It was one of the most heart-rending family tales from the First World War exactly 100 years ago – and it happened on our doorstep.
The date was July 21, 1916, and it was the day the Leonard family from Batley were mourning the death of daughter Annie from poisoning as a result of working in the munitions factory at Barnbow in Leeds, supplying shells to the frontline.
At the same time, father William and mother Emma were fearing for the safety of their son Edward on the frontline.
And within hours of 24-year-old Annie’s death, the grieving parents had been informed their 22-year-old son, who was serving in the West Yorkshire Regiment, hadn’t been since heavy fighting during The Battle of the Somme and was presumed dead.
In less than 24 hours, they had lost a son and a daughter as a result of the Great War of 1914-18.
The couple may have had nine children altogether, but their double loss in the space of 24 hours was profound.
They knew the risks when eldest son Edward, a former Batley Grammar School pupil and highly-talented artist, enlisted with the Leeds Rifles shortly after the outbreak of war in August, 1914, and went to France in April 1915.
But, like the rest of the nation at the time, they did not know the full risk facing the millions of women working in the munitions factory to supply the artillery required to halt the Germans on the Western Front. They were our brave and unsung army on the home front.
The public probably had some idea the factories were dangerous environments, simply because the women were working with high explosives on a daily basis.
Yet no-one outside the munition gates was aware of how poisonous the materials the women were being exposed to actually were – as the Leonard family found out to their ultimate cost.
Annie had only been working at Barnbow for a brief time when she returned to the family home on June 25 complaining of sickness. Her face had taken on the typical yellow hue associated with munitions work, and her local doctor and a specialist were consulted as concerns over her health grew.
But her condition deteriorated, with her family by her bedside when she passed away.
If that wasn’t heartbreaking enough, their grief was about to become ever harder to bear.
The full sad facts were brought to the public’s attention by leading local historian and genealogist Jane Roberts as part of her research into the men from the St Mary’s Church parish in Batley who lost their lives during World War One. Her book honouring those soldiers has subsequently raised hundreds of pounds for St Mary’s Church and the Royal British Legion.
And on the centenary of the Leonards’ deaths, Jane is hoping their sacrifices are never forgotten.
“To lose any family member during the Great War must have been devastating” said Jane.
“But to lose two so close together, and in such different circumstances, is truly unimaginable.
“So much has been written and said about those who lost their lives fighting at the front, like Edward Leonard.
“In comparison, the sacrifices of those at home have gone largely unnoticed. Annie Leonard’s story illustrates the vital war efforts of those many women and men back home”.
For the full story of the Leonard family and the munitions work undertaken by women during the First World War, read Jane’s blog here.