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Scientific Section > New-Zealand on the Western front

New-Zealand on the Western front

Des offi ciers de la New Zealand Rifl e Brigade à la ferme de La Signy, près de Puisieux, le 6 avril 1918.
© D.R.
Image locale (image propre et limitée à l'article, invisible en médiathèque)

New Zealanders served in three principal theatres during the First World War. The first was Samoa where they captured the German colony. The second was the Middle East, principally the Gallipoli campaign and the remaining battles against the Ottoman Empire, while the third, and by far the largest, was on the Western Front in northern Europe.

At the outbreak of war, New Zealand’s population was a little more than one million. Some 120,000 enlisted during the war of which 103,000 served overseas. Furthermore, an estimated 3370 fought with the Australian Imperial Forces and British Forces. Nearly 700 served in the air war, in the Royal Flying Corps, the Royal Naval Air Service and the Australian Flying Corps, promulgated by Military Order on 22 October 1912. A total of 550 nurses served at home and abroad while 2227 Maori and 458 of Pacific Island descent also served.

A total of 18,500 New Zealanders were killed or died as a consequence of the war. Nearly 50,000 were wounded. The Western Front claimed by far the largest numbers of casualties – 12,500 dead – compared with 2700 dead at Gallipoli.

To war

New Zealand was involved in the war on 4 August 1914 by King George V’s declaration of war on Germany. A cable advising of the outbreak of war was read from the steps of Parliament buildings in Wellington next day to cheering crowds by the Governor, Lord Liverpool.

New Zealand had substantially reorganised and reshaped its army after conferences on Imperial defence in London in 1909 and 1911, and the introduction of compulsory military training in 1910. In 1911 a British officer, Major-General A.J. (later Sir Alexander) Godley, a veteran of the South African war, was appointed Commandant of the New Zealand Military Forces. The Defence Act of 1909 provided for the creation of a special force for overseas service and in 1912 Godley asked the Government for provisional approval to raise such a force, to provide him with sufficient time to assemble resources.

The Minister of Defence, Colonel James Allen, gave his active support and in June 1913 the Cabinet approved the formation of a force of 7500 men, to be filled initially by volunteers from the Territorial units. Godley based his planning on the assumption that Germany would be the enemy and envisaged three alternative wartime tasks for New Zealand: capture of German possessions in the Pacific, deployment to Egypt to assist Imperial Forces in the event of Turkey entering a war on Germany’s side or deployment with United Kingdom, Dominion and Colonial forces in Europe, which, he assessed, would be the principal theatre. In the event, his judgment proved right on all three counts.

New Zealand was prepared for war. The British Government accepted the offer of an expeditionary force on 7 August. In the first week after the outbreak of war, some 14,000 had volunteered.

The first detachments left Wellington on 15 August 1914. This was not bound for Europe, however, but rather Apia where the 1370-member Samoa Expeditionary Force would seize the wireless station in the German colony. Apia was defended only by an 80-strong constabulary with German officers and the expeditionary force, under the command of Colonel Robert Logan, took it with little effort on 29 August. Of greater concern was the whereabouts of the German East Asiatic Squadron under the command of Admiral Graf Maximilian von Spee whose force included two armoured cruisers, Scharnhorst and Gneisenau. The squadron was in the Caroline Islands but von Spee, after appearing briefly off Apia on 14 September, decided to head for the west coast of South America, shelling Papeete in the French territory of Tahiti, on the way.

The Main Body of the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (NZEF), comprising an infantry brigade and a mounted rifles brigade, left on 16 October in 10 troopships, its departure delayed by uncertainty over the whereabouts of von Spee’s squadron. It was escorted by HMS Minotaur of the Royal Navy and IJN Ibuki of the Imperial Japanese Navy whose government had declared war on Germany on 23 August. Numbering 8454 men, it remains the largest single contingent of New Zealand soldiers to leave the country at once.

The NZEF reached Perth where it joined the Australian Imperial Forces embarked in 27 ships, in King George Sound, Western Australia. The combined convoy made for the Suez Canal, en route to Great Britain. However, the entry into the war of the Ottoman Empire on the side of the Central Powers (i.e. Germany) on 5 November re-cast the entire Middle East strategic situation. Turkey threatened British interests in the region, especially the Suez Canal.

