Lieutenant Leslie Morriss Newton was born in Essex, England, in 1893 to Lewis Boswell Newton and Louisa Jean Newton (née Sandeman). The family later migrated to Tasmania, and Newton worked in Launceston as an accountant. On 25 August 1914 he enlisted with the AIF, aged 21. Joining the 12th Battalion, he was sent to Brighton Camp and spent the following month training within the northern Tasmanian B Company. Owing to his accounting background he was appointed the Company Orderly Clerk. A week after arriving at Brighton, Newton was promoted to corporal.
Newton and the 12th Battalion left from Hobart on 20 October 1914 aboard HMAT Geelong. They arrived in Albany a week later, before setting sail for Egypt on 1 November with the First Convoy. Five weeks later Geelong reached Alexandria. The battalion proceeded to Mena Camp near Cairo, where they trained for almost three months with their fellow 9th, 10th and 11th Battalions of the 3rd Brigade. On 2 March they left for Lemnos Island.
On 24 April 1915 the 12th Battalion left Lemnos and anchored at the nearby Imbros Island. After taking their last meal at 9 pm, the men climbed into torpedo-boat destroyers to be taken ashore. At 4.30 am, about 100 metres from shore, the battalion came under intense enemy fire. Within hours of landing it had suffered many casualties and its commanding officer, Colonel Clarke, had been killed by a sniper. The men advanced beyond the beach but harsh terrain forced them to scatter. B Company, who had arrived far north at Ari Burnu, progressed up MacLagan’s Ridge. They stayed in good formation as they scaled a second ridge; however, upon reaching the summit of Johnston’s Jolly they came under heavy fire. As the troops thinned out, Newton seized a handful of men to reinforce the left flank amid an onslaught of shelling and machine-gun fire. An Ottoman attack came at 5 pm, and though casualties were rapidly mounting the wounded were too exposed to be collected by stretcher-bearers. Troops hoping for respite after dusk were disappointed, as Newton recollected:
Our hopes were soon dashed to the ground … for as the darkness deepened so the machine-gun fire increased, until it was almost an act of suicide to even to get on to one’s knees.
By the end of April, 73 men of the 12th had been killed, while 239 were wounded and 193 were missing.
On 2 May Newton suffered a severe gunshot wound to his elbow and was evacuated to No. 17 Australian General Hospital. He was transferred to England on 26 June. After recovering at Weymouth Convalescent Camp, he returned to Gallipoli in September, newly promoted to sergeant. There he found a severely depleted 12th Battalion, still reeling after the desperate fighting at Lone Pine in early August. The 12th remained on the peninsula for the next two months, providing relief for battalions on the front line. Finally, on 25 November 1915 the men received orders to depart. Exhausted, with many suffering from illnesses such as dysentery, they left just after midnight.
The 12th spent the next month at Sarpi Camp on Lemnos. After a welcome Christmas break, they proceeded to Serapeum Camp in Egypt, where they helped form part of the Suez Canal defence line. Working along the eastern bank, the unit significantly contributed to building a light railway into the desert. It was also here that the 12th, along with other AIF battalions, underwent a major reorganisation. On 17 February, A and D Companies – half of the battalion – were interchanged with B and C Companies of the 52nd Battalion. Newton described the farewell that took place two weeks later:
I stood and watched them march out, and felt as though I were having a limb amputated without any anaesthetic. With keen regret we saw them go, these men with whom we had trained under varying conditions, shared joys and sorrows and, more than all, with whom we had faced death.
In mid-March Newton was promoted to second lieutenant. Shortly after, the 12th left Egypt for the Western Front. They arrived in Marseilles on 5 April. After six weeks of training, they moved with the 3rd Brigade into the Petillon sector of the front line, just south of Fleurbaix. The 12th were paired with the 10th Battalion in support of the 9th and 11th Battalions. They largely worked at night repairing trenches, constructing posts, and laying duckboards. However, on 30 May they were involved in a violent enemy raid of a salient held by the 11th at Cordonnerie Farm. Newton, at the time in command of the Intelligence Platoon, took charge:
The firing continued and increased in volume, until a heavy bombardment was in progress. I hurried the men forward and reported to the 11th Battalion Headquarters … The two right flank companies had lost touch and [the 11th Commanding Officer] wanted me to take my platoon up into the line and fill the gap … Eventually, we arrived in the line and found everything in great disorder … At the head of the salient a mine had been fired, making a huge crater, fully twelve feet deep, inside our line and destroying about twenty yards of parapet. I detailed a party of men under two N.C.O.’s to man the gap in the trench, whilst the remainder of the platoon worked like Trojans in recovering any of the sandbags which were still serviceable and building up the parapet once again … When day broke we were able to see the awful wreckage which had taken place. The dead were still lying in various unnatural positions along the trench … many of the wounded were still waiting for the much overworked, though every ready, stretcher-bearers … On looking over the parapet, into a white morning mist, one could see many dead Germans.
