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VCs of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917
By Stephen Snelling
The History PressCopyright © 2016 Stephen Snelling
All rights reserved.
La Basse Ville, 31 July 1917
A light rain was falling as the New Zealanders trudged eastwards along one of countless trails criss-crossing Ploegsteert Wood. Once renowned as a shooting reserve for Belgium's ruling classes, by the fourth summer of the war the sprawling Flanders forest had become simply another haunted landmark, a staging post on the way from the catacombed shelters of Hill 63 to the front line.
Night masked the worst disfigurements as 8 officers and 328 men of the 2nd Wellington Regiment filed through in the early hours of 31 July 1917. Their trek took them past the ruins of St Yves, along the duckboards of St Yves Avenue towards their assembly points at Le Truie Sap and Cabaret Road. By 3 am, they were in position. Zero hour was 50 minutes away and the Kiwis steeled themselves for the attack. They represented the extreme right wing of Haig's grand offensive, designed not merely to eject the enemy from the ridges overlooking Ypres, but to free the Channel ports and, ultimately, to drive the Germans back across the Belgian border. In the tragic drama about to unfold, the 2nd Wellingtons were to play a supporting role, though one not without its hazards. Their task was to capture the village of La Basse Ville, a place they had captured and lost four days previously, in order to help draw enemy reserves away from the main thrust to the north.
The small hamlet of La Basse Ville, built beside a loop in the River Lys, formed part of a screen of outposts barring the way to the Warneton Line, west of the Ypres–Comines Canal. Much of the ground was wired and studded with machine-guns, but the most potent defensive position was housed in the Estaminet, an undistinguished two-storey building standing in splendid isolation at the northern end of the village, alongside the Warneton road. A machine-gun post sited in its upper floor was credited with having turned the tide against the New Zealanders in their first attempt to capture the hamlet.
For the second assault, therefore, not only was a larger force to be employed but special attention was to be paid to the capture of this strongpoint. The task was given to two sections of the Wellington-West Coast Company, 2nd Wellingtons, commanded by Corporal Les Andrew, a 20-year-old railway clerk from Wanganui. The orders for the fifteen-strong party were to follow close behind the barrage, avoiding trouble if possible, and knock out the machine-gun post in a 'commando-style' operation.
The attack went in at 3.50 am, the rising sun blotted out by mist and low cloud. Supported by machine-gun fire and a rapid mortar bombardment, the Ruahine Company dashed across the low-lying flats towards the Armentières–Warneton railway which cut between the lines. Almost immediately, they hit trouble. A machine-gun, hidden in a fence, tore gaps in the leading section of No. 15 Platoon, bringing the advance to a halt. As the survivors took cover in shell-holes, the platoon commander, Lt H.R. Biss, moved forward but before he could devise a plan for overcoming the obstacle, the issue was settled by Cpl Andrew.
Spotting the danger, Andrew diverted his party along the railway and charged it from the flank, killing a number of the enemy and capturing the gun. According to war correspondent Malcolm Ross, Andrew lost eleven men wounded in wiping out the entire gun team. Strangely, however, neither the unit diarist nor the official New Zealand historian mention any casualties suffered by Andrew's party. Colonel H. Stewart credits Andrew entirely with the success, while the history of the Wellington Regiment offers contradictory versions. One states that the approach of Andrew's party caused the Germans to waver, allowing Lt Biss to capture two machine-guns, while the other version refers to only one gun being seized by the two sections of the Wellington-West Coast Company led by Andrew.
All, however, agree that the gallant corporal's handling of the situation prevented a critical delay. The danger removed, Andrew and his depleted party sprinted after the barrage. While heavy fighting continued in a system of outposts known as the Hedgerows, the main force fought their way into La Basse Ville. There, as expected, the Estaminet proved one of the biggest obstacles. Machine-gunners fired continuously as Andrew's group closed in. Ross recorded:
To attempt to attack the post from the front clearly meant that he and his little remaining band [sic] would be wiped out altogether ... Coolly 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. 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.
