After four long years of German occupation, on the 4th of November 1918, the citizens of Le Quesnoy were finally freed by New Zealand soldiers.
The liberation of the walled town by ladder was a feat so unusual it even made the New York Times.
The New Zealanders did not fire over the ramparts and thereby preserved civilian lives within the town. While there was New Zealand loss of life while fighting for the freedom of the French, not one citizen of the town died in the battle.
The walls of Le Quesnoy could have been quickly reduced to rubble by heavy artillery but that was not the plan. To ensure the least amount of damage to the town and potential loss of residents’ lives, the day dawned with the New Zealand soldiers firing 500 flaming oil drums onto the ramparts of the western walls to create a thick smoke screen which allowed the New Zealanders some cover from the German forces.
By 9am the town was surrounded by the New Zealand Rifle Brigade. Undeterred, the German occupiers stayed in the town, with no intention to surrender.
The New Zealanders moved closer to the innermost wall of the town during the morning, but soon realised their ladders were going to be too short to scale the huge, final 13-metre sheer brick wall.
A group of men got close enough to the wall to identify one place that offered a chance. Here, on a narrow ledge higher up from the moat floor, a ladder could be placed to reach the top of the wall. At around midday, a group of soldiers got close enough to the inner wall to attempt placing four long ladders against the ramparts to scale the walls. The Germans, however, fought back from above, and only one of the ladders survived the onslaught.
At 4pm, a chance presented itself and the one remaining ladder was set up on the narrow ledge. It did indeed reach the top. Under the cover of intense rifle fire, Second Lieutenant Averill, followed by Second Lieutenant Kerr and his platoon, climbed the ladder and were quickly over the top and into the town. After exchanging shots with fleeing Germans, the New Zealanders entered the town – some up this same ladder and very soon after, many others through different entry points in the town. Some 2,000 German soldiers surrendered and the c.1,600 French occupants in the town were liberated without the loss of a single civilian life.
The people of Le Quesnoy were overjoyed and came out from hiding to excitedly greet their liberators. Cheering, they embraced them, offered food, and showered them with autumn flowers, before they patriotically flew the Tricolour from their buildings. Salvation had been delivered, not by the English they had expected, but from men who had come from the uttermost ends of the earth.
Come to Le Quesnoy to visit the museum and also to take in the beauty of this small French town that has been witness to so much history. Walk around the rampart fortifications dating from the 16th, 17th and 18th centuries with beautiful parks, including many oak trees, which are the symbol of the town.
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