Twenty-six men from the 11th Battalion were killed, and another 58 wounded. Newton was soon promoted to lieutenant.
In July 1916 the 12th moved towards the Somme. They and the 1st Division were given the task of capturing Pozières. On the night of 22 July, the 12th moved towards Pozières in preparation for a midnight attack. Newton and a small group returned to headquarters in Albert, forming a nucleus for a new battalion if it became necessary. Though they were not sent out, the 12th suffered terrible losses over the next three days, with 71 killed, 248 wounded and 98 missing.
In the following weeks the battalion reorganised and Newton was made acting adjutant. They returned to the front in mid-August near Mouquet Farm. After Newton and several others reconnoitred the ground, they received orders to attack on 21 August. At 11 am, A and D Companies led the charge through the trenches, but quickly suffered a heavy enemy barrage and significant casualties. Newton, along with Captain James Newland in command of A Company, sought support from B and C Companies. Heavily sniped on their way, they reached both companies with just half an hour to plan their second assault at 6 pm. During this advance, Newton suffered a gunshot wound to his left forearm and was evacuated to the 44th British Casualty Clearing Station. Several days later, aboard HS Newhaven, he left Calais for England, where he was admitted to the 4th London General Hospital.
Newton rejoined the battalion as adjutant on 3 November in Montauban. He had arrived in what he later described as the darkest period in the 12th’s history. On 7 November the men moved north to the Switch and Gap Trenches beyond Longueval. Enduring intense cold and rain the entire way, they finally arrived at the trenches that evening. Newton recalled:
And what a howl of dismay went up from the men when they saw their night’s resting place! … The trenches themselves were from four to six feet deep and wide at the top … The mud and water in the bottom came well over the boot tops before any traffic had taken place in the trench and rapidly became worse as our occupation was prolonged. With the exception of two unfinished dug-outs, there were no shelters or ‘possies’ of any kind.
The next three months was a bleak time for the men. Newton recalled that ‘the Somme winter, with its mud, wet, and depressing atmosphere, had the Battalion in its grip’.
A sudden shift in mood occurred on 24 February 1917, when it was discovered that the German front line near Le Sars was completely empty – the whole 3rd Brigade could advance. The 12th eagerly went forward, and by the time it was relieved on 27 February it had advanced 2,000 yards and captured three villages. Returning to the line a week later, the men received orders to capture the nearby village of Boursies to divert attention from the 1st Brigade’s larger operations at Hermies. This was the first time the battalion was given an objective without the aid of another unit. The attack began on 8 April, and while making strong advances towards Boursies, troops met with heavy shell and machine-gun fire throughout the day. The battalion was briefly dislodged by enemy bombing that night, however recovered their position by dawn. At this point Newton was sent into the line, taking control of the posts to the right of the line and establishing a platoon post at the extreme right of the village. They maintained their position until being relieved late on 10 April, having sustained 249 casualties, 70 of whom were killed or missing. Newton’s actions here, as well as those at Mouquet Farm, were highlighted when he was Mentioned in Despatches later that year:
For conspicuous ability and devotion to duty as Adjutant of the Battalion. He has always proved a most able, conscientious painstaking officer, and during his 10 months service as adjutant has displayed great tact in dealing with the other officers and firmness with the NCOs. As a platoon commander has displayed great gallantry in the line, especially at Mouquet Farm on 21 August 1916 and at Boursies on 9th and 10th April 1917.
The battalion next moved to Lagnicourt, anticipating quieter operations; however, upon its arrival on 14 April it suffered an unexpected enemy attack. After just one day of fighting, 29 men from the 12th were killed and 59 wounded. The battalion moved to the rear for three weeks, but returned amid the devastation of the second battle of Bullecourt. Despite successful initial advances on 5 May, the following day the unit was subjected to a fierce counter-attack of bombs, grenades and flammenwerfer (flame throwers). When finally relieved after five days, 125 men had been killed – 5 of them officers – and 468 had been wounded. Such heavy losses meant that the entire remaining battalion formed only one company.
