When they left their farms, small businesses, and professions, and donned their uniforms for King and country to travel to the other side of the world, the men of the New Zealand Division could not have imagined the historic role they would play in the brutalising “war to end all wars”. Nor could they have known that more than 100 years later, some of them would be household names in a small town in France.
Excited by the chance to serve, they were told they’d “be home by Christmas” - but it was not to be.
At Gallipoli, they were shot at, wounded, and the survivors watched friends die. After being evacuated from that hopeless, bloody task in Turkey, they endured another 32 months on the killing fields of the Western Front.
Little wonder that the letters home and diaries of many record their increasing doubts about the seemingly endless war, so far from home.
At this time, New Zealand’s population was about 1million; by the end of WWI more than 100,000 (or 10%) of the country’s population had been involved in the war. Of particular gravity for the new young country was the startling reality that half of all men aged between 18 and 35 left to fight for King and country. This figure was not matched by any other allied country, and for the next 30 years this would profoundly affect New Zealand in terms of society, business and leadership. It would happen again only 25 years later.
By 1918, the blood of young New Zealanders was seeping through the soils of Europe, especially in France and Belgium. Through the Somme, Passchendaele, Messines, stemming the Spring Offensive and on the Advance to Victory, as part of the British Army, they were led by Sandhurst-trained New Zealand sheep farmer, Major General Sir Andrew Russell.
In all, over that four-year period, New Zealand sustained some 48,000 casualties including the 12,500 brave souls forever buried in Europe.
By 1918, the fully reinforced New Zealand Division, was one of the most powerful and formidable fighting divisions of the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.
As the only colonial division in the British Third Army, it was to lead that army’s “March to Victory in 1918”. Over 77 days, from Hebuterne to Le Quesnoy, the New Zealanders led the way for 49 of the 56 hard fought miles to Le Quesnoy.
In 55 days of combat, the Division would sustain some 10,400 casualties, over 2,700 dead. Five Victoria Crosses were awarded.
And why the trek to Le Quesnoy? This medieval, walled town, designed by the French engineer Vauban long before Napoleon's ventures, was to become the last battle for the New Zealand Division, concluding a week before the Armistice. It wasn't just the last battle of the war, but also one fought with ingenuity, courage and humanity. The manner of the liberation of the town is remembered to this day by the citizens of Le Quesnoy.
The British, on hearing the town was full of civilians, instructed Russell not to shell the town in order to capture it from the occupying Germans. Instead, a plan was devised to send infantry to scale the historic walls.
So, the battle at Le Quesnoy, that resulted in the surrender of the 2,000-strong German garrison, began with the New Zealand Division surrounding the town. They used smoke bombs to disguise their intentions, before the intrepid New Zealanders took to ladders to scale the walls and enter the town. That day, 4 November 1918, the Germans surrendered.142 Kiwi soldiers died but not a single one of the citizens of Le Quesnoy was killed.
The townsfolk came out from where they had been hiding in cellars and basements to greet their saviours and were surprised to find that they had been liberated not by British soldiers, but by New Zealanders, "from the uttermost ends of the earth". It was a unique feat and recorded in the official British History of the Great War.
100 years later and, with the town's strong support, a New Zealand charitable Trust has purchased the former Mayor's residence to convert to a museum and visitor centre. Once completed, it will be the only permanent place in western Europe that new generations of New Zealanders, and others interested in military history, can learn, at first hand, the amazing success of the New Zealand Division at Le Quesnoy, and the stories of New Zealanders’ involvements in the two world wars.
The Museum project is a form of catch up, as New Zealand is the only WWI ally not to have a Museum and Visitor Centre on the Western Front. In recent years, increasing numbers of young Kiwis are exploring this history, from Gallipoli to Le Quesnoy. While there is a bond between Turks and New Zealanders, in Le Quesnoy there is something even more special; any New Zealander visiting Le Quesnoy is treated as a son or daughter of the town. It’s an enduring legacy born from that terrible conflict and that amazing final battle of the war.
Lest we forget.
Visit www.nzwmm.org.nz for more information or write to Sir Don McKinnon, at: