Leonard Comer's Story.
Leonard Comer Wall was the only son of Charles Comer Wall and Kate (nee Earle). Charles was brought up in Liverpool, where his grandfather George’s business was located. He set up the family business of George Wall and Co. Limited, mainly concerned with grocery provisions and margarine manufacturing, and was joined by his sons Charles and Percy when they were old enough. As the business prospered, the family moved to West Kirby, to a more substantial merchant’s house befitting his status in Grange Road.
It was in West Kirby where Charles met his future wife Kate Earle. A native of Newfoundland, like her brothers, she was sent to England for her education. Their marriage banns were read at St Bridget’s church in West Kirby in August 1895, but they left for Kate’s home to be married a month later at St. Andrew's Anglican Church, Fogo, Newfoundland on 28 September 1895.
After Kate and Charles’ marriage in Fogo, they left Newfoundland for England, and within the year their son, Leonard Comer Wall, was born in 1896, and baptised on 11 October in St Bridget’s, West Kirby. By 1901 the family was living at Hill Top, Leigh Road, West Kirby, where Kate’s brother Henry was also staying while studying at university.
Leonard was educated at the Terra Nova School in Birkdale, Lancashire, before moving to Clifton College in Bristol.
When the war started Leonard was still at college, but he volunteered within days and obtained a commission on 29 August 1914 as a temporary 2nd Lieutenant into the 1st West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery. (ominously, Clifton College became notable for the very large number (582) of its former pupils who died during WW1).
The Lancashire Batteries Royal Field Artillery were part of the Territorial Force having been formed in 1908. They were originally known as the 1st, 2nd, 3rd and 4th West Lancashire Brigades RFA and later as 275, 276, 277 and 278 Brigades. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd Lancashire Batteries along with their Ammunition Column were based in Liverpool and together formed the 1st West Lancashire Brigade, RFA which had its HQ at Windsor Barracks, Spekeland Street, in Toxteth. It was embodied when the army was mobilised on 4-5 August 1914. The brigade came under orders of the West Lancashire Division. The division was in effect broken up when most of its infantry battalions were ordered independently to France in late 1914.
The divisional artillery, including this brigade, was placed under orders of the 2nd Canadian Division, which had not been in action before and needed artillery support. After a period of training, during which their old 15-pounder field guns were replaced by modern 18-pounders, they crossed for France, landing at Le Havre on 1 October 1915. Leonard, who had been overlooked for promotion, is recorded as entering the French theatre of war on 9 September 1915 according to his medal card.
The West Lancashire Division, now titled as the 55th (West Lancashire) Division, was ordered to re-form in France and the artillery re-joined it at Hallencourt between 2 and 4 January 1916. On 15 May 1916, the brigade was given the number 275 and the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Lancashire Batteries became ‘A’, ‘B’ and ‘C’ Batteries. 2nd Lieutenant Leonard Wall as assigned to ‘A’ Battery.
After seeing action on the Somme and around Arras, ‘A’ Battery was moved north to Ypres in Belgium, to prepare for the Battle of Messines Ridge The front line around Ypres had changed relatively little since the end of the Second Battle of Ypres (22 April – 25 May 1915). The British held Ypres, while the Germans held the high ground of the Messines–Wytschaete Ridge to the south, the lower ridges to the east and the flat ground to the north. The Ypres Front was a salient bulging into the German lines but was completely vulnerable to the German artillery observers on the higher ground. The British had little ground observation of the German rear areas and valleys east of the ridges.
British operations in Flanders would relieve pressure on the French Army on the Aisne front, where demoralisation amid the failure of the Nivelle Offensive had led to mutinies, and the capture of Messines Ridge would give the British control of the tactically important ground on the southern flank of the Ypres Salient, shorten the front, and deprive the Germans of observation over British positions further north. The British would gain observation of the southern slope of Menin Ridge at the west end of the Gheluvelt plateau, ready for a larger offensive in the Ypres Salient. The Battle of Messines was a prelude to the much larger Third Battle of Ypres, 31st July 1917 with the preliminary bombardment beginning on 11th July 1917.
On the 7 June 1917, a week after his promotion to Lieutenant, Leonard was with ‘A’ Battery, 275th (West Lancashire Brigade), RFA, in action near Wytschaete to the north of the ridge, with the artillery providing support and the creeping barrage for the advancing troops. He would have witnessed the mines exploding in front of him, a terrifying sight, the largest combined explosions ever heard (until the atomic bombs of WWII). The day after, as the Germans continued their counter attacks and shelling of allied trenches, Leonard was hit by shrapnel from an exploding shell aimed at the gun emplacement, while his mount ‘Blackie’ was also hit by shrapnel and badly injured but survived the blast. His groom, Driver Francis ‘Frank’ Wilkinson was killed by the explosion.
