4 Nov 2018

NZ soldiers to be commemorated for liberating French town

6:30 am on 4 November 2018

The centenary of the liberation of the small French town of Le Quesnoy by New Zealand troops in World War I will be commemorated tonight.

New Zealand troops marching through Le Quesnoy on 10 November 1918.

New Zealand troops marching through Le Quesnoy on 10 November 1918. Photo: Supplied / Ville Le Quesnoy

Le Quesnoy was the last major action by New Zealand soldiers, coming just a week before the Armistice.

Rather than level the town using artillery, the walls were scaled using ladders and the remaining Germans were taken prisoner.

Locals have never forgotten this and the liberation and New Zealand's part in it is commemorated each year.

The 3rd New Zealand Rifle Brigade led the assault on Le Quesnoy, a medieval fortress town that had been in German hands for most of the war.

The taking of the town was part of the 100-day offensive launched by the Allies on 8 August,1918.

Professor of War History at Massey University Glyn Harper said it was New Zealand's most successful day of the war, not only taking Le Quesnoy but also advancing about 10 kilometres, capturing over 2000 prisoners and 60 field guns.

He said Le Quesnoy was a formidable town to take.

"It was an old fort with huge thick walls, moats with water in, flooded ditches, fortified islands and there were around about 2000 German defenders."

Professor Harper said because of this, taking the town was not going to be easy, especially without the use of artillery.

"They took the decision early on not to bombard Le Quesnoy because it would destroy monuments, destroy homes and more significantly, kill civilians."

The offensive started on 4 November 4th and by 10.30am. New Zealand troops were a mile beyond the town pushing the Germans back, but Le Quesnoy remained in enemy control.

"There was still no surrender so it was left to the rifle brigade to actually force the Germans to surrender," Prof Harper said.

New Zealand flag handing outside Le Quesnoy's war-damaged town hall in 1918

New Zealand flag handing outside Le Quesnoy's war-damaged town hall in 1918 Photo: Alexander Turnbull Library

He said the New Zealanders managed to breach the gates but were driven back twice, so an attempt was made on the west wall.

"Young Lieutenant Leslie Averill scaling the ladder and getting over the last inner wall and firing a few shots and the Germans decided that was the time to pack the towel in."

Lt Averill led a small group of men up the ladder.

Speaking about it in 1958 in a recording held by Ngā Taonga Sound and Vision, Leslie Averill said the ladder was placed against the final rampart and it reached the top with about half a metre to spare.

They brought out about 20-25 Germans who they made surrender.

"The remainder of the battalion were by this time swarming up the ladder and whoever was responsible for the ladders I think deserves a great deal of credit for the method in which the entrance to Le Quesnoy was affected," Mr Averill said.

There were a large number of Germans in the town and they were soon rounded up and sent to a prisoner of war camp.

He described it as a very unusual battle.

"For a modern army to have to attack a walled town using ancient methods of entrance is probably unique in the history of New Zealand feats of arms."

Another veteran of Le Quesnoy was Curly Blyth. He spoke to RNZ in 1996.

"In the afternoon after repeated calls the Colonel Commandant of the Germans gave in and we were able to march into the (town) square of Le Quesnoy and liberate the town after all those years and since then the name New Zealand has always meant much to the French people."

One-hundred-and-forty New Zealand soldiers died that day, among them about 80 at Le Quesnoy.

One of those who died was Cecil Quilliam.

Second Lieutenant Quilliam wrote to his commanding officer reporting on casualties 30-minutes before he was killed by fragments of shell fire.

Hundreds of New Zealanders are expected to descend on Le Quesnoy for Sunday's commemoration.

Hélène Carpentier works for the local cultural office.

She said the bond between Le Quesnoy and New Zealand was very strong.

"We've got the name of a primary school called Averill from the name of the first soldier who climbed the ladder. We've got some streets named after New Zealand places and ferns because it is New Zealand's symbol."

The liberation of Le Quesnoy will be marked with a National Commemorative Service in the town on Sunday evening 11pm New Zealand time, attended by a 44-member contingent from the New Zealand Defence Force, this will be followed six-hours later (5am Monday NZ time) with a Last Post Ceremony.

Le Quesnoy is sister-town to Cambridge in New Zealand. An exhibition telling the story of Le Quesnoy's liberation opens in the Cambridge Town Hall on 4 November and in the evening a light and sound show telling the Le Quesnoy story will be projected onto the Town Hall.

More New Zealand soldiers died in 1918 than any other year of World War One.

The Armistice will be commemorated on Sunday, 11 November.