Leslie Wilton An­drew

In a fierce as­sault to re­take the vil­lage of La Bas­seville, Pass­chen­daele, this Kiwi cor­po­ral charged & cap­tured mul­ti­ple en­emy ma­chine gun po­si­tions

History of War - - CONTENTS - WORDS MUR­RAY DAHM

This Kiwi took mul­ti­ple ma­chine gun nests

Cor­po­ral ‘Les’ An­drew com­manded a force of 15 men, or­dered to take out a ma­chine gun nest on the north­ern edge of the vil­lage of La Bas­seville in sup­port of the main as­sault to take the vil­lage. This at­tack launched at 3.50am on 31 July 1917 and was im­me­di­ately halted by an­other hid­den ma­chine gun nest, which opened up on the front pla­toon. From his po­si­tion in sup­port of the main as­sault, An­drew re­alised that if the at­tack were to suc­ceed, he would need to take out the new ma­chine gun nest first, be­fore ad­vanc­ing on his orig­i­nal ob­jec­tive.

Leslie An­drew was one of 16 New Zealan­ders to re­ceive the Vic­to­ria Cross dur­ing WWI – aged 20, he was the youngest Kiwi re­cip­i­ent. Born in the Wan­ganui re­gion of the North Is­land, he at­tended one of the coun­try’s most pres­ti­gious schools, Wan­ganui Col­le­giate. He had been a sergeant in the Cadets and Ter­ri­to­ri­als and vol­un­teered in the New Zealand Ex­pe­di­tionary Force in Oc­to­ber 1915, ship­ping out to Egypt in May 1916. He put his age down as 20 to en­sure he would be ac­cepted, although he was al­ready 18. When he shipped out, he re­verted to pri­vate in or­der to join B Com­pany of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, Welling­ton In­fantry Reg­i­ment. The reg­i­ment sailed for Eng­land in July. By Au­gust he was serv­ing on the Somme, where he was wounded in Sep­tem­ber.

In Jan­uary 1917 he was pro­moted to cor­po­ral, and he par­tic­i­pated in the Bat­tle of Messines in June 1917. It was as a cor­po­ral that An­drew was given com­mand of a small de­tach­ment to neu­tralise the ma­chine gun nest that dom­i­nated La Bas­seville, Bel­gium.

The Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, or the Third Bat­tle of Ypres, in Flan­ders, raged from July to Novem­ber 1917 and was fought for con­trol of the com­mand­ing, 80-me­tre (260-feet) high ridges that ran south and east from the Bel­gian city of Ypres. These ridges bulged into the Ger­mans lines, cre­at­ing a salient, and cap­tur­ing them would prove ad­van­ta­geous. The trench lines of both sides had changed lit­tle since the Se­cond Bat­tle of Ypres in April and May 1915. Field Mar­shal Sir Dou­glas Haig’s plan was con­tro­ver­sial (and re­mains so), op­posed by the French as well as Bri­tish Prime Min­is­ter David Lloyd Ge­orge. It is de­bated whether Haig should have awaited the ar­rival of Amer­i­can forces be­fore launch­ing his as­sault. Ap­proval was only re­ceived on 25 July for the plan to go ahead, but Haig had al­ready or­dered a prepara­tory bom­bard­ment for his as­sault, which be­gan on 11 July.

In the early stages of the Bat­tle of Pass­chen­daele, the New Zealan­ders were tasked with cap­tur­ing the vil­lage of La Bas­seville, south­west of the Messines Ridge, on the ex­treme right of Haig’s grand of­fen­sive. The Ki­wis cap­tured the vil­lage on 26 July but were re­pulsed by a Ger­man coun­ter­at­tack, which re­took the vil­lage the fol­low­ing day.