Leonard was taken to a casualty clearing station behind the lines but died the following day. He was still only twenty years old. At the time, Leonard was engaged to be married to Irene Dorothy Bryan, born in Folkestone and daughter of Reverend Edward Bryan, a vicar in Canterbury. It is likely they met when Leonard was stationed nearby in 1915. (She later found happiness, marrying William Marshall in 1934). In his will he left £180, a considerable sum for such a young man (although dwarfed by the £53,000 left by his father when he died in 1928). It is also said that his will contained instructions that his horse Blackie be cared for, and that his medals be buried with the animal when he died.
At home, his death was reported in the pages of the local press,
Liverpool Daily Post & Mercury, 14 June 1917
LIEUTENANT LEONARD C. WALL Lieutenant Leonard Comer Wall, Royal Field Artillery, was killed in action in France on Saturday last. The only child of Mr. C. Comer Wall, director of George Wall and Co., Limited, provision merchants, of this city, Leonard Wall obtained a commission in the West Lancashire Brigade, Royal Field Artillery, in the early days of the war. He was then fresh from his studies at Clifton College. For the last two years he had been serving in France, discharging his duties with valour, intelligence, and marked enthusiasm. He was in his twenty-first year and was engaged to be married to a Kent lady. Much sympathy is felt with his parents, who reside at West Kirby.
During 1917, Leonard was Mentioned in Dispatches for bravery in action, and had also had some of his poetry published. In April 1917 his poem Red Roses was printed in the pages of the Liverpool Daily Post,
Liverpool Daily Post, 13 April 1917
When Princes fought for England's Crown,
The House that won the most renown,
And struck the sullen Yorkist down,
Her blood-red emblem stricken sore,
Yet steeped her pallid foe in gore,
Still stands for England evermore,
Now England's blood like water flows,
Full many a lusty German knows,
We win or die - who wear the rose
Leonard Comer Wall
About a week after his death an officer of the divisional staff saw the announcement of Lieutenant Wall's death in a newspaper and beneath it the words "We win or die who wear the Rose of Lancaster." He mentioned the quotation next day to General Jeudwine [Divisional Commander], who was so impressed by it that he gave orders forthwith that the motto should henceforward encircle the divisional sign, and his orders were at once carried out.
The following year, the practice of placing a small enamelled metal plaque bearing the motto, known as a cocarde, on the graves of the men of the 55th (West Lancashire) Division was instituted by the divisional chaplain, Canon Coop.
On realising what Blackie meant to her departed son, Kate Wall purchased Blackie, while allowing him to continue to be looked after by the West Lancs at Spekeland Road barracks, where he would be used by the Territorial Riding School in Liverpool. When it came time for him to retire, he was pensioned off in 1930 to the ‘Horses' Rest’ on Higher Road in Halewood (the RSPCA), where he remained until his death at the age of 37 in December 1942. The marks of his shrapnel wounds were clearly visible until his death.
Blackie with his groom at the Horses Rest.
He was buried in the north-west corner of the western field fronting Higher Road with his master's medals and a gravestone was erected. The gravestone has been cleaned in recent years making the inscription legible again.
In December 2017, Historic England announced that the grave and headstone had been given Grade II Listed status. It is the first war horse grave to be granted such protection and came about when Historic England were contacted by members of the public concerned that it was threatened by proposed building work. They were advised to apply for listing and their application was successful.
Historic England have listed the gravestone of Blackie the war horse at Grade II for the following principal reasons:
Historic interest: Blackie's close association with his master, the wartime poet Leonard Comer Wall, and the fact that Blackie is buried with his master's medals, reflects the strong bonds shared between thousands of soldiers and their horses on the western front.
It has strong cultural and historic significance in representing the key role animals played, and the sacrifices they made, in the First World War;
It is a rare memorial commemorating an individual animal that served in, and survived, the major battles of the First World War;
Architectural interest: Its modest yet elegant design bears similarities to those in military cemeteries, whilst the inscription recording Blackie's name, regiment, and place and date of death reads like those ascribed to human soldiers.
The Cheshire Roll of Honour would like to thank Mike Royden for the information on Leonard and Blackie.