Northampton

US Navy 'jack-the-lad' deserter turned WW1 military hero

Captured British prisoners in the 2nd Gaza battle. Dated 1917 Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption The battalion suffered terrible losses during the Second Battle of Gaza, and many other British soldiers were taken prisoner (above) by Germany's allies the Ottoman Army

The story of a US Navy deserter who later joined a UK regiment and won the Military Medal during World War One has been uncovered.

"Jack-the-lad" Leroy West was in the 1/4th Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment, in what was Palestine.

The sniper was awarded the medal after the Second Battle of Gaza on 19 April 1917, which resulted in the battalion's single biggest loss of life on one day.

West survived the war but then disappeared from records.

Image copyright Northampton Borough Council
Image caption The battalion was known as the Shoemakers, because of Northampton's shoe trade, and its entertainment unit was The Jolly Cobblers

David Parish, from the Northampton branch of the Western Front Association, said the "jack-the lad" probably did not want to be found and no photos of him exist.

He said: "His real name was Henry Clarence John Holscher, he was born in 1888 in Auto in Texas, he qualified as a civil engineer and jumped ship in Liverpool."

Alison Butler, who has written a battalion history with Mr Parish, said they gleaned the private's history from his service record.

"It's full of his insubordination - he didn't like taking orders, he didn't like saluting and he didn't like discipline," she said.

Image copyright The National Archives
Image caption After West was awarded the Military Medal, a major in the battalion asked for his sentence to be commuted

West, who claimed to be Canadian when he joined the Northumberland Fusiliers in 1915, was court-martialled, jailed, escaped and recaptured while serving in Egypt.

After six months' hard labour, he was released into the care of 1/4th Battalion and it appears he found his niche.

Miss Butler said: "They sent him on a scout's course and he became a sniper.

"He was in no man's land, scouting up to the enemy's trenches, no one was telling him what to do and he was in his element."

Image copyright The National Archives
Image caption His service record reveals he continued to get in trouble, including for using insubordinate language to an officer

West's sentence was commuted as a result of his gallantry.

The story was discovered ahead of events to mark the 100th anniversary of the Second Battle of Gaza, in which 139 men from the battalion died.

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