Re­in­force­ments were called up, con­sist­ing of the 336 men and of­fi­cers of the 2nd Bat­tal­ion, Welling­ton In­fantry Reg­i­ment. The ground was stud­ded with wire and ma­chine gun em­place­ments. The most dom­i­nant de­fen­sive po­si­tion was a ma­chine gun nest lo­cated on the se­cond floor of a two-storey build­ing at the north­ern end of the vil­lage. The task of cap­tur­ing this nest was given to two sec­tions of the 2nd Welling­tons – 15 men in to­tal – com­manded by Cor­po­ral Leslie An­drew. They were in­structed to ad­vance sep­a­rately from the main at­tack in or­der to neu­tralise the threat. A creep­ing bar­rage would pro­vide cover, and An­drew and his men were to fol­low closely be­hind it. The main at­tack, sup­ported by mor­tar and ma­chine gun fire, went in at 3.50am and im­me­di­ately be­came sup­pressed by an­other ma­chine gun nest, hid­den in a fence-line.

While the lead­ing pla­toon took shel­ter, An­drew, see­ing this new threat, di­verted his party and charged the se­cond ma­chine gun em­place­ment from the flank, killing the crew and cap­tur­ing the gun.

Con­fu­sion arises at this point in records of the bat­tle. Ac­cord­ing to war cor­re­spon­dent Mal­colm Ross, 11 of An­drew’s 15-man team were wounded or killed in this ini­tial ac­tion. An­drew then con­tin­ued the mis­sion him­self with three re­main­ing men, rush­ing to catch up with the creep­ing bar­rage. The reg­i­ment diarist does not record any ca­su­al­ties in An­drew’s sec­tions, how­ever, nor does the of­fi­cial his­to­rian. An­other ac­count gives credit to Lieu­tenant Bliss (lead­ing the fore­most pla­toon of the main at­tack) for cap­tur­ing the first ma­chine gun, while an­other ac­count gives all the credit to Cor­po­ral An­drew. The Lon­don Gazette also gives the credit to An­drew, although it too gives no ac­count of his group sus­tain­ing any ca­su­al­ties.

An­drew con­tin­ued on to his orig­i­nal mis­sion of the ma­chine gun in the two-storey house but dis­cov­ered that a frontal as­sault would be point­less. Mal­com Ross re­ported that, “Cooly siz­ing up the sit­u­a­tion, he led his lit­tle party round for a quar­ter of a mile on their stom­achs through some this­tles and at­tacked the Ger­man po­si­tion from the rear.” They threw bombs and dis­lodged the se­cond ma­chine gun crew, cap­tur­ing that gun as well. All mem­bers of the party were slightly wounded dur­ing the op­er­a­tion, ac­cord­ing to Ross. Although the Lon­don Gazette en­try for his gallantry ends there, Ross recorded that Cor­po­ral An­drew con­tin­ued to press his at­tack, cap­tur­ing yet an­other ma­chine gun and even go­ing for­ward from there to re­con­noitre the Ger­man po­si­tions.

The as­sault to re­take La Bas­seville had been a suc­cess and had lasted lit­tle over half an hour. An­drew’s fur­ther ac­tions may have alerted the New Zealan­ders to a Ger­man coun­ter­at­tack at 5.00am, which was thwarted by a welldirected ar­tillery bar­rage. Other Ger­man as­saults were to fol­low, and at the end of the day, the 2nd Welling­tons had suf­fered 40 per cent ca­su­al­ties (134 out of the 336 who went in, with 37 killed). Many years later, An­drew re­counted that he per­son­ally had killed eight en­emy sol­diers that day, six with his bay­o­net.

The ac­tions of the Welling­tons that day gar­nered 14 Mil­i­tary Medals, three Dis­tin­guished Con­duct Medals, four Mil­i­tary Crosses and An­drew’s Vic­to­ria Cross. One of the ma­chine guns cap­tured by An­drew (it is un­clear which) was sent back to New Zealand as a tro­phy. It is housed to­day in the Wan­ganui Mu­seum.

