38443 ~ WILLIAM McDONALD McQUEEN
16586 ~ FREDERICK JOHN KILBURN ROLFE
Bruce Collier is a Vietnam Veteran and member of the Mercury Bay RSA in Whitianga. I have had the privilege of assisting this RSA with reuniting a number of medals and memorabilia in the past (refer Castaing and Bach posts). Bruce advised me he had been given a pair of medals by an unknown individual after last Anzac Day, who said the medals had been “found in the grass.” The medals were apparently in a shocking state, near black, ribbons very tatty and the names on the medals were unreadable. Bruce had been handed a First World War medal pair, a British War Medal 1914-18 (BWM) and a Victory Medal (VM). Bruce being a veteran hated the thought of the medals being treated with such disrespect and so took them to a mate who was able to refurbish and mount them. Bruce’s intention was to display them in the RSA if he could not find an owner or a descendant of the recipients. The problem of identity became more complex once the medals had been cleaned up and the names impressed on the edges could be read. Rather than being a pair of medals belonging to one person, each medal was named to a different person – 38443 RFLM W. McD. McQUEEN N.Z.E.F. was impressed on the British War Medal 1914-18, and 16586 TPR F. J. ROLFE N.Z.E.F. was impressed on the Victory Medal.
Both soldiers had each received a pair of medals for their service however, where McQueen’s Victory Medal or Rolfe’s British War Medal was, was anyone’s guess. Bruce had made his best efforts to ascertain who the soldiers were by checking their histories on-line in the Auckland War Memorial Museum’s Cenotaph web site and by making local inquiries. Unfortunately he did not manage to make any meaningful progress in making a connection. Bruce was aware of the work MRNZ had done for the Mercury Bay RSA in the past, reuniting medals with descendant families and so sent me an email seeking our help once more. Whilst waiting for the medals to arrive I started some preliminary research. After looking at the military profiles of both men I noted that both had come from Taranaki, McQueen from Hawera and Rolfe from rural Inglewood. Several family trees on Ancestry contained both men so I firstly zeroed in on William McQueen for any existing family.
William McDonald McQUEEN
Two of the family trees looked promising and so I sent messages telling each author about the medals and seeking their help with near descendant information, or someone whom they could direct me to in order to find out. Shona Barclay of Scotland was the first (and only) to reply very promptly within 12 hours. Shona told me that she was currently a resident of Muchalls and that William McQueen had been her Great Uncle – jackpot, I was off to a good start! Not only was Shona the great niece of William McQueen but she further surprised me saying she is also the resident owner of “Strathbarrel Cottage”, the McQueen’s original family home in the centre of Muchalls village. This is the same house William McDonald McQueen and his siblings had either been born, or lived in. The McQueens and their descendants have occupied “Strathbarrel Cottage” at 15 Marine Terrace in Muchalls continuously since 1871.
Muchalls is a small former fishing village with a population of around 500 today. It is situated on the North Sea coast in Kinkairdineshire Scotland, about 8 km north of Stonehaven and 20 kms south of Aberdeen. It was once a favoured Victorian holiday resort of Charles Dickens who declared Muchalls a “remarkably beautiful place.” A railway runs from Aberdeen through Muchalls to Stonehaven, but the Muchalls station closed in 1950.
Dougald McQUEEN (1850-1929) was born in Stonehaven and like many in this coastal community was a Salmon Fisher. He later went to work for the railway, working the Aberdeen-Muchalls-Stonehaven line firstly as a labourer and rising to the post of Foreman Plate Layer. Plate layers were track-men. The term dates back to the earliest days of the railways when they were known as Plateways, and were built using short sections of iron bar or angle sections, rather than the rails we know today. A plate layer would be responsible for all aspects of track maintenance over a given distance of track, for such things as replacing worn out rails or rotten sleepers, packing to ensure a level track, weeding and clearance of the drains etc.
All types of railway work were classed as reserved occupations during both wars, but many men chose to join up either through a sense of patriotism and wanting “to do their bit”, or because of peer pressure. Permission to leave railway service was usually (but not always) granted by the management. Some large New Zealand stations, such as Auckland, Wellington, and Dunedin have war memorials that list the occupations of the men who died, which also lists every imaginable job on the railways.
Dougald McQueen, 22, was married in June 1871 to Jean “Jane” McDONALD (1849-1939), also 22, who was born on the Muchalls lands of Cookney, Fetterresso, about 8 kms north-west Stonehaven. The newly-wed McQueens moved into their first and only home at Muchallsw which they named “Strathbarrel Cottage.” Here, Jane gave birth to nine children between 1871 and 1890 – Jane (1871-1958), John (1874), Amelia (1876), Margaret (1878), Robert (1880), Richard (1882-1883), Mary (1884), William McDonald – 13 November 1886, and Catherine McQueen (1890). John and Margaret both died in Australia, he at Yatpool, VIC and she at Inverell in northern NSW.
Emigration to NZ
William McDonald McQueen (Bill to all who knew him – McDonald was his mother’s maiden name) had arrived in New Zealand via Australia, from Liverpool on the SS Kent on 28 December 1911. Bill had just had his 25th birthday at sea. A Joiner by trade he would have had little difficulty in finding work in the few years leading up to the call for volunteers to serve with the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF) on the Western Front.
