The Le Quesnoy museum is being built in memory of New Zealand soldiers who died liberating the small French town from its German occupiers.
Last year, a trust founded in 2011 by New Zealand Military Historical Society president Herb Farrant, rustled up enough money to buy from the local council a 1ha property in the heart of the small town, which is home to about 5000 people.
The property, which includes a stately 19th-century former gendarmerie and nine self-catering gîtes or maisonettes, will be used as a museum dedicated to the memory of the almost 12,500 New Zealand soldiers who died on the Western Front, including the 135 who lost their lives liberating the town itself from its German occupiers 100 years ago. The cost was a modest $1.1 million.
“They valued the property, then halved the valuation,” says the treasurer of the New Zealand War Memorial Museum Trust, Peter McKinnon (son of former Commonwealth Secretary-General, now trust chair, Sir Don).
The council’s offer is built on a century-old recognition of the New Zealand forces who rescued the garrison town from the Germans. As the Listener has highlighted in a series of articles over the past few years, stressing the need for a museum, this was no ordinary wartime endeavour. On November 4, 1918, just a week before the Armistice, members of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade stormed the town’s 27m medieval ramparts using ladders and ropes, liberating the town without endangering the lives of inhabitants or destroying the historic causeways, walls and tunnels. By the end of the battle, no civilians had been killed. It was, Farrant told the Listener, “a totally New Zealand thing”.
A memorial in the town recognises “the men of New Zealand, through whose valour the town of Le Quesnoy was restored to France”. There is a New Zealand gate of honour, an inscription on a marble balustrade acknowledging those who came from “the Uttermost Ends of the Earth” and a memorial garden. The town’s street names include Avenue des Néo-Zélandais and Rue Aotearoa. Every Anzac and Armistice Day, locals stand with visiting New Zealanders to commemorate the wartime rescue.
In foreign fields
Unlike other countries, New Zealand has no specific site dedicated to the contribution of its forces on the Western Front in World War I. Half the New Zealanders who died in active service in the 20th century are buried “in the foreign fields of Europe”; their legacy is scattered across memorials and graves in the Somme, Messines Ridge, Passchendaele and Amiens.
In the Waikato town of Cambridge, sister town of Le Quesnoy, St Andrew’s Anglican Church still boasts a stained-glass window depicting New Zealand soldiers scaling the French town’s walls. Mike Pettit, who chairs the Cambridge-Le Quesnoy Friendship Association, says the new museum will give descendants of those who served in the war a place in Europe to go.
“There’s nothing else of any significance anywhere over there. It’s bizarre. There are plenty of graves, but no tangible home where New Zealanders can go and hear their story told.”
Over the 16 years that Farrant has been leading tours of New Zealand Expeditionary Force battle sites in France and Belgium, he has nurtured the hope of seeing a permanent museum to mark the liberation of Le Quesnoy and to honour the legacy of those who fought in both world wars.
This dream took a leap forward last year when, after months of discussions with local authorities in Le Quesnoy and the wider Hauts-de-France region, the Trust was offered the former gendarmerie.
The site seemed ideal. Two hours by train from Paris, Le Quesnoy lies on the edge of WWI tourist trails that attract hundreds of thousands of visitors each year – in 2014, revenue from battlefield tourism in northern France was more than $12 million. A physical museum would tie in with the new app-based Ngā Tapuwae New Zealand First World War Trails Project structure, and could also attract some of the 15,000 or so Kiwis who travel to France each year.
Le Quesnoy Mayor Marie-Sophie Lesne told the Listener the museum will tighten ties between the townspeople and New Zealand. “A lot of New Zealanders come every year as it is, but we need to keep this relationship going, to develop more tourist visits to remember history and our link to New Zealand.”
The people of Le Quesnoy, she says, are enthusiastic about the potential for residencies for students, artists, writers and cultural groups in the historic grounds and forging closer ties with New Zealand.
“It’s a beautiful building, very French, a bit like a chateau. Everyone is very impatient to see it happen.”
But there is work to do. The museum needs to be fitted out and linked to a new purpose-built annex, which is being designed by Auckland architect Malcolm Brown. It will provide extra display space, room for a cafe, gift shop and tourist centre, and disability access.
The maisonettes – “somewhat tired but structurally sound”, says Farrant – will be refurbished to serve as self-catering accommodation for staff, visitors, school parties and tour groups, and there is potential for academic and cultural residencies and exchanges with New Zealand.
The overall cost, including the purchase price, is expected to be about $15 million. Last year, while still working through the tax-deductibility rules, the trust launched its fundraising effort. Already Westpac has committed $250,000 towards development costs, and other donations are coming in. Once it is operational, the museum is unlikely to generate a profit – as McKinnon says, museums typically don’t make money on their own – but annual operating costs are expected to be offset by revenue from accommodation, commercial ventures in the annex and a modest entry fee.
“It is going to happen, 100%,” says Pettit. “The trust is realistic about what it can achieve, but $15 million is absolutely achievable. It’s not too scary – with so much attachment throughout the country, we will raise the money comfortably.”
The refurbished museum will not be open in time for this year’s centenary of the battle for Le Quesnoy as had been planned, but the occasion will be marked on site with an official launch and a tour of the prospective museum and grounds.
“In November, we are going to celebrate the centenary,” says Lesne. “We are going to involve the children, the schools, volunteers, everyone. A new page of our cultural life is about to open.”
Special thanks to our French colleague Johanne Kendall.
This article was first published in the May 26, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.