Eyes brown, Hair brown, Complexion sallow
Who was Leslie Leister?
Born on 13th August 1894 in Parkes, New South Wales to Sarah Jane Whiteman (nee Way), Leslie’s birth was registered under the name Jack Walsh Whiteman but his father was not named on the birth certificate. Leslie was born illegitimately between his mother’s first marriage to Robert Whiteman (who died in 1884) and her second marriage to John Young in Melbourne just six weeks after giving birth to baby Jack.
Sarah Jane had family support as her mother assisted at Jack’s birth in the family home in Bogan Street in Parkes. There was no doctor, nurse or midwife present. Not long afterwards, it appears that Sarah left her newborn baby in Parkes with her mother and travelled to Melbourne where she married John Young - just six weeks after baby Jack’s birth.
Sarah Jane’s mother died the following year on 7th April 1895 while Sarah Jane, herself, died in Victoria just before baby Jack’s 4th birthday. Jack appears to have then lived in Parkes with his maternal aunt Eliza and - after their marriage in 1896 - her husband, Robert Duncan Leister. They had no children of their own. It is not known when “Jack Whiteman” became “Leslie Leister” but the Leisters acknowledged Les in various records as their adopted son and nephew. As a result of a query from an insurance company to the army, it seems that Les may also have been known as “Jack Walsh”, there being a policy for him in that name.
Joining up for King and Country
After finishing school, Leslie joined the Post Office working in Parkes, Randwick and then at Lambton near Newcastle. He also served in the Citizen Military Force and, just weeks after his 21st birthday, volunteered to serve in the AIF listing his uncle Robert as his next of kin.
On completing initial training, Private Leister embarked for Egypt on 8th March 1916 and was later transferred from the 3rd to the 55th Battalion. Records show that Leslie was absent without leave from reveille on 4th May to reveille on 5th May 1916 for which he was confined to barracks for 3 days and forfeited 2 day’s pay under Royal Warrant. It may have been in Egypt that he got the tattoo of a snake just below his left shoulder, as noted in his Red Cross file.
In June 1916, Leslie left Egypt with the 55th Battalion for France. He wrote home from ‘somewhere in France’ on 19th July saying he was quite well but by the next day Leslie was missing and later found to have been killed in action on 20th July. That letter was not received by his adoptive parents until September 1916, having already been notified on August 18th that Leslie was missing.
It was not until March 1917 that the army officially found that Leslie had been killed in action on 20th July 1916. Leslie’s name appeared on the German’s list of the dead, compiled from identity discs taken before burial from men killed in the trenches; that list was prepared on 4 November 1916. There seemed, however, to have been a lingering hope that Leslie may have survived and been a prisoner of war. Sadly, it was not to be.
In July 1917, Leslie’s uncle and adoptive father, Robert Leister, received Leslie’s meagre personal effects - motor goggles and a card. Later, Leslie was posthumously awarded the British War Medal and the Victory Medal. In 1922, the family received the memorial scroll, the memorial plaque and the King’s message.
Leslie was originally listed as having no known grave and was commemorated at V.C. Corner (Panel No. 13) in the Australian Cemetery near Fromelles. Leslie’s body was subsequently identified in 2009 through DNA matching after a mass grave was excavated. Consequently, he is now buried in Pheasant Wood Military Cemetery in Fromelles. Family members have since had the opportunity to visit his grave and pay their respects. The headstone is inscribed with his details and says simply
– At Rest.
Leslie’s name is also listed on:
- the Roll of Honour at the Parkes and District Cenotaph (Cooke Park
- the Honour Board at Parkes RSL
- the Parkes Uniting Church Honour Roll
- the NSW Officers of the PMG's Department Honour Roll and Book of Remembrance
- on panel Number 161 of the Roll of Honour at the Australian War Memorial.
Finding Leslie – a real challenge
With his informal adoption and changes of name, the path to finding family and possible DNA donors was challenging. The key however was discovered in the Parkes cemetery where a memorial to Leslie Leister was found by chance on the headstone for a John and Sarah Way. The wording inferred that Leslie was probably John and Sarah’s grandchild. There was a further clue in the AIF personnel records referring to Leslie as being known as Jack Walsh. As luck would have it, a wildcard search of birth records led researchers to the birth in Bogan Street Parkes of Jack Walsh Whiteman to Sarah Whiteman, nee Way – sister to Eliza Leister, nee Way, who resided at Bogan Street Parkes. All the clues fell into place.
In addition to Leslie, his mother, Sarah Jane, had five children by her two marriages – one child died in infancy. It seems that many descendants from both families had heard stories about a family member dying at Fromelles but were not sure of the exact connection.
Leslie’s younger half-brothers from his mother’s second marriage also served with the Australian Imperial Forces in World War One. John Percival Young served with the 37th Infantry Battalion and died on 9th November 1918, only two days before the end of the war. He is buried in Brookwood Military Cemetery near London. Cecil Ernest Young served with the 24th Infantry Battalion and was badly wounded in action but survived to return to Australia.
Delighted that Leslie’s remains had at last been found and identified, family members reflected on how to mark his gravestone. In the end, the decision was made to replicate the words of the memorial placed by his adoptive parents on the gravestone in Parkes – At rest.
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