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Why the liberation of Le Quesnoy means so much to New Zealand

A New Zealand mortar crew, supporting 1 Rifles, 3rd Rifle Brigade, fire at German positions west of Le Quesnoy. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library/hand-coloured by Harry Burgess

On November 4, a large New Zealand contingent will join the French to mark the centenary of our forces’ liberation of the town of Le Quesnoy. Military historian Christopher Pugsley, author of a new book on the battle, tells how he came upon the story of the Kiwis’ last and most-successful action of World War I. 

The New York Times on November 7, 1918, reported the taking of Le Quesnoy by the New Zealand Division. The headline noted “Their winning of Le Quesnoy was a triumph of Valor and Tactics: New Zealanders did it.”

The news of Le Quesnoy provided echoes of war as it once may have been: a throwback to the storming of citadels more reminiscent of the sieges of the Middle Ages. The besieging of a walled fortress, the scaling of its walls and the surrender of the garrison suggests that our soldiers were something special – something above the ordinary – necessary words for an exhausted New Zealand public in November 1918. It meant that our war ended with a bang and didn’t simply peter out. It is New Zealand’s Waterloo moment: a great victory at a decisive moment, and one that, unlike Waterloo, which the Duke of Wellington shares with the Prussians under Field Marshal Blücher, we do not have to share with anyone – it is New Zealand’s alone.

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That is not strictly true: the battle involved three British, one American and one French army, but this taking of a small fortress town in northern France with its obsolete complex of outer ramparts, moats, inner walls and bastions captured public attention, and while on the scale of things it is but one incident in a large and complex battle, it is New Zealand’s moment.

A century on, the winter fields of France and Belgium carry few reminders of the New Zealand experience on the Western Front from 1916-1918. On the Somme and at Passchendaele, although each major battle site is marked by a New Zealand battle memorial and a memorial to the Kiwis missing with no known grave, you have to imagine the landscape of war as it was then.

Certainly, the most outstanding New Zealand memorial is the underground museum La Carrière Wellington in Arras, located in one of the caves in a complex of former quarries that was developed by the New Zealand Tunnelling Company in preparation for the Battle of Arras on April 9, 1917. It is eerie seeing “To Wellington”, or Auckland, Nelson, Blenheim or Christchurch painted in black on the limestone walls. The quarries became an underground city christened by the tunnellers of New Zealand. The walls are covered in graffiti, some done by the Kiwi tunnellers or members of working parties from the New Zealand Division, who were sent to help move the spoil from the tunnels that linked this vast complex. Names are scratched by nail in the smoke-blackened chalk. Seeing them from every mining district makes it personal.

Prince Charles and retired army officer and historian Christopher Pugsley in Longueval in September 2016. Photo/PA pictures

At Hooge Crater, in the grounds of the Kasteelhof ‘t Hooghe Hotel on the Menin Road, there are the rarely visited flooded craters with their trenches and bunkers and the debris of battle still scattered around. Over the winter of 1917-18, this was occupied by one of the New Zealand brigades. There are the two bunkers in the New Zealand memorial park at Messines, which was part of the German front line in the New Zealand attack of June 7, 1917.

And last but not least, there are the brick ramparts and imposing outworks of the fortress town of Le Quesnoy: the scene of New Zealand’s last and most-successful battle of World War I, on November 4, 1918. This impressive structure, built by the French military engineering genius Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban, is one of my favourite sites.

The capture of Le Quesnoy involved the liberation of a small French town that still had its 17th-century walls, its brickwork marked by the artillery shells of 1918. It is remembered for the fact that the town fell after the walls were scaled by New Zealand riflemen, led by a young officer, Second Lieutenant Leslie Averill from Christchurch, armed with a pistol. It is memorialised in the stained-glass windows of St Andrew’s Church in Cambridge, whose chaplain served at Le Quesnoy. They record the mythology, showing a series of ladders, with lines of men following each other up and over the wall. It is far removed from the prosaic reality: a single ladder limited to carrying one fully laden soldier at a time.

Le Quesnoy Memorial Window in St Andrew’s Church, Cambridge. Photo/Richard Stowers

It was a dangerous enterprise. A young officer and a soldier had been killed in the first group to approach this spot, but now the Germans inside the walls knew there was no escape. They were surrounded, with any chance of rescue long gone. Nevertheless, Averill’s first attempt to place the ladder against the wall was met with a shower of hand grenades, which led to a hasty retreat with the precious ladder.

