Bittersweet end to Kiwi WWI mystery

  • 21/10/2017
Heinrich Held with his mother, father and sister.
Heinrich Held with his mother, father and sister. Photo credit: NZDF/supplied

Almost a century ago, a gravely injured Kiwi soldier was miraculously saved.

World War I trooper Private Raymond Cullen, then 22, was the only soldier from a six-man machine gun emplacement to survive a direct hit by an artillery shell outside the French town of Le Quesnoy.

Then, as he lay bleeding, a band of surrendering German soldiers found him.

Their officer, known only as H Held, ordered his troops to fashion a makeshift stretcher out of their tunics and carried Private Cullen - whose blood loss caused him to lose consciousness - back to the New Zealand lines.

As a parting gift before he was marched into captivity, H Held gave Pte Cullen his wallet, with just a family photo and ration card inside.

Pte Cullen and his family would later spend many years hoping to discover more details on who H Held really was.

Recently Pte Cullen's great-grandson and current Kiwi trooper Private Hayden Cullen travelled back to Europe hoping for another small miracle. He wanted to find the family of H Held to return the wallet.

Before travelling to Belgium as part of the New Zealand Defence Force contingent commemorating the Battle of Passchendaele, Pte Cullen told his story on social media.

This soon attracted media interest in Germany, which five days ago paid off.

It was then the Allgemaine Zeitung newspaper confirmed the German officer was Heinrich Held from Eppensen, in Lower Saxony.

Its reporters also spoke to his 74-year-old great-niece, Anja Rabe, who was overjoyed to hear about the tale and keen to meet Pte Cullen's family.

However, the discovery also turned out bittersweet. Mr Held died in 1929 without marrying and without children.

"I never knew much about Heinrich. He died before I was born and for whatever reason my mother never talked about him," Ms Rabe said.

Her family also lost most photos of him as well as details of his military record after their home was cleaned out following the death of Ms Rabe's grandmother [Mr Held's sister].

Despite this, Pte Cullen was overjoyed to finally have some answers.

"My aunt is travelling to Le Quesnoy next November to celebrate the centenary of the liberation of the town by the New Zealand Division," he said.

"She'll definitely be making a side trip to [Ms Rabe's] small town in Germany to give thanks to a family for effectively saving ours."