KiwiRail and Rail Heritage Trust: Unveiling plaque at Wellington Railway Station in honour of Cpl L W Andrew VC

  • Mark Mitchell

Family members of Leslie Andrew, KiwiRail Chief Executive Peter Reidy, chairman of the Rail Heritage Trust Murray King, Deputy Chief of Army Brigadier Chris Parsons, Willie Apiata VC: good morning, and good morning to everyone here for this very special occasion.

In an action during the Battle of Passchendaele one hundred years ago today, the Wellington Infantry Battalion section led by former railwayman Corporal Leslie Wilton Andrew, aged just 20, was tasked with destroying an enemy machine-gun post.

He and his men duly completed that task but not before attacking and capturing another post, on his own initiative, and afterwards, with a comrade, advancing further to gather useful information about the German positions before returning to his unit.

In honour of his exceptional courage that day, Leslie Andrew was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest military decoration awarded for “valour in the face of the enemy” to members of the Armed Forces of Commonwealth countries.

However, it would be a considerable under-statement to say merely that he showed valour in the face of the enemy. The citation for his award refers to “… most conspicuous bravery … cool daring, initiative and fine leadership, and his magnificent example was a great stimulant to his comrades.”

The VC is a very rare award. Although about 100,000 New Zealanders served overseas in the First World War, only 11 VCs were awarded to men serving in New Zealand forces.  Leslie Andrew was one, and the only railwayman to be so honoured. But the then New Zealand Railways made an enormous contribution to the war effort, and I am sure that Leslie Andrew, an outstanding leader of men, would also be taking the lead today in recognising those of his Railways colleagues who served.

Those 100,000 Kiwis who served overseas included over 7,500 permanent and casual employees of New Zealand Railways, and at least 450 of them did not return – almost 40 per cent of its total 1914 workforce, and the greatest loss suffered by any New Zealand employer.

And whilst he was the only railwayman to receive the VC, he was not the only New Zealand Railways man whose bravery in that war was recognised. For example, a dozen officers won the Military Cross, 10 soldiers won the Distinguished Conduct Medal and for a staggering 67 men their courage was recognised by the award of the Military Medal. There were many other awards. The contribution made by New Zealand Railways, in a country of a little over a million people in total, was quite extraordinary, and standing here today in one of our country’s iconic railway stations, we honour that service.

Leslie Andrew’s own contribution to his country did not stop at war’s end in November 1918. It would be 35 years after the display of personal courage which earned him the highest possible recognition that his military career finally came to an honourable end.

After completing officer training in 1918, he was commissioned and went on to serve in many roles through to the beginning of the Second World War, in the early years of which he commanded the 22nd Battalion of the 2nd New Zealand Expeditionary Force and received another rare award, the Distinguished Service Order, for his leadership in the North African campaign as a brigade commander. After returning to New Zealand in 1942 he served as Fortress and Area Commander Wellington from 1943 to 1946 and also commanded the New Zealand contingent at the Victory Parade in London in 1946. He retired from the Army as a Brigadier in 1952.

We are here today to pay tribute to Corporal Andrew, or Brigadier Andrew if we wish to recognise his final rank and service in uniform, and amongst us are people representing many of the strands of his life. First and foremost, there are family members. The Deputy Chief of Army, Brigadier Chris Parsons, is here, representing not only the Army but all of the New Zealand Defence Force. KiwiRail Chief Executive Peter Reidy and Dr Murray King, representing the Rail Heritage Trust are here. And New Zealand’s only living VC winner, Willie Apiata, is here.

You each provide a unique connection to a man whose military service to his country spanned many decades and took many forms at many levels.  He is a great credit to them all.

The unveiling of this distinctive plaque in a few minutes will be the culmination of a piece of work which is a significant service to us. It means that a man who is not well-known in 2017 is receiving well-earned public recognition of his service and commitment to his country over many decades. And it means that the contribution of New Zealand Railways to New Zealand’s war effort is also being honoured, as it should.

We salute Leslie Andrew VC, and I congratulate all involved in this commemoration.