World War 1 had been sparked in 1914 following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in Sarajevo. Austria-Hungary, backed by Germany (and later the Ottoman Empire), declared war on Serbia. Great Britain being an ally of Russia, France, Italy, Romania, Japan and the USA, entered the fray when Russia was attacked. New Zealand as a loyal Dominion of Great Britain was bound to back this decision and so also entered the war. The National Registration Act 1915 required all able-bodied men between the ages of 17 and 60 to register under threat of a £100 Pound fine or 6 months in prison for defaulters. This was required in order for the Government to define an eligible pool of manpower that could be used during wartime. Following the disastrous Gallipoli Campaign which had largely been manned by regular forces and reinforcement volunteers that were required at the rate of a 1000 per month, the number of volunteers rapidly diminished once the Casualty Lists for Gallipoli and the Western Front were made public. As a result, the National Service Act 1916 was reintroduced in October 1916 to conscript men from 20 – 45 years of age to make up the shortfall of volunteers for overseas service with the NZEF. Those selected were drawn by monthly ballot.
Call to Arms
38443 RFLM William McDonald McQueen was a month shy of his 28th birthday living and working in Paeroa as a Joiner for G. McAndrew, when he was enlisted for war service on 17 October 1916 with the Rifle Brigade’s 22nd Reinforcements draft. On his enlistment papers he initially recorded his next of kin as a “Mrs Snodgrass of Mackaytown, Ohinemuri” (relationship unknown) whom he later replaced with a “Miss Day of Oxford Street, Lyttelton – Friend.” These people probably reflected some of the trusted contacts Bill had made during the time after he had arrived in NZ, possibly travelling around before enlistment. Citing a boarding house landlord or landlady, a publican, a friend or the like was a very common practice among single men volunteering to serve who required a postal address to receive instructions for call-up and the like. It was especially important for migrants, many of whom had no family in NZ (such as Bill) or had no living family at all.
Following the three months of training at Trentham and Featherston Camps, Rifleman Bill McQueen was added to the roll of A Company of the Auckland Infantry Regiment. Two Auckland battalions (a third was later added) were currently serving overseas, together with those from Wellington and Canterbury. Together these units formed the bulk of the NZ infantry overseas. The two Auckland battalions were an integral part of the 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade, the organisation the infantry reinforcements would be joining.
The new Reinforcements went on their final pre-embarkation leave over Christmas 1916, before returning to Trentham on 7 January 1917. When Bill arrived at Trentham, he was hospitalised with Measles within 24 hours. Fortunately he recovered sufficiently to make the embarkation date. Rflm. McQueen embarked on HMNZT 46 Aparima with the 22nd Reinforcements on 16 Feb 1917. From Wellington, the Aparima proceeded (et al) to Fremantle, Western Australia where it linked up with an escorted convoy to Liverpool, England. The Reinforcements arrived on 2 May and travelled to Salisbury Plain in Wiltshire where the NZEF had its own accommodation and training depot known as Sling Camp. It later was most memorable for the large white chalk Kiwi cut into the side of a hill above the camp. At Sling the Reinforcements were trained in battle craft for their respective roles in France.
After just four weeks at Sling, Rflm. McQueen and his fellow reinforcements arrived at the northern French coastal town of Etaples. In the vicinity of Etaples was a huge Allied forces Base Depot camp through which all NZ, British, Australian and Canadian troops passed, either going to, or coming from, the Front. Each nationality had its own Depot HQ and accommodation facilities within the camp perimeter, as well as major medical facilities provided by the resident nations. The New Zealand unit located in Etaples was known as the NZ Infantry & General Base Depot (NZI & GBD). On June 26th, Rflm. McQueen joined his unit, the 1st Auckland Infantry Battalion, in the field. When he arrived at Flanders, the battalion had just been relieved in the front line by the 2nd Auckland Infantry Bn. Both battalions were still recovering from the rigours of the Battle of Messines that they had fought through three weeks earlier on 7 June. The NZ Division was replaced by the 4th Australian Division which signalled a move back to a training area for two weeks of rest and recreation for the Brigade, and further training. The 1st Aucklands were back into the front line on the 19th where they stayed until the 3rd Battle of Ypres began on 31 July.
Conditions in the front line were utterly miserable. The rain and cold night temperatures had left trenches awash with churned up mud or white chalk, shell craters that looked like swimming pools of mud. Many a man and animal quickly and quietly disappeared into these, never to be seen again. The ground was pulverised from battle earlier in the war, it was now a lethal swamp of deep mud and wreckage, rotting corpses and stench. Every piece of vegetation had been shredded to pieces, shattered trunks the only visible reminder where once a tree had stood. It was a constant struggle for man and beast to negotiate a safe path through this morass. The depth of mud across the surface required duckboards to be laid endlessly by the Engineers, duckboards that turned into slipways as they quickly became greased with foot traffic and mud. The mud was so thick in place in places a man could easily be concealed and suffocated by the rain of mud thrown up during artillery barrages. Added to this was the ever preset threat of enemy aircraft. When not dog-fighting with our own, they would release bombs onto unsuspecting troops in the trenches.
The battles of Polygon Wood in the last week of September, Broodenseinde on October 4th and the disastrous loss of New Zealanders at Passchendaele on the 12th October all added to the hideous roll of casualty statistics. October was also a rough month for Rflm. McQueen. Admitted sick to 3 NZ Field Ambulance on 6 Oct, Bill was diagnosed with Myalgia (muscle pain, overuse of a muscle or group of muscles, acute Myalgia may also be due to viral infections). Within the week, he was suffering from a stomach infection and further diagnosed with Enteritis (inflammation of the intestines) accompanied by severe Diarrhoea. Admitted to No.7 Canadian Static Hospital at Camiers, Rflm. McQueen was subsequently relocated to No.7 Convalescent Hospital at Boulogne for six days, transferred to No.10 Convalescent Depot at Escault, and finally discharged to the NZI & GBD at Etaples. By 19 October he was back in the field with his unit.
