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The uni student from Byron Bay who gave his life in WWI

MANY of the young men who enlisted in the First World War have their occupation given as labourer.

This was a general term used for those working with pick and shovel on the roads, digging trenches for water and gas mains, railway navvies, etc.

Those working on farms were usually listed as farm labourers rather than under the more general term.

Most of these young men were looking for something better in their lives to break the tedium and hard work.

War seemed to imply adventure, new places to visit, and a more interesting life generally.

Pte Leonard Mortimer Duncan
Pte Leonard Mortimer Duncan

However, there were also those young men who came from a different background, who had good jobs or more interesting occupations.

Some of these felt it their duty to enlist. Often they were members of a militia unit and simply changed one uniform for another.

And then there were the students, those studying for a profession at university or college. Sydney University alone sent nearly 2000 men from its staff and students. One of these was Leonard Mortimer Duncan from Byron Bay.

Leonard Duncan was born in Byron Bay in 1896, the son of Robert and Rosa E. Duncan (nee Mortimer). His parents both came from farming backgrounds though, at the time of his son's enlistment, Robert was working for the fledgling Norco Co-operative at Byron Bay.

They were staunch Presbyterians and several other members of the extended family had either already joined the Army or would join soon afterwards. Some of these would not return.

Leonard was well educated and was undertaking an Arts Degree at Sydney University when he enlisted, aged 19, on 21 September 1915.

It is possible that he had either wanted to become a teacher or, more likely, would extend his studies into Arts-Law.

Instead he joined the 4th Battalion and embarked from Sydney in December 1915. He had been attached to the University Scouts Unit prior to enlisting so had some experience as a soldier.

Soon after reaching France he was transferred to the 2nd Battalion and soon found himself heading towards the infamous Somme region. It was here in the Battle of Pozieres on 23 July 1916 that he was killed.

Although there were British troops at Pozieres the Battle for this small French village and the ridge surrounding it is considered an Australian battle rather than a British.

The Australians took possession of the area but the loss was tremendous not only to the Allies but also to the German forces.

Three Victoria Crosses were won at Pozieres.

There were over 8000 casualties in the 2nd Battalion alone, including Leonard Duncan.

He has no known grave but his name is listed on the Villers Bretonneux Memorial which stands on the infamous Hill 104 which caused so many deaths.

Over the years this Memorial has become closely associated with Australia and Australians.

As well as including those who have been identified and are therefore buried there, the Memorial lists nearly 11,000 Australian names of those with no known grave but who are known to have been killed in France.

The Memorial was partly financed by a subscription from Victorian children many of whose fathers are buried or remembered there.

Topics:  byron bay world war 1


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