According to Ross, all four members of the attacking party suffered slight wounds while their equipment showed signs of numerous near misses. Andrew was grazed by a bullet wound in the back and had his rifle smashed in his hand.
After a struggle lasting about half an hour, La Basse Ville was once again in New Zealand hands. As the garrison's survivors fled, preparations were made to meet the inevitable German counter-attack. Andrew, however, had not quite finished his day's work. Taking advantage of the confusion and the garrison's precipitate retreat, he ordered two of his men to carry the captured machine-gun back while he and Pte Laurie Ritchie set off in pursuit. Andrew's intentions were apparently to reconnoitre towards Warneton but they had not gone far when they encountered another enemy outpost. Stewart recorded:
300 yards along the road, on the very threshold of the village, was a wayside inn, In Der Rooster Cabaret, and in its cellars some of the hunted Germans sought refuge. A machine-gun post was in an open trench beside it. The post was rushed, the cellars and adjoining dugouts were thoroughly bombed, and only then did the 2 men turn their faces towards our line.
Precise details of how many Germans had been accounted for by Andrew's various attacks are unclear. Years later, he put his personal tally at eight killed, six of them with the bayonet. Ross also credited Andrew and Ritchie (who was later awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal) with bringing back 'most valuable information' about the German dispositions. They may even have supplied the earliest warning of the first enemy counter-attack around 5 am: enemy soldiers were observed forming up at the In Der Rooster and were effectively smashed by artillery fire.
The battle for La Basse Ville raged throughout the day and this time the New Zealanders held on at a cost to the 2nd Wellingtons of 134 casualties – roughly 40 per cent of the attacking force – including thirty-seven men killed. Despite all their efforts, there is no evidence of the action diverting any significant enemy reserves from the main front. However, the considerable courage displayed did not go unnoticed. According to Major William Cunningham, the Wellingtons' commanding officer, 'GHQ attached a great deal of importance to the ... operation and as it was quite successful they were very liberal in the matter of awards'. In a letter written on 18 August, he added:
So far we have received 14 Military Medals, 1 bar to Military Medal, 3 DCMs and 4 Military Crosses, and there is still a chance for a VC. Young Andrew who used to be in Charlie Mackay's office is the man recommended. He was in charge of a couple of sections in the attack and captured two machine guns and brought them both in, killing a good many of the Bosch [sic] crews and putting the others to flight. His work was very fine and he displayed great gallantry and splendid leadership. If he gets it, it will be a great thing for the Battalion and I am particularly pleased that it will be a Wanganui boy to earn the coveted distinction.
Major Cunningham's hope was fulfilled on 6 September when the London Gazette announced the award of a Victoria Cross to No. 11795 Cpl Leslie Andrew.
* * *
Leslie Wilton Andrew, the youngest New Zealander to win the VC in the First World War, was born on 23 March 1897 at Ashhurst, Palmerston North, on the North Island. He was the eldest son of William Jeffrey Andrew, headmaster of the Wanganui East primary school, and his wife Frances Hannah. He was educated at Ashhurst primary school, Wanganui East District High School and Wanganui Collegiate, a prestigious private school for boys.
On leaving school in 1913, he worked in a solicitor's office before joining the New Zealand Railways Department as a head office clerk. He served in the Avenue School Cadets, a unit in which his father was a company commander, and the local Territorial force. He is said to have lied about his age in order to serve overseas, enlisting in the NZ Expeditionary Force on 26 October 1915. He embarked for Egypt with the 12th Reinforcements on 1 May 1916 as a 19-year-old sergeant credited with being the best shot in his company and having already passed exams for a commission.
