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The Battle For Les Quesnoy - 1918

On 4 November 1918, several days before the Armistice, the small town of Le Quesnoy in northern France was liberated by New Zealand troops from four years of German occupation. The town held 1,500 Germans who refused to surrender. Four hundred troops from the New Zealand division were wounded, 93 of whom died and are buried in Le Quesnoy’s cemetery.

Kiwi troops attack the ramparts at 'Les Quesnoy' during the final stages of the battle.  Photo: © Historical Aviation Film Unit

The following is part of an account of the battle as told by Lt Harry Henrick, of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade:

The town was encircled by a huge brick wall, 12-15 metres high, with a 200 metre-wide ditch around the outside, inside of which had been built, at regular intervals, a dozen metre-high brick bastions covered with trees and scrub. These bastions, despite their construction well before modern weaponry, gave the Germans, who were equipped with machine guns, a strategic view point and cover.

Our advance was covered by a mobile artillery barrage, which was halted by the wall and also by the fact that there were civilians in the town. Nevertheless, at around 5.30am our artillery bombarded the walls and the external defences of the town, by using flaming petrol bombs launched with special guns, driven into the ground. The charge, electrically triggered, exploded in a ball of fire at the moment of impact, causing great terror in the defenders’ ranks.

It was impossible to know if this flaming petrol bombardment caused serious losses to the enemy, but it certainly affected their morale. It was a Dantesque spectacle to see the German machine-gunners leaping about frenetically above the wall, their silhouettes standing out perfectly against a wall of flames. And since then, I have never heard of such a beautiful bombardment method. Neither have I heard of this kind of bombardment being used, since then.

After capturing this section of the front line, our company held fire momentarily in order to help the victims and to transfer the prisoners. After having registered several losses, the companies at the head of the 4th Battalion arrived at the wall.

German troops man the defences of Les Quesnoy during the (fictional) reenactment at the airshow.   Copyright © Phillip Merry (Image Supplied)

After hesitating, we could see that by placing the surviving ladder against a narrow wall that covered the inside ditch, it just managed to reach the height of the main wall. Once it was raised for the first time, the Germans prevented us from using it by throwing many stick-bombs joined together in a bundle.

During this time, Capt Wapier, an officer from Auckland and a mortar fire specialist, bombed the top of the wall with special mortars whilst the others, infantrymen, maintained fire with 'Lewis' rifles and standard rifles. Under the cover of this fire, 2nd Lt Averill, assisted by 2nd Lt Kerr and his section, scaled the ladder, losing no time in reaching the top and even entered the town right under the noses of the dumfounded Germans, surprised by such great speed. The Germans took refuge in burrows that they had dug into the ground. The rest of our troops, led by the CO scaled the wall as fast as their rifles, ammunition and other effects would allow them.

Our first concern on entering the town was to encircle and disarm the prisoners, to extinguish the burning homes—in fact the stables were on fire with horses inside—and to clear the the mines and traps. One of the Germans proved to be their paymaster...he had on him the equivalent of two weeks pay for the entire garrison. At that moment, he was as unaware as us, that in two weeks we would be in Germany where we would receive our pay in marks, the bank notes in marks were to become mere souvenirs, some of us even used them to light our pipes.

The civilians in Le Quesnoy had been under German domination for four years and their joy literally exploded. Their elation at being liberated was wonderful to see. We were covered in mud, exhausted and marked by the ordeals of the battle. But everyone—women, the elderly, children and even the Little Sisters of the Poor, came out of their cellars to come to meet us, laughing and crying, they gave us kisses, flowers and even food.

It was the 4th Battalion that was the first to arrive in the town... but they were upstaged by the 2nd Battalion who marked their arrival with their very own orchestra. When the French flags appeared and they played the French national anthem in the square, most of the elderly were crying uncontrollably.

This is how our final battle ended. It received a lot more attention than previous battles because it was unique in many ways: the attack of an old walled city occupied by civilians; flaming petrol bombs; the use of ladders to scale the walls; all of this was an unusual mix: a war both medieval and modern. The result was so much more than satisfactory.

All of this meant so much more than the conquest in Passchendaele of 600 metres of muddy ground, pitted by shells, especially when you consider the fact that not one civilian life was lost in the entire operation!"

In early November 1918, just before the end of World War One, New Zealand soldiers liberated the French town of Les Quesnoy. This is a largely fictional reenactment of that actual event as seen at the Classic Fighters airshow held at Omaka Aerodrome, Blenheim, New Zealand in 2005.

This battle and the liberation of Les Quesnoy in the final stages of the First World War had a significant impact on the residents of the French town. So much so that even 100 years later there is a significant bond between the people of Les Quesnoy and New Zealand. A number of street names in the town have direct New Zealand connections (such as Place des All Blacks, Rue Nouvelle Zelande, Rue Aotearoa, and Avenue des Neo-Zelandais), and New Zealand is always gratefully remembered and the Rifle Brigade commemorated during Armistice events every November.

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