As the 4th Rifle Battalion and remainder of the NZ Division advanced towards Cambrai, it was clear the Germans were about to make a ‘last stand’. The Battle of Selle had inflicted numerous casualties. Rflm. McQueen’s was lucky to have escaped with a ‘near-miss’ flesh wound to his left thigh (classified as “slight”) in 25 October. No.3 NZ Field Ambulance applied the necessary care which enabled him to be back in the line within hours. Apart from the afore-mentioned, Rflm. Bill McQueen had come through his time in France with little physical damage.
Battle of Sambre
Following the NZ Division’s involvement in the final stages of the Battle of Selle which resulted in the German Army withdrawing from Cambrai to retreat behind the Selle River, the Division prepared for a major offensive in this, the ‘Advance to Victory’ phase of the war. The Germans were on the back foot but were preparing to make a stand. With the Americans having joined the war, the British Third and Forth Armies concentrated to exploit their gains with a massive drive to push the Hun out of northern France. The NZ Division’s part in this push would require its Brigades to take a right flanking position of the formation, to mop up all remaining assistance following the artillery barrage that would signal the start of the advance. The Start Line for the attack was about five kilometres from the town of Le Quesnoy which lay on the 3rd Brigade’s line of advance. The Brigade would have to encircle and capture the town before pushing on to the final objective, the western banks of the River Sambre five kilometres beyond the town.
Le Quesnoy – 4 Nov, 1918
Le Quesnoy is a medieval fortress town surrounded by a series of ramparts, integrated bastions and an inner moat. The Germans had occupied the town from the earliest days of the war, harshly subjugating the 3000 French residents with a 1500-man garrison. With such a concentration of civilians in the town the use of artillery to drive the enemy out was not an option. The artillery would be used to best effect by attacking the top of the ramparts and bastions, together with mortar and machine-gun fire.
At 0530 hours on November 4th, the first shot in the Battle of the Sambre was fired, initiated by a massive combined artillery, mortar and machine-gun fire barrage from the British Third and Forth Armies which would seriously affect the enemies morale and hopefully his desire to stand and fight. The artillery maintained continuous fire in excess of 140 minutes while the infantry advanced. After a night of rain, the New Zealand Division left the Start Line in cold, misty conditions, advancing in an extended line formation behind its own creeping artillery barrage. Men fell to flying shell shrapnel, concussion from exploding shells, and to machine-gun fire as they came within range. The 3rd Rifle Brigade had advanced to within a kilometre of Le Quesnoy by mid-morning. Artillery and mortar fire was directed at enemy machine-gun posts on the top of the walls and bastions while the Rifle battalions circled left and right around the town to prevent any escape of the garrisoned troops within whilst also assessing possible points of entry.
The 4th Rifle Battalion (4 Rifles) with a strength of 20 Officers and 434 Other Ranks was positioned in the centre of the Brigade’s formation and was the first confronted by the formidable medieval fortifications that surrounded the town. Atop these were hardened machine-gun and bombing posts, the former taking a toll with every ill-considered move by the riflemen. Covered by mortar and machine gun fire, and shrouded by smoke projected by Royal Engineers, the New Zealanders attempted to gain access to the town through the main gates to the town and via a number of pedestrian tunnels through the surrounding walls, all of which they found had been blocked. Going over the top of the wall appeared the only option for the New Zealanders to gain entry to the town.
Breaching the ramparts
In the early afternoon, two officers from 4 Rifles, 2Lts. Canavan and Lummis together with the battalion’s Intelligence Officer, 2Lt. Leslie Averill, MC and a strong patrol of a dozen men reconnoitred the south-western outer wall looking for a suitable position to scale the wall. Averill saw there were two walls that had to be negotiated, an outer and an inner rampart which were interspersed with connecting and island bastions which concealed enemy machine-gun posts. He also identified an ill-defined route to a narrow stone bridge, the top of which was only about 12 inches [30 cms] wide which spanned an inner moat and connected with a sluice-gate. The gate in the raised position, if shut, would flood the moat. The top of the sluice-gate connected with a narrow ledge about 10 metres long that ran along the base of the rampart wall to a small archway. This, under normal circumstances, had permitted pedestrian access through the wall and into the town however it had been completely sealed off by the occupying garrison. To try and get over the inner wall was also problematic. Not only was there little cover between the outer and inner walls but the men could be exposed to machine-gun fire and bombs while crossing the wide dry moat to reach the inner wall. The height of the inner rampart also made it apparent that the one remaining 30 foot ladder the Sappers had constructed in anticipation (a second had been destroyed by shell fire), would not extend from the moat floor to the top of the red brick rampart. But Averill had a plan. He concluded that the ladder when balanced on the top of the sluice-gate bridge would give it sufficient additional elevation to clear the top of the rampart by about 18 inches (45 cms).
The first attempt to negotiate the narrow stone bridge and get a ladder up the wall was made by 2Lt. Canavan and a small party of men. As they had attempted to get the ladder up they were met with a hail of stick bombs (grenades) from the defenders on top of the rampart. Abandoning their attempt (and the ladder) they ran for their lives back to protective cover of trees. After re-assessing the situation with his officers, the battalion’s Commanding Officer, Major Harry Barrowclough, decided a second attempt was to be made. Barrowclough bought forward “D” Company, the Battalion Reserve for the task and briefed the Company Commander, Lt. Birch, on what he wanted. The CO also told 2Lt. Averill that since he (Averill) had been on the reconnaissance and was conversant with the layout, the route to the low stone wall, and the location of the abandoned ladder, he was to go with the Assault Party.
