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Leslie Averill: The first soldier to scale the walls of Le Quesnoy

Capture of the walls of Le Quesnoy by George Edmund Butler, 1920.

Ahead of the centenary of a heroic World War I action by New Zealand soldiers, a new book celebrates one of the legends of Le Quesnoy.

Leslie Averill would have been the last person to describe himself as a hero. But, for the citizens of Le Quesnoy, the legend of Averill and his fellow soldiers has grown in the 100 years since the end of World War I.

Le Quesnoy had suffered a harsh four-year occupation by the German army when the New Zealand Division arrived on November 4, 1918. The town’s 13 metre high brick walls, designed by the famous French military engineer Vauban, could easily have been attacked with heavily artillery, but that risked killing innocent civilians. Instead, at greater risk to themselves, they lit drums of diesel oil to create a smoke screen, and used a shaky improvised ladder to scale the fortifications at the only low point – 8m – where the ladder could reach the top.

They scaled the fortifications and surprised the Germans, capturing Le Quesnoy with no loss of life for the local people. However, 135 New Zealand soldiers did die on that day. Lieutenant Leslie Averill was the first to climb the ladder and breach the walls, ensuring a place for himself in the history of the town and in the hearts of its people.

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

Averill wrote, “After being under the heel of the Hun for four years, the delight of the people of Le Quesnoy on being free once again knew no bounds. That their liberators had come from the other side of the world to help them … was a sacrifice which will never be forgotten.”

Today, visitors to Le Quesnoy can walk down rue du Docteur Averill and past L’école maternelle du Docteur Averill, both named after Leslie Averill. The New Zealand memorial in Le Quesnoy and an iconic painting both feature Averill on top of the wall, pistol in hand, with other New Zealanders following him up the ladder.

Lieutenant Leslie Averill in 1917. Photo/Averill family collection

The war ended a week after the liberation of Le Quesnoy. Averill then became first a GP, then an obstetrician and gynaecologist, in Christchurch. He was medical officer of St Helen’s Hospital and led the campaign to build Christchurch Women’s Hospital. Averill, and wife Isabel, whom he met at medical school in Edinburgh, had five children. Their youngest child, now-retired Christchurch lawyer Colin Averill, has collaborated with historian Geoffrey Rice on The Life of Leslie Averill MD: First Into Le Quesnoy: Battles, Babies & Boardrooms.

Colin Averill and his wife, Valerie, are leading a 63-strong delegation to France for the November 4 centenary. New Zealand will be officially represented by Governor-General Dame Patsy Reddy.

He recalls that his childhood, when his father worked either as an obstetrician and gynaecologist, or in health management, health politics or community service, was typical of life during the straitened years of World War II.

What was it like growing up at that time?

There were four of us, really, as one sister died in infancy. What you remember from a wartime childhood is what you went without. There were no toys, and it was only after my brother went off to college, in 1941, that I was allowed to go anywhere near his beloved Meccano set. But once he’d gone, he couldn’t stop me. After the war, children’s books started to appear again and, later, there were toys. I was the youngest child and last to leave home. Mind you, we were all sent to boarding school at Christ’s College.

Colin Averill. Photo/Martin Hunter

But wasn’t the family home in Bealey Ave only 10 minutes by bike from school?

Yes, but it was a tradition. My father became a boarder once his father was appointed Bishop of Waiapu, on the North Island’s East Coast. Sons of clergy were helped with education. So it was too good an opportunity, and my father looked back on his education at Christ’s College as giving him great preparation. He was quite bright and they recognised that and gave him a very good start.

Your mother, Isabel, was highly educated for a woman at that time …

My mother’s father was a doctor, and she and her three brothers were all doctors. So, yes, quite a medical family. She went to Edinburgh University from Auckland and that’s where she met my father, who went there to study medicine after the war.

She never worked as a doctor?

She graduated, but obviously made a choice when she got married. It was pretty unusual for doctors’ wives to work; almost unheard of. She decided to raise a family and couldn’t do both.

She was originally from Auckland, and when they came to Christchurch, she hardly knew a soul, so it was lonely. She called on other doctors’ wives, she received calls from them, and that was how they passed the time. She accepted that, but she did do a little bit of work with anaesthetics during World War II.

Averill at Le Quesnoy in 1923, at the unveiling of the New Zealand memorial, pointing to where he made his ascent. Photo/Averill family collection

Did your father try to enlist for World War II?

Yes, but he was well into his forties by then and they desperately needed an obstetrician in Christchurch, as all his younger colleagues went to the war. So, he had a terribly busy war and brought a huge number of babies into the world. We didn’t see a lot of our father during the war, but he made a great effort to be home for the evening meal.

Did Leslie ever talk to you, his children, about the war, and about Le Quesnoy?

No, he didn’t, but that painting was over the fireplace in the dining room and it was my mother who explained it to us. Like so many soldiers, he would rather not talk about it. He had a pretty short war, but it was a tough one. He was only at the front for about five months but the Battle of Bapaume took a huge amount out of him and he was very lucky to survive. He won the Military Cross but lost his great friend Paul Clark, who had been at college with him. They had been commissioned together and he really felt that loss.

Do you think, after seeing the death and suffering during World War I, that he consciously chose a speciality that was life-affirming?

He was always a very positive person and obstetrics and gynaecology is a very positive side of the profession. Your patient is generally not ill, and doing something they’re looking forward to. He loved that and took great delight in the arrival of babies. I think he was pretty good with his patients. They always said he was so encouraging. He certainly felt he had a mission in life to do something useful.

Averill with his friend Paul Clark, left, in 1917.

When did he realise that his name was becoming the stuff of legend in Le Quesnoy?

In 1951, he and my mother went for their first overseas trip since the war, and he took her to Le Quesnoy to show her where he climbed the wall. They just had a look and moved on and there was no fuss at all. But, by the time of the next visit, in 1962, he was president of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade Association and, with the help of the New Zealand Embassy in Paris and the Apple and Pear Board, Leslie and Isabel took 50 cases of apples to Le Quesnoy. He went back in 1968 and again in 1975, after being awarded the Legion of Honour. The townspeople of Le Quesnoy put my father on a pedestal, and on his last trip in 1977, a street and a school were renamed in his honour. They were very grateful to the New Zealanders and realised that the increasing number of them visiting the town was good for tourism. They really embraced it. They thanked my father for cementing the relationship. He kept saying, “It wasn’t me, it was the Rifle Brigade and I was just a small cog in a big machine.”

What do you make of the proposed new museum in Le Quesnoy, focusing on New Zealand’s involvement in both world wars?

I’m very much in favour of it. There is a need for a place where New Zealanders can go and get information and learn. The town is friendly towards New Zealanders but very few speak English, so I am hoping there will be an English-speaking person on site to help visitors and give them information. There are a lot of records about the soldiers who served on the Western Front, and their descendants can go and find out about their relatives or find out where they are buried. The building itself is very attractive. It’s a great project and deserves to succeed.

Having just produced this book, are you keen to be back on the other side, as a reader?

Yes, I enjoy reading mostly about people, so autobiographies and biographies make up a lot of my library. I have a lot of legal, military and political books. I’ve read plenty of books on Le Quesnoy but I’m told there are a few more to come, including one by [New Zealand military historian] Chris Pugsley. 100 years on, I think Leslie would have been absolutely delighted at the museum idea and that Le Quesnoy is the site, because it was a wholly New Zealand action. There were no Brits or Aussies involved at all and it was totally successful.

Painting provided by National Collection of War Art.

This article was first published in the October 27, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.