After much needed respite over the summer, and with a force more than doubled in number through reinforcements and men returning from hospital, the 12th moved to the Ypres salient in September. In the following days, Newton assisted a reconnaissance around Hooge and reviewed plans for an offensive at Polygon Wood. Joining other units of the 1st Division, the 12th were to capture the wood’s western edge. The attack began on 20 September. At 5.40 am, Newton collected several men and advanced in two stages under constant enemy machine-gun fire. Upon capturing their Blue Line objective, he located and marked a suitable pillbox for headquarters. They experienced heavy shell-fire throughout the following day until being relieved that night, though overall casualties were quite low – 17 were killed and 142 wounded. For his valuable work Newton was recommended for the Military Cross and Belgian Chevalier of the Order of the Crown. The citation for the latter read:
During operations East of Ypres 20th, 21st September 1917, prior to the attack on Polygon Wood Lieutenant Newton displayed great courage and initiative in personally leading Companies of his Battalion to the Assembly Positions, and jumping off tapes. The whole of this time he was subjected to very heavy Artillery and M.G. fire, and it was mainly due to his untiring energy and devotion to duty, that the Battalion was enabled to take up its correct formation. Throughout the whole of the operations his work was admirable, and he was largely responsible for the success of the operations in which his Battalion took part.
As the Anzacs moved into Belgium, the 12th supported operations around Westhoek Ridge, which included a successful raid of Celtic Wood on 6–7 October with the 11th Battalion. They spent Christmas on the front line in Wulverghem before a month of rest in February, when Newton was granted 8 days of leave in the south of France. Operations intensified again in late March with the German Spring Offensive. On 22 April the 12th received orders to capture Meteren. They made a successful advance that night. However, they gained almost no ground in the second phase the following day, marking the only occasion during which the battalion failed to achieve its objective. After minor but successful operations around Strazeele between May and July 1918, the 12th moved south.
Supporting the final advance along the Somme, on 8 August the 12th Battalion began two weeks of costly attacks near Harbonnières. On 23 August alone the battalion suffered 50 casualties, including the death of its commanding officer. Despite the 12th’s depleted state, on 25 August an aggressive final advance was ordered north-east of Chuignolles towards the Somme. Under heavy machine-gun fire, Newton took temporary charge of the battalion, personally forming them up for the ‘jump off’, and led a series of successful attacks. For his ‘indefatigable’ efforts, he was awarded the Military Cross.
Listen to Newton recount how he successfully directed his battalion in this attack:
On 3 September 1918 Leslie Newton was recommended for the Military Cross for his actions at Chuignolles, east of Proyart, a month earlier. The citation read (in part):
During operations east of Proyart from August 23 [to] 26 1918, Lieutenant Newton as Adjutant of the Battalion was indefatigable in his efforts to make the operation a success. His personal exertions at the jumping off line where the Battalion was under close and heavy machine gun fire were largely instrumental in the successful launching of the attack in that perfect order which made its advance irresistible. Throughout the whole operation he did excellent work, several times when the situation was obscure he moved to the front and assisted to correlate the action of the several companies engaged in the attack, showing no regard for his own safety although the ground was swept by heavy machine gun fire. To his efforts must be attributed a large share of the fine success which attended the Battalion in this operation.
Newton began a period of leave in October 1918, and did not rejoin the 12th until after the Armistice. On 9 December 1918 he embarked on HT Leicestershire for Australia, having completed two years of unbroken service as the battalion’s adjutant.
Several years after returning home, Newton moved from Launceston to Franklin in the Huon Valley, where he remained for over 20 years. During this period he wrote the unit history for his battalion, The Story of the Twelfth (1925). Later in life, he moved to Essendon, Victoria, where he passed away on 11 August 1956, aged 63.
Australian War Memorial, Australian Imperial Force unit war diaries, 1914-1918 War, AWM4 Subclass 23/29 - 12th Infantry Battalion
Australian War Memorial, First World War Embarkation Rolls - Leslie Morriss Newton
Australian War Memorial, Honours and Awards – Leslie Morriss Newton
Bean, CEW 1942, Official History of Australia in the War of 1914–1918. Vol. VI: The Australian Imperial Force in France during the Allied Offensive, 1918, Angus and Robertson, Sydney
National Archives of Australia: Australian Imperial Force, Base Records Office; B2455, Leslie Morriss Newton’s First Australian Imperial Force personnel dossier, 1914-1920; NEWTON LESLIE MORRISS, 1914-1920
Newton, LM 2000, The Story of the Twelfth, John Burridge Military Antiques, Swanbourne