Lt. Birch detailed the Platoon Commander of 14 Platoon, 2Lt. Kerr, to select three of his men for a small Assault Party. The soldiers would assist the two officers to get the ladder up the wall and provide security. The remainder of 14 Platoon was then split into three groups of 8-10 men. The first group once up the ladder was to secure the immediate area around the top of the ladder to deal with any resistance. The other two groups once up the ladder were to fan out either side along the top of the rampart and secure the bastion at either end of it. Once this had been achieved, the remainder of the Battalion would make their way up the ladder (because of its flimsy nature, no more than three men could be on the ladder together so progress would be relatively slow making the climbers and those waiting very vulnerable). Before the Assault Party were due to start the attempt, the battalion’s machine-gunners and mortar would engage the top of the inner rampart and any bastions of threat, to nullify the occupied enemy machine-gun and bombing posts.
At about 1615 hours on 4 Nov, the Lewis gunners and mortar crew went into action sweeping the top of the inner rampart with machine-gun fire and well placed mortar bombs as the Assault Party readied themselves. When the firing abated, the Assault Party of five with 2Lt. Averill leading made their way from their concealed position along a route that led to the sluice-gate wall. Averill and Kerr retrieved the abandoned ladder as they went. Unopposed, Averill, Kerr and two of the soldiers quietly raised the ladder until it cleared the top of the wall. Along the top of the rampart a 60 cm high grassy bank would conceal the two officers from view. The ladder was balanced precariously on top of the narrow sluice-gate bridge while a soldier either side steadied it in readiness for Averill to ascend. The third soldier provided the Assault Party’s security. He would be their eyes and ears, ready to respond should they be compromised.
2Lt. Averill started up the ladder, revolver in hand. When at the top, he gave Kerr the all-clear to follow. As Kerr reached Averill, the two officers disappeared from view over the crest of the grassy bank. Two shots were heard. Surprise and fear had overcome two Germans on top of the rampart who had fled from a bombing post while Averill put a shot after them. Kerr had fired at a group of Germans they encountered on the other side who promptly scattered into hiding under the rampart. Major Barrowclough, the 4 Rifles CO and his Signaller were next up the ladder followed by the remainder of “D” Company who secured the top of the rampart. The remainder remainder of the battalion then followed.
“5th man up the ladder”
In her correspondence to me, Shona Barclay had made mention that Bill McQueen had been present at the liberation of Le Quesnoy. I was familiar with the story however my interest was again piqued when Shona said here great uncle Bill had apparently been the “5th man up the ladder.”
Long after Denis McQueen’s grandmother Frances McQueen had passed away, the newspaper cutting below was discovered among family possessions. Published in the RSA Review dated April 1996 and headed The Assault on Le Quesnoy, the clipping has been annotated making reference to Bill McQueen being the “5th man up the ladder into Le Quesnoy.” Denis recognises the handwriting as that of his late grandmother, Frances McQueen, wife of Bill. Until the clipping was unearthed no-one in the family had ever heard of o Bill’s involvement with scaling the ramparts of Le Quesnoy. While most had been aware he had been at Le Quesnoy when the war ended, Bill had never spoken of any details.
When Rflm. Bill McQueen had joined 4 Rifles in the field in 1916, he was posted to A Company however the casualties incurred by the four battalions in the six months prior to Le Quesnoy had necessitated regular re-organisation of the men to balance establishments and the capability of each battalion. Conceivably, Bill McQueen could have finished up in any company in any of the four battalions by the 4th of November, or even in a brigade headquarters position for that matter. The notation on the clipping reflects an honesty of Frances McQueen’s belief in her husband’s part in the Le Quesnoy ladder stunt, which presumably she had heard only from him. Was this a way to ensure that Bill McQueen’s contribution to the liberation of Le Quesnoy was never forgotten by family?
With no hard data to consult the claim does of course does beg a few fundamental questions, for instance: did Bill McQueen follow the CO and his Signaller up the ladder?; was Bill the CO’s Signaller?; was he a member of the first group of D Company soldiers who were tasked with securing the ground around top of the ladder?; if not still in A Company, was he the fifth member of which ever company or battalion he had been assigned to on the 4th?; or had he been selected for a specific job that necessitated him being fifth man up the ladder?
It is a fascinating problem to contemplate but one for which I could not reach a definitive conclusion. There is absolutely no indication that the statement is anything but 100% factual. What would be required to verify it is either proof of Rifleman McQueen’s position and function in 3/NZ Rifle Brigade on that particular day, the 4th, or detailed information of the brigade’s manning structure down to Section level (8-10 men) at the time the wall was ascended. My belief is that Frances McQueen wrote this detail on the clipping with the intention of keeping it (which she did) as it was significant to her, whilst knowing that after her eventual passing the clipping would be found and her husband’s part in the liberation of Le Quesnoy made known to her and Bill’s descendant family.
As 4 Rifles swarmed into Le Quesnoy they encountered little resistance as the rounded up groups of German Prisoners of War and hastily dispatched them out of the town under guard. The inhabitants of Le Quesnoy were jubilant! As the last of the garrison were rounded up and marched away, the French population flooded into the streets. The arrival of their Kiwi heroes was welcomed with French flags being waved and hung out of the windows, the townsfolk shouting, cheering and crying with unbridled relief and emotion. Major Barrowclough arranged a ‘victory march’ for the battalion through the town the following morning. Despite the cheers and support of the locals, the every present rain soaked the battalion making for a rather dismal occasion. As the battalion had marched through the streets, a little French girl following the marching men had rushed up to Bill McQueen and pushed a small piece of French tri-colour ribbon into his hand – this is now one of Denis McQueen’s most prised mementos. To this day, New Zealanders are made especially welcome in Le Quesnoy as Denis himself experienced first-hand when he visited the town in 2008, the town his grandfather had helped to liberate nearly 100 years earlier.
