Inscription to the NZ Division, French memorial, Le Quesnoy, 11 November 2012

A monument in the town acknowledges New Zealand’s role in liberating Le Quesnoy in Eastern France on 4 November 1918: pour le deliverance de cette ville. 

By Roger Childs

Germany’s Ludendorff Offensive fails

In the spring of 1918, Germany launched a last ditch offensive to try and end the war on their terms. Their enemy on the eastern front, the Russians, had earlier sued for peace, so 50 German divisions could be diverted to try and achieve a knock-out blow against the allies in the west.

Speed was of the essence, as the United States were preparing to enter the war against Germany. It was the Central Powers last shot at the title.

The massive advance began in March and the New Zealand Division had a role to play in the Allies’ defence. Although the Germans made considerable gains and captured thousands of prisoners, the offensive failed to achieve the objectives of capturing the rail head at Amiens and advancing on to the Channel ports.

New Zealand troops helped to plug a gap in the allied lines and the Germans were eventually stopped in July. Counter-attacks by French and British Empire forces pushed the Germans back to the Hindenberg Line by early September. 

The challenge of Le Quesnoy

… the New Zealanders halted outside the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy, which was distinguished by its elaborate and historic brick ramparts. –historian Damien Fenton

Le Quesnoy is about the size of Otaki. After it was captured by the French back in 1654 it was fortified with an outer wall, a moat and an inner wall. Ramparts extended out so that defenders could fire both ways.  

The Germans had taken the town during their initial war offensive in August 1914. In early November 1918 the New Zealand Third Rifle Brigade was set the task of winning it back.

The division commander, Major General Russell, and his staff officers, thought through their tactics very carefully. Le Quesnoy was not the main objective, but stood as an obstacle to the Allies advance to the east. 

The town was full of civilians and the war was drawing to a close, so it was vital to limit casualties as much as possible.  

So the approach was to

  • encircle the ramparts
  • capture the railway line
  • arc around the town to isolate it from possible relief by German forces.

It was hoped that the German defenders would realise that resistance would be futile and surrender. However nothing could be taken for granted. 

A stunning success

“The winning of Le Quesnoy was a triumph of valour and tactics. The New Zealanders did it.” —New York Times, 7 December 1918

There were 500 Germans troops in the town and more in the surrounding area, but there was no preliminary bombardment to avoid civilian casualties. A key objective was to capture the tower in the middle of town as this was a key enemy observation post. However the walls would have to be scaled first and enemy machine gun posts on the ramparts needed to be silenced.

The moat was dry at the time and the outer 7 metre high wall was quickly scaled. Shells were aimed at the walls with the purpose of releasing smoke to provide cover for the assault. The inner wall was 18m high and this was scaled using an orchard ladder.

The Division’s Official History recorded the moment:

 … Lieutenant Averill quickly reached the top of the brick work and stepped over the capping onto the grassy bank. Crouching behind it, he peered over. It was one of the most dramatic moments in the Division’s history. There was an instant crashing through some brushwood on the far side and Averill saw two Germans of the bombing post rushing away.

To hopefully avoid stubborn resistance, there had been air drop of pamphlets to encourage the Germans to surrender. Three German prisoners were also sent forward with the same objective.

It was all over in a few hours. The artillery action was minor, but there was some stubborn resistance.  Nevertheless, most of the German defenders quickly surrendered. There were no civilian casualties and only minimal damage to the town. The Germans lost 40 guns and 1500 soldiers were captured. 

Lasting gratitude

There was a victory parade through Le Quesnoy on November 6 1918. The deliverance of the town by Kiwi soldiers 102 years ago, has never been forgotten. A monument in the town recognises New Zealand’s role in liberating Le Quesnoy: pour le deliverance de cette ville. And there are other reminders:

  • Place Des All Blacks
  • Rue Helene Clark
  • a school building decorated with New Zealand icons such as Captain Cook, Maori motifs and New Zealand flowers. (Sheilah Downs)

Any Kiwi visiting the town is, in Nick Gillard’s words, guaranteed free beer and coffee! 

 (Thanks to Colonel Nick Gillard for much of the information in the article.)