The fol­low­ing day, on 1 Au­gust, An­drew was pro­moted to sergeant and talk of his heroic con­duct be­came wide­spread. His ac­tion was gazetted on 4 Sep­tem­ber, and he was in­vested with his Vic­to­ria Cross at Buck­ing­ham Palace on 31 Oc­to­ber that year. An­drew was then sent for of­fi­cer train­ing and was com­mis­sioned as a se­cond lieu­tenant in Mach 1918. He was train­ing mem­bers of the NZEF in Bri­tain when the war ended.

An­drew re­mained in the army fol­low­ing the Armistice and took up a post in the small New Zealand Per­ma­nent Army. He was pro­moted to cap­tain by the age of 27 and served in In­dia

“HIS WORK WAS VERY FINE AND HE DIS­PLAYED GREAT GALLANTRY AND SPLEN­DID LEAD­ER­SHIP… I AM PAR­TIC­U­LARLY PLEASED THAT IT WILL BE A WAN­GANUI BOY TO EARN THE COV­ETED DIS­TINC­TION” Ma­jor Wil­liam Cun­ning­ham, com­mand­ing of­fi­cer Welling­ton In­fantry Bat­tal­ion

(at­tached to the 2nd High­land Light In­fantry) and com­manded the New Zealand con­tin­gent at the coro­na­tion of Ge­orge VI in 1937. He was a ma­jor when World War II broke out, and joined the 2nd New Zealand Ex­pe­di­tionary

Force as a lieu­tenant colonel in Jan­uary 1940. He had a rep­u­ta­tion as a dis­ci­plinar­ian, which some men un­der his com­mand ap­pre­ci­ated while oth­ers did not. An­other New Zealand VC re­cip­i­ent, Keith El­liott, ap­pre­ci­ated that An­drew wanted his men to be pre­pared so trained his men rig­or­ously. His nick­name among the New Zealan­ders was ‘Old Feb­ru­ary’.

An­drew took com­mand of the 22nd

Welling­ton Bat­tal­ion, which served in Bri­tain in 1940, and sub­se­quently in Greece, Crete and in North Africa. Evac­u­ated from Greece on 25 April 1941, An­drew com­manded his men in the de­fence of Maleme air­field on Crete in May. His po­si­tion was Point 107, the hill that dom­i­nated the air­field. When the Ger­man at­tacks be­gan on 20 May, he later re­called that the bar­rages his men were sub­jected to were worse than what he had ex­pe­ri­enced at Pass­chen­daele, Messines and the Somme. He de­scribed those World War I bar­rages he’d en­dured as “mere pic­nics” in com­par­i­son.

An­drew re­quested as­sis­tance from the 23rd Bat­tal­ion but was left with­out sup­port for 24 hours, after which he re­luc­tantly with­drew his men be­cause he risked be­ing over­run. The Ger­mans took Point 107, and the air­field fell to them soon after. For this with­drawal An­drew was blamed for the loss of Crete, and he never again held an op­er­a­tional com­mand (although he re­mained in com­mand of 22nd Bat­tal­ion).

An­drew’s role in the loss of Crete re­mains con­tro­ver­sial, how­ever, and oth­ers blame the com­man­der of 5th New Zealand In­fantry Bri­gade, Bri­gadier James Hargest, for re­fus­ing to pro­vide the re­quested sup­port. Other of­fi­cers of the bri­gade must also share the blame.

“AS SOON AS THEY GOT CLOSE ENOUGH THE IN­TREPID QUAR­TET THREW BOMBS AT THE CREW AND RUSHED, KILLED FOUR OF THE EN­EMY AND PUT THE REST TO FLIGHT, AND CAP­TURED THE GUN AND THE PO­SI­TION” War Cor­re­spon­dent Mal­colm Ross

There was an in­quiry on the loss of Crete, at which both An­drew and Hargest gave ev­i­dence, but no con­clu­sive find­ing was made. The com­man­der of New Zealand forces on Crete, Ma­jor Gen­eral Bernard Frey­berg, did not place any blame on An­drew.