The NZEF landed at Alexandria on 3 December and set up camp at Zeitoun, near Cairo. They joined their Australian counterparts to form the Australia and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzacs), neither side having sufficient strength in numbers and units to form their own army corps. In January 1915 the War Council in London decided to launch a campaign to knock Turkey out of the war as a means of defeating Germany - an alternative to the stalemate on the Western Front - and to help relieve Russian forces, then under pressure in the Caucuses. This began with a naval assault on forts guarding the Dardanelles Narrows and soon switched to a landing on the Gallipoli Peninsula. While British and French forces landed on Cape Helles on the tip of the peninsula, the ANZAC would go ashore on the coast further north.

The initial assault was planned for 23 April but bad weather forced a two-day delay. The first of the Anzacs ashore was the 3rd Australian Brigade, at 5am on that fateful morn of 25 April. Later in the morning the Auckland Battalion was advancing off the beach, followed by two companies of the Canterbury Battalion. They pushed inland to the second ridge where the fight against Turkish forces commenced.

For nearly eight months the battle raged back and forth over the deeply-dissected terrain, well suited to defence by the gallant Turkish forces whose commanders included the brilliant General Mustafa Kemal (later Atatürk) before the decision was taken by Field Marshal Lord Kitchener to evacuate. In a brilliantly executed movement, Allied forces were taken off the Gallipoli Peninsula, first from Suvla/Anzac in December and finally from Cape Helles in January. Some New Zealand units returned briefly to Gallipoli after an armistice was signed by Turkey on 31 October 1918 to search for and bury the dead.

Gallipoli claimed the lives of 2721 New Zealanders (one in four who landed) with a further 4,700 wounded. The invasion cost 120,000 British, 27,000 French and 26,000 Australian casualties. While rightly described as a costly failure, from grief and tragedy, would grow strength and comprehension. Today, 25 April is revered in Australia, New Zealand and Turkey because of Gallipoli’s place in the development of national identity.

The battered NZEF returned to Egypt to rest, regroup and retrain. A mounted rifles brigade would remain to fight in the Sinai-Palestine campaign, while the New Zealand Division, formed by the additional of two rifle brigades, sailed for France and the Western Front in April 1916.

France and the Somme

As the strategic situation in the Middle East began to stabilise, it became clear that there were far more forces in the Middle East than were needed after the evacuation, a decision was taken to move the New Zealand forces to Europe to assist the hard–pressed Allied armies. The NZEF force started loading aboard 16 troopships at Port Said in Egypt in early April 1916. The voyage “over a calm sea was uneventful,” recorded the Official History. “Every precaution was taken against submarines.” The ships arrived at Marseilles from 11 April. Initially the headquarters remained in Egypt but soon moved to the United Kingdom where the main depot and camp were located at Sling Camp on the Salisbury Plain. In France, a base depot was designated at Étaples, south of Boulogne in northern France.

From Marseilles the New Zealand Division headed north by train, the 58-hour journey being relieved only by the “exquisite scenery of the Rhône Valley. The fresh green of the trees and rich grasses, the early flowers in the meadows and the sunny woodlands, being tricked out with the blossoms and the pageantry of spring, were in striking contrast with the monotony of the parched desert,” wrote the official historian, Lt Col Hugh Stewart.

By mid May the Division was at the front line in the Armentières sector, near the border between France and Belgium. By this time they had been training hard, becoming accustomed to the weather and intensive preparation for the infantry, which had to adjust to marching on paved roads and hard ground after the yielding sands of the desert and scrub. They were also instructed on modern procedures, including artillery tactics and confronting the threat of gas. A nucleus was well seasoned but there were also two extra brigades in the Division, most of who had not served at Gallipoli. The New Zealanders were about to embark on a vastly different and ultimately more costly form of warfare in the trenches: the mud and squalor of the Western Front.

Warfare on the Western Front had commenced nearly two years beforehand when Germany invaded Belgium in August 1914. There began a series of attempted encircling actions as the Allies sought to block German efforts to reach the Channel – La Manche. Both sides scored successes with the French mounting a successful counter-attack in the Marne Valley to the immediate southwest of Paris, forcing a major German retreat and, in effect, halting the German invasion.

During 1915, offensives by Germany at Ypres in Belgium, the British at Neuve Chapelle and the French at Champagne then Artois all failed and both sides settled into trench warfare with neither being able to gain a substantial advantage. The situation semi-stabilised along a frontline that ran for some 750 kilometres from the Channel to Switzerland, with each side dug into trenches or fortifications protected by barbed wire entanglements. Modern equipment - notably the machine gun - and accurate artillery fire forced ruinous casualties in armies using traditional tactics of advancing troops in massed units across open ground.