The next attempt came after the 24-year-old battalion commander, temporary Major Harold Barrowclough – whose occupation on enlistment in 1915 was “law student” and whose only work experience was that of a soldier – had his men pour rifle and machine-gun fire along the top of the ramparts. Averill was joined by another officer, while two soldiers, in turn, climbed the ladder. German faces were seen, with pistol shots fired, then they disappeared into the town, warning that the “Tommies” had arrived. It was enough for all resistance to collapse. The only impediment to progress was the emotional welcome by the town’s citizens as they swamped the arriving riflemen.

The mythology that grows out of this incident momentarily captures the attention of the world. It is an exit from years of war and puts New Zealand in the headlines. In Western Front terms, casualties were few – some 190 New Zealand dead in the five-day battle – but no less heart-wrenching for families who live forever with the memories of a loved one’s death, delivered by telegram or letter as peace is announced.

Soldiers manning a trench mortar at Beauvois. Photo/Alexander Turnbull Library

I made it a point to record their names, occupations, ages, hometowns and where they now lie in my book, Le Quesnoy 1918: New Zealand’s Last Battle. For the same reason, I wrote this story in the present tense, because to those fighting, it was not over until it was over, and only then did these exhausted men have to deal with the news that they were out of a job.

What stands out most to me about the New Zealanders’ last battle at Le Quesnoy and the villages around it is more than the gritty, stoic professionalism of these 18,000 men. Here, for the first time, New Zealanders are meeting large numbers of local civilians who have been living under German occupation for four years. They ecstatically welcome our arrival, even if they have no idea where we have come from. Their tearful joy reminds our soldiers why this war was being fought – to stop the aggression of Imperial Germany, which invaded and occupied large tracts of Belgium and France.

Knowing what we know of the 20th century may make that argument risible today, but the reasons 21st-century wars have been started should temper our criticism of 1914-18. The ignorant and often wilful blindness of politicians who see war as a solution continues. In November 1918, the events at Le Quesnoy are the meeting of strangers, French and New Zealanders, for the best of reasons.

The funeral of Sergeant Henry Nicholas, VC, on November 9, 1918. Photo/Royal New Zealand Returned and Services' Association Collection, Alexander Turnbull Library

Embraced the centenary

Over the past five years, New Zealand has embraced the World War I centenary at all levels. I first sensed that something special was happening when I attended Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace in Ōtaki in 2014. Interpreted by Jan Bolwell’s Crows Feet “all women, all comers” collective, with male dancers from Whitireia Polytechnic, it told in dance and music of the impact of WWI on New Zealand. I sat entranced, telling myself all New Zealanders should be seeing this.

The prequel in the memorial park next door to the theatre was equally special. A retired teacher enlisted secondary school students, the Kāpiti Women’s Choir and an ad hoc fife and drum band formed for the occasion to enact in dance, song and music Ōtaki’s contribution to the war and its impact on the district. All the nearby cafes and pubs emptied and Ōtaki’s population lined the main road facing the park to watch. The performance was choreographed with lights spotlighting the children’s dance and mime as the band played and the choir sang. The finale was the students (no younger than those who fought) humming The Last Post as they carried one of their number, a representative of Ōtaki’s dead, from the park.

It stunned the crowd to silence and many, me included, were moved to tears.

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

Welsh-born, I immigrated to New Zealand with my parents in 1952 and was brought up in Greymouth, Thames and as a Sydenham boy in Christchurch, from where I went to the Royal Military College Duntroon, in Canberra. This was the beginning of a 22-year career in the New Zealand Army. My first trip back to the UK was in 1979, as a student at the British Army Staff College in Camberley. My wife, Dee, and I bought a campervan, packed in our three children, and every weekend saw the sights. On our summer in Europe, we picnicked at Verdun on the way back from Switzerland, but it was a week in Turkey in the December winter that ignited my fascination for New Zealanders in WWI.

This led to my first book, Gallipoli: The New Zealand Story, published in 1984. In 1988, I returned to Europe with my family, hired a bigger campervan, and toured the New Zealand battlefields on the Western Front.

It was my first trip to Le Quesnoy and the scale of Vauban’s fortifications fascinated me. As we drove from the village of Beaudignies on the route taken by the New Zealand Division in 1918, the town and the imposing brick ramparts were hidden by the trees that cover the outer earthworks.

