The Croix de Guerre, a French military decoration, was one of the most common medals issued by a foreign government to British and Commonwealth personnel during WWI. Translated as Cross of War or Military Cross, the medal was rewarded to acknowledge heroic deeds in the face of the enemy. Foreigners chosen to receive the medal were recognized for their gallantry while directly involved with French forces, either fighting alongside them or in a feat of bravery involving one of their countrymen.
One such New Zealander was 12/9 Lieutenant Francis Leveson-Gower West of the Auckland Infantry Battalion. He was awarded the Croix de Guerre with Palm by the French government in 1919 for “gallantry on the field of action”. Lieutenant Francis West’s Croix de Guerre and additional military decoration can be viewed at the National Army Museum in our Medal Repository.
The Croix de Guerre was created on 8th of April 1915 by the French Government and reinstated in 1939 after the outbreak of World War Two. It could be awarded to any member and rank of the armed forces including sailors, soldiers or airmen. The medal was presented to military personnel who had been mentioned in dispatches and was bestowed not only to French citizens but also foreign nationals whose country was allied alongside French forces.
Further feats of bravery were acknowledged with added insignia on the ribbon of the Croix de Guerre referred to as palm or star. A bronze star was awarded for mention in a regiment or brigade dispatch, a silver star for divisional dispatch, a silver gilt star for corps dispatch and a bronze palm for mention in an army dispatch.
An example of the Croix de Guerre is on display at the National Army Museum within the Foreign Medal collection of our Medal Repository.
Lieutenant West spent a total of 5 years and 10 days in overseas military service for New Zealand during World War One. He began his duty with the Auckland Infantry Battalion on 11th August 1914 and finally returning home after demobilisation, subsequently discharged from the army on the 20th September 1919. Lieutenant West took part in military action at Gallipoli, Western Europe at Egypt. His time in service is punctuated by heroic feats of bravery alongside the horror of severe injuries sustained while in action on the front line.
Lieutenant Francis West was present on the fateful day of 8th May in which the New Zealand Infantry Brigade at Gallipoli were commanded to leave the trenches and charge an open stretch of ground towards the village of Krithia. The ground became infamously known as the ‘Daisy Patch’, but would also be later referred to as the ‘Gardens of Hell’.
Infantryman did their best to escape the deadly Turkish fire as they charged the open ground towards their target. Men dropped along the length of the line as bullets ripped into them. Some men did try to escape but were hit in the back while others took to the ground to try and dig some protection, hoping the Turks wouldn’t see them. Their hope was futile, they were shot on the ground and the ‘Daisy Patch’ soon became a killing ground.
The Auckland Infantry Battalion officers bravely led the charge across the open ground. Although nearly all were shot down, some managed to take temporary cover before moving forward again. One of those officers was Lieutenant Francis West, who at six foot-three could be termed a ‘big target’. As he raced over the ground with his pistol drawn, he was shot and a Turkish bullet ripped through his throat. He fell and waited for medical assistance. It did not come, so at nightfall he crawled back to cover, developing a hernia due to the strain of dragging his long frame. He eventually received medical treatment and was prepared for transportation off Gallipoli. At this stage, he could not speak due to paralysis of the vocal cords.
Lieutenant Francis West was transported to England and admitted to the Beaufort War Hospital in Bristol in August 1915. The gunshot wound to the neck still affected his voice and he was still suffering from the hernia. His throat was operated on and during the operation he lost a lot of blood. His condition was poor but after slowly recovering, he received a second operation before being sent to London for further recovery.
On 2 September 1916, Lieutenant Francis West travelled to Rouen, France and his war started all over again. He joined the 2nd Battalion, Auckland Infantry Regiment in the field and his service record reveals heroic actions throughout. After being promoted to Captain, Francis West saw action on the Somme from September to October 1916 and the battalion raid at Fleurbaix in February 1917. He was then promoted to Major and placed in command of the 3rd Auckland Regiment.
In June 1917, during the attack at Messines, he was hit by shrapnel and severely injured once again. He received 29 wounds including injuries to his face, shoulder, arm, stomach and leg. Miraculously he survived and was hospitalised from June to January 1918. Now walking with a limp and with a ‘raspy’ voice, he was attached to the War Office in London to administer aid to Russia and other official business. It was at this time that he was awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French government for “distinguished services rendered during the course of the campaign.”
On 12 September 1919, he returned home aboard the Remuera and later discharged from the army. Rejoining the civilian world, Francis Leveson-Gower West began work in Auckland in his pre-war career as a solicitor. During 1928 – 1930 he became the President of the District Law Society and in 1933, was appointed Deputy Judge Advocate General with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. From 1949 – 1958, he was actively involved on the council of the Auckland Institute and Museum, including the ‘office’ of president for three years. He also played a major part in negotiating with local bodies to help finance the Auckland Museum.
His numerous wounds troubled him in later life and Francis Leveson-Gower West died on 19 May 1960, aged 69.