Such was the situation confronting the New Zealand Division as it moved into position along a five kilometre front stretching from south of Armentières towards the Lys River where they confronted the German 2nd Royal Saxon Corps under General von Laffert. The German trenches were as close as 100 metres in places and the line was reasonably stable, with both sides resorting to patrols and exchanges of artillery fire.

Trying to smash open the French army by inflicting heavy casualties, Germany launched a major offensive in northeast France, near Verdun-sur-Meuse. Verdun was on a strategic salient and straddled the railway line leading to Paris. From 21 February to 18 December 1916 the Battle of Verdun raged, causing enormous carnage on both sides.

In an attempt to relieve the pressure at Verdun, a joint Franco-British attack was devised for the valley of the Somme River, to the east of Amiens in northern France. This would see the New Zealand Division’s first major campaign on the Western Front. After resting and retraining around Abbeville, in northern France, the Division moved forward and by 14 September was to the immediate west of a line between High Wood and Delville Wood near the town of Longueval. At 6pm that day, the artillery opened a massive barrage on the German lines and the Division moved into line at midnight. At 6.20am on 16 September, whistles sounded the advance.

Laden with a Lee Enfield rifle plus bayonet, 200 rounds of ammunition, two hand grenades, trenching tools and personal kit, infantrymen of the Division advanced and made good progress. Within half an hour the first enemy trench lines were captured and the New Zealanders helped to take the village of Flers. For three weeks the Division fought its way forward, with conditions growing steadily more difficult as heavy rains, which began falling late on the day of the attack, turning the sodden clay soil already cratered by heavy artillery fire into a glutinous mass of mud and pools of water.

Most of the Division was withdrawn on 4 October but the gunners remained in action until the 25th by when they had fired nearly 500,000 shells at the enemy. It proved a costly assault with more than 1500 killed and around 5000 injured – heavy even by Gallipoli standards.

The first Battle of the Somme ended during November 1916, by which time the British had amassed 400,000 casualties and the French 200,000. While the campaign may not have achieved its entire objective, it did result in heavy German losses. Already hammered in the Battle of Verdun, Germany withdrew its forces from the bitterly contested Somme battlefields to new defensive lines in February 1917.

The New Zealand Division was despatched to the Sailly sector close to the border with Belgium and to the south of Ypres before returning to the Armentières sector where it “wintered-over” with occasional raids and trench skirmishing. In March 1917 it was moved to Belgium where it would endure some of its harshest moments.

The hell of Ypres and Passchendaele

After blooding in the Somme campaign in 1916, the New Zealand Division moved to northern France, close to Sailly, with a brigade posted back to Armentières. During this time it was occupied in trench raiding before being sent to the Messines sector in Flanders, Belgium. Flanders evokes some of the worst memories of the Great War. It was the scene of bitter fighting in often appalling conditions, where the mud was “worse than the Germans” according to one senior officer.

The German target was the Belgian town of Ypres, also known as Ieper. Attempts to take the Flanders town during the 1914 advance had been unsuccessful. Ypres, which British soldiers – Tommies – called “Wipers”, remained astride an important salient taken during heavy fighting in October and November of that year in the First Battle of Ypres. (Post-war, “Wipers” would briefly enter the lexicon of rugby union when it was coined to describe the “up and under” kick).

The Second Battle of Ypres began on 22 April 1917 with a strong assault by German forces against the north of the salient. For the first time in the war, the Germans used chemical warfare, discharging chlorine gas towards the lines between Langemarck and the Yser canal manned by French units. In the face of this fearsome new weapon the French withdrew. In the ensuing weeks there were relentless attacks and counterthrusts and in a little over four weeks, the battle exhausted both sides. German casualties amounted to 35,000 but the British had 59,000 and the French 10,000.

The use of gas produced an international outrage however the British were quick to learn from the experience and five months later launched their own gas campaign against Germany at the Battle of Loos on 25 September 1915.

The Third Battle of Ypres began on 31 July 1917. Passchendaele was the initial objective and its assault was part of a vast Allied offensive. Commander-in-Chief Sir Douglas Haig hoped to keep the pressure on the Germans after the great struggle on the Somme the previous year. His plan involved seizing the Pilkem Ridge and the Geluveld–Passchendaele plateau to open the way for a drive on the important road and railway junction in the town of Roulers. Once this was in Allied hands, the British intended to drive north to the coast to neutralise German naval bases.

