From Fruitlands to facing enemy fire in France, a local soldier will be one of many remembered next week on the 100th anniversary of the liberation of Le Quesnoy on November 4, 1918.
Lieutenant Leslie Hunter Denniston was one of the New Zealanders who captured the French town a week before the end of World War 1.
With ramparts and deep moats surrounding the medieval fortified town, battalions used ladders to scale the walls, facing down machine-gun fire and low flying planes of the enemy.
The Otago Daily Times reported at the time, “Such was the obstacle that confronted the gallant infantry as they converged upon the place, and it was evident that a tough job lay before them.”
Lt Denniston was awarded the Military Cross for gallant leadership in command of a reserve army.
The Evening Star reported “The centre company suffered severely at the start. He moved his company forward at once, and went on until the capture of the objective, on which he established his company, and succeeded in gaining touch with the flank company.”
Lt Denniston was wounded by a gunshot to the thigh but was one of the lucky ones who survived the war.
He returned to Alexandra and married Gabriella (Gay) Spain, the eldest daughter of Steve Spain, of Earnscleugh Station.
Children came relatively late in his life – he was 46 and his wife was 41 when twins Hunter and Brigid were born.
Lt Denniston never talked to his children about his experiences during World War 1.
His son Hunter Denniston still lives in Alexandra.
“He’d had enough of war, he never mentioned the war to me – ever.”
For several years Lt Denniston ran Earnscleugh station with Casimir Spain.
“He was held in high regard by Steve Spain – the boss-man,” Mr Denniston said.
He ran the local newspaper for several years, was an estate agent for a time, a justice of the peace, and a coroner.
Daughter Brigid Denniston, of Christchurch, said her father never discussed his time in France.
“The war was just something that he didn’t mention at all.”
“I think because it was such a dreadful experience really that they didn’t want to share it, with the loss of all the young, not just the allies but the Germans, too.”
Mrs Denniston visited Le Quesnoy in 2002. The locals “were really so marvellous and welcoming, and they spent nearly the day with me”.
Visiting ramparts that New Zealand soldiers scaled during the war, she was “unprepared” for how dreadful they still seemed.
“I didn’t really understand war until I saw real trenches.
“Seeing what they had to do under difficult circumstances was very emotional.”
Mrs Denniston still had the Military Cross that was awarded to her father, and was pleased that people would be honouring the memory of the war.
“I feel that it was huge, what the people of World War 1 and 2 did so far away, for lands that they hardly knew.”