Thursday, February 27, 2014

Part Four - Le Quesnoy

Le Quesnoy.
Falls to New Zealanders. Surrender of Garrison.
Malcolm Ross, Correspondent with the NZ Forces.
November 5th, 10 a.m. [1918]
When tales of fiercer fights have almost been forgotten, the storming and capture of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade will be remembered as one of the most picturesque and romantic incidents of the war. The old fortress, which has stood many sieges, is still wonderfully strong, with precipitous ramparts of well-preserved brick bastions crowned with tall trees and a dry moat fronting the inner rampart. Many besiegers have had a tilt at it in olden times. In 1793 the Austrians stormed it after ten days' bombardment that laid the town in ruins. In 1918 troops from the farthest British Dominion have captured it from what was the world's greatest military power in as many hours.
Then a memorable scene occurred. The inhabitants, realising that at last deliverance had come, rushed from cellars and houses, and soon from every building the tricolour was flying in the breeze. Along a street lined with an excited, cheering throng, the "diggers" marched, embraced and kissed and showered with autumn flowers. ... The Battalion Commander marched with revolver in one hand and garlands in the other. 

From The Press, volume LIV, Issue 16377, 23 November 1918, Page 7.
Courtesy of the National Library's Papers Past.

In late 1918, with victory in their sights, the Allies continued their advance, pushing the Germans back behind the Hindenburg Line. (You will learn more about this in the next two posts.) In November, the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade was ordered to neutralise German forces in the small town of Le Quesnoy, located in forest near the Belgian border. The town was fortified in Medieval times, and featured thick brick inner and outer walls each of around 12 metres in height, separated by a moat and occasional bastions. The New Zealanders decided to launch an assault on the town but chose not to annihilate it, even if this would have been the easiest way to flush the German soldiers out. At 5:30am on November 4th, an artillery bombardment began. Next, two battalions from the 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade marched towards the town in order to encircle it. The 4th Battalion reached the ramparts first, and scaled these with a narrow, thirty-foot ladder, while aeroplanes dropped propaganda messages to the Germans inside the town, urging them to give up. Still the Germans did not surrender. Soon, the Battalion decided to climb the inner walls and go in to catch their men. In single file, they forged a path across the (dry) moat and came to the base of the inner wall. They placed the thin ladder on a narrow ledge at the top of the wall and sent a couple of men up. It was a success, and the entire battalion followed, streaming up the ladder, over the wall, and taking the Germans by surprise. Some ran away, some stayed on to fight, and others were captured as prisoners of war. Late in the afternoon, the remaining German soldiers finally surrendered. After four long years of occupation, the remaining townspeople came out to celebrate. They offered kisses, flowers, food, and beds to the Kiwis, and the following day soldiers and civilians paraded down the main street, accompanied by a band playing the national anthems.
Memorial on the town cenotaph
The Kiwi liberation had, understandably, a huge impact on the town's inhabitants. A memorial plaque was unveiled in July 1923, featuring an image of the Kiwis ascending the wall; the town has many streets with special New Zealand names; and there is a Giant Maori.

When we arrived in Le Quesnoy, we went straight to the wall to see the spot from which the 4th Battalion had climbed. It was amazing to think we were standing in (almost) the very location the men had been in 1918. Today, there is a walkway through the moat, so we were not right at its base, but the walls remain in pretty good condition and they still looked a challenge for men on a narrow ladder!

This memorial plaque is in the exact place the wall was scaled

NZ Garden of Remembrance
That night, we stayed in the nearby campsite, just ten minutes walk outside the town walls. In the morning we walked along the walls until we came to an entry port, and went to look around the cute township. We loved seeing the great names!!

We also loved seeing the Giant Maori! In the Nord département of France there is a tradition of holding annual parades in which effigies are carried by locals. In Le Quesnoy, one of the two giants is a Maori, showing the town's strong links to NZ. (Men from the Pioneer Battalion had an important role in the story of Le Quesnoy - helping to clear rubble and bomb damage from around the town. Also, a member of the Battalion is said to have been among the first men up the ladder and over the inner wall on November 4th.)

I'll leave you with some final pictures of this beautiful town, and some notes.

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