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Nicholas Augustine Graham Leadbitter (1880-1959)

Durham Light Infantry officer served with the general staff and the Chinese Labour Corps

Nicholas Augustine Graham Leadbitter was born at Flass Hall, Esh, County Durham, on 27 April 1880. He was born Leadbitter-Smith but Smith does not appear on any of his military records, his entry on the electoral register, or the 1919 register.

In 1901, Leadbitter appears on the census as a bank clerk, but the same year received a commission to the 4th Battalion, Durham Light Infantry, which his father, Matthew Leadbitter-Smith, had previously commanded. In 1902 he served with the battalion in South Africa and was awarded the Queen’s South Africa Medal. Leadbitter was promoted to lieutenant in 1903, and captain in 1906. In May 1908, shortly after 4th Battalion was re-designated as 3rd Battalion, he resigned his commission.

In 1913, Nicholas Leadbitter married Francesca Mary Josephine Casella, the granddaughter of Louis Pascal Casella who was of Scottish and Italian heritage, and a respected scientific instrument maker.

Only a few days after Britain declared war on Germany, Leadbitter re-joined 3rd Battalion, Durham Light Infantry as a captain. This battalion was on home defence and did not serve abroad, but in May 1915, Captain Leadbitter was seconded to the general staff. In May 1917 he was transferred to the Chinese Labour Corps.

Both France and Britain used men from China to form labour units in the second half of the First World War. For Britain, the numbers of fighting men had been severely diminished, in particular because of the losses of the Battle of the Somme. Despite conscription, the British army was struggling to get enough men to the front. There were a large number of men doing labour work behind the lines, using other nationalities to do this would free up the British men to fight.

At this later stage of 1916, China was still a neutral party in the war. To help protect this status, the British Government initially intended to recruit men from their colony of Hong Kong. However, it was decided that these men would not be suited to the climate of Western Europe, and instead, men were recruited from the leased territory of Weihaiwei.

The first unit of the Chinese Labour Corps left China in January 1917. To minimise the time spent at sea, instead of sailing west from China, some were sent across the Pacific to the west coast of Canada, and then transport by rail to the east coast, from where they then crossed the Atlantic to Europe. The War Office initially planned for about 10,000 men, but by the end of the war, over 95,000 Chinese men were employed. In August 1917, China decided to end its neutral status, and declared war of Germany.

The Chinese Labour Corps were engaged in building roads and railways, repairing tanks, and digging trenches. One of the biggest jobs was clearing ammunition dumps, which continued well after the Armistice was declared. Whilst Britain began sending men back to China shortly before the end of the war, the last were not repatriated until September 1920. There is no definitive figure for the number of Chinese men that were killed (indeed, some did not survive the journey to Europe), but around 2000 are recognised by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, although the figure is thought by some to be much higher.

Leadbitter became a temporary major of the Labour Corps in June 1918, resigning in February 1920, retaining this rank. That same month, he was awarded the 4th Class Order of Wen-Hu of China, known in English as the Order of the Striped Tiger. He moved to Flint House in Holcombe, Somerset, where he was still living, retired, in 1939. He died in Bournemouth on 12 August 1959.

The Forces Network have done a video report on an exhibition about the Chinese Labour Corps at the Oriental Museum, Durham (April-September 2017)

Dr Craig Barclay, Head of Museums, Durham University
Unpublished research by Malcolm McGregor
1881 and 1901 census
1939 Register
Medal index card (via Ancestry)
The information about the Chinese Labour Corps has been sourced from the Ensuring We Remember website and Pad Kumlertsakul’s blog post for The National Archives, written using records held there
More in depth information, including about the political repercussions for China, can be found on these pages.

Civil Parish: Esh

Birth date: 27-Apr-1880

Death date: 12-Aug-1959

Armed force/civilian: Army

Residence: Flass Hall, Esh, County Durham
Flint House, Holcolmbe, Somerset

Education: St Cuthbert’s, Ushaw

Employment: Bank clerk (1901 census)

Family: Father: Matthew Edward Leadbitter-Smith
Mother: Adela Alice Leadbitter-Smith (nee Graham)
Siblings: John, Monica, Maria, Agnes
Wife: Francesca Mary Josephine Leadbitter (nee Casella), married 23 October 1913

Military service:

Second Lieutenant, 4th Battalion DLI, 16 November 1901
Lieutenant, 20 June 1903
Captain, 28 April 1906
Resigned, 28 May 1908
Re-joined as Captain, 3rd Battalion DLI [formerly 4th Battalion], 8 August 1914
Temporary Major, Labour Corps, 26 June 1918
Seconded to staff, 27 May 1915
Employed with Chinese Labour Corps, 4 May 1917
Resigned, 21 February 1920, granted rank of major

Medal(s): 15 Star
British War Medal
Victory Medal
4th Class Order of Wen-Hu of China [The Order of the Striped Tiger]

Electoral Register:

Register No: 889
Forename: Nicholas A G
Surname: Leadbitter
Parliamentary Division: Barnard Castle
Polling District: I - Esh Winning
Parish: Esh
Date: October-1918
Reference: October-1918

Gender: Male

Contributed by Durham County Record Office

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