James Waddell (1888-1890)

By OBHS Foundation | Posted: Monday June 27, 2016

One of New Zealands most highly decorated soldiers of the First World War. Waddell was received in the French Legion of Honour and promoted twice. He was also awarded the French Croix de Guerre seven times during the war.


Médaillé Extraordinaire, the first exhibition bringing to light the remarkable story of a New Zealander whose glittering military career spanned 20 years in France’s Foreign Legion, opens in Belloy-­‐en-­‐Santerre, Picardie, on 4 July 2016.

The exhibition, supported by the New Zealand France Friendship Fund, coincides with centenary commemorations of the Battle of the Somme in France starting in July.

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 I.

He gave brilliant service as a battalion commander of Legion troops at Gallipoli, on the Somme, at Champagne and Verdun. He was awarded France’s Croix de guerre 1914 – 1918 with seven palms, was made Commander of the Legion of Honour and lived to tell the tale.

“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.”

The exhibition combines large-­‐scale photographs with the story of Waddell researched by Millet over seven years and is hosted in Picardie by the Association Santerre 2014 – 2018 and the Souvenir Français.

“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 Queyrat.

“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 that big push. And he was the only battalion commander to come out alive.”

The exhibition will be shown in Belloy-­‐en-­‐Santerre until the end of August, after which it will travel around the Santerre region of Picardy.

Medaillé Extraordinaire is one of only two New Zealand-­‐led projects given the official seal of France’s Mission du centenaire de la Première Guerre mondiale.

It has been supported by: Story Shop, France-­‐New Zealand Friendship Fund, Association Santerre 2014-­‐2018, Souvenir Français, ECPAD and the Horowhenua Chronicle.

The story of James Waddell 

The Regiment was transferred to India and it was here that Waddell met and married a French woman. She helped him earn the unusual honour for a foreigner, of a direct appointment as an officer in the French Foreign Legion. While the majority of the rank and file of the Legion were non-French, only a small number were able to become officers, and then normally after first reaching the rank of sergeant and becoming naturalized Frenchmen. Waddell resigned his British Army commission, obtained French citizenship and was appointed as a sous-lieutenant (second lieutenant) in the French Army on 25 April 1900. Between 1900 and 1914 Waddell undertook two tours of Indo-China and served in the Sahara, Algeria and Morocco. At the beginning of 1914, he was promoted to the rank of Captain with the 1st Foreign Legion Regiment and awarded Knight (Chevalier) of the Legion of Honour for his work in Indo-China.

Captain Waddell landed at Gallipoli as a Captain in the Régiment de Marche d'Afrique in 1915. He soon distinguished himself by his courage and tenacity and received two Croix de guerre on 4 July 1915 and 27 August for bravery in leading his battalion in attacks against Turkish trenches on 21 June and 4 July.  

Waddell subsequently served on the Western Front and was promoted to Officier of the Legion of Honour on 10 June 1917 for his actions on the Somme, where his personal example helped carry an attack on the village of Belloy-en-Santerre. It was during this battle that the American poet, Alan Seeger, died.  Seeger was a member of Waddell's Battalion. Later, Waddell was in command of the 2nd Battalion of the Régiment de Marche de la Legion etrangere (R.M.L.E.) and was involved in the successful capture of Aubervie during the Champagne attack in April 1917. In August 1917 his Battalion played a leading role in the RMLE's assault at Verdun which saw the capture of Cumieres. The RMLE in this action captured some 680 prisoners, eight artillery pieces and numerous machine guns. Some 2.5 km of enemy trenches were captured.

After this action, Waddell was transferred to command a training camp involved in training elements of the US 2nd Division. He was brought back into action to command a Battalion of the 169th French Infantry Regiment during the 2nd Battle of the Marne in 1918. He won a further two Croix de Guerre during this battle before being wounded.

By the end of the War, Waddell had been awarded the Croix de guerre seven times. Described as ‘a courageous leader and one of the most respected of all the Legion's officers, Waddell was promoted to Commandeur of the Legion of Honour in 1920. When he retired from the French Army he held the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Waddell served in Tunisia until retiring in 1926, but remained in North Africa until returning to New Zealand in 1950. James Waddell died at Levin in 1954 and is buried in the RSA section of the Levin cemetery.