Evac­u­ated to North Africa, An­drew again showed his qual­i­ties dur­ing Op­er­a­tion Cru­sader in Novem­ber and De­cem­ber 1941, when, after the head­quar­ters had been over­run and the of­fi­cers cap­tured, he com­manded the rem­nants of the 5th New Zealand In­fantry Bri­gade for 14 days at Me­na­s­tir and Bar­dia. Bri­gadier Hargest was cap­tured on 27 Novem­ber, and An­drew took com­mand, fight­ing at the south­east end of the cor­ri­dor to To­bruk against the Afrika Korps. Dur­ing that time the bri­gade saw off re­peated at­tacks by the 21st Panzer Divi­sion. An­drew was Men­tioned in Dis­patches and later awarded a Dis­tin­guished Ser­vice Or­der. He re­lin­quished com­mand of the bri­gade on 7 De­cem­ber, after Er­win Rom­mel had aban­doned To­bruk.

In Feb­ru­ary 1942 An­drew re­lin­quished com­mand of 22nd Bat­tal­ion and re­turned to New Zealand to over­see prepa­ra­tions for a po­ten­tial Ja­panese in­va­sion at Welling­ton Fortress Area. He re­sumed ser­vice with the reg­u­lar New Zealand Army in Oc­to­ber 1943 and was pro­moted to colonel. After the war he was pro­moted to bri­gadier (he used to quip that he had held ev­ery rank from pri­vate to bri­gadier – with the ex­cep­tion of quar­ter­mas­ter sergeant). He was ap­pointed aide-de-camp to the gover­nor gen­eral of New Zealand in 1946.

After re­tire­ment in 1952, An­drew re­sisted calls to stand as a politi­cian. He had mar­ried his wife Bessie on 12 Novem­ber 1918, the day after the Armistice, and they had five chil­dren and lived in Levin, in New Zealand. When he died in 1969, three Vic­to­ria Cross re­cip­i­ents at­tended his fu­neral.

In De­cem­ber 2007, a worker at the Na­tional Army Mu­seum, Waiouru, New Zealand, stole 96 medals, in­clud­ing nine Vic­to­ria Crosses awarded to New Zealand re­cip­i­ents (in­clud­ing An­drew’s, as well as Charles Upham’s

Vic­to­ria Cross and Bar). The crime cre­ated an in­ter­na­tional out­cry and was dubbed a ‘crime against the na­tion’. At that time, a to­tal of 24 Vic­to­ria Crosses had been stolen and only one (a Cana­dian award) had been re­cov­ered, 31 years after its theft. A huge in­ter­na­tional ef­fort to re­cover the New Zealand medals was launched. A re­ward was posted by

Lord Michael Ashcroft and New Zealand busi­ness­man Tom Sturgess, and all of the 96 medals were re­cov­ered in Feb­ru­ary 2008, but the cul­prits re­mained at large. The smas­hand-grab theft had only taken four min­utes, so more than one per­pe­tra­tor was sought. One man was ap­pre­hended and pleaded guilty in Sep­tem­ber 2009 while an­other man re­mained at large un­til Au­gust 2011.

An­drew’s Vic­to­ria Cross is now once again on (much more se­cure) dis­play in the Na­tional Army Mu­seum, Waiouru.

He­roes of the Vic­to­ria Cross

A por­trait of Leslie An­drew taken be­fore he joined the 2nd Welling­tons, when he was a sergeant in the Ter­ri­to­ri­als

BELOW: Ae­rial view of Pass­chen­daele be­fore and after the bom­bard­ment dur­ing the Third Bat­tle of Ypres. This bom­bard­ment was what An­drew later de­scribed as “a pic­nic” com­pared to what his men en­dured in Crete A line of the troops of the New Zealand army queue up to buy stores from a field can­teen near the Amiens-al­bert road, Sep­tem­ber 1916

A Bri­tish 18-pounder is re­cov­ered from the mud of Pass­chen­daele. Guns like this pro­vided vi­tal sup­port and bar­rage cover for the Welling­tons’ ad­vance

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