Napier's 'unsung' WWI war hero will be remembered in proposed museum
A man born in Napier and regarded as a forgotten hero of World War I will get long due recognition in a proposed war museum in northern France.
Francis Meredith Evans, known as 'Dith', was born in Napier in 1894. He died in the successful assault on the French town of Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918 - seven days before the war ended.
The town was liberated by New Zealand troops, having been in German hands since 1914. 135 New Zealanders were killed in the battle. And the townspeople has never forgotten. Every year since 1923 they have marked Anzac Day with a march through town to a memorial marking the spot where soldiers crossed the town's medieval ramparts single-file on a rickety ladder.
Military historian Herb Farrant said Second Lieutenant Evans played a pivotal role in making the attack a success when Second Lieutenant Lesley Averill led his men over the wall at 4pm.
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In the late 1990s Farrant met regularly with the last surviving member of the assault, Lawrence 'Curly' Blyth.
"Blyth always believed that Evans was the unsung hero of that fateful morning, as it was his patrol that slipped through the German defences, enshrouded in fog and smoke, and discovered the only place that the ramparts could be scaled," Farrant said.
Evans and his runner were shot and killed at about 8am, but not before they passed on their message that led to the successful assault.
It is not known how old Evans was when he left Napier, or how long he had lived in Wellington.
"It has not been easy finding material on Evans background. Before going to war in February 1916 he had been working for Eastbourne Council in Wellington," Farrant said.
"Before sailing, he married a young American woman. In 1917 he was told about her adulterous behaviour and was given leave to return to New Zealand, where he started successful divorce proceedings, before returning to France," he said.
"It appears Evans approach to soldiering changed after his trip home and soon got a name for being a 'young thruster' - someone who is able to get things done, but not without risk," Farrant said.
Evans is buried at Romeries Communal Cemetery, not far from the town he helped liberate.
His name did not appear on the list of 211 WW1 fallen that was at the Napier War Memorial Centre (and is presently without a home), but does appear on an embroidered memorial tea cloth commemorating Napier's war dead, held at Napier's MTG (Museum, Theatre and Gallery).
Farrant is secretary of the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust, which is proposing to build a museum in France for New Zealand troops who served in both World Wars.
Unlike other Commonwealth nations Australia, Canada and South Africa, New Zealand has no museum on the Western Front to put its participation in context.
Le Quesnoy, with its Kiwi connection, was thought the perfect location. After four years of negotiations, the trust was in February was granted the right to purchase the town's former Gendarmerie (police station) and nine accompanying officers houses.
The trust aims to establish a memorial museum for the more than 85,000 New Zealanders who fought in Europe in both World Wars and to provide an accommodation option for Kiwis visiting the battlefields and gravesites of their forebears.
"It will be not just Passchendaele, the Somme and Messines, and the 12,500 New Zealanders killed on the Western Front, but for the 85,000 who served in both World Wars in the European theatre," Farrant said.
"Despite our size we had a significant impact wherever we went. Yet there's no place to focus on these uniquely New Zealand events. The fear is that they will slowly disappear after the centenary anniversaries," he said.
The trust needs $15 million to buy and refurbish the buildings. It hopes to raise this by the end of next year, with a concerted fundraising campaign beginning in earnest in July.
It had been hoped to have the museum opened for the battle's centenary in November next year but it is looking more likely to be sometime in 2019.
* The trust will buy Le Quesnoy's old Gendarmerie (police station) and nine adjacent officers' houses on 10,660sqm of land. The 19th century building was the Mayor's residence during WW1. The mayor hosted NZ troops in this building after the town's liberation in November 1918.
* Build an adjoining annex, providing a total of 1000sqm. exhibition space, with separate levels dedicated to WW1 and WW2, the air battle over Europe in WW2, the tunnellers work in WW1, and a research centre.
* Eight of the existing adjacent officer's houses will be converted to self-catering accommodation for New Zealanders visiting the front.
* Two full-time staff and up to nine volunteers will be based at the museum and reside in the top floor of the Gendarmerie building.
* The museum will complement those of other Commonwealth nations. South Africa has had a museum at Delville Wood, on the Somme, since the mid-1980s. Australia has had a museum at Villers-Bretonneux since 1975 and Canada has had an interpretive centre (now an education centre) at Vimy Ridge since 1997.