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Liberation of Le Quesnoy (4 November 1918)

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The capture of the French town of Le Quesnoy (said Ken-Waah) by the New Zealand Division on 4 November 1918 has special significance in New Zealand's military history. This is not merely because it was the last major action by the New Zealanders in the Great War – the armistice followed a week later – but also because of the particular way it was captured.

When the New Zealand Division attacked on 4 November, its units quickly by-passed Le Quesnoy and pushed further east on what was to be the New Zealanders' most successful day of the whole campaign on the Western Front. It advanced 10 kilometres and captured 2000 Germans and 60 field guns. The day's action cost the lives of about 140 New Zealand soldiers– virtually the last of the 12,483 who fell on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918. Of these 140, about 80 were men of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade who led the assault on Le Quesnoy.

Le Quesnoy was an old fortress town occupying a strategic position in northeastern France. It had been in German hands since 1914, and there were several thousand German troops still in the town when it was captured by the New Zealanders. The walls of Le Quesnoy could have been quickly reduced by heavy artillery, but there was no plan to mount such an assault on the town. Instead, several battalions of the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade were given the task of masking the forces in the town.

Their orders did not emphasise an immediate assault on the town, but the New Zealand troops were determined to capture it. There was a little competition between the 2nd and 4th Battalions; the former advanced on the town in the direction of the Valenciennes Gate, and the latter pressed forward from the west. The German defenders were demoralised, but their officers were not prepared to surrender without a fight.

This set the stage for one of the New Zealand Division's most spectacular exploits of the war. When a section of the 4th Battalion reached the inner walls about midday on 4 November, they had already scaled the complex network of outer ramparts with ladders, supplied by the sappers (or engineers). But due to the height of the inner wall, the riflemen could only position a ladder on a narrow ledge atop a sluice gate. Led by Lieutenant Leslie Averill, the battalion's intelligence officer, a small group of men quickly climbed up the wall. After exchanging shots with fleeing Germans, the New Zealanders entered the town. The garrison quickly surrendered.

The medieval-like assault on Le Quesnoy captured the imagination of the townspeople, who were overjoyed at their release from a four-year bondage. Ever since, the town has maintained a strong affinity with New Zealand. So, too, has the nearby village of Beaudignies, which, in 2000, renamed its square 'Place du Colonel Blyth' in honour of one of its liberators.

Le Quesnoy is the site of one of the four New Zealand battlefield memorials on the Western Front (the others are at Graventafel and Mesen/Messines in Belgium, and Longueval in France). New Zealand is always officially represented at armistice commemorations in the town on 11 November.

Source: 'The liberation of Le Quesnoy', URL: https://nzhistory.govt.nz/war/le-quesnoy/the-liberation-of-le-quesnoy, (Ministry for Culture and Heritage), updated 10-Oct-2018