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The battle of Le Quesnoy: New Zealand soldiers in their own words

Capture of the walls of Le Quesnoy by George Edmund Butler, 1920.

“We sleep in the open here tonight and at 5.30am tomorrow morning we ‘go over the top’ … It started to rain at 5.30 and continued intermittently throughout the night … There was little sleep for us on the night of the 3rd, lying on the ground under a steady drenching rain for most of the dark hours.”
Private Neil “Monty” Ingram

“Along came 5.30, zero time, and just on tick, a big gun fired on the right and left flank. I believe that was signal that all was ready, then before a man could say Jack Robinson, every gun on the sector opened out at once, even the machine gunners. The vic[k]ers gun and I was told that there were only 66 of them covering [our] division I must say that I think it was one of the priettest [sic] sights I have ever see, because all along the front line was liquid fire enough to put the wind up anybody.”
Corporal Norman Coop

“Gunn, a fine, fearless chap, who had been with the Company from its formation, was very badly hit – one arm nearly severed and a great hole in a lung, he died the next day. Tweedie, who had a few chips hardly more than skin deep in a shoulder blade and the back of one knee, asked me while I was dressing him if he was very badly hit. I told him he could not have wished himself a cushier Blighty than he had. We heard a few days later that he died of shock.”
Major Lindsay Inglis

Macro alias: ModuleRenderer

“Yesterday I went forward to the front line for liaison duty with the New Zealand Division, which has relieved the tattered remnants of our own infantry. What a grand crowd they are! Sunburnt, powerful steady men – they look as if they had just yesterday come from their cattle or sheep ranches to put things to right here; and they are completely confident that they can wipe the floor with the Boches, though they talk quietly and without boasting.”
British soldier, early 1918

“The men are strong and well set up … At bayonet fighting they were fair. The discipline was only fair, and they were very poor at saluting.”
3rd Rifle Brigade assessment, November 1918

“One corporal was sitting quietly on the edge of a hole. He looked such a good colour that I did not think he was seriously hurt and asked, ‘Can you manage to walk down, Corporal?’ ‘Afraid not, sir,’ he replied, nodding towards his legs which were dangling inside the rifle pit, ‘My leg is a bit damaged.’ A bit damaged – it was held together only by the blood-drenched puttee, through which splintered bone protruded in several places.”
Major Lindsay Inglis

“My Commanding Officer [Allen, who was wounded in the action], He said to me, ‘If I hadn’t got wounded, Blyth, I was going to get your company to give them a leg over the wall.’ I said to myself, ‘Thank God you got wounded.’ It was pretty sticky. The 4th Battalion (who were on our left facing the main defences of the town) lost something like 50 men in that attack.”
Second Lieutenant LM “Curly” Blyth

The daylight came prettily; it developed into a light mist, of a slatey, smokey aspect; and the small woodland we were soon passing through would have delighted the eye of an artist. Then we passed down through long fields of cabbages of the blue, pickling variety which Fritz had planted for sauerkraut … We had just crossed a sunken road when he landed a shell on a spot about thirty yards in front of us. Thinking to get past we went for our lives; but another shell came, exactly over the mark where the previous one landed and where we apparently had just reached. It killed Ewing Riddell24 [sic] of the team, from Te Kuiti (a fine man and a great pal), and Ken Larking, 25, late of Victoria College, Wellington, and one of the [ammunition] carriers loaned by the [infantry] company. Ted Murray (corporal) our team’s excellent five-eight was badly wounded in the leg; and I got mine in the groin. Finish Stoke’s gun team!

After Jerry’s barrage was over – a good one for about a further three-quarters of an hour – they used all the Hun prisoners (four to a stretcher) to carry out our wounded. A great plan, this, Ehoa, as they took the boys out in great style … I believe another gun team covering Wellington was smashed up; Les Mason, 26 of Masterton (a Ruahine Boy) was killed – He makes another fine three-quarter gone from the rugby team – and a good soldier.”
Chronicler “Billy Popgun”

One of the Kiwi wounded is carried from Le Quesnoy. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

One of our own male tanks, apparently mistaking the [machine gun] section for Germans in the smoke, opened on them with a 6-pounder Hotchkiss gun at a range of 50 yards. Although the section dropped its loads and “Kamaraded” in the approved German style, the tank did not cease fire until one of the machine gunners rushed the tanks and shouted unprintable remarks at the crew through a loophole.
Chronicler “Billy Popgun”

“Suddenly the air is rent with the deafening thunder of artillery drumfire. The hour has struck! Popping of Vickers! Barking of field guns! Booming of heavies! Flashes in the greying dawn! Black smoke, red smoke, white smoke! Leaping earth, flying clods, and ripping steel! A tension of muscles and the first wave is off.

Luckily we are on the extreme edge of the enemy barrage. Incendiary shells burst on high on the semi-light and burning matter, like blazing oil, rains down to earth, where it flames fiercely for a while before burning out. We do not proceed far before we observe prisoners running towards us with shambling gait through the crashing shells, their arms held high, faces deathly white, eyeballs protruding, and their whole bodies trembling with terror. They make an abject sight, running from one party of us to another, not understanding our commands to carry straight on rearwards, and completely bewildered.”
Private Monty Ingram

“There was no shelter and there was nothing for us to do but run for it. A good hundred yards. Could see the bullets hitting the cobbles in front of us, and were getting pieces of brick from behind, but neither of us got hit. Half way along I saw a doorway and decided on a spell. I bounced into it in such a hurry that I bounced out again like a ball. I took it gently next attempt and had a few minutes in which to get my wind. Then it was a case of go again, and he opened as soon as I appeared and helped me along the final stretch. One poor little dog ran after us barking like blazes and had his leg blown clean off. Lucky! Yes the Corp & I were very lucky.”
Rifleman James Nimmo

“A Corporal rushed into a house in search of any Germans who might be hiding. A half-eaten meal on the kitchen table testified to the hurried exit of the enemy. Hearing a noise in the house, the Corporal listened attentively, and came to the conclusion that it was someone sobbing down in the cellar of the house. It was French women in terror as to what would happen next to them. Using his best French, the Corporal called out that he and his comrades were ‘Soldats de Anglaise’, and at once three tear-stained French girls rushed up and threw their arms around his neck in a paroxysm of joy.”
Otago Veteran 

“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 the street, thronged with an excited cheering multitude, the diggers marched, embraced and kissed and showered with autumn flowers … The excited civilians stuck flowers in the men’s tunics and in even their respirators.”
Captain Malcolm Ross, the official NZ war correspondent

“During the morning I walked around the ramparts and saw from the enemy’s viewpoint the country over which we had attacked. The position appeared so very strong I marvelled at what had been accomplished. The men showed great gallantry, keenness and determination throughout and their skill and cunning in using cover and concealment was equal to that one reads of in Red Indian warfare. Largely because of this, our casualties were remarkably small.”
Brigadier-General Herbert Hart

“In our innermost self, we knew that some day we would win through, and the possession of this confidence – which, by the way, the New Zealand soldier always had in a very large measure – went a long way to keep up our spirits.”
An Otago veteran

“Long before this letter reaches you, you will have received the sad news of your son’s death. He was killed up at the guns on the 6th, this morning we brought his body back to the little village of Villereau, behind the line and we buried him in the shadow of the old village church.”
Chaplain Alex Jermyn, 2nd brigade padre, writing to the father of Donald Stewart Kennedy on November 8, 1918

Extract from Le Quesnoy 1918: New Zealand’s Last Battle, by Christopher Pugsley (Oratia Books, $39.99).

Main image: Provided by National Collection of War Art.

This article was first published in the November 3, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.