Although he reverted to private in order to be posted to the 2nd Wellington Regiment, Andrew's maturity was clearly marked. Sailing for England in July 1916, he joined his unit in France the following month. During his fighting career on the Western Front he was wounded twice – the first time on the Somme in September 1916 – and survived being buried by shells on three occasions. Made corporal on 12 January 1917, Andrew took part in the Messines operations in June. The day after his exploits at La Basse Ville he was promoted sergeant and shortly afterwards sent for officer training while one of the machine-guns he captured was sent back as a trophy to New Zealand (now housed in the Wanganui Regional Museum). Commissioned second lieutenant on 1 March 1918, he remained in England until August the following year. During this time, he met Bessie Mead Ball, of Brinsley, Nottingham, whom he married 24 hours after Armistice Day.
Andrew made the Army his career. After leading a Victory Day contingent through London, he returned to New Zealand in the summer of 1919 as a lieutenant in his country's small permanent military forces. A captain by the age of 27, he held various staff appointments before being posted for two years, on an officer exchange scheme, to a battalion of the Highland Light Infantry in India. Back in New Zealand, he served as adjutant of the 1st Wellington Regiment. In 1937, still a captain in the Staff Corps, he led a fifty-strong New Zealand contingent, including two other VC holders, to England for the coronation of King George VI, and commanded the Kiwi party which mounted guard on Buckingham Palace on 11 May 1937.
By the outbreak of the Second World War he was a major and on 29 January 1940 he joined the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force as a lieutenant-colonel, commanding the newly formed 22nd Wellington Battalion. He was then aged 42 and had a reputation as a tough taskmaster. Keith Elliott, one of the volunteer soldiers who would go on to win a Victoria Cross in North Africa, wrote of his CO:
Some thought him to be too much of a disciplinarian, but he'd been schooled through the hardest experiences of life and knew that if we were to be properly prepared for our task, any weaknesses would have to be hammered out through rigorous training and self-discipline.
An upright man, Andrew was intolerant of slackness and inefficiency. Once described as a 'walking encylopaedia on all matters military', the same writer described him as a 'natural leader': 'Perhaps his greatest characteristic is that he demands the best, that things be done in the right way. But he will always give first the help and then the reason for his demand and indicate how it later affects battle performance.'
On taking command of the 22nd Wellington Battalion, he urged his men to be 'second to none in whatever we achieve or undertake to do', and his words were adopted as the unit's unofficial motto. Under his leadership, the battalion served in Britain (where it helped to guard the Kent coast during the invasion scare of 1940), Greece, Crete and North Africa. He proved a resourceful and courageous commander, as evidenced during the British Crusader offensive fought in the Libyan desert in late 1941. For fourteen difficult days, he commanded the remnants of the 5th New Zealand Brigade, defeating a series of enemy attacks, after the headquarters staff had been overrun and captured. His gallant stand at Menastir was later recognised by the award of a DSO. But that success was overshadowed by controversy surrounding his actions during the Crete débâcle seven months earlier. At the height of the German airborne assault on 20 May 1941, Andrew had withdrawn his hard-pressed battalion from a vital hill feature overlooking the strategically important airfield at Maleme upon which the fate of the defence hinged. There were mitigating circumstances. Such was the ferocity of the air and ground attack on his battalion, he later insisted that 'the Somme, Messines and Passchendaele were mere picnics' by comparison. Having held out for the best part of a day without relief, Andrew felt he had no option but to withdraw his depleted command or risk being overrun. The Germans seized the airfield and, in a matter of days, Crete fell.
Andrew accepted responsibility for his actions, but the real fault at Maleme had lain with those senior officers in the 5th NZ Brigade who had denied support to the 22nd until it was too late. Significantly, the island's commander, Major-General Bernard Freyberg, another New Zealand-born VC of the First World War, never blamed him. When Andrew was ordered home in February 1942 to command the Fortress Area, Wellington, Freyberg thanked him for his fine work and concluded: 'I need hardly add that I should be delighted to take you back in the Division at any time should the CGS be able to let you go.'
