New Zealand VC honoured in Belgium

Lance Corporal Andrew
Leslie Andrew VC. (Photo credit: Kippenberger Military Archive, Army Museum at Waiouru)

30 October 2008

On Sunday 26 October beside a quiet road in the small, unassuming village of Warneton, Belgium a commemorative plaque to Lance Corporal Leslie Andrew VC was unveiled by the New Zealand Ambassador to Belgium, His Excellency Peter Kennedy. As with the Private Nicholas VC unveiling in September, a contingent from New Zealand Defence Staff in London travelled to Belgium to support the ceremony.

Born in the Manawatu in 1897, Leslie Andrew enlisted with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in October 1915. Although he was only 18 he gave his age as 20 to ensure overseas service and arrived in France in August 1916 as part of the 2nd Wellington Battalion. He was shy of his 21st birthday when he won the Victoria Cross for outstanding bravery and leadership on 31 July 1917.

At dawn on the 31st of July 1917, as part of the battle to extend the British hold on Messines Ridge, the New Zealanders were tasked with capturing the village of La Basseville and clearing an area to the north of the village.  Of concern to the New Zealanders was a known German position in an inn on the Warneton Road that had inflicted heavy casualties on them some five days previously.

Lance Corporal Andrew was placed in command of two sections and tasked with attacking and destroying the German machine gun post at the inn. On his way to this objective, Lance Corporal Andrew observed that a New Zealand platoon had come under heavy machine gun fire and was pinned down.

With one section Lance Corporal Andrew was able to outflank the German machine gun which he then attacked and destroyed. Re-gathering his men, he proceeded to the original objective. As Andrew advanced towards the inn, he and his group were spotted by the Germans and came under heavy machine gun fire. In spite of a continuous stream of bullets, Lance Corporal Andrew was able to gather three of his men and crawl towards the inn through a patch of thistles to reach the rear undetected.

From this position Andrew and his three soldiers threw mills bombs, and stormed the building. They killed four Germans, caused the remainder to withdraw, and captured both the machine gun and the position.

Barely pausing, Andrew then embarked on a reconnaissance mission north towards the town of Warneton accompanied by just one other soldier. In a building which was later identified as the Café Au Rooster the two New Zealanders observed Germans sheltering in the café itself, and manning a machine gun post sited in an open trench beside it. Without hesitating they rushed the German positions bombing the café’s cellars and the adjoining trench, killing a number of German soldiers and forcing the remainder to withdraw. Having cleared this German position the two New Zealanders then withdrew south back towards La Basseville.

The memorial commemorating Lance Corporal Andrew’s courage is located within 60 metres of the site of the former Café Au Rooster where his third and final attack occurred. It comprises a bronze plaque mounted on a solid brick plinth with a small path bordered by chrysanthemums leading to it from the roadside. Two flag poles flank the site which is ringed by a chain railing.

On Sunday the national flags of Belgium and New Zealand flew proudly in the bitter autumnal wind, and a large New Zealand flag covered the monument. Throughout the ceremony Belgium standard-bearers stood immediately behind and to either side of the memorial, proudly displaying their unit and regimental standards, and providing a vibrant backdrop for the ceremonial proceedings.

At 1100 hours the sky resonated with the sound of a karanga performed by Nadell Karatea-Kokiri and Rachel Filiata of Ngati Ranana to welcome the senior New Zealand Defence Force representative Colonel Lofty Hayward, New Zealand’s Ambassador to Belgium and His Worship, the Mayor of Comines-Warneton, Mr Deleu Gilbert to the site of the ceremonial unveiling and dedication.

Once the official guests were seated, the 200 VIPs and members of the local public were welcomed with an opening prayer by the Reverend Canon Ray Jones and the Abbé Jean Demay. The commemorative service was conducted by Lieutenant Colonel John Boswell and Mr François Maekelberg, President of the Patriotic Associations of Comines-Warneton, who provided the French translation. Lieutenant Colonel Boswell summarised the actions that led to Lance Corporal Andrew winning the VC and then invited New Zealand’s Ambassador to unveil the plaque. As the New Zealand flag fell away, the memorial was blessed by the Reverend Canon and the Abbé Demay. A waiata performed by the Ngati Ranana representatives imbued the unveiling with cultural significance, reminding the Kiwis present just how far from home so many New Zealand men fought and died.

Official wreaths were laid by the Ambassador for New Zealand, the Mayor of Comines-Warneton, Colonel Hayward and a representative of the Belgian Defence Force, to Dame Kiri Te Kanawa’s evocative ‘Po Atu Rau’ (‘Now is the Hour’), a song played as soldiers departed the shores of New Zealand. 

After the national anthems of both countries were sung and a final blessing by the Reverend Canon Jones and the Abbé Demay, the official guests departed through a Guard of Honour formed by local veterans and standard-bearers.

Warm Belgian hospitality was provided in the rooms of the Patriotic Association immediately behind the Andrew VC Memorial. Here, young and old, serving and veteran, Kiwi and Belgian filled the room with laughter, memories and camaraderie. The somewhat imposing Colonel Hayward was a highly sought after photographic companion for many of the diminutive Belgians impressed with his stature, reflecting once again the genuine affection shared between New Zealand and Belgium.

An official account of Lance Corporal Andrew’s actions on 31 July 1917 noted that  “…there was nothing finer than the heroism and leadership…” he displayed - attributes that NZDS London, on behalf of the New Zealand Defence Force, were honoured to recognise with the unveiling of a plaque in commemoration of one man’s bravery and daring.

Lance Corporal Andrew commanded the 22nd Battalion of the Second New Zealand Expeditionary Force, and led the victory contingent in London in 1946.  He died in 1969 and is buried at the Levin RSA Cemetery.  The Andrews barracks at Linton Army Camp is named after him.


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