COMMENT:

Why do we need or want a New Zealand war memorial museum at Le Quesnoy, France?

The answer is not simply because there is not a New Zealand war memorial museum in France and Belgium telling the story of the 70,000 who served there between 1916 and 1918, and the 12,500 who did not return home, although this is obvious to those of us who have visited the World War I battlefields in on the Western Front.

Traditionally, the rite of passage for many New Zealanders travelling in Europe is to visit Gallipoli in Turkey. While Gallipoli is important as the location of the first major military action by New Zealanders in WWI, far more New Zealanders fought on the Western Front.

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There is little likelihood of a New Zealand memorial museum, where our story can be told, being built in Turkey.

However, in northeastern France lies the small, 17th century fortressed town of Le Quesnoy which, in the closing days of WWI, was liberated from four years of German occupation by the 14,400-strong New Zealand Division without loss of civilian life but at the cost of 142 brave New Zealand soldiers.

Our allies in WWI are all represented in the Flanders and the Somme battlefields, on which tens of thousands of their sons and daughters died fighting for, in their words, "God, King and Country". Canada, the USA, France and Australia all have museums to recall the efforts and sacrifices of their countrymen.

The Sir John Monash Memorial Museum located near the French town of Villers-Bretonneux, where the Australian divisions stopped the German army's advance in March 1918, was opened in April 2018. The cost of this facility, entirely funded by the Australian Government, is in excess of A$100 million.

Back in 1919, the New Zealand Government decided against building a memorial museum in France or in Belgium, in favour of building a war memorial museum in the Auckland Domain and marking the battlefields in Europe with battle monuments where New Zealanders fought and died, such as Longueval on the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele in Belgium.

The one at Longueval is typical, sitting in a field, off the beaten track, difficult to find and seldom visited.

More recently, Nga Tapuwae plaques detailing the events at each site, were placed by the NZ Government at Longueval, Messines, Mailly-Maillet, Bellevue Spur and Le Quesnoy.

Currently, the story of those New Zealanders who came from the "the Uttermost Ends of the Earth" − "De L'Autre Extremité Du Monde" is not being told in the place where they fought and died.

The museum and visitor centre at Le Quesnoy will change that, and will include not just the stories of soldiers who served in France and Belgium, but also of those who served in Palestine and Gallipoli in WWI, and in Europe in World War II.

The people of Le Quesnoy have never forgotten the sacrifice of the New Zealand soldiers who freed them. On my first visit, I found it a heart-warming surprise to visit the town and discover streets, places, and even the local school, named after New Zealanders, in remembrance of our countrymen who saved the town.

Currently there are 18,277 white crosses in the Auckland Domain. This representation by the Fields of Remembrance Trust of the servicemen and women who lost their lives in WWI has had an emotional impact on all of us who have visited it. It struck me that it is the young who are the most impacted.

This is not a recent phenomenon, as I have noticed the increasing number of young New Zealanders attending Anzac parades, and the interest in material about WWI supplied to schools.

I recently attended, along with Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern, a series of presentations by a year 10 group of students at Mt Albert Grammar School. We were overwhelmed with the enthusiasm and interest of the students in researching and needing to understand why New Zealanders went Europe to fight a war that we did not start and which was taking place so far away from our shores. They are interested in the stories of these New Zealanders and the impact WWI had on our families and our nation.

When they go to Europe they will be able to visit our museum in Le Quesnoy and see first-hand what role New Zealanders played, and how those brave, adventurous men did extraordinary things which became part of our nation's DNA.

I believe the museum at Le Quesnoy is probably the only lasting opportunity we will have to tell our stories about WWI and WWII near to where our forebears fought and died representing our country. It will become a permanent symbol of our ability to "bat above our weight" on a world stage, and a place all New Zealanders will want to visit, and feel proud to be a New Zealander.

Greg Moyle, Maj. Retd, is one of the founding trustees of the NZ Memorial Museum Trust – Le Quesnoy, France. To make a contribution toward the War Memorial Museum, go to https://nzwmm.org.nz/donate.