As a preliminary to this offensive, Haig determined to capture the Messines ridge to the south. As part of this major operation, the New Zealand Division had the task of capturing the village of Messines. The carefully prepared attack was a striking success. It began at 3.10am on 7 June 1917 with the explosion of three enormous mines placed in tunnels dug deep under the German lines. As many as 10,000 German soldiers are thought to have been killed in the blasts. Accompanied by a well-directed and placed artillery barrage, troops of the 2nd and 3rd (Rifle) brigades sprang from their trenches and advanced towards the ridge in front of them, on which lay the ruins of Messines village. Australian and British troops on either side of them did the same. Following hard behind a meticulously planned sequence of standing and creeping barrages, these troops crossed no man’s land in, minutes. The New Zealanders took the town by 7am and pushed on.

Messines was taken with relatively few casualties. It would become known as a model campaign, the result of careful planning and skilful execution. German artillery fire was disrupted in the early stages and had little impact on the advancing troops. As the day wore on though, German guns began to bombard the newly captured areas with increasing ferocity. By the time the Division was relieved on 9 June, it had suffered 3700 casualties, including 700 dead.
When the main offensive began late the following month, the Fifth Army, under General Gough, made only limited progress against fierce opposition. The advance quickly bogged down though, as heavy rain turned the battlefield into a morass. Although Gough’s men made several attempts to press forward in dire conditions, no progress towards Passchendaele could be made.

This was the situation when the New Zealanders, after resting and training in northern France, returned to Flanders where they provided flanking cover for an assault on Broodseinde Ridge on 4 October 1917. The New Zealand objective was Gravenstafel Spur, one of two spurs from the main ridge at Passchendaele. Skilful use of artillery caught the Germans in the open resulting in heavy losses and enabled the 1st and 4th Brigades to advance, seize the spur and consolidate their hold. They advanced more than 1000m – a considerable distance given the nature of warfare on the Western Front. They took more than 1000 German prisoners but at the cost of 320 New Zealand lives including that of the 1905-06 All Blacks captain, Dave Gallaher.

There was worse to come. The British high command called for another push, judging German resistance to be weakening given their heavy casualties. On 12 October the Division attacked Bellevue Spur, the second from the main ridge. The attack began at dawn in drizzle that steadily turned to rain and reduced the ground, already shattered by shellfire, into nightmarish mud through which the infantry had to struggle. The mud also delayed the placement of supporting artillery. It was difficult not only to find firm ground on which artillery pieces could be placed but also for supply trains to bring forward ammunition. This had a major impact on the outcome of the attack. It meant that the infantry advanced under an inadequate barrage only to find the enemy’s barbed wire largely intact. They could not get to the concrete pill boxes beyond. In essence, the infantry was on its own.

There were tragic consequences. Some New Zealanders were killed by their own shells, which had fallen short. German machine guns raked them mercilessly as they struggled through uncut barbed wire towards the ridge. Many were cut down as they reached their objective. Others died in the mud, unable to be reached by stretcher-bearers. This became New Zealand’s most terrible day; more were killed or wounded than on any other single day in modern war. It far out shadowed anything the Division had experienced at Gallipoli. The 2700 dead, wounded or missing included 45 officers and 800 men either killed outright or mortally wounded. Canadian troops relieved the Division on 18 October so they could withdraw to recover and take up replacements coming from New Zealand.

Deployed in the Polygon Wood sector near Ypres, the Division suffered another reverse in December when it attacked a German strongpoint at Polderhoek, east of Ypres and just to the north of the Menin Road. The attack was intended to strengthen New Zealand defences further north by pushing the Germans back. Hoping to take the enemy by surprise, commanders decided to dispense with the usual preliminary artillery barrage, which left the 1st Canterbury and 1st Otago battalions exposed to withering machine gun fire as they advanced. They were unable to reach their objective and the attack waned.

After a difficult winter in the Ypres salient, the Division finally left Belgium in early 1918. The New Zealanders did return, albeit briefly, when they crossed Belgian territory on their way to join the Allied occupation forces in Germany. On 7 December 1918 they passed through Charleroi and reached Verviers on the 19th. All along the way they were accorded a warm reception before crossing the Rhine the following day.

Turning the tide

In early 1918, the German high command under General Erich Ludendorff launched another drive to split the British and French armies with an assault headed towards the Channel coast through northern France. The French had been weakened by the appalling casualties incurred in the Battle of Verdun and subsequent mutinies, while the British had been worn down by the prolonged campaigns in Flanders.

