The remarkable story of a Kiwi whose glittering military career spanned 20 years in France’s Foreign Legion, has recently been brought to life in the exhibition Médaillé Extraordinaire, which opened in France earlier this month.
It tells the little known story of Lieutenant-Colonel James Waddell who was born in Dunedin, New Zealand, but fought under the French flag for the duration of World War One. His tale is particularly fitting as it celebrates the enduring connections made between both countries throughout our military history and coincides with centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme in France which began on 1st July, 1916.
“The story of James Waddell is fascinating for so many reasons, and it’s one we in both countries should know more about,” says curator New Zealander Jasmine Millet.
“I think his military achievements make him one of New Zealand’s most important military figures but Waddell also had the most unusual personal life, which explains how a working class boy from the bottom of the world wound up as an officer in the Foreign Legion.”
Waddell was appointed to the French Foreign Legion’s 2nd Infantry Battalion in 1900, when he joined as Sub-Lieutenant at the age of 26. By the outbreak of WWI, he had seen service in Algeria, Morocco and Tonkin (French Indo-China), all locations of active combat for the legion.
He gave brilliant service as a battalion commander of Legion troops at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Champagne and Verdun. Waddell was awarded France’s Croix de Guerre 1914-1918 with seven palms, was made Commander of the Legion of Honours and lived to tell the tale. Alongside his Croix de Guerre, Waddell was a heavily decorated officer within the French Army. Unfortunately it is said that he lost all of his medals later in life, probably while travelling on a train.
A citation from Army Orders of the Gallipoli Expeditionary Force dated 27th August 1915, details Waddell’s bravery at Gallipoli. “After having led his battalion to the attack with a courage and savoir faire which was belied, personally directed the attack of his battalion against the enemy’s position, which was extremely strong and which he carried by storm. Grievously wounded, and wishing to bring his work to a perfect finish, refused to be taken from the field and remained at the head of his battalion and commanded the firing line until the next morning.”
Médaillé Extraordinaire will be shown in Belloy-en-Santerre until the end of August, after which it will travel around the Santerre region of Picardy. Belloy-en-Santerre is a particulary relevant location for the launch of the exhibition, as the French Foreign Legion initiated an attack to successfully recapture the village during the Battle of the Somme on 4th July, 1916. Waddell played an important role in this military action and it was to be the occasion in which he earned his third Croix de Guerre with Palm.
“We are delighted to be able to present this unique exhibition as part of our local centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme,” says Association Santerre secretary Marcel Queryat.
“The liberation of the village of Belloy-en-Santerre in 1916 was a key moment in the history of this area. Until recently we had absolutely no idea that a New Zealander called James Waddell lead a Legion battalion at the forefront of the big push. And he was the only battalion commander to come out alive.”
James Waddell returned to New Zealand later in life in 1950 to be with family. He passed away on 18th February, 1954 at Palmerston North Hospital aged 82 years-old. He is buried at Tiro Tiro soldiers’ cemetery in Levin.
Médaillé Extraordinaire is one of only two New Zealand-led projects given the official seal of France’s Mission du centenaire de la Premiere Guerre mondiale. It combines large-scale photographs with the story of Waddell researched by Millet over seven years and is hosted in Pircardie by the Association Santerre 2014-2018 and the Souvenir Français.
The exhibition has been developed and supported by: Story Shop, France-New Zealand Friendship Fun, Association Santerre 2014-2018, Souvenir Français, ECPAD and the Horowhenua Chronicle.
Further information on the shared military history between France and New Zealand can be found on our article featuring the French military decoration, the Croix de Guerre. An example of the Croix de Guerre is on display in the Foreign Medal section of our Medal Repository at the National Army Museum. Translated as Cross of War or Military Cross, the medal was rewarded to acknowledge heroic deeds in the face of the enemy. It was presented to military personnel who had been mentioned in dispatches and was bestowed no only to French citizens but also foreign nationals whose country was allied alongside French forces. A New Zealander named Lieutenant Francis Leveson-Gower West was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm in 1919 for ‘gallantry on the field of action.”
Find out more about the courageous story of Lieutenant Francis Leveson-Gower West and his time spent serving in Gallipoli and the Western Front during World War One.