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Le Quesnoy: Too quiet on the western front

Soldiers in Le Quesnoy in late October 1918. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

The residents of Le Quesnoy, France, have never forgotten the town’s heroic liberation by Kiwi soldiers in 1918. 

Smoke, gunfire and – as 300 flaming oil drums crashed onto the ramparts – fire. The liberation of Le Quesnoy in northern France, wrote Lieutenant Harry Selwyn Henrick, was a “Dantesque spectacle”.

It is November 4, 1918, just seven days before Armistice. In the final push to drive Germany out of France and Belgium, the New Zealand Division has to contend with the extraordinary defences of 12th-century fortress town Le Quesnoy.

Not far from the Franco-Belgium border, the German garrison town, pronounced Le Ken-wah, is surrounded by a moat, causeways, walls and tunnels, a medieval system strengthened in the 17th century by Louis XIV’s famed military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban. Now the 27m-high ramparts are topped with German machine-gun and mortar posts.

Colin Averill. Photo/Martin Hunter

Within the fortified town are 3000 French citizens. Rather than risk their lives and the integrity of the historic place, the New Zealanders decide to take it without heavy artillery. While the 1st and 2nd Infantry Brigades work north and south to encircle Le Quesnoy, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade looks for ways to breach the defences of the town itself. After an initial failed attempt, 2nd Lieutenant Leslie Cecil Lloyd Averill MC leads his battalion up a single ladder to take the town, right under the noses, wrote Henrick, “of the dumfounded Germans”.

“Why Leslie went up the ladder first, I don’t know,” says Averill’s son, lawyer and past president of the Canterbury Law Society Colin Averill. “It was sheer chance. He was the intelligence officer, he knew where to go, but he was also 21 years old and I expect a great enthusiast.”

After four years of German occupation, the citizens of Le Quesnoy were equally enthusiastic. Although the liberation of their town cost the lives of 135 New Zealand soldiers, not a single French citizen was killed. “We were covered in mud, exhausted and marked by the ordeals of the battle,” wrote Henrick. “But everyone – women, the elderly, children and even the Little Sisters of the Poor – came out of their cellars to meet us, laughing and crying; they gave us kisses, flowers and even food.” As James Nimmo, also of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, wrote, “We got into the town and were simply overwhelmed by civvies. Laughing, crying and just about mad with joy.”

French President Raymond Poincaré, centre, arrives at Le Quesnoy in 1918. Photo/ATL

The dear dead

In Le Quesnoy today, a memorial honours the New Zealander soldiers from “the Uttermost Ends of the Earth. De L’Autre Extremité Du Monde”. There is a New Zealand gate of honour, a memorial garden and place names: Dr Averill Street, Avenue des Néo-Zélandais, Rue Hélène Clark, Rue Aotearoa, Place des All Blacks. Every Anzac and Armistice Day, local citizens stand alongside about 300-400 visiting New Zealanders to commemorate the wartime act of liberation.

In nearby Vertigneul, a 700-year-old church holds a banner gifted by “the ladies of Christchurch” not long after the war. The translation reads, “The parents of the New Zealand soldiers offer this banner to the church of Vertigneul in grateful testimony of the Christian care given to the graves of their dear dead by the families in the vicinity.” The churchyard behind contains the graves of 12 New Zealand soldiers, including Henry James Nicholas VC, and one German – all cared for and, on Anzac Day, adorned with small wooden crosses and red poppies.

In this country, the story of Le Quesnoy has attracted a small, almost mythic reputation, appearing in documentaries, history texts, even a children’s book. In Cambridge, the large stained glass window in St Andrews Church – a former vicar of which, Clive Mortimer Jones, served at Le Quesnoy as chaplain – commemorates New Zealand’s first battle at Gallipoli and its last at Le Quesnoy.

Although the liberation of Le Quesnoy is regarded by many as one of the New Zealand Division’s most spectacular exploits of the war, when New Zealanders talk about the Great War, New Zealand Military Historical Society president Herb Farrant says, “the conversation tends to stop at Gallipoli and the Anzacs”.

“In many respects, [the story of Le Quesnoy] is greater than Gallipoli. The international reputation we enjoy today was started there, on the battlefields of the Great War. In the advance march to victory, we led the British 3rd army 49 of the 56 miles from Hebuterne to Le Quesnoy in just 77 days. By 1918 we are professional soldiers, a formidable fighting force and the most powerful infantry division in the entire British expeditionary force.”

Many of those soldiers remain in Western Europe. Of the 18,000 New Zealanders killed in World War I, nearly 12,500 died on the Western Front, a legacy recorded in memorials and graves in the Somme, Messines Ridge, Passchendaele, Amiens and Le Quesnoy.

“We need to record their deeds and achievements for modern generations,” says Farrant, who for the past 12 years has led tours in the footsteps of the New Zealand expeditionary force in France and Belgium. “Not just a commemoration of 100 years but there in perpetuity, in a place where our name is acknowledged and respected to this day.”

