On November 4 in 1918, New Zealand soldiers liberated the small French town of Le Quesnoy. We look at this little known part of our history and the links that endure 100 years on.

Say the name Leslie Averill in Le Quesnoy and the locals will point you to the pre-school and the road opposite. Both are named after the New Zealander who first stepped foot inside this Northern French town 100 years ago, in a quest to free it from four years of German occupation in World War I.

November 4, 1918, is a special date in the town's calendar, marking the day they were finally liberated, not by the English as they expected, but New Zealanders, Leslie Averill being one of them.

It would be the last action of the NZ Division for World War I on the Western Front, a week before the war would end. The first action for Leslie, though, would be in May 1918, joining the 4th Battalion, 3rd Infantry (Rifle) Brigade.

Advertisement

In Bapaume in August he would be awarded a Military Cross. His citation speaks volumes about the war, and the man. When all other officers of his company became casualties early in the attack, he took command and led the men forward to the objective where, in spite of heavy fire from the enemy, he consolidated with great skill.

His personal gallantry and cheerfulness greatly encouraged his men, and his capable handling of a difficult situation materially contributed to the division's success.

The 1920 painting shows Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill first to climb the ladder to start the liberation of the town. Image / Archives New Zealand
The 1920 painting shows Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill first to climb the ladder to start the liberation of the town. Image / Archives New Zealand

All the officers in his company had been killed or wounded. All of them. He was the last one standing. And when he went to see how 2nd Battalion had fared, he discovered that every one of their officers were killed including, to his horror, his best friend Paul Clark.

He had gone to school with Clark at Christ's College, completed first-year medicine together in Auckland in 1916, spent a year at Trentham training together in 1917 and sailed off to war together in 1918. Their shared history was now all he had left; the future obliterated.

Leslie would later say he had several close calls and felt fortunate to have survived the six months he was in active service.

He was later made the Battalions Intelligence Officer in charge of scouts and observers. It is in this role at Le Quesnoy that his skills were put to good use reconnoitring a way though the well-defended outer walls of this fortified town, to the inner most one.

By 4pm after a day-long battle through the outer walls, he was with the ladder party when they attempted to get over the inner wall. It was an attempt that could only be made in one place on one wall with just the one ladder they had left after retreating from an attempt at midday.

Leslie Averill was the first man to go over the wall at Le Quesnoy in November 1918. Photo / Averill Family Collection
Leslie Averill was the first man to go over the wall at Le Quesnoy in November 1918. Photo / Averill Family Collection

After navigating a narrow path across the moat to a small ledge it was the plucky 21-year-old Averill who first stepped foot on the ladder and scaled the wall. It only took the weight of one person at a time.

Armed with his revolver, he climbed to the top, fired shots after some retreating Germans and with the rest of the Battalion coming after him, set to securing the town and meeting up with the other Battalions coming in the gate on the other side of town.

Over his lifetime Leslie became the glue between New Zealand and Le Quesnoy. France recognised his contribution by awarding him the Chevalier de la Légion d'honneur award in 1973.

He first returned to open the memorial in 1923, and again with 120 other members of the NZ Rifle Brigade in 1968, all billeted with the people of Le Quesnoy.

Jude Dobson (rear left) says the children at Ecole Maternelle du Dr Averill all know about the Kiwi their school is named after. Photo / Malcolm Sines
Jude Dobson (rear left) says the children at Ecole Maternelle du Dr Averill all know about the Kiwi their school is named after. Photo / Malcolm Sines

Over the years he returned often to this town that held a special place in his heart.
His last journey was to open the preschool named after him, Ecole Maternelle du Dr Averill. The children here know who he is — George Butler's painting of him at the top of the ladder is omnipresent and they enjoy having New Zealand historian Glyn Harper's children's book about Le Quesnoy read to them. His action, the face of the New Zealand-led liberation, lives on in a new generation.

Although the first one up the ladder, he was always quick to point out that Le Quesnoy was not about him, he was just one of many taking part in a well-planned action. And yes, every man did his job, every battalion played their part.

But there is no doubt his character that shone through in his citation would get him to the wall and on that ladder. His ability - particularly under pressure - his decisiveness, tenacity, amiability and integrity would also see him go on to be an amazing force for good in Christchurch in the world of medicine.

These traits would also aid the forging of a life-long association with Le Quesnoy that all New Zealanders have since benefitted from. We thank Leslie for that and must continue this unique and special connection that started 100 years ago. Lest we forget.