On November 4, 1918, several battalions of the 3rd Rifle Brigade of the New Zealand Division began to liberate the town of Le Quesnoy, an old fortress town occupying a strategic position in Northern France. A moat surrounded the town. It was comprised of two distinct ditches with 6-9 metre high fortifications. The town could be entered by three roads, guarded by gates. Le Quesnoy had a population of 5000 and had been in German hands since August 1914. About 2000 German troops were stationed in the town.
Four men from Puhoi, William Berger, Gordon Jamieson, Joseph Turnwald and Albert Wenzlick, were in France in November 1918 and may have been at Le Quesnoy. William Berger was wounded on November 4. Puhoi Heritage Museum holds several postcards he wrote to the Schollum sisters in Puhoi.
During the battle, the 2nd, 3rd and 4th battalions surrounded the town and gradually wore down some of the German defence. Using oil bombs as a smoke screen, members of the 4th battalion were able to place ladders for a storming party to get over the first wall. After a severe fight they won that rampart and were faced with another moat and the walls of the citadel. A section of the ramparts that appeared unmanned and was not under fire from the defenders was found. Again, the ladder was used, and a platoon was able to ascend to the top of the ramparts. They overcame a German guard post, and, with an entrance through the defences secured, the rest of the battalion used the ladder and entered the town shortly afterward. At the same time, a party from 2nd Rifle Battalion seized the gate guarding the road into Le Quesnoy from Valenciennes and began entering the town from the north; subsequently, the Germans quickly surrendered and were taken prisoners. The civilians of the town were overjoyed and gave the New Zealanders a tremendous reception. Streets were renamed for prominent New Zealanders and strong links have been retained over the last hundred years.
During the battle, 135 New Zealand lives were lost. Many of these young men had survived battles at the Somme and Passchendaele, only to be killed just seven days before the end of the war. During 32 months of service in France and Belgium, the New Zealand Division was to incur in the region of 48,000 casualties. More than 12,400 of them are buried in Belgium. A New Zealand War Memorial Museum is to be established in the former mayor’s residence in Le Quesnoy. It is due to open on November 4 this year to mark the centenary of the battle. For more information and to make donations, visit nzwarmemorialmuseum.co.nz
Jenny Schollum, Puhoi Historical Society