Tim mobilises the troopsby Sally Blundell
Invercargill is hoping to help pay for a museum in honour of Le Quesnoy’s Kiwi liberators, says Mayor Tim Shadbolt.
They came from “the Uttermost Ends of the Earth”, the New Zealand soldiers who succeeded in liberating the small French village of Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918, and today are commemorated on a plaque in the historic walled town.
Now the southern city most deserving of that description is backing moves for a permanent museum dedicated to the actions of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade that day and the efforts of all New Zealanders who served in two world wars.
“With all the commemorations of World War I, it seems an opportunity to do something very special and that seems to be a town we should be focussing on,” says Invercargill Mayor Tim Shadbolt. “I’ve been up the Somme valley and what upset me was trying to find the New Zealand war graves. There were Irish, Canadian – everyone else had a big sign, but I had to ask people in France [where the New Zealand graves were], which is always a tricky manoeuvre.”
He finally found the New Zealand memorial at the Caterpillar Valley Cemetery in Longueval – “a little town off beaten track”.
The Le Quesnoy council has already offered New Zealand a large stately 19th-century building on a 10,600sq m piece of land close to the town centre for the venture, at an affordable and – says Herb Farrant, secretary of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust behind the scheme to establish a permanent museum there – negotiable $2.1 million. A further $9 million would be required for refurbishment and fitting out, but he says the sale of nine existing residential buildings on the site would more than cover the cost of the land.
A relatively cheap venture, says Shadbolt, to honour a purely New Zealand victory and those who died in the war. He says a local museum reserve fund of $3 million, currently on hold as Invercargill contends with the burgeoning cost of rebuilding the city’s stadium, could be used as a loan or seed grant.
“There are so many options to raise what seems like such a small amount of finance for such a memorable occasion. It’s worth celebrating – and [Le Quesnoy] is the only place where they’re celebrating us. It should be a pilgrimage – more so than Gallipoli, which was an absolute tragedy, whereas this was such a military victory.”
For Shadbolt, there is also a mayoral link. During World War I, the building on offer, currently in use as the gendarmerie, was the residence of Le Quesnoy Mayor Achille Carlier, later accused by the Germans of hiding wounded French and British troops and siphoning food from the occupying force.
“When the Germans came in [to Le Quesnoy], they requisitioned all the food supplies – took over bakeries and butcheries and ignored the population of about 3000,” says Farrant. “Achille Carlier arranged for bakers to do things on the side without the Germans knowing.”
SOUTHLAND'S MANY FALLEN
Southland paid a heavy price in the war. In 1914, a volunteer force of 227 infantry and 160 mounted riflemen and horses left for the Front. Over the following four years, this figure rose to just over 5000.
The Southland contingent served as part of the Otago Infantry Regiment, known as the Unlucky Otagos for their involvement in some of the bloodiest battles of the war and for suffering more casualties than any other regiments in Messines, Passchendaele and the final March to Victory of 1918. “In line with rest of country, about 18% were killed and 40% wounded,” says Southland military historian Aaron Fox.
Of the 430 young men from Invercargill who went to fight, 98 did not return. Southland Boys’ High School lost almost an entire school roll. At the outbreak of World War I, the school had 118 pupils. By the end of the war, 103 former pupils had died in combat.
On September 28 last year, almost 400 Southlanders boarded a train from Invercargill to Dunedin on a sell-out pilgrimage retracing the steps of soldiers heading to World War I from Port Chalmers 100 years previously.
This legacy is also inscribed in the region’s landscape. “We are full of war memorials,” says Fox. “Over 400 memorials and other structures, mainly from World War I – everything from school halls to horse troughs.”
The vast majority of those commemorated were killed or wounded on the Western Front. “Everyone focuses on Gallipoli but we don’t understand that the big battles where [many] relatives served or were wounded or killed occurred later in the war,” says Fox. “Most of the people I talk to had relatives at Passchendaele in 1917 – few had relatives at Gallipoli – but people can’t necessarily spell Passchendaele, let alone find it on the map.”
FRANCE IS WHERE THE ACTION WAS
Despite the fixation with Gallipoli, he says our World War I imagery is concentrated on France. “What is on our collective consciousness is that imagery of a blasted landscape, waterlogged land and mass destruction – that’s Passchendaele.
“But while we celebrate Katherine Mansfield at Menton, we don’t know how to celebrate or commemorate the First World War by letting people experience a legacy – and the legacy we left at Le Quesnoy is intact.”
Shadbolt has some persuading to do. The Southland Times awarded the Mayor “full marks for fearlessness” but described the project as “un idée horrible”. But the Mayor is confident other councils will back the plan. He has raised the subject with Local Government New Zealand to see what support can be found on a national level.
“So they will be considering it. Even if it is just seen as a loan from our museum and we’ll fund-raise with other councils to get it going. The main thing is to buy the building as quickly as we can so the deal is done.”
Cambridge, Le Quesnoy’s sister city, is already behind the project. Mike Pettit, chairman of the Cambridge Community Board of the Waipa District Council, says the board will be putting in a submission for funding for the museum to the council’s long-term plan.
Donations can be made to the Le Quesnoy project through the NZ Memorial Museum Trust website: www.nzmemorialmuseum.co.nz. See previous story at tinyurl.com/NZLQuesnoy.
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