Plans are proceeding for the establishment of a New Zealand war memorial in France to commemorate the role of New Zealanders in Europe in the First and Second World Wars. After more than 18 years of investigation and research, the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust has purchased a property in the small walled fortress French village of Le Quesnoy – which has special meaning and connection with New Zealand – where it is planing to establish the memorial.
The Trust has purchased the former Gendarmerie headquarters within the ramparts of the town, with the objective of developing the property as a self-supporting memorial museum. A prime mover of the project has been Greg Moyle, a former Auckland councillor and retired NZ Army Major, along with Herb Farrant – a military historian and now general secretary of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust. The project has received enthusiastic support from the Le Quesnoy mayor and Town Council, and from the French government which offered the property to the Trust at a cost of €600,000 (just over $NZ1 million), half of its current market value.The museum project and the fundraising drive have the backing of many prominent New Zealanders, including former Prime Minister Helen Clark who is patron of the Trust, and Sir Don McKinnon who is the chair. Other trustees are Sir Lockwood Smith, Brett Hewson, Buddy Mikaere and Michele Whitecliffe. Peter McKinnon is Treasurer of the Trust. Others who have given the project their active backing include Sir Jerry Mateparae, Sir Anand Satyanand, Dame Jenny Gibbs and Celia Caughey, while former All Black captain Todd Blackadder and Olympic cyclist Sarah Ulmer have also added their support.
Patron Helen Clark expects the museum will become a destination for young New Zealanders, in much the same way as those who travel to Europe now make trips to Gallipoli.
"We want to make sure the stories of those young New Zealanders who travelled to the other side of the world a century ago, will be passed on to future generations of New Zealanders," she says. "The town of Le Quesnoy – which New Zealand soldiers liberated, and where there is so much support for the project – is an ideal location to create a special place to remember them."
Many nations whose soldiers participated in the Great War already have memorial museums in France and Belgium, and New Zealand at this point is the exception. Sir Don McKinnon says the project is of national significance as New Zealand’s first permanent war memorial on the Western Front. "New Zealand is one of the few Commonwealth countries that doesn't have a permanent memorial like this on the Western Front,” he says. “Canada, South Africa and Australia all have them, and we need one too.”
"We have support for the museum from both the Government and the Opposition and we're currently discussing how the Government can further support us. In the meantime, we're rolling out our fundraising strategy so that individuals and corporates have the opportunity to support the museum. We already have significant pledges from several major corporates, including Westpac, and most recently, a significant contribution from the Waipa District Council.”
Le Quesnoy – a special New Zealand place.
The fundraising drive has been underway on a low-key basis for some years and is expected to continue for up to three years. So far more than $3 million has been raised or pledged for the purchase and development of the property. The buildings on the site comprise the Gendarmerie, described as a gentleman’s residence originally built in the late 19th century as the Mayor’s residence, and nine residential buildings erected in 1952 comprising one detached and two sets of four semi-detached residences. The buildings are surrounded by grasslands, paved and pebbled roading and mature trees.
The proposal is to develop a museum in the existing Gendarmerie and in a new annex which – at the request of the Le Quesnoy Town Council – will be in a completely different style and will also include a bookshop and café. The Museum’s collection content will focus on New Zealand’s military past in Europe and our contribution to achieving victory in two World Wars in Europe and will include resources to help Kiwis researching the location of the graves of their soldier forebears. It will also focus on the history of Le Quesnoy as a fortress town, and the harsh struggles of its townsfolk during the four year-long occupation by the German Army from August 1914 until its liberation by the New Zealanders.
Le Quesnoy has a shortage of public accommodation, so the eight residential homes on the site will be upgraded and refurbished to modern standards as self-catering tourist and possibly student accommodation, while the ninth – the standalone dwelling – will be upgraded to provide accommodation for two seconded Museum staff from New Zealand.
The Trust’s proposal is that the museum, the self-catering tourist and student accommodation, and the bookshop and café will enable the whole project to be self-funding. At this stage, the Trust is planning to complete the project in stages:
Stage 1a is the purchase and refurbishment of the exterior of the existing Gendarmerie building, and external landscaping work, including a Memorial Walk
Stage 1b is the refurbishment of the interior of the Gendarmerie and four of the maisonettes for accommodation, together with the museum director's accommodation
Stage 2 is the refurbishment of the remaining maisonettes
Stage 3 is the construction of the new Annex building.
The investment phase for the project is expected to take three years, while the completion of all works, including the new museum annex, may take a little longer.
Le Quesnoy is an appropriate location for a New Zealand memorial, because of the role of New Zealand forces in liberating the village in the closing days of World War One. It had been occupied by the Germans in 1914, and in 1918 there were several thousand German troops holding the town who refused to surrender. On November 4 that year, in the New Zealand Division’s most successful day of its whole Western Front campaign, some of its units bypassed the town and advanced 10 kilometres eastwards towards the German homeland, taking 2000 Germans prisoner and seizing 60 field guns. On that same day, in what was to become the last major action by New Zealanders in the Great War, the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade was given the task of capturing the village.
Because of the large number of French civilians held captive inside the walls, the New Zealanders knew that it would be impossible to heavily bombard the town, so the decision was made to storm the walls using ladders. Livens Projectors placed by the Royal Engineers fired 300 flaming oil drums onto the ramparts of the west walls to create smoke to obscure the Germans’ response to the assault. In a unique New Zealand action, and what would become our greatest single military success of the war, our soldiers clambered up ladders and over the outer ramparts and the inner walls, and captured the town taking 2000 Germans prisoner, without any loss of civilian lives and without destroying any of Le Quesnoy’s historic architecture.
Research undertaken by Herb Farrant, indicates that 135 New Zealanders were killed in the attack that day. Many of those who lost their lives in the action, some only in their twenties, had survived from the Somme to Passchendaele, only to be killed just seven days before the end of the war. Three of them had served in the Samoa Advance Force which seized German-held Samoa at the outbreak of the War in 1914.
When New Zealand followed Great Britain's declaration of war against Germany on August 5, 1914, New Zealand’s population was just over one million people, and about 243,000 of those were men of military age. More than 124,000 men enlisted for war service, and around 100,000 of them served overseas – about 18,200 of them died during the war, while another 41,000 were wounded. About 16 New Zealand nurses who went to Europe to tend the sick and wounded, also lost their lives. Consider this numbing statistic: more than 16,500 of the young men who served overseas never returned and more than 3700 of them were never recovered – they simply vanished. One in four New Zealand men aged between 20 and 45 was either killed or wounded.
October 12, 1917 ranks as the greatest tragedy to ever strike our nation. In one of the major offensives on the Western Front, 843 New Zealand soldiers lost their lives in the battle for Bellevue Spur, the ridge leading to the township of Ypres at Passchendaele in Belgium.
Special thanks: Words and Graphics by Tom Clarke ; Story Origination: The Freemason