2Lt. L.C.L. Averill, MC
Twenty one year old 2Lt. Leslie Averill’s** part in the liberation of Le Quesnoy followed on the heels of outstanding courage he had demonstrated at the Battle of Baupaume for which he was awarded the Military Cross for gallantry. His actions at Le Quesnoy however have tended to eclipse those at Baupaume, mainly because of the novel and daring-do way in which he led the way in gaining entry into the town. From a historical point of view, Averill’s ladder climb and 4 Rifles liberation of Le Quesnoy remains one of the most memorable events in our First World War history. His part in the liberation once known by the French immediately endeared him to them all. The admiration the people of Le Quesnoy had for Averill, and still have long after his death in 1981, remains deep and abiding, as was his close relationship with the town and its people for all the days of his life. Le Quesnoy continues to honour Leslie Averill’s memory. With a street and school named in his honour, and made a Chevalier of the Légion d’honneur, Dr. Les Averill was never far from the people’s consciousness. Each Anzac Day a commemorative service is held at the New Zealand Memorial, a large plaque that commemorates the liberation, unveiled in 1923 near the point on the rampart the ladder was raised. Leslie Averill’s name and the name of the 4th Battalion, 3rd NZ Rifle Brigade (4/3NZRB) are revered and forever remembered at Le Quesnoy by successive generations of if its citizens who remain eternally grateful to the Kiwis.
Note: ** In 2018, MRNZ had the privilege of re-mounting the medals of the “first man up the ladder,” Second Lieutenant Leslie Cecil Lloyd Averill, MC. His son Colin, a retired Christchurch lawyer, was preparing to attend the upcoming 100th Anniversary ceremony of the liberation of Le Quesnoy that would be held adjacent to the point on the wall that his father and the 4th Battalion had scaled in that defining incident. The New Zealand Memorial to honour the New Zealander’s actions was unveiled at this point in 1923. Colin Averill had requested us to remount his father’s medals to include his previously un-mounted Légion d’honneur 5th Class (Chevalier) which Dr. Averill was honoured with in 1973. Having the privilege of mounting Dr. Averill’s medals was a prompt to refresh our knowledge of the 4th Battalion’s heroic achievement.
Victory, but …
For the NZ Division, the 4th and 5th of November 1918 had been one of its most successful actions of the war. The Division had advanced a total of 10 kilometres, captured 2000 Germans and 60 field guns. The cumulative effect of the three attacking Divisions during this battle, which included the Le Quesnoy action, was to decimate the enemy and destroy his moral to such an extent that it effectively bought the war to an end. The Axis forces signed an Armistice at 1100 hours on the 11th day of November, 1918. The war was officially over.
Of the 135 New Zealand Division soldiers killed that day, about 80 were men of the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade who led the assault on Le Quesnoy – these were virtually the last of the 12,483 NZ soldiers and nurses who fell on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. Of the 400 soldiers who were wounded, 93 of these died and were buried in Le Quesnoy’s cemetery.
From May 1918 onwards Rflm. Bill McQueen had seen and participated in some of the fiercest fighting of the war since his arrival in France. Le Quesnoy had proved to be the NZ Division’s last major engagement of the war. Six days after Le Quesnoy, the Armistice was signed on 11 November 1918 effectively ending hostilities. The NZ Division remained in billets until units were incrementally withdrawn from France and returned to England. While waiting for that to occur much drinking and fraternisation was indulged in by an extremely hospitable and welcoming local population. No doubt many a soldier had declared their undying love amid promises to correspond and return. Demobilisation was largely completed for all NZ soldiers at the Discharge Depot in Torquay, a seaside resort town in the south-west of England. Aside from accounting for, and returning equipment, accumulated pay was issued, travel documents completed and leave was permitted. Every man was required to undergo the scrutiny of a Medical Board of military doctors who assessed their physical and mental condition. Bill was assessed as having “Good Health and Physical Condition.” Priority for return home was the sick and wounded, then those who had served longest, followed by the remainder. For the newly arrived who would never see France or action, reconciliation of stores and equipment, cleaning, packaging, dismantling, shipping etc became their contribution to the war effort and as a consequence were the last to leave England.
Bill McQueen departed for Auckland aboard the SS Waimana on 10 May and disembarked in Auckland on 25 June. He was given free travel to return to Hawera, officially on leave from the Rifle Brigade pending his final administrative clearance by the NZ Military Forces. Rifleman Bill McQueen was officially discharge from the NZEF on 23 July 1919.
Return to Hawera
In due course Bill McQueen started back to work. His first appearance in the local Electoral Roll in 1919 showed him to be working as a joiner for the NZ Railways (NZR) department, residing at the NZR’s boarding house in Hawera. In 1920, he married Frances Mildred CUNNINGHAM (1897-1984) at Hawera, the daughter of Alfred Barnett CUNNINGHAM Snr. (1865-1941) and Matilda Maria DEWEY (1866-1954). An article of the occasion appeared in the local newspaper:
Patea Mail – 10 Sep 1920.