Walking to the New Zealand memorial was confusing. It is far easier today with the Ngā Tapuwae Western Front app as a guide, but in 1988, we walked through the old arched castle gate down Avenue des Néo-Zélandais until we passed through the archway with the New Zealand crest. Then we were on the outside looking back across the moat up at the ramparts. In front of us was the marble bas-relief carving of the “Diggers”, as they called themselves, clambering up the ladder and into the town as a winged Victorious Peace looks on.

The unveiling of the NZ battle site memorial at Le Quesnoy in 1923. Photo/ATL

Swamped by happy townsfolk

I returned to Le Quesnoy in November 2000, having postponed my arrival as a senior lecturer in war studies at the Royal Military Academy Sandhurst to accompany the All Blacks, who were playing a Remembrance Day test against France in Paris on November 11. With fellow historian Ian McGibbon, we spent a glorious week in France. This was at the invitation of Andrew Martin, the team manager and a former army colleague. We were with the team visiting the grave of “Original” All Blacks captain Dave Gallaher at Nine Elms Cemetery, Poperinge, and Le Quesnoy.

I wrote in my diary: “Arrived in a suspiciously quiet Le Quesnoy to find that the town has gathered with bands, and flags and great enthusiasm in the square. We lined up behind the band and are swamped by happy townsfolk and kids seeking autographs. We parade through the streets towards the gate leading to the New Zealand Memorial … The narrow, tree-lined path is crammed with people and the small space facing the monument is taken up by the team, the media, town officials, the New Zealand ambassador and those who can also squeeze in. Hundreds close up behind or overlook the gathering from the walls above.

“It’s a fun mood, wreaths are laid, anthems played, and Andrew asks me to stand up on a stone bench in the throng and tell them why we are here. I do. I speak of the last battle and why they scaled the walls and there are appreciative murmurs and translations in the crowd …

“At the town hall it is total confusion, the townsfolk have got inside, but the team is left outside because there is no room! [But] the All Blacks are surrounded by interested youngsters … It has been an amazing day.”

An imagined depiction by Fortunino Mantania.

National perspectives

My 12 years at Sandhurst allowed me to go back to France many times. In 2008, I took part in a conference held in Le Quesnoy that was a true exchange between French and New Zealand perceptions of this battle and WWI’s impact on French and New Zealand society. Too often overseas conferences can be New Zealanders talking to and about themselves in exotic locations. This was different. Thanks to Le Quesnoy historian and novelist Franck Bruyère, who wove a tale of enchantment about the ladder of Le Quesnoy, I came back fascinated by the story of the ladders, who provided them and the role they played. I was also grateful to the late Peter Lee from Cambridge, a Waipa District councillor and a professional fireman, who made us all appreciate the impossibility of having those fully laden soldiers climbing the ladder at the same time, as depicted on the memorial sculpture and in the St Andrew’s Church windows. More than one fully laden soldier on the ladder at a time would have snapped the extension ropes, and the “Dinks” would have come tumbling down.

It was one at a time or nothing, exactly as George Butler painted it in Capture of the Walls of Le Quesnoy in 1920. Second Lieutenant Averill is at the top with drawn revolver, and Second Lieutenant Harry Kerr, similarly armed, is beginning to clamber up the ladder behind him.

A century on, we still have a bridgehead of memory in Europe, in the small towns of Messines and Zonnebeke in Belgium, and in Longueval on the Somme. Until the centenary anniversaries, the memories of New Zealanders who fought there have been kept alive more by local initiatives than New Zealand’s efforts. The New Zealanders’ actions live on because these small towns and villages choose to remember and honour the presence of our dead soldiers from “the Uttermost Ends of the Earth – De L’Autre Extremité Du Monde”.

One could say this for Le Quesnoy as well, but here veterans such as Averill and Lawrence “Curly” Blyth sustained the links for as long as they lived. Unlike the New Zealand Government, the Australian and Canadian governments have poured millions of dollars into revamping and building museums at their respective memorials at Villers-Bretonneux and Vimy. For New Zealand, the initiative to establish a War Memorial Museum centre – our first in Europe – has been taken up privately by a team of visionaries.

They’re not just looking back to a memory of a century-old war but also eyeing the future to build on what happened and take it into the next century. An opportunity to change perspectives – our view of France, the French view of New Zealand and on a scale we can manage. It would mean a lot in Le Quesnoy. It is an opportunity to enlarge a New Zealand bridgehead, maintained by the Cambridge/Le Quesnoy Friendship Association, in a small French town liberated in 1918, and give it a new dimension.

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

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