Leonard John and William Bates


The impression gained from Leonard’s photograph is of a strong, confident and mature young man and it is certainly supported by his life story: Leonard was well-educated and well-travelled; he was also something of a pioneer, having become involved in the development of a military innovation which subsequently changed the world – the tank. His end was tragic and inglorious – he was crushed between two wagons in a siding at the Remount Depot at Ballsbridge in Dublin and died six hours later in the city hospital. He must either have been taking his tank to the city as a show of strength to Irish Nationalists or on a money-raising mission for the government.

The Birkenhead News reported that Leonard was a Hoylake man, but he does not seem to have spent much time in the town. In 1911 his widowed father, William (who was born in Malvern, Worcestershire in about 1851 and had been married to Lydia, who was born in Halifax in the same year) was living in The Royal Hotel, but there is no evidence of a permanent family home in the area. Leonard was born in 1883 in Oxton, where he was living, with his parents and his three brothers and three sisters at 72 Bidston Road, in 1891. His elder brother, William, also died in the War and is the next casualty to be discussed. William senior was a Marine Insurance Secretary – clearly a very well paid job because he employed four female servants: a serving maid, a cook, a housemaid and a general servant. Leonard entered Birkenhead School in 1895, where he played for the cricket and rugby teams. By 1901 he was working as a coalmining engineer in Aspatria in Cumberland.

In 1909 or 1910 he went to Lobitos in Peru and worked as an engineer there until war was declared; he then returned to England in order to join up. He enlisted in the Royal Fusiliers as a private on 30th December 1914 at Epsom. According to incomplete army pension records, Leonard was “discharged on medical grounds” from that unit on 5th February 1915, but his medal card says that he went to France on 14th November 1915. Perhaps he had been able to join the Machine Gun Corps, which later became the Tank Corps. He became an NCO and was commissioned on 26th April 1916. It is possible that his engineering background and familiarity with working in hot, noisy and dirty confined spaces made him an ideal tank commander.

Tank Corps Recruitment Poster

Tank Corps Recruitment Poster

The First Official Picture of a Tank Going into Action at Flers-Coucelette 15th September 1916

The First Official Picture of a Tank Going into Action at Flers-Coucelette 15th September 1916 (From 1914 Centenary Website)

Tank Coming Out of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette

Tank Coming Out of the Battle of Flers-Courcelette (From the 1914 Centenary Website)

He took part in the first ever tank action in the First World War, at Flers-Courcelette on the Somme on 15th September 1916. Leonard commanded tank number 714 or “G Tank”, which supported an attack by the Guards’ Division from Guinchy. It captured its first objective, but, en route to its second objective, had to ditch in Pound Trench. During the Third Battle of Ypres on 31st July 1917, he was section commander and was awarded the Military Cross for “conspicuous gallantry and devotion to duty”. The London Gazette said he “… led his tanks into action on his feet. On several occasions he guided them over difficult country, frequently under heavy machinegun and shell fire. It was greatly due to his exertions that the tanks of his section reached their objectives and rendered valuable assistance to the infantry, notably in the vicinity of Beck House. His conduct throughout was most gallant.” Leonard was given his medal at Buckingham Palace on 31st October 1917 and was later posted to the Special Service Company of N Battalion, which was sent to Ireland. This man was a hero. It seems a shame that he is not commemorated at Grange Hill.

Tank Corps Badge

Tank Corps Badge

Birth: September 1883
Death 9th or 10th November 1917, died of injuries received in a railway accident in Dublin aged 34
Addresses: 72 Bidston Road, Oxton (91), 64 Park Road West, Birkenhead
Occupation: Engineer in Lobitos, Peru
Unit: 18th Bn. Royal Fusiliers and Royal Tank Corps
Number and Rank: PS/6841 Private, Captain
Medals: 1915 Star, Victory, British War and Military Cross
Commemorated and Buried: H, Ireland: Dublin, Grange Gorman Military Cemetery, CE Officers 8
Sources: CWGC, SDGW, SR, MC, LG, LE, Birkenhead School Old Boys First Tank Crews Census: 91, 01


William Bates

William Bates

William seems to have been as adventurous as his brother Leonard. He attended Birkenhead School between 1891 and 1893 and then Lancaster Grammar School. Initially, he followed in his father’s footsteps and worked as a Marine Insurance Clerk, presumably in the family firm – the Sea Insurance Company of Liverpool. He was in the family home in Birkenhead in 1901, where he, his three brothers and three sisters enjoyed the attentions of a waitress, a housemaid and a cook (interestingly, a different team to that which ministered to the family in 1891), who were, typically, all women from Liverpool and North Wales. Their neighbours were similarly well-to-do types, employed in related commercial trades based in Liverpool.