A very pretty wedding took place at the Catholic Church, Waverley, on Wednesday last, between Mr. Wm. McQueen, of Hawera, son of Mr. D. McQueen, of Aberdeen, Scotland, and Miss Frances Mildred Cunningham, second daughter of Mr. and Mrs. A. Cunningham, of Waverley. The marriage ceremony was performed by the Rev. Father Duffy. The bride, who was given away by her father, was dressed in ivory crepe-de-chine, with hand-embroidered veil and orange blossoms, and was assisted by her sister, Miss D. Cunningham, as bridesmaid, who wore salmon pink crepe-de-chine, with black tulle hat. The bride’s bouquet was of orange blossoms and heather, and the bridesmaid’s of pink and blue anemones and maidenhair fern. The bridegroom was attended by Mr. Frank Moffit, who carried out the duties of best man. After the ceremony a reception was held at the residence of the bride’s parents, where the usual toasts were honoured. Later in the day the happy couple left by the mail train for New Plymouth, where the honeymoon will be spent. A large number of friends gathered on the railway station to bid them farewell and wish them success. The bride’s travelling dress was a brown check costume and pink toque. Mr. and Mrs. McQueen were the recipients of many valuable presents and wishes of good luck.
Bill and Frances had two children. Their first, William McDonald “Billy” McQUEEN (1921-1923) sadly died at just 2 years and five months of age. Their second son, John Robert McQUEEN (1923-2004), better known to family and friends as “Jock”, had a long and productive life as a mechanical engineer.
Apart from his First World War service, Bill McQueen spent most of his life in Hawera, in the joinery trade. Once married, Bill and Frances had made 16 Ropata Street in a suburb then named Nolan Town, their home for the best part of their lives. Rifleman William McDonald McQueen died at Hawera on 11 August 1974 at the age of 87, and is buried in a soldier’s grave in the Hawera Cemetery. Bill predeceased his wife Frances by ten years.
Awards: British War Medal, 1914-18 and Victory Medal
Service Overseas: 2 years 130 days
Total NZEF Service: 2 years 280 days
Frederick John Kilburn ROLFE
The second pair of medals had been named to Fred Rolfe. Fred was born in Hawera on 19 September 1896, a Farm Hand who worked on his father’s farm before becoming a full-time Shepherd. His father, Albert John Henry ROLFE (1872-1952) was a native of Thanet, Kent, and had started farming in a remote area of inland Taranaki, at Matau in the vicinity of Whangamomona, approximately 35 kilometres due east of Inglewood. Albert Rolfe married a young lady from Barry’s Bay, near Akaroa, Banks Peninsula – Elizabeth Annie Mundy BEAUSSANT (1869-1956). The couple were married at Hawera in January 1894, moving to the remote settlement of Matau in Taranaki to start farming.
Frederick Rolfe was the second eldest of eight children, six boys and two girls: Percy Albert Lawrence (1894-1997), FJK, Gladys Georgina Alburn (1898-1930), Doris Emily Beryl (1900-1977), Hector Walter (1902-1986), William Walter (1908-1992) and Bertram Alexander (1909-2002) Rolfe.
Young Fred eventually moved away from Matau taking a Shepherding job with W.H. Perry at Omona, Eltham. His farming upbringing equipped him well for stock management, riding and caring for horses. When the NZ government responded to England’s request for military support on the Western Front, two infantry Brigades of totalling around 8,500 soldiers were readied for war. At the same time it was recognised to sustain the NZEF required large numbers of volunteers. There was no shortage initially. Fred was one of these and a natural choice for a mounted Trooper position in the Auckland Mounted Rifles. At 20 years and two months of age, Fred enlisted at Hawera on 7 Feb 1916. He passed the requisite medical and physical assessments to be accepted as a Reinforcement Trooper for the 3rd Auckland Mounted Rifles (3/AMR).
Sinai & Palestine campaign
16586 Trooper Frederick John ROLFE embarked at Auckland with the 3rd AMR – 15th Mounted Rifles Reinforcements on the NZ Union Steam Ship Company’s SS Manuka on 13 July 1916. The Manuka took the Reinforcements to Sydney where they transferred to the P & O Line’s SS Malwa before heading to Western Australia to join a convoy transiting north to Suez, Egypt. In early 1916 most of the NZEF had left their base camp at Zeitoun north of Cairo for the Western Front. The New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was dispatched to Moascar near the Suez Canal, to join with the Egyptian Expeditionary Force (EEF) to prepare for what was to be a tortuous advance north-east across the Sinai Desert during the Sinai Campaign. The 3/AMR disembarked on arrival at Suez and was entrained to Camp Moascar near the town of Ismailia. Here a joint New Zealand and Australian Mounted Brigade base had would be established for operations in Egypt and Palestine.
New arrivals at Moascar were placed in the Moascar Isolation Camp for the first 14 days to check health and fitness, deal with illnesses and afflictions they may have arrived with, and to acclimatise before joining their respective units for training. It was feared an outbreak of measles in Australia in 1914 may be imported with arriving soldiers and so a period spent in the Isolation Camp became mandatory. The New Zealand and Australian Mounted personnel together with British and Indian Infantry, and Egyptian forces made up the EEF which had been tasked with manning defensive positions along the canal, particularly at the likely crossing points such as Kantara, that were concentrated in the northern half of the Canal. Attempts by the Ottomans to cross or seize the Canal at night had so far been met with stiff resistance and their attempts effectively repelled.
The Mounted Brigades conducted reconnaissance and fighting patrols throughout the northern Sinai with camps established in the vicinity of reliable water supplies that were located proximate to, or within, a village /settlement. Imperial mounted and infantry forces operated throughout wider Palestine, intent on driving the Ottoman and German aggressors from Palestine. The mounted units in effect used their horses (and camels) purely for transport of men, munitions and supplies. When an engagement with the enemy was imminent, Troopers would dismount their animals at a safe distance in a concealed location, short of their objective, leaving their animals in the care of designated soldier handlers. The unit would then move to a point where they could adopt an attack formation and advance on foot towards the target until the enemy was engaged.
