Of the three people to have been awarded a bar to the Victoria Cross, the first came from a long-established Hertfordshire family. The Martin-Leakes had lived at Marshalls in the village of High Cross, north of Ware, since the 18th century, although they owned property elsewhere, notably at Thorpe-le-Soken in Essex.
Arthur Martin-Leake was born in 1974, the seventh of eight children of Stephen Martin-Leake and Isobel Plunkett. The six brothers all served in the forces in some capacity; Frank was a career naval officer who rose to the rank of Rear-Admiral, while the youngest, Theo, had a career as a pioneer of military aviation cut tragically short by a ballooning accident.
After studying at Westminster School, Arthur trained as a doctor at University College Hospital in London, where he was awarded a Silver Medal. He obtained a post at the West Hertfordshire Infirmary in Hemel Hempstead, but soon afterwards requested a leave of absence to serve as a military doctor in the Boer War.
While in South Africa, he was seriously injured while tending the wounded under fire. Much was made afterwards of the fact that, while lying injured, Arthur had refused water so that the more seriously wounded could be taken care of, an act that saw him widely compared to Sir Philip Sidney. Although several senior figures, including Roberts and Kitchener, disputed whether he’d been “doing anything more than his duty” (which would have made the Distinguished Service Order more appropriate) Arthur was eventually awarded the Victoria Cross for “conspicuous bravery or devotion to the country in the presence of the enemy”.
In spite of this, his post at Hemel Hempstead hadn’t been kept open for him as promised. Instead, after passing the Fellowship of the Royal College of Surgeons, he took a post in Calcutta, as a doctor for the employees of the Bengal-Nagpur railway. He took leave to serve as in Montenegro as a doctor in the Balkans War of 1912, and again in 1914, when at the age of 40 he returned to enlist in the Royal Army Medical Corps in France.
Apart from a brief return to the Balkans in 1915/16, Arthur remained in France and Belgium throughout the First World War, eventually rising to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. In the autumn of 1914, while in action near Zonnebeke, he was commended for “rescuing, whilst exposed to constant fire, a large number of the wounded who were lying close to the enemy trenches”, for which he was awarded a bar to his VC.
This occasioned much debate, ranging from the design for the unprecedented bar to argument in the press over whether Arthur was actually the first. Several other cases were cited, but these all proved to be cases where a single VC had been awarded for multiple acts.
Most of Arthur's letters from the front are light-hearted and optimistic, tending to play down any danger or unpleasantness — he implies that boredom was the worst thing he faced. While this could be interpreted as the somewhat gung-ho attitude expected of officers during the war, it shouldn't be forgotten that Arthur was writing home to his family, in particular to his elderly mother, and it's possible he simply didn't want to worry them.
After the war, Arthur returned to India to resume his post with the Bengal-Nagpur railway, latterly taking up flying enthusiastically and buying himself a Gypsy Moth. In 1930, now 56 years old, he married Winifred Carroll, but she committed suicide in 1932. Arthur remained in India for a few more years, but eventually retired and returned to Marshalls in 1937. He and his brothers served in the Home Guard during the Second World War, and Arthur died in 1953, at the age of 79.
Arthur Martin-Leake was an outspoken man, who tended to be contemptuous of authority figures, although there were exceptions. Some aspects of him, such as his contempt for various “natives”, his love of shooting tigers and a degree of antipathy towards women, make him unattractive to modern sensibilities, though these characteristics were very much of his time. On the other hand, he was genuinely dedicated to his calling and was considered a modest man. An acquaintance described him as “quiet in his demeanour almost to the point of shyness” but that he had “one of those sunny, imperturbable natures which nothing seems to be able to ruffle.” His obituary in the British Medical Journal summed him up as “a great man, a simple man, and a character to admire and to love.”
Arthur was a keen photographer, and most of the images here are photos he took while on duty in France and Belgium. However, none of these have descriptions, and the subjects don't necessarily relate to the letters.
More information about Arthur Martin-Leake can be found in the biography Martin-Leake Double VC by Ann Clayton, published in 1994 by Leo Cooper.