Perhaps this urban, office-based life was too dull for William because, in 1903, he emigrated to Canada and became a farmer. He volunteered for the Saskatchewan Horse and became a major in 1911. Upon the outbreak of war, he was employed “in various military duties in Canada and England” – presumably helping to prepare men and equipment for the fighting on the Western Front. After only three months’ service on the front, William was wounded by shrapnel and died shortly afterwards. The Birkenhead News of 12th April 1916 reported William’s death, claiming that he had three brothers also serving in the armed forces. Leonard was described above, so the other two must have been Norbert (born in about 1877) and Percy (born in about 1882), whose records have not yet been traced. It went on to say that “Major Bates had many friends in Hoylake and Birkenhead and the news of his death has caused a profound feeling of sorrow”. His colonel wrote “He was a very gallant and efficient officer, and one that could not be spared. He was beloved by his men, and was a man that had a happy knack of getting the best out of his company.” As explained above, there is no trace of a Bates family home in Hoylake, which is probably why William and Leonard were not recorded on the Grange Hill Memorial but appear on the Deeside Advertiser’s list of 22nd December 1922.

Birth: c. 1880 in Tranmere, Birkenhead
Death: 23rd March 1916, died of wounds aged 36
Addresses: 72 Bidston Road, Oxton (91), 64 Park Road West, Birkenhead (01)
Occupation: Marine Insurance Clerk (01), Farmer (03 – 14)
Unit: 22nd Saskatchewan Horse, 25th Bn. Canadian Infantry
Number and Rank: Major
Medals: ?
Commemorated and Buried: H, Belgium: Loker Churchyard Cemetery I.E.13
Sources: CWGC, BN, Birkenhead School Old Boys, Census: 91,01


5 thoughts on “Leonard John and William Bates

  1. I am researching all those who served with the Tanks on 15 September 1916 and my book about Len Bates and his comrades will be published early next year.

    Is his photo still available as I have never seen an image.?

    Stephen Pope

    • Hello Stephen. Len’s picture is on the Burkenhead School Old Boys website. It is in PDF form. That is why I did not post it here, although I now know how to do that, so I will post it here later on. In addition, I recently copied his service records at the National Archives and so will be able to augment this biography quite considerably. I am very interested in your book and will buy one as soon as it comes out.

      • Hello Stephen.
        Thanks for pointing me to the Old Boys website and the Roll of Honour – it is a superb picture of Len and extremely poignant that the two brothers are remembered side by side.

        When Len went to Ireland in November 1917, he was accompanied by three other tank skippers who fought on the Somme on 15 September. Two of these, Charles Ambrose and Tom Murphy were with Len in No 2 Section http://www.firsttankcrews.com/no2section.htm
        and they were present at the inquiry after his death.

        I am happy to share my notes on Len – please send me a PM. And thank you for the kind words about the book. “The First Tank Crewmen” will be published by Helion and Co at the end of March 2016. Would it be possible to obtain a copy of the photograph of Len to add to the book?


      • Thanks Stephen. How wonderful. Old Len is one of my favourite characters on the blog. I think he was a true hero. I am fascinated by tanks. I was a member of the RAC for a while and so were my Dad and Uncle. Those early tankies must have been a unique bunch. Let’s stay in touch. Contact me on northwesthistory@btinternet.com Do you know why the tanks were being sent to Dublin? Was it for fund raising or for suppressing the Nationalists?

      • I have never been able to determine whether the tanks were fund raising or on anti-insurrection duties ? I have a contact who may be able to help.

        Will send notes as shown

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