Tpr. Rolfe was assigned to the Specialist Machine-Gun Section and would need to undergo training before he was able to patrol as one half of a two man machine-gun team. However, shortly after his arrival Tpr. Rolfe was hospitalised in August for seven days with a Stomach Infection. This necessitated a further ten days of enforced isolation until mid-September at an Isolation Camp established near Ismailia. Still not out of the woods, he was re-admitted in September to No.24 Stationary Hospital with Enteritis (inflammation of the intestines) which is usually accompanied by chronic Diarrhoea – there he remained until mid-October 1916.
Having at last shed the ills of his welcome to Egypt while learning to live in the austere desert conditions which were far from hygienically ideal, Tpr. Rolfe returned to 3/AMR in October to start his training with the Specialist MG Section which was essential before he could take part in any desert mounted patrols. All went well for the next six months with 3/AMR covering lengthy distances along the East-West railway which was still under construction from Kantara on the Suez Canal, eastwards across the Sinai Desert towards the Palestine border. A water pipeline was also under construction in parallel with the railway which would provide a reliable water supply to support the fortified points built along the railway to house garrisons posted to protect both the railway and pipeline. Until the pipeline was completed, particular attention had to be paid to protecting the water cisterns or wells scattered in villages throughout the desert which were so vital for desert operations. These were the first targets of the advancing Ottomans who secured them with garrisons thus presenting a continued threat to friendly force operations. When seized, invariably engagement was necessary to wrest these assets by force from enemy control. Whoever owned the water, ruled the desert.
The Ottoman pressure to take over the Canal, the most vital shipping and supply link for the Allies to be defended at all costs, reached its zenith with the Battle of Romani which resulted from an abortive Ottoman attempt to seize the Canal. Thereafter the enemy was on the back foot for much of the time as they were forced backwards into Palestine. Patrols were sometimes ambushed and on other occasions, Allied mounted formations would actively seek out the enemy to engage them, the end-state being their ejection from the country. These clashes were often brief but violent resulting in seriously high casualty rates on both sides.
After a series of successes in driving the Ottomans back into Palestine during 1917, the retreating Ottomans made a concerted last stand at Gaza. They had prepared well and were well supported with artillery and machine-gun firepower to resist any attack. A combined attack on the Gaza fortifications by NZ, Australian and Imperial mounted infantry units resulted in numerous friendly casualties but ultimately, success in decimating this last enemy position in SW Palestine.
Gaza Palestine, 1917
On 16 April 1917, Tpr. Rolfe and his partner (No.2) on the machine-gun (a pair operated the water-cooled Vickers Medium Machine-gun) having taken up a supporting fire position. The enemy machine-gun and rifle fire was withering quite apart from their artillery fire. Tpr. Rolfe was hit in both arms by opposing machine-gun fire which fractured his left wrist and paralysed his right arm. On Anzac Day 1917, Tpr. Rolfe was evacuated to 24 (British) Stationary Hospital at Kantara beside the Suez Canal. With his injuries stabilised, Fred was transferred by ship to Alexandria and entrained to the 27th General Hospital at Abassia in suburban Cairo. After a month of recuperation, Fred was medically boarded by the army doctors. The injuries to his right arm had been complicated and resulted in what is known as ‘Spiral Paralysis’ – his right arm would be permanently incapacitated and accordingly was finally assessed as being “No longer physically fit for war service on account of wounds received in action”. Interpreted, this meant Fred Rolfe’s war was at an end. He would be repatriated to NZ as soon as possible and discharged.
Tpr. Fred Rolfe was transported by rail back to Suez on 21 May 1917 where he embarked on HM Hospital Ship Neuralia. Arrival in NZ meant further treatment and rehabilitation at Waikato Hospital before Fred was finally fit enough to be officially discharged from the Army’s responsibility and the NZEF, on 19 September 1917. Fred was safe in the knowledge he would never again be called upon for war service. He returned to the farm at Matau and his parents, his unmarried brother Percy Albert Laurence Rolfe (a Farm Hand) and spinster sister, Gladys Georgina Alburn Rolfe being Fred’s only remaining siblings still at home.
On the 24th May, 1920 Fred married Violet May CHRISTIAN (1901-1943). A daughter, Doris Ivy ROLFE was also born in 1920. Fred and Violet lived in South Road at Waitotara throughout the 1920s and 30s whilst Fred continued to work for the NZ Railways as a Ganger (track worker) in spite of his disabled arm. Sadly Violet died quite unexpectedly in June 1943 at the age of 41. By 1949, Fred had retired unable to work effectively any longer because of his injuries. At this time Fred was living at 4 Nobs Line, New Plymouth with his parents Albert and Elizabeth. Once both parents had passed away, Fred moved to Devon Street in Fitzroy to be nearer the city centre and available facilities. Here Fred saw out his final years.
Trooper Frederick John Kilburn Rolfe died on 4 September 1963 at the age of 66 and is buried in a soldier’s grave at the Te Henui Public Cemetery, New Plymouth.
Awards: British War Medal, 1914-18 and Victory Medal + Silver War Badge (Services Rendered) awarded to soldiers honourably discharged as a result of wounds or sickness.
Service Overseas: 1 year 4 days
Total NZEF Service: 1 year 225 days
Descendants – a Kiwi connection
As genealogists know, finding generations of living families can be problematic as information privacy laws are tightened and the demise of the telephone directory is inevitable. Shona was at a loss as to why his medals were not with his family members and her revelation that Bill McQueen had three grandchildren still living in New Zealand was fantastic news. She was in contact with one of them, Denis McQueen, a resident of Wellington.
