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Edmund Hillary couple’s Le Quesnoy pilgrimage

EH Pilgrimage Nov18

Incredible emotion at 100-year anniversary

Visiting Le Quesnoy is something that Edmund Hillary resident Gordon Vial has wanted to do for a long time.

The small town in northern France is where his father William, or Bill, served with the New Zealand division during WWI.

On the 4th November 1918 it was the scene of a daring Kiwi liberation from the Germans who had occupied the town for the duration of the war.

Gordon and his wife Rosemary have just returned from travelling there to mark the emotional 100 year anniversary attended by 1,300 people.

“The ceremony was amazing, very moving,” says Gordon.

“The Governor General was there and the New Zealand embassy and representatives from the Army, Navy, the Air Force and Maori Battalion, it was quite a big deal.”

“There were only about six or eight of us who were first generation descendants of men who served so we managed to get front row seats at the main ceremony by the wall and the rest of the families had to watch in a huge marquee and in the cathedral there.”

The emotions ran high as wreaths were laid at the base of the wall and a waiata and hymns were sung and speeches were made.

The wall he refers to is what marks the liberation as something special.

Le Quesnoy is surrounded by 13 metre high medieval walls which the troops could have blasted their way through, but knowing that there were thousands of French civilians inside the fortified town, the soldiers chose a more inventive – but riskier – method.

EH Pilgrimage Nov18 1

Included in the official ​programme was a painting depicting the daring rescue of Le Quesnoy.

The regiment’s intelligence officer, Leslie Averill, climbed a 10 metre ladder perched precariously on a narrow ledge part way up the wall to get over.

At the top, where his arrival was obscured to the enemy by trees, he signalled to the rest it was safe to join him.

The group exchanged shots with the fleeing Germans and the Kiwis soon overpowered them, finally releasing the townspeople from a miserable four-year bondage, and eventually taking 2000 Germans hostage.

The rescue has forged an indelible bond between New Zealand and the people of Le Quesnoy, who remain grateful to this day that the unique heritage of their town was preserved because of the adventurous Kiwis who put themselves at risk, 140 of them killed in the process.

What struck Gordon and Rosemary, who were joined by their two sons on the trip, was the huge effect those actions had had on this little town in France.

“They had basically been starved for four years because the Germans would eat all the food so they were beside themselves with joy to be rescued.

“To this day they are just so thankful to the New Zealanders.

Everywhere you go there are streets named after All Blacks or Helen Clark, there’s a school too, named after Leslie Averill,” says Gordon.

“There were New Zealand flags in all the windows and they gave us these double-sided flags too, which have the French flag on one side and the New Zealand flag on the other.”

The emotions were quite overwhelming, they said.

“We got choked up quite a lot over there,” says Rosemary, whose father also fought in WWI on the Somme.

“We travelled around to the war cemeteries and when you see the sign saying that 40,000 soldiers are buried there… it’s just unbelievable.”

EH Pilgrimage Nov18 2

A copy of William's citation, which was published in the London Gazette in 1919.

Gordon was interviewed by TV One news after the ceremony.

“The interviewer asked me ‘what do you think your father would have made of all this?’ but I found that a really hard question to answer.

My father never spoke of it. He just cut it off and didn’t want any reminders of it.”

It was during WW2 that Gordon first learned his father had served, when a visiting soldier friend was leafing through a book on the history of the New Zealand Division which they had on the shelf.

“He spotted my father’s name in the index and showed it to me. But even then he never spoke about it.

“Not long before my mother died a few years ago I asked her why he’d never mentioned it.

“She said when he first came back he was pressured by so many people about what happened that at one stage he just drew the curtain and refused to talk about it.”

Adds Rosemary: “My father was the same. I think it was just so terrible they had to hide it out of their minds, and as New Zealanders today we will never really know what it was like.”

Now beginning to reflect on their momentous trip Gordon said the trip had given life to the words of the citation his father had received after the war and helped them to understand the high regard the townspeople of Le Quesnoy still have for New Zealanders after 100 years.

“I have always respected my father and I am so pleased to have made the trip and honoured his memory,” he said.

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