Unit: 9th Battalion, 1st Australian Division
Location of VC action: Pozières, France
Date of VC action: 23/07/1916
Citation: For most conspicuous bravery. He was one of a party which finally captured an enemy strong point. At one assault, when the enemy’s bombs were outranging ours, Private Leak jumped out of the trench, ran forward under heavy machine-gun fire, and threw three bombs into the enemy’s bombing post. He then jumped into the post and bayoneted three unwounded enemy bombers. Later, when the enemy in overwhelming numbers was driving his party back, he was always the last to withdraw at each stage and kept on throwing bombs. His courage and energy had such an effect on the enemy that, on the arrival of reinforcements, the whole trench was recaptured.
According to his war record, John Leak was born in Portsmouth, United Kingdom, around 1892. His parents were originally from South Wales and migrated to Australia. By the outbreak of the First World War his parents had died, and Leak was living in Queensland. Leak enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force in early 1915 and served during the Gallipoli Campaign. Evacuated after he became ill with dysentery, Leak rejoined his battalion after it had been withdrawn to Egypt. Along with his unit, he transferred to the Western Front, where he participated in the Battle of Pozières in July 1916 and was awarded his Victoria Cross. The following month he was seriously wounded in the Battle of Mouquet Farm. Leak was evacuated to the UK to recover and was unable to return to his unit until October 1917.
Interestingly, during the time he spent in the United Kingdom, he was convicted of desertion in November 1916, but his sentence was ultimately suspended. On top of this, in 1917 he breached military law on three more occasions. In the first instance, he was charged for entering the Sergeants’ Mess and demanding a drink and disobeying his regimental sergeant major in January. For this he was convicted and underwent fourteen days’ detention. On 23 February, he went absent without leave until 2 March, and was punished with four days’ imprisonment and fifteen days’ loss of pay. He went absent without leave again in July, but this time only received a fine.
Leak returned to the Western Front in October. By this stage, Leak was clearly affected by combat related stress and was not coping and he went absent without leave again on 1st November. He was arrested five days later and found guilty of desertion from the line. During his trial, Leak said he was unable to stand artillery fire. His sentence was life imprisonment, but this was commuted to two years hard labour. Ultimately, the sentence was suspended, and Leak returned to his unit on 23 December. Leak continued to serve on the Western Front until 7 March 1918, when he was gassed during a bombardment. Medically evacuated to the UK once again, he did not return to his unit before the Armistice.
After jobs in various parts of Australia over the next twenty years, Leak settled in South Australia in 1937. He was severely affected by his war experiences and was very unwilling to discuss his VC exploits. He did not talk about his service, even to his family, until very late in life. He died in October 1972 and is buried in Stirling, South Australia.