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NZ loses last link to WWI

Published: 7:11PM Thursday October 11, 2001

While the other side of the world grapples with what is being called a 'new war', New Zealand has lost its last link with the first world war: this country's oldest surviving soldier, Curly Blyth, has died at the age of 105.

Blyth was more than just an old soldier, in fact he was regarded as a living legend in a French town he helped to save.

Lawrence 'Curly' Blyth was among New Zealand troops freed a French town from German occupation just days before the end of WWI.

Then 19-year-old Curly went off to war on February 4, 1916, and although for a time he was in the trenches at the Somme, he often described it as the most boring experience of his life.

"The only time when it was wasn't boring was when the Germans were bombing you," Blyth said in an interview in 1995.

But just days before the war's end, Lawrence Blyth turned from soldier to hero.

He was in a Kiwi troop which scaled the walls of the German-occupied French village Le Quesnoy, whose mission was to free thousands of French citizens.

Blyth's daughter Margaret recalled that the New Zealand soldiers used the element of surprise in their heroic actions in Le Quesnoy.

"There were three ladders, apparently, that were brought into it, but two caught fire and there was only one and they put it on the lowest place they could find on the ramparts and went over, and of course took the Germans by surprise," she said.

As a result, Mr Blyth became an instant hero, along with his comrades.

"They gave us wine and fruit and decorated us with flowers," remembered Blyth.

Lawrence Blyth personally received France's highest military decoration - the Legion of Honour - while a Le Quesnoy street now carries his name, and the town flies a New Zealand flag.

He never forgot Le Quesnoy, visiting it well into his nineties, and, like other veterans, hoping never to see another war.

"They didnt want to see younger people have to go through what they had gone through," said Blyth's daughter Margaret.

Lieutenant Colonel Lawrence Blyth will be farewelled on in Auckland on Monday, but the old soldier will forever be remembered in the history books of both France and New Zealand as a war hero.