Andrew never again held an operational command. Promoted colonel, he ceased service with the Expeditionary Force in October 1943, resuming service in the regular army. At the end of the war, Colonel Andrew returned to Britain in command of the New Zealand contingent for the 1946 victory parade. That same year he was appointed ADC to the Governor-General of New Zealand, Sir Cyril Newell.
Les Andrew soldiered on into the peace, attending the Imperial Defence College in London before being promoted brigadier in 1948. By then, it was his proud boast that he had held every rank from private to brigadier, bar that of quartermaster-sergeant. He remained in command of the Central Military District until his retirement in 1952. The last seventeen years of his life were spent peacefully with his wife Bess and their family. They had five children, three boys, one of whom died in infancy, and two daughters. His son, Don Andrew, recalled: 'He was a strict disciplinarian with himself as well as others, but still modest. I remember him cooking breakfast for us children before we went to school, and doing the laundry at the weekends ... He was very much a family man.' After retiring from the Army, Andrew was courted by politicians and invited to stand for the national parliament but he rebuffed all approaches. Don recalled: 'He said that it wouldn't fit in with his honesty, although what he said was more direct.'
After a short illness Les Andrew died at Palmerston North Hospital on 8 January 1969, and was buried with military honours in the Returned Services Lawn cemetery, Levin. Veterans of the 22nd Battalion acted as pallbearers and three of the country's nine surviving VC holders attended. The Revd Keith Elliott VC, who had served with him in North Africa, read one of the lessons.
Almost forty years later, Les Andrew's valour was headline news again, albeit in unhappy circumstances. On 2 December 2007 it was reported that his Victoria Cross group was one of nine VCs among ninety-six medals stolen from the Queen Elizabeth II Army Memorial Museum at Waiouru, where it was on display. The heist sparked international revulsion and a nationwide hunt for the thieves. Following the offer of a NZ$300,000 reward by VC collector Lord Ashcroft and Nelson businessman Tom Sturgess the New Zealand Police announced on 16 February 2008 that all the medals had been recovered.CHAPTER 2
T.R. COLYER-FERGUSSON AND C. COFFIN
Bellewaarde Ridge and Westhoek Ridge, 31 July and 16 August 1917
The night of 30/31 July was dark and cloudy with the threat of rain as the men of the 2nd Northamptonshires shuffled towards their assembly positions in front of Bellewaarde Ridge. B Company was last to arrive, led by the boyish-looking Old Harrovian 'Riv' Colyer-Fergusson, a veteran at 21. Two of his platoons formed part of the battalion's third wave in the coming attack, the remainder being employed as mopping-up teams. The Northants had been allotted stretches of the Kingsway and Kingsway Support trenches, but shortly after midnight Colyer-Fergusson, anxious to avoid any retaliatory bombardment, moved his men, together with a supporting section of machine-gunners, 100yd forward.
Excerpted from VCs of the First World War: Passchendaele 1917 by Stephen Snelling. Copyright © 2016 Stephen Snelling. Excerpted by permission of The History Press.
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Table of Contents
Preface to the 2012 Edition,
T.R. Colyer-Fergusson and C. Coffin,
B. Best-Dunkley, T.F. Mayson and N.G. Chavasse,
A. Edwards and G.I. McIntosh,
J.L. Davies and I. Rees,
R.J. Bye and T. Whitham,
W. Edwards and E. Cooper,
W.H. Grimbaldeston and J.K. Skinner,
J. Moyney and T. Woodcock,
F. Birks and R.R. Inwood,
H. Reynolds and W.H. Hewitt,
W.F. Burman and E.A. Egerton,
J.J. Dwyer and P.J. Bugden,
W. Peeler and L. McGee,
C. Robertson and L.P. Evans,
C.H. Coverdale and F. Greaves,
J. Lister, J. Molyneux and F.G. Dancox,
T.W. Holmes, R. Shankland and C.P.J. O'Kelly,
C.J. Kinross, H. McKenzie and G.H. Mullin,
C.F. Barron and J.P. Robertson,