As Averill says, “Gallipoli was a disaster of the first order and so were a lot of other [battles]. But Le Quesnoy was a great success. It was the one victory. And it was a totally New Zealand thing. The Australians weren’t anywhere near – neither were the British. And there is huge gratitude among French people. It would be good for New Zealand-France relations if something was done in France, if only to acknowledge that we have never forgotten either.”

The former mayor's residence, later offices of the town's gendarmerie, has been suggested for the museum project. Photo/Trevor Richards

Le musée

Farrant has a plan. Since 2006, he has been investigating the establishment of a museum in Le Quesnoy marking the wartime liberation of the town and commemorating the efforts of New Zealanders in two world wars, as well as the Boer War. With more than 50 years’ experience in construction and project management and as the first New Zealander to become a member of the Chartered Institute of Building in the UK, Farrant, chairman of the recently formed NZ Memorial Museum Trust, is confident the numbers stack up. A small museum, it would require only two full-time staff, as well as volunteers, and a €5 admission could be charged, he says.

As former Deputy Prime Minister and Commonwealth Secretary-General Sir Don McKinnon, now patron of the NZ Memorial Museum Trust, says, “No Kiwi can go to Le Quesnoy and not feel the goosebumps as you hear from the local people the heroism of our antecedents who liberated the town with bravery and skill.”

A challenge is the paucity of visitor accommodation in Le Quesnoy. However, part of the trust’s plan, says Farrant, is to build a 40-room boutique hotel “uniquely New Zealand in its content and ability to provide the very finest of New Zealand cuisine and goods”. The hotel – tentatively named The Rifleman in memory of the Rifle Brigade, as suggested by Lieutenant Colonel Laurence (Curly) Blyth, the last remaining survivor of the New Zealand attack, who died in 2001 – would pay land rental to the museum while providing accommodation for the increasing number of tourists and a permanent location for New Zealand-France cultural and commercial programmes. Farrant talks of a student exchange programme, opportunities for young New Zealand chefs and residencies for hospitality, tourism and history graduates.

All in keeping, says Farrant, with the Government’s NZ Inc strategies aimed at strengthening New Zealand’s international economic, political and cultural relationships (and true to the spirit of the Letter of Intent on co-operation over World War I centenary commemorations signed in 2013 by France and New Zealand).

For a small cash-strapped town in northern France, about an hour and a half from Paris by train, it would also bring much-needed local job opportunities and entice more tourists, including some of the 15,000 or so New Zealanders who travel to France each year, to venture north from the Côte d‘Azur.

WW100 political steering group deputy chairman Greg Moyle, left, and NZ Memorial Museum Trust chairman Herb Farrant. Photo/Simon Young

Le Quesnoy’s civic authorities thought it a grand idea, even offering to lease the historic fire station for the project. But two years of local government prevarication and the impact of the Canterbury earthquakes on fundraising initiatives in this country put the plan on ice. Last year, however, the incoming council of Le Quesnoy turned its attention once more to the plan.

As an alternative to the fire station – too close to the historic ramparts for redevelopment – it suggested a stately 19th-century building sitting on a 10,600sq m piece of land close to the town centre, the original mayor’s residence at the time of the Great War and used now, until the beginning of next year, by the town’s gendarmerie. It is first class, says Farrant, “magnificent”.

A government-owned property, it comes with a $2.1 million price tag. “That’s peanuts,” says Farrant. “That’s $200 a square metre for the land and a substantial building that could house the museum.”

There are also nine residential buildings, condemned because they do not meet France’s insulation standards, which could be refurbished and sold off: “You would more than cover the cost of the land.”

Farrant says Le Quesnoy’s new mayor, Marie-Sophie Lesne, fully supports the idea. Minister for Arts, Culture and Heritage Maggie Barry, however, is unsure the village will be able to come up with the funds. After meeting Lesne at a function last year, she says, “it would have to be said the Mayor was not enthusiastic about it. She felt the community would not be in any position whatsoever to make any form of commitment or financial contribution. Though that may change.”

But from the outset the project has been mooted as a New Zealand initiative funded from the New Zealand public and private purse. And on the phone from France, Lesne is positive.“The museum is a very good idea. We have lots of New Zealanders who come to France all along the year – our relationship with New Zealand is very good. It is important for the memory of the town and we are trying to keep up this memory for France’s young people.”

And the hotel?

“Yes of course, it is logical. We see tourists during July, August, but it is also a destination for memory tourism. You can attract tourists if you have somewhere to stay and if you have an activity. They need each other to develop. We are waiting for construction of this project. We are a small town of 5000 [but] we feel fixed to New Zealand. We are ready to give a welcome to them and the project. It is our reality and our historic links and it is unique in France.”

2nd Lieutenant Leslie Cecil Lloyd Averill MC.

Australia's whopping budget

All is maybe too quiet on the Western Front. Farrant joins other commentators in believing New Zealand underrates our wartime achievements in Western Europe in favour of the ill-fated storming of the beaches of Gallipoli Peninsula.

Barry agrees New Zealand’s history on the Western Front is not well understood by the new generation of New Zealanders. She hopes, she says, “to encourage people when we come to Anzac Day this year to acknow­ledge that Gallipoli was the first [battle] but not the last. We need to know more and build on the Gallipoli experience to talk more about the stories of the Western Front.”

Nor can we rely on others to tell our story – last year Downing Street had to talk down suggestions that the roles of New Zealand and Australian troops were being downgraded in British commemorations in favour of those of New Commonwealth countries such as India, Bangladesh and Nigeria.

Australia has already spent millions telling its story of the Western Front. Under its whopping $345 million centenary budget, it has contributed $2.2 million to the refurbishment of the French-Australian museum in Villers-Bretonneux in the Somme and over $1 million to the construction of a new home for the Battle of Fromelles Museum, next to the Fromelles (Pheasant Wood) Military Cemetery as part of the $10.5 million Australian Remembrance Trail linking the country’s most significant Western Front battlefields.

But Sarah Davies, director of WW100 (a programme established by the Government to mark the centenary through a range of activities), says the Western Front is not being ignored in New Zealand’s commemorations. Catering to “a strong and growing interest in World War I”, state-funded projects will focus as much on the Western Front as on Gallipoli, she says, especially as the programme rolls out towards 2019.

Wellington’s new $120 million Pukeahu National Memorial Park and Buckle St underpass in front of the National War Memorial, the Government’s main centenary investment, will play a part in a series of events marking not just the Anzac landings in Gallipoli (April 25) but also the war in France (September 15, 2016), Belgium (October 12, 2017) and Sinai/Palestine (October/November 2017), and Armistice (November 11, 2018).

On top of the $22 million contestable fund made available through the Lottery Grants Board for World War I centenary activities, the Government is spending about $19 million on a number of “legacy projects”, including the comprehensive Cenotaph database of military personnel led by the Auckland War Memorial Museum and Nga Tapuwae, two “heritage trails” using new app and web resources and on-site information to mark significant World War I sites in Western Europe as well as Gallipoli – part of a broader goal, says Davies, to encourage New Zealanders to go to these areas and “experience the history and hear … the New Zealand stories”.

Overseas commemorations will mark Anzac landings in Gallipoli as well as the battles of the Somme, Messines, Passchendaele, Beersheba and Le Quesnoy. But she says there is a limit. “When you speak to local communities, they’re sensitive as to how many memorials we put in these areas. These are communities that are trying to look forward as much as backwards.”

It’s a sentiment in line with Farrant’s plan. Although the proposed museum is about recording our past, he says the hotel “is about our future, our culture. They support one another.”

Our soldiers at the front near Le Quesnoy. Photo/ATL

Something significant

New Zealanders are generous in supporting projects aligned to France. Already they’ve raised $500,000 of the required $800,000 to establish a permanent capital sum to secure the 45-year Katherine Mansfield Menton Fellowship in France, after a drop-off in corporate sponsorship.

The New Zealand-France Friendship Fund supports the rotational residency for French and New Zealand writers at Wellington’s Randell Cottage, as well as a string of student exchanges. But although it has increased its funding to cover World War I events – it is co-funding Victory Medal, a sculptural project by New Zealand artist Helen Pollock comprising 36 pairs of feet moulded from New Zealand clay to be toured through Belgium and France, including in Le Quesnoy – an actual museum, says chairman Richard Long, “is beyond the small scale of things we can do. But I hope it’s a good idea in that it’s able to be a success. Anything that could be done there would be great.”

John Bishop, chairman of the Cambridge/Le Quesnoy Friendship Association, says it is an excellent plan. “Le Quesnoy is becoming more on the map. The military is starting to recognise it, diplomats are recognising it. On Armistice Day and Anzac Day, New Zealanders get the freedom of the town.”

The “beautiful little town” is also central to other important Western Front sites, including the Menin Gate in Ypres and Passchendaele. And although the proposed plan looks to the past, “it’s forward-looking in the sense of having that relationship [with New Zealand] and encouraging young people to go”.

As he says, the World War I veterans are all gone. It is now the children and grandchildren of those who fought for French liberté who will – just as New Zealanders championed French freedom of the press with their “Je suis” placards – “pull these [projects] together”.

Barry is not totally averse to the idea. Of her conversation with Lesne, she says, “I felt there was more room for discussion. I feel there will be a key opportunity to do something significant there.”

Significant but also positive. As Averill says, by the time World War I commemorations stagger into 2018, people will be looking for “something to celebrate”.

He says the French have been unstinting in maintaining New Zealand graves – graves many of the immediate families of the fallen soldiers would never have been able to visit. (They also funded the widely acclaimed Carrière Wellington museum in the tunnels under Arras in northern France, honouring the 446 men of the New Zealand Tunnelling Company who worked with their Welsh and Geordie counterparts to connect these medieval chalk tunnels to convey allied troops to the Front.)

“You could argue that’s the least the French could do, since we were fighting for them, but here we are 100 years later and the graves are still brilliantly maintained. We should be grateful for that, and a museum would be a great thing.”

This article was first published in the February 21, 2015 issue of the New Zealand Listener.