A man for all sea­sons

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

New Zealand Listener - - CONTENTS - by Clare de Lore

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

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 fouryear 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.

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.

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

“That their lib­er­a­tors had come from the other side of the world to help them was a sacri­fice which will never be for­got­ten.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

“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.”

First up the lad­der: Lieu­tenant Les­lie Aver­ill in 1917; far left, Colin Aver­ill.

Lib­er­a­tors: Cap­ture of the walls of Le Ques­noy by Ge­orge Ed­mundBut­ler, 1920.

In uni­form: Aver­ill with his friend Paul Clark, left, in 1917 be­fore de­part­ing for the war; be­low, Aver­ill at Le Ques­noy in 1923, at the un­veil­ing of the New Zealand me­mo­rial, point­ing to where he made his as­cent.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from New Zealand

© PressReader. All rights reserved.