Remembering Le Quesnoy: 100 years on


There is a little village in northern France called Le Quesnoy. It is a few kilometres from the Belgian border and has a population of 5,000. During World War 1 it was occupied by the German forces, starting on 23 August 1914.

In early November 1918 as the war drew to a close the Allies 100 days offensive saw the western allies making rapid progress through Belgium and northern France across land where the front line had been largely stagnant for the past four years. At the start of the month, the New Zealanders tracked east along a railway towards the town. On 3 November fighting between New Zealanders and Germans began in earnest in the town, whose residents had been told to evacuate in anticipation of a battle. During the battle New Zealanders approached the outer ramparts of the fortified town and mounted a ladder on a narrow ledge next to a sluice gate. They climbed up 13 metre walls to reach the top of the fortifications, which were poorly defended. These actions by New Zealand soldiers liberated it from Germany. To this day Le Quesnoy have not forgotten what happened. It was the last significant action of New Zealand of World War 1.

The Kaiser, realizing the war was going to be lost, abdicated five days later after the liberation of Le Quesnoy on 09 November. The Armistice that ended the war was signed two days later.

During World War 2 it was occupied by the Germans in May 1940 shortly after the invasion of France and the low countries started. It was not freed until late 1944.

Over the decades following World War 2 various nations of the Commonwealth have established their own war memorials. So have non Commonwealth countries. Even if it is just a big graveyard at Langemarck in Belgium, Germany has a memorial of sorts too for 44,000 of its World War 1 dead.

But there is not a New Zealand specific site, which is really quite appalling. Australia spent $100 million on a great memorial to theirs. Canada likewise have a magnificent structure at Vimy Ridge. The South Africans have a war memorial at Delville Wood in France, and the British have the massive Menin Gate, whose walls are filled with the names of dead.

Old notions that war memorials somehow glorify the war dead are simply wrong, misleading and disingenuous. A war memorial has one purpose and that is to recognize the loss in war of a nations service people. In the case of a country like New Zealand, so far away from the major battlefields of World Wars 1 and 2 it is at these places we are finally able to connect with past generations and acknowledge their service.

The people of Le Quesnoy are well versed in the New Zealand liberation. When one identifies themselves as a New Zealander, those who have been there report a great warmth. The people take you in and treat you as one of their own.

They have not forgotten what happened on 04 November 2018, 100 years ago today.

Nor should New Zealand.

 

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