Le Ques­noy lib­er­ated

Waipa Post - - News - BY JUDE DOB­SON

On Novem­ber 4 in 1918, New Zealand sol­diers lib­er­ated Le Ques­noy. The small French town be­came a Sis­ter City to Cam­bridge in 1999. We look at this lit­tle known part of our his­tory and the links that en­dure 100 years on.

Le Ques­noy. You prob­a­bly look at this word and won­der how to say it, let alone where it is and why it should have any sig­nif­i­cance to you as a New Zealan­der.

But it should be in your lex­i­con and here’s why.

The New Zealand Di­vi­sion, on their own, lib­er­ated this oc­cu­pied town in World War I with­out any loss of life to the French civil­ian pop­u­la­tion, and they did so in a very un­usual man­ner, just a week be­fore the end of the war.

Le Ques­noy (said Ken-Waah) is a town in North­ern France and the site of the Bat­tle of Sam­bre (named af­ter the lo­cal river).

It’s a “Vauban fortress”, Vauban be­ing a renowned mil­i­tary en­gi­neer of the 1600s.

A star-shaped town, it has im­pos­ing outer walls (called de­milunes and rav­elins) about 6 and 8 me­tres high de­signed to slow at­tack­ers, and in­ner ones (ram­parts) a sheer 13 me­tres.

All in all, a very un­wel­com­ing town if you are look­ing to at­tack it, which is what the 3rd In­fantry (Ri­fle) Bri­gade were tasked with do­ing on Novem­ber 4th, 1918.

The town had been oc­cu­pied by the Ger­mans for over four years, mak­ing life mis­er­able for the in­hab­i­tants, given they took over the food sup­ply.

The Ki­wis did not want to cause the 3000 or so in­hab­i­tants any more heartache, so it was de­cided not to fire over the in­ner ram­parts.

With the main en­trance, the Va­len­ci­ennes Gate, heav­ily de­fended and por­tals through the high walls blocked up, go­ing over the walls be­came the plan.

An open­ing bar­rage and a smoke screen cre­ated by livens pro­jec­tors fir­ing burn­ing oil-filled drums pro­vided some early cover for the at­tack­ers.

By 9am the town was sur­rounded, but un­like the 30-odd other towns the New Zealan­ders would lib­er­ate in their march across North­ern France, here the Ger­mans were not budg­ing. There was no sign of sur­ren­der. The Ki­wis were up for a fight.

By 1918 we were the elite of the Al­lied Forces.

The NZ Di­vi­sion had the man­power, and the know-how. Our men were bat­tle­hard­ened and ex­pe­ri­enced.

Many were ru­ral men used to hard man­ual labour. They worked with an­i­mals, were fa­mil­iar with firearms, and could read the land. And they had an ap­petite to fin­ish the war — vic­tory was in sight.

A day-long bat­tle en­sued out­side the walls with fierce Ger­man op­po­si­tion. One hun­dred and eigh­teen of our men would die be­fore the day was out, with an­other 24 suc­cumb­ing to their in­juries within the next month. At mid­day we got to the 13m-high in­ner walls.

There’s one place on one wall where a lad­der might reach the top.

It’s over a nar­row path­way above the moat to a sluice gate po­si­tion (which could be used to flood the moat) lead­ing to a small ledge on which a lad­der could be placed. Our at­tempt was met with Ger­man op­po­si­tion, but we man­aged to sal­vage one lad­der be­fore re­treat.

By 4pm we had an­other go.

It was a one-man lad­der and In­tel­li­gence Of­fi­cer 2nd Lieu­tenant Les­lie Aver­ill was the man who scaled it first. Once up and over, he fired shots at re­treat­ing Ger­mans, and sur­ren­der would soon be at hand. The Bat­tal­ion scaled the lad­der be­hind him.

Sec­ond Bat­tal­ion got in the Va­len­ci­ennes Gate on the other side of town, and the brave lo­cals came out of their cel­lars.

Many had not heard of New Zealand — they thought the English would free them.

Joy­ous at their lib­er­a­tion by men who’d come from the ut­most ends of the earth to free them, they’ve never for­got­ten this day, gen­er­a­tion af­ter gen­er­a­tion.

While 100 years ago is out of any in­di­vid­ual liv­ing mem­ory, Novem­ber 4, 1918 is not out of their col­lec­tive con­scious­ness.

Le Ques­noy — the lit­tle town that never for­got their lib­er­a­tors. The epit­ome of Lest we For­get.

Photo / Sup­plied

Jude Dob­son at Cimetie` re Chi­nois de No­lette.

Im­age / Sup­plied

The 1920 paint­ing shows Sec­ond Lieu­tenant Les­lie Aver­ill, left, first to climb the lad­der to start the lib­er­a­tion of the town.

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