On November 4 in 1918, New Zealand soldiers liberated the small French town of Le Quesnoy. We look at this little known part of our history and the links that endure 100 years on.
Le Quesnoy. You probably look at this word and wonder how to say it, let alone where it is and why it should have any significance to you as a New Zealander. But it should be in your lexicon and here's why.
The New Zealand Division, on their own, liberated this occupied town in World War I without any loss of life to the French civilian population, and they did so in a very unusual manner, just a week before the end of the war.
Le Quesnoy (said Ken-Waah) is a town in Northern France and the site of the Battle of Sambre (named after the local river). It's a "Vauban fortress", Vauban being a renowned military engineer of the 1600s. A star-shaped town, it has imposing outer walls (called demilunes and ravelins) about 6 and 8 metres high designed to slow attackers, and inner ones (ramparts) a sheer 13 metres. All in all, a very unwelcoming town if you are looking to attack it, which is what the 3rd Infantry (Rifle) Brigade were tasked with doing on November 4th, 1918.
The town had been occupied by the Germans for over four years, making life miserable for the inhabitants, given they took over the food supply.
The Kiwis did not want to cause the 3000 or so inhabitants any more heartache, so it was decided not to fire over the inner ramparts. With the main entrance, the Valenciennes Gate, heavily defended and portals through the high walls blocked up, going over the walls became the plan.
An opening barrage and a smoke screen created by livens projectors firing burning oil-filled drums provided some early cover for the attackers. By 9am the town was surrounded, but unlike the 30-odd other towns the New Zealanders would liberate in their march across Northern France, here the Germans were not budging. There was no sign of surrender.
The Kiwis were up for a fight. By 1918 we were the elite of the Allied Forces. The NZ Division had the manpower, and the know-how. Our men were battle-hardened and experienced. Many were rural men used to hard manual labour. They worked with animals, were familiar with firearms, and could read the land. And they had an appetite to finish the war - victory was in sight.
A day-long battle ensued outside the walls with fierce German opposition. One hundred and eighteen of our men would die before the day was out, with another 24 succumbing to their injuries within the next month.
At midday we got to the 13m-high inner walls. There's one place on one wall where a ladder might reach the top. It's over a narrow pathway above the moat to a sluice gate position (which could be used to flood the moat) leading to a small ledge on which a ladder could be placed. Our attempt was met with German opposition, but we managed to salvage one ladder before retreat.
By 4pm we had another go. It was a one-man ladder and Intelligence Officer 2nd Lieutenant Leslie Averill was the man who scaled it first. Once up and over, he fired shots at retreating Germans, and surrender would soon be at hand. The Battalion scaled the ladder behind him. Second Battalion got in the Valenciennes Gate on the other side of town, and the brave locals came out of their cellars. Many had not heard of New Zealand – they thought it would be the English that would free them.
Joyous at their liberation by men who'd come from the utmost ends of the earth to free them, they've never forgotten this day, generation after generation. While 100 years ago is out of any individual living memory, November 4, 1918 is not out of their collective consciousness. Le Quesnoy - the little town that never forgot their liberators. The epitome of Lest we Forget.