wounded and one fatality.
By September the autumn rains had set in. Broken ground easily traversed in dry weather became a quagmire. Mine Avenue became almost impassable owing to rising water and there were a few small landslides in trenches after the rain, however, this was only just the beginning. Work commenced on anchoring duckboards, sinking in parapets to hold the shifting earth and replacing baggings on top of hurdles.
At this time, the 8th Field Company Engineers had over a two month period completed 152 wooden dugouts to accommodate 468 men.
On 22 September 1916 the company was marched out to Armentières in Flanders to take over an area previously occupied by the 2/2 Highland Company Royal Engineers. The general scheme of defence as laid down at the frontline trenches was organised in a series of defended localities. Between these localities were gaps, which were not garrisoned but patrolled by night. A certain amount of sniping and Lewis gunfire were done from these gaps at night to give the impression that these positions were held. When the company took over from the Scottish engineers, defended localities were found to be in a very bad state. Work commenced on remodelling these localities.
In the first week of October attempts were made with a Hydraulic Pipe Forcing Jack to cut through enemy wire entanglements. The aim was to push the hydraulic pipe 80 yards out through thick low wire entanglements to deploy explosive charges. It was unsuccessful and therefore abandoned.
During the first two weeks of October, works completed were the water supply, two concrete battery emplacements and nine concrete dugouts in addition to 73 fire bays of which 48 were completed. The remainder of the fire bays yet to be completed were handed over to the 3rd Company New Zealand Engineers.
On 14 October 1916, the company proceeded to Mametz Wood on a journey that took about seven days. The strength of the company were seven officers, 204 ranks, 19 vehicles, 77 horses and 28 bicycles. While some travelled in vehicles under the command of Captain William Gordon Farquhar, a small group was detached to proceed independently riding on bicycles.
On arrival at Mametz Wood, the scene was such as Captain Alexander Ellis described as “the most loathsome and appalling terrain in the world.”
Conditions were becoming less favourable for the Australian Divisions advancing towards the encampment. It rained almost continuously throughout October that when the first Australian units made their way across the devastated landscape between Longuval and Flers, a distance of eight kilometers, the journey took between 9 and 12 hours.
The main battle was against mud, rain and frostbite as temperatures often reached below freezing during nights.
For most of November, the 8th Company Engineers were engaged in road repairs, implementing a drainage system in order to keep the roads in a workable state. One sapper was injured by shrapnel and several more while digging strong points under the cover of darkness.
During the month of December the company was mainly engaged in building Nissen huts to accommodate men resting from frontline trenches. Approximately 200 huts were completed. The men also completed routes at Waterlot Farm and Delville Wood, placing duckboard over shell torn and waterlogged ground, which would have otherwise made the journey to and from the frontline impassable.
According to a stretcher bearer who found the duckboard a great boon, “Delville Wood is a terrible place. It was taken and retaken 27 times before the Germans were finally repulsed. Bodies lie everywhere mouldering away.” 
By end of December 1916 John had completed six months service on the Western Front. It would be another eight months before he is given a two week furlough in England.
On his return from his second furlough in Paris on 20 September 1918, John was taken on strength as driver with the same company.
After armistice, John Leigh remained in France until he was repatriated to England on 9 April 1919. Prior to demobilisation, John and his unit undertook various courses such as carpentry, mechanics, English and arithmetic on a daily basis. This was part of a Government funded training scheme in civilian occupations for diggers waiting for repatriation to Australia.
John returned to Australia onboard HT Durham, arriving in Adelaide on 16 July 1919. He returned to Tasmania about a week later.
Six months after John’s return from the Western Front, his father passed away on 16 December 1919. John continued to reside at Upper Mt Hicks with his mother and sister until his mother passed away on 27 July 1939. John was 48. Three years later he married Catherine Esther Bonhôte on 5 September 1942 at Wynyard. Catherine was the daughter of Peter Bonhôte and Eugenie Morris, born at Wynyard on 3 December 1909.
Peter Bonhôte was a native of Switzerland, born at Paseux in the canton of Neuchâtel on 13 August 1868. He arrived in Australia as a 20 year old on 5 December 1888 per the Oceanien, which sailed from Marseilles carrying cargo such as champagne, wine, liqueurs, vermouth, pianos, pipes and tobacco and cheese.
Catherine was athletic and well educated. In her teens she had been a member of the North Western Hockey Association, later becoming an umpire. Then she played badminton for several years before switching to tennis. Before long she became treasurer of the Wynyard Tennis Club. In 1935, Catherine’s clubmates at the Wynyard Tennis Club organised a bon voyage on her impending trip to Switzerland. She was away for almost 12 months.
In 1939, Catherine passed her first aid examination under the auspices of the St John Ambulance Association. After the commencement of the Second World War, Catherine became a member of the Red Cross Society organising care packages and raising funds.
During the Second World War, John re-enlisted as Lance Corporal in the Volunteer Defence Corp. It is not known which unit he belonged to or when he was discharged, however, he continued to reside in Tasmania throughout the war.
John and Catherine made their home at Wynyard, where they resided for the remainder of their lives. John was an active member of the local Masonic Lodge and the RSL and in his later years, worked as an aerodrome groundsman. He passed away on 13 February 1980. His wife, Catherine, outlived him another two years before she passed away on 12 November 1982. Both were interred at the Wynyard General Cemetery.
 Diaries of a Stretcher Bearer 1916-1918 by Edward Charles Munro of 5th Field Ambulance
Thanks for checking in and welcome to my adventure
Follow in Facebook to receive the latest updates