Back in June, Havelock North couple Peter and Margaret Watt took a wander through a picturesque town where familiar New Zealand names greeted them.

They were a long way from home.

They were in northeastern France in a small town called Le Quesnoy which had been the centre of a remarkable assault on November 4, 1918 by Kiwi troops to oust the German forces which had occupied it.

A remarkable and successful assault.


"The town honours New Zealand," Peter Watt said.

"There are a lot of Kiwi names there — we saw them all through the town."

They were humbled, delighted and proud because the soldiers of the New Zealand Division had stepped up to liberate the besieged town from the German forces and achieved it without destruction.

"The principal reasons for the warm relationship Le Quesnoy has with New Zealand lie in the fact that their town and its historic buildings and artefacts were spared from being smashed up from artillery and heavy fire, which would also have resulted in many civilian deaths and casualties," Watt said.

Subsequently, as a mark of respect and appreciation for that far off land of New Zealand, many links can be found throughout the town including streets with New Zealand names and a beautifully tended Garden of Remembrance.

Peter and Margaret Watt in Le Quesnoy with the New Zealand Memorial Plaque in the background. Photo / Supplied
Peter and Margaret Watt in Le Quesnoy with the New Zealand Memorial Plaque in the background. Photo / Supplied

The Kiwi forces were led by a remarkable man from Hawke's Bay whose name and memory is revered by the townspeople of Le Quesnoy.

Major General Sir Andrew Russell, whose present day family still resides at the family homestead Tuna Nui, at Sherenden, where the Russell family first began farming in 1861.

Back in 2015 the Watts visited Tuna Nui.


They and other members of the Hawke's Bay branch of the New Founders Society were guests of the Russell family.

The Founders group comprises descendants of New Zealand's early founder-settler families and visiting historic homes throughout the region forms a vital part of the group's annual calendar.

And it was the visit to the Russell Estate which sparked growing interest in the military career of Major General Sir Andrew Russell, and also inspired their decision to travel to Le Quesnoy.

"Major General Andrew Russell shone in military matters," Watt said.

"He was a real leader."

Andrew Hamilton Russell was born in Napier in 1868 and as was family tradition went off to Sandhurst Military Academy in England where he graduated as top cadet.


He would serve for five years overseas, first in India then for a brief period in Burma and back to England in 1892.

But he did not want to pursue garrison life in England and against his family's advice resigned his commission to return home to take up sheep farming — joining his uncle William Russell at Tuna Nui.

But he would return to things military, and in 1900 formed the Hawke's Bay Rifles, and when war broke out in 1914 the New Zealand Mounted Rifles Brigade was formed under his skilled and finely focused command.

The brigade went through additional training while in Egypt — the next stop was Gallipoli.

It was the first stage in what would become an inspiring and remarkable military history, and in the wake of his service on the Gallipoli peninsular he was knighted as well as promoted to major general, and in 1916 was appointed as command of the New Zealand Division which had been sent to serve in France and Belgium.

His determination and devotion was shared by the men under his command, and often against enormous and overpowered odds the Kiwis fought bravely across the major battle landscapes of the Somme, Passchendaele and Messines.


He served from the front line, and as World War I neared an end he led the troops of the New Zealand 3rd Rifle Brigade in the daring action that would free the town of Le Quesnoy.

It was a remarkable battle and a tribute to the skills of Major General Andrew Russell.

While the brigade had got through the historic old town's outer ramparts, it was clear taking it from the German forces would be far from easy.

Kiwi-inspired signs on the streets of Le Quesnoy in France. Photo / Supplied
Kiwi-inspired signs on the streets of Le Quesnoy in France. Photo / Supplied

The town was bordered by 16m high ramparts and surrounded by a wide, deep moat.

The Germans had set up field guns and machine-gun positions, and as Russell clearly saw, trying to take the town through a frontal assault would have meant bombarding it first which would have caused heavy damage to the buildings and civilian loss of life.

He was not prepared to take that stance so set up encircling Le Quesnoy while his other brigades pressed on towards the nearby River Sambre on a second push.


He employed an approach as militarily historic as the town ... using drums of burning oil and clouds of smoke to envelop the German gun positions.

Notes calling for the German troops to surrender were sent in by previously captured soldiers as well as through an air drop.

Then the men of the 3rd Rifle Brigade took to the great walls — using ladders to scale them under cover of machine-gun fire.

They took the 1500-strong German garrison by surprise and as soon as it became clear to them the Kiwis were now in the town they put their hands up and surrendered.

For the local people, it was almost beyond belief.

They and their town had been spared damage and death, and they celebrated with unbridled joy, and lauded the actions of the New Zealanders — a people and country they vowed to always honour and never forget.


They also vowed never to forget the Kiwi troops who fell during the taking of Le Quesnoy.

Of the 122 who died during the capture of the town the Rifle Brigade sustained the most losses, with 43 killed and another 250 wounded.

Other units of the New Zealand Division involved in the battle lost 79 men with about another 125 wounded.

"As a result, to this day the town honours New Zealand with a Garden of Remembrance and other memorials as well as a school and street names dedicated to New Zealand," Watt said.

Seven days after the battle the armistice was signed and the war was over, although it was far from the end of Major General Russell's military career.

He returned home and was a pivotal and leading role in the development and shaping of the New Zealand Returned Services Association.


"He believed an officer's duty to his men did not end with the cessation of hostilities."

He returned to the family homestead and set about civilian life again, while continuing to assist returned service people.

Major General Sir Andrew Russell died in 1960 at the age of 92, and he is honoured with a bronze statue which was erected in 2015 and which fittingly stands in Russell St, which was formerly Station St and renamed in his honour in 1921.

"He was an amazing man," Watt said.

* On both Anzac Day and Armistice Day every year members of the New Zealand Embassy in Paris and French representatives observe a memorial ceremony in honour of the New Zealand lives lost in liberating the town.

And one century on, on the actual day of the battle, November 4, a special service was planned to be held with many descendants of the Kiwi troops who served there invited to attend.