100th Anniversary: The Last Medieval Siege in the War to End All Wars.

Fake News! Of course, World War 1 did absolutely nothing to end all wars, and while everybody hoped it would, they all then went about carrying out actions that made the next one inevitable. However, that is not what this post will be about. Rather, this week, and more particularly the fourth of November, is also the 100th anniversary of the most successful day the New Zealand Army had on the Western Front, and probably in WW1, namely the liberation of Le Quesnoy. On the basis that most readers of this will never have heard of this, I thought it was worthwhile interrupting my transport sequence of posts.

Le Quesnoy in France is rather close to the Belgian border and had been overrun by the Germans very early in the war, so the citizens had been under occupation for over four years. However, at this very late point in the war, the Germans suffered a rather acute problem – they were running out of horses. Horses were needed for bringing supplies to the front, and for moving artillery, and since WW1 was fought on an industrial scale, very large amounts of supplies were needed. The horses they had had been overworked and many had simply died of exhaustion, and the rest were not in good condition. Accordingly, when the New Zealand Division made an advance, the Germans were a bit static, and the village of Le Quesnoy was not only encircled, but the Division advanced several miles towards Belgium. They captured 60 artillery pieces and 2000 Germans.

Le Quesnoy remained in the hands of Germans. It was a walled city, more or less unchanged from the middle ages. City walls would offer little resistance to artillery, but the New Zealand army elected not to use artillery. The actual orders were to encircle and hold, as there seemed to be little point in wasting lives when an Armistice was reputed to be being negotiated soon. However, the brass did not inform the troops about that, so the troops decided that they might as well try to take the town. Without artillery, they made what might well be the last medieval siege, a claim that might well be reinforced through the fake news on a local stained glass window in a church, designed, oddly enough, by a padre who was there. What the window is reported to show is the walls of the city being scaled by hordes of soldiers on ladders, straight out of the Hollywood movies.

The truth is actually a bit weirder. There were three walls, and the outer two were scaled, possibly with a number of ladders as per the stained glass window, but they were not really defended that well, and that left a moat and an inner higher wall. Scaling the walls might appear dangerous as defenders on the top should easily repel them, but it did not work out like that. The machine gun was a most effective defensive weapon in WW1; here it became an interesting offensive weapon. Any head appearing over the stonework received a burst of machine gun fire, which effectively made looking over the wall an act of suicide.

For the inner wall, the distance from the bottom of the moat to the top of the wall was greater than the length of their longest ladder. However, there was one place where a narrow ledge ran for a short distance along the side of the wall. The final wall could only be climbed with one ladder. Apparently there was worse; the ladder could only hold one soldier at a time. They managed to very quietly raise the ladder and while two soldiers steadied it, Lieutenant Leslie Averill climbed it. He got to the top, then saw two Germans. He fired two shots at them from his pistol, both of which missed, but the Germans did not realize there was only one of him and they fled. Very soon, the garrison surrendered. One interesting point is the sixth person up this ladder was a Major, dragging a cable and carrying a field telephone. He wanted to make sure he reported the surrender, and that his name was associated with it. That may have done him some good – he became a Major General in WW2, and was a Chief Justice in New Zealand.

The moral here, if you want one, is that if you wish to get ahead, get into a position to take the credit, then take it. Sometimes, like the judge/General, a highly competent person gets into the position, but sometimes the only competence is in taking the credit. But if don’t take the credit, even if you earned it, you languish.