Shona’s revelation was crucial to advancing this quest as there was nothing obvious to indicate there was an extended lineage from Bill McQueen after his death. Shona had also written an article about her great uncle Bill and his military service for the Scottish Women’s Institute magazine which she sent to me with several photographs historical and current of the McQueen family and Strathbarrel Cottage. This was most interesting and gave valuable background for the search and writing of Bill McQueen’s exploits. In discussion with Shona, one of the things she mentioned that stood out for me and warranted further investigation was Bill McQueen’s service at Le Quesnoy in November 1918, but before that, I needed to establish beyond doubt the McQueen family connection in Wellington.
Shona was able to direct me immediately back to New Zealand and to one of Bill’s grand children. Grandson Denis McQueen is a Wellington resident whom I contacted to confirm his connection. I outlined the story of the two medals that had been found in Whitianga, whereupon Denis opined that he also had a couple of First World War medals but had no idea whose they were because they had no names on them! This sounded rather odd to me – unless of course they were medals that had had the names erased? I asked Denis to describe the medals to me to ensure we were talking about First World War medals… “one is a dull silver colour with a horse on one side & 1914-18; the other is a brassy colour with The Great War for Civilisation on it.” Yes, they were the correct medals. A common oversight by those unfamiliar with medals is to miss any inscription impressed or engraved on the edge, usually the only place they can be named. When I asked Denis…”have you checked the edges of the medals for names?”… his response was predictably one of wonderment, he hadn’t.
This is not unusual with medals that may have been seriously neglected or ill-treated, buried, immersed in water, left outside in the weather etc for any length of time. Lettering can blacken or may be filled with soil /accumulated grime making letters and numbers hard to see without magnification. Added to this is the fact that some medals, like the BWM, have a silver content which will tarnish to black over time. The Victory Medal is made of bronze which has been treated with a ‘gold wash’ to give the gold appearance. This is very thin and over the space of a 100 plus years as most of these medals are now, the surface wears off and the bronze can corrode. Similar was the condition of the medals Bruce Collier was given. I asked Denis if he could read me the names…. “the silver one says 13443 PTE W. McD. McQUEEN NZEF and the brassy coloured one 16586 RFLM F. J. ROLFE NZEF. I asked him what his relationship was to W. McD. McQueen ? “He is my paternal grandfather” Denis said…. (me)“does the name Rolfe on the other medal mean anything to you?” He replied “yes, Frederick Rolfe was my maternal grandfather.” Denis floored me with his response! He was holding the two medals that when put together with the two that Bruce Collier was sending to me from Whitianga, would make a pair named to each man AND, both men happened to be his grandfathers! This was an amazing situation. My initial research confirmed that each soldier had been issued (and signed for) two medals for their war service – a British War Medal and a Victory Medal. When reunited, the four medals would complete the entitled pair for each of these long deceased soldiers.
The Whitianga medals
The McQUEEN–ROLFE connection
William McQueen’s descendant line was via his and Frances McQueen’s only surviving son, John Robert “Jock” McQueen – Denis’s father. The Rolfe and McQueen relationship had come about as a result of the marriage of Denis’s father Jock, to Fred and Violet Rolfe’s only daughter, Doris Ivy ROLFE – Denis’s mother. Denis was the last born of Doris and Jock’s three children.
Just how the McQueen and Rolfe medal pairs became mixed in the first place cannot be conclusively determined. For every possibility Denis or I could think of, there seemed to be a counter. What is known is that Denis McQueen had inherited a British War Medal, a Victory Medal and collected mementos from France from his father Jock, who in turn had inherited them from his father Bill McQueen after he died in 1974. Jock McQueen married Denis’s mother Doris Rolfe, the only child of Fred and Violet Rolfe. Being the only child, it is very likely Doris had inherited her father’s medals with the personal effects of both parents after the death of her mother Violet in 1990. Logic suggests that Fred Rolfe’s medals and those of William McQueen were quite possibly stored together after Jock and Doris married.
Being un-mounted medals, the potential for the names being mixed when a pair is remove (selection being based on ribbon colour alone) is highly likely. Had the medals been mounted, mixing the pairs would have been unlikely. How exactly a mixed pair of the medals got to Whitianga is anyone’s guess. The identity of the Whitianga finder (Mr X) of the medals “in the grass” on Anzac Day 2019 who handed them to the Mercury Bar RSA, we are unlikely to ever know. For Denis the how, when and why of the separation of these medals is irrelevant. He is rightfully thankful to Bruce for contacting Medals Reunited NZ to solve the ownership puzzle, and also for going to the effort of having the medals restored.
After a long and unknown history of separation Denis McQueen is now in possession of all four First World War medals awarded to both grandfathers – William McD. McQueen and Frederick J.K. Rolfe – reunited and never again to be separated.
From an MRNZ perspective, the best thing about Mr X finding the two medals at Whitianga was he unknowingly started one of the most amazing stories of coincidental medal reunification I have yet experienced.
Thanks to Bruce of the Mercury Bay RSA, Whitianga for starting this ball rolling by referring the medals to MRNZ. My thanks are also due to Shona Barclay (Muchalls, Scotland) and to Denis McQueen, both of whom have been extremely helpful in providing personal photographs and much of the background detail included in this post.
This was truly a remarkable reunification of medals, the likes of which I doubt I will come across again anytime soon. It was a story of a unique set of circumstances that resulted in the medals coming together, one I thought was well worth a call to the DOMPOST which they were keen to follow. (see Medals in the NEWS)
The reunited medal tally is now 337.
~ Lest We Forget ~
Note: Whilst researching Trooper Frederick Rolfe, another interesting coincidence occurred that added to an already coincidence laden case – Fred Rolfe’s regimental number was 16586 which rang a bell with me. The man who had the exact same regimental number during the Second World War was 16586 Private Ronald Gordon Hay-McKenzie, a man whose medals were the subject of one of our previous post.