The capture of the French town of Le Quesnoy 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 attack cost the lives of about 90 New Zealand soldiers – virtually the last of the 12,483 who fell on the Western Front between 1916 and 1918.
Le Quesnoy was an old fortress town occupying a strategic position in north-eastern 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 several of the outer ramparts with ladders, supplied by the sappers (or engineers). The riflemen could only use a narrow ledge to mount their ladders to reach the top of the inner wall. Led by Lieutenant Leslie Averill, the battalion's intelligence officer, they quickly climbed up the walls. 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.
L.M. (Curly) Blyth, a young subaltern in the 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade, was among the troops involved in the attacks. Although not involved in the actual assault on Le Quesnoy, his battalion advanced in its vicinity. His longevity ensured that he became a symbol of New Zealand's liberation of the Le Quesnoy area. Along with other surviving veterans of the Western Front, he was made a chevalier de la Légion d'honneur by France in 1998 and a Member of the New Zealand Order of Merit three years later 'for services to war veterans and the community'. At the time of his death on 10 October 2001, at the age of 105, Lieutenant-Colonel Blyth was one of the last two remaining veterans of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force.
Another New Zealand soldier associated with Beaudignies is Victoria Cross recipient Sergeant Henry James Nicholas, who was killed in action there on 23 October 1918. He is buried in nearby Vertigneal Churchyard.
A carpenter from Christchurch, Nicholas volunteered for the 1st New Zealand Expeditionary Force in February 1916 and joined the 1st Battalion, Canterbury Regiment on the Western Front in the following September. He earned the Victoria Cross for his part in the New Zealand attack on Polderhoek Chateau on 3 December 1917. He rushed forward, ahead of his section, to destroy a German strongpoint that was inflicting heavy casualties on the advancing troops. He used bombs and a bayonet to overcome the 16-man enemy garrison. He was killed in a skirmish with a German force at Beaudignies.
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 in Belgium, and Longueval in France). New Zealand is always officially represented at armistice commemorations in the town on 11 November, and politicians and other groups, including the All Blacks, have often visited the town.