Vive la commémoration

by Trevor Richards / 25 April, 2009
Should we be making more of an effort to commemorate the high price New Zealanders paid on the Western Front?

It's Anzac Day. New Zealanders young and old are coming onto the streets to pay their respects. Poppies are handed out, pinned onto coat lapels. A bugle sounds. People stop chatting, assemble and, led by the mayor and local dignitaries, walk solemnly to the town hall. Inside, they give thanks for the bravery and sacrifice of New Zealand soldiers.

Nothing exceptional about this - except this is not Dannevirke or Reefton or Wellsford. This is Le Quesnoy, a small town in northern France.

Every Anzac Day and Armistice Day, the citizens of Le Quesnoy publicly remember and pay tribute to their New Zealand liberators. And each year, especially on Anzac Day, they are joined by New Zealanders.

What happened at Le Quesnoy back in 1918 is remarkable. The Germans had occupied the town since the early days of World War I - but a bunch of brave New Zealanders put an end to all that. And what is extraordinary is not that the forces freed the town, but the way they went about it.

Troops wanting to liberate a town traditionally shell it first to try to kill as many occupying soldiers as they can, often with much - to use the current euphemism - collateral damage. So, to avoid a potentially heavy loss of civilian lives, the New Zealanders decided to "take" Le Quesnoy without shelling it first.

It was a noble notion - but a highly dangerous one. Le Quesnoy is a fortress town dating back to the Middle Ages. In the 17th century, its fortifications were strengthened by Vauban, Louis XIV's famed military architect. By November 1918, the town's defences included not only a moat but 20m-high ramparts topped with a heavy concentration of German machine-gun and mortar posts.

In the early hours of November 4, members of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade launched their assault, first using ladders to scale the ramparts.

A fierce battle followed - 93 New Zealanders died and 300 more were injured. But of the 55,000 French residents of Le Quesnoy, not one lost their life.

Liberating the town was New Zealand's last major action in the war. A week later, on November 11, the Allies and Germany signed the armistice treaty. New Zealanders had written themselves and their country into the hearts and history of Le Quesnoy.

Today, the town's population has dwindled to less than 5000, but the citizens' gratitude to their New Zealand liberators remains as strong as ever. When I visited Le Quesnoy, it had signs of New Zealand all over it.

On the face of the walls scaled by the New Zealanders is a memorial to those who fell. Large, colourful flags extolling different aspects of New Zealand culture line the path to the memorial.

To get to the Garden of Remembrance, I took the Avenue des Néo-Zélandais. Elsewhere I found a Rue Hélène Clark, a Place des All Blacks and a Rue Aotearoa - even a "Slow Down, Penguins Crossing" road sign. This being France, though, an anti-nuclear sign proved a bit of a stretch.

Le Quesnoy is the only French town to have a sister town in New Zealand; in 1999 it was twinned with Cambridge. The year after, Le Quesnoy opened a permanent exhibition of all documents related to its liberation.

At the reception after the laying of the wreaths at the Le Quesnoy Anzac service I attended, one of the politicians said the local tourist office had received 70 enquiries from New Zealanders wanting accommodation to attend the commemorations. Others made a day trip from Paris - Le Quesnoy is a two-and-a-half-hour drive north of Paris, and about a dozen trains travel there every day from Paris' Gare du Nord.

Many New Zealand Anzac Day commemorations have a common theme: Gallipoli. This disastrous attempt to capture Istanbul and secure a sea route to Russia came at an early stage in World War I. It resulted in a staggering loss of life - 2721 New Zealanders were killed. But it tends to overshadow remembrances of what happened on the Western Front. Of the just over 18,000 New Zealanders killed in World War I, nearly 12,500 were killed from 1916-18 in northern France and Belgium, more than the total number of New Zealanders killed in World War II. And with RSA president Robin Klitscher recently suggesting people stay away from Gallipoli on Anzac Day, should we be doing more to commemorate the high price New Zealanders paid on the Western Front?

Not far from Le Quesnoy is the Somme, an area that saw many New Zealand deaths. Here are many Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries, some huge, some tiny. About 150,000 Commonwealth servicemen - 50,000 of them un-identified - lie buried in 250 military and 150 civilian cemeteries. Six memorials to the missing commemorate by name more than 100,000 whose bodies were never found.

At Longueval, where Anzac Day services are also held, lie the bodies of 5511 Commonwealth soldiers. Most - almost 3800 - are "A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God".

The memorial here is "to the men of the New Zealand Division, First Battle of the Somme, 1916". Engraved below are the words "Des Contins les Plus Reculés de la Terre" ("From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth"), a line repeated on the New Zealand memorial at Le Quesnoy.

A few hundred metres from the Longueval memorial is Caterpillar Valley Cemetery. A memorial stands for those New Zealanders killed in the 1916 Battle of the Somme whose bodies were never found. Consisting of 11 stone panels, it bears 1205 names.

The body of New Zealand's Unknown Soldier, now lying at the National War Memorial in Wellington, was exhumed from a grave at this cemetery.

Louis de Cazenave, a French soldier in World War I who died last year aged 110, told the French news-paper Le Monde in 2005: "War is something absurd, useless, that nothing can justify. Nothing."

At Caterpillar Valley, as at all Commonwealth War Grave cemeteries, there was a visitors' book, which I felt compelled to sign. But what do you put in the space left for comments? I could think of nothing that adequately described how I was feeling, so we drove off without signing the book.

Five kilometres down the road, I stopped the car and turned back. Something had to be written. Thousands had been killed here and I couldn't even write a sentence? Returning, I wrote what was uppermost in my mind: "So far from home."

The search for bodies in the Somme continued until 1934, when the last of the cemeteries was declared "complete". But by the outbreak of World War II, a further 3000 bodies had been found. And still today, the remains of soldiers are being discovered.

World War I became known as "the War to End All Wars". A visit to the Somme provides acres of evidence for why it was thought this was so.

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