Leonard Coley was born in Palmerston North in 1898. He was labouring for the Public Works Department when he joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force – the NZEF – in December 1915. Aged just 17, Coley provided a false name – Leonard Collins – and a false date of birth to the enlistment officer.
On his final home leave in Palmerston North, Coley fell sick. Diagnosed with rheumatic fever, doctors gave him a sealed envelope to take to military authorities in Wellington. Coley opened the envelope on the train and, discovering that doctors had recommended his medical discharge from the NZEF, he tore up the papers and threw them out the window.
Coley left New Zealand with the 12th Reinforcements on 6 May 1916. After six weeks of training at Sling Camp in England, he arrived in France in October, joining the Wellington Regiment as a Lewis gunner.
Nicknamed ‘Sonny’ by his fellow soldiers, Coley was involved in the preparations for the attack on Messines Ridge. His unit helped repair frontline trenches damaged by artillery fire. German shells hit his work party as they returned from the front, wounding Coley’s sergeant.
"The explosion was behind me and I turned to see his forearm nearly severed by a piece of steel.
The sergeant coolly and quickly put the butt of the handle of his clasp-knife in his mouth, pulled on the blade with fingers of his good arm and slashed through the remaining tendons.
He bent down, picked up his hand and the remaining part of his forearm.
He shook it, and said, ‘Goodbye, mate, you’ve served me well.’
He let me tie a tourniquet on his injured arm and bind the stump.
I admired his bravery, and he admired my handiwork. We both fainted."
When Coley came to, his Sergeant was burying his arm where it had fallen.
Later gassed at Messines, Coley did not rejoin his unit until late August 1917. He took part in the Battle of Broodseinde at Passchendaele on 4 October, before wintering in the Ypres sector for the rest of the year.
In March 1918, the New Zealand Division was rushed back to the Somme after the Germans broke through the Allied frontline. Coley’s 2nd Wellingtons came face-to-face with advancing German soldiers near the village of Colincamps. He was set up with his machine gun when the Germans attacked.
"I instantly pressed the trigger and kept it pressed.
Firing burst out all along our line. Germans dropped like leaves.
Some initially fled in panic with us on their heels for the first few hundred yards.
Fritz soon recovered and started to hold his ground. After 20 minutes, my machine-gun team was ordered back 200 yards to cover our rear in case of a gap through casualties in any part of our line. That was worst part, as I now had to sit back and watch my mates working on Fritz. And they did this thoroughly. There were no gaps.
Our boys held and gained ground slowly but surely, capturing machine gun after machine gun.
There were no shells. It was infantry against infantry, and basically every man for himself."
Coley caught influenza in June 1918, prior to the New Zealand Division’s attack on Bapaume. After a spell in hospital, he returned to his unit, but contracted tonsillitis soon after.
Evacuated to the United Kingdom for treatment, he spent the remainder of the war in hospitals and convalescent camps. By the war’s end, Coley was still only 20 years old. He had spent more than three years overseas with the NZEF.
Back in New Zealand, Coley still suffered from the effects of his gassing at Messines.
He spent the next three months in Palmerston North hospital, with bitter feelings about his experience.
"…when anyone spoke to me about the war, it was a like a red rag to a bull.
I was sick of not being well and I was fed up with the whole outfit of the army.
Almost every moment, I struggled with my breathing from being gassed. Almost every day, I suffered concussion from the shelling.
I had no feelings of pride for being called a crack shot and killing man after man. I had lost mates, shot or blown to pieces beside me."
Desperate to forget the war, Coley performed a symbolic act, and burned his uniform.
In 1930, he went back to visit the old battlegrounds in France and Belgium – and was one of the few New Zealand First World War veterans to do so.
Drawing on notes he made during the war, he wrote a comprehensive journal of his experiences.
Len Coley died in Foxton on 24 April 1968. He was 69.