The Germans launched their attack, codenamed Operation Michael, at 5am on 21 March 1918 with an artillery barrage along a front of around 63 kilometres. The weather favoured them, with a thick white fog covering much of the country all but obscuring SOS rocket signals fired by allied infantry. Soon British units were scrambling backwards, yielding territory hard-won during the ferocious battles of the Somme in 1916. The scale of the German assault was overwhelming. Nearly 74 infantry Divisions, reinforced by 46 transferred from the Eastern front after the Russian collapse of 1917, were supported by 6000 artillery pieces firing high explosive and gas shells, and shock troops armed with flame-throwers.

At the time, the New Zealand Division was recuperating from their efforts in the 1917 battles. It would play a major role in blunting the German offensive designed to end the First World War.

At 2pm on 22 March, the Division started moving by train to the Channel coast and south of Amiens from where it marched via Amiens, to the front line. For the first time, New Zealand soldiers encountered refugees, mainly the elderly and very young, streaming westwards on wagons and foot through drenching rains ahead of the German advance. “The road traversed by the batteries as they went towards Amiens presented a pathetic and extraordinary spectacle,” wrote artillery officer Lieutenant R J Byrne in the Official History of the New Zealand Field Artillery.

The infantry made its first contact with the enemy at 11am on 26 March. By 5pm the next day, the New Zealand Field Artillery was near the village of Mailly-Maillet and its 4.5inch howitzers roared into action before dawn next morning. This hamlet of tiny villages, along with Bertrancourt and Colincamps, lay in a circle of roughly four kilometres across and formed the “Purple Line” of last defence. All were knocked about by heavy counter-battery fire and largely destroyed. On the night of 28 March, a heavy shell destroyed the headquarters of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade at Colincamps, mortally wounding Brigadier-General Harry Fulton, killing his Brigade Major and wounding nine others. Fulton became one of three New Zealand brigadiers general killed in action during the war.

Supported by the concentrated fire from the artillery, the infantry forced back the Germans until, at around 5.30am on 5 April, the Germans launched a second ferocious assault with a heavy bombardment. The New Zealanders returned such effective fire that German prisoners later reported the artillery, coupled with withering fire from the NZ Machine Gun Battalion, had made advance impossible. By 3.30pm, hostile fire slowed and New Zealand Lewis gunners shot down an enemy observation aircraft.

At 5am the following morning, the artillery launched a creeping barrage over enemy trenches in case a further infantry assault was in the offing. This dulled the German offensive and it became evident that Operation Michael had been halted. The Germans had suffered as many as 400,000 casualties since the offensive had been launched.

The German High Command launched Operation Georgette in early April 1918. Its objective was to force the British back to the Channel ports, mirroring Operation Michael. The battle began on 7 April 1918 and lasted until 29 April. The New Zealand Division joined battle on 9 April and one week later 220 men of the 2nd Entrenching Battalion were surrounded and taken prisoner.

In May the New Zealanders took part in the attack on the Aisne region, which had the unenviable reputation as the birthplace of trench warfare. The Division was relieved on the front line and did not return until July. A combined Australian and Canadian attack at Amiens dealt the Germans a severe blow in early August. On 21 August the Division took part in a major assault along a 15 kilometres line when the Germans were finally driven out of the Somme. The New Zealanders captured Bapaume on 29 August then moved east to help drive the Germans off the Trescault Spur. On 15 September it was again taken out of the action, returning to participate in the attack on the Hindenburg Line two weeks later.

As the Germans weakened (having never recovered from Operations Michael and Georgette, their forces depleted by the influenza epidemic that also swept through the Allied armies), the New Zealand Division took part in a series of rushing assaults that captured significant territory. By the time they left the line again on 12 September, they had crossed the Selle River and traversed some 14 kilometres. Their success reflected the growing efficiency and competency of the Division, its officers and non-commissioned officers (NCOs). Hard lessons from the Somme and Flanders, including the need for close coordination of artillery and infantry, had been well and truly learned.

The New Zealand Division returned to the lines on 23 October, and, as part of the Third Army, drove the Germans eastwards until early November when, near the mediaeval town of Le Quesnoy, they encountered strong German resistance. In an exemplary circling action which is remembered to this day, on 8 November the Division captured the town after scaling ladders over the ramparts to capture the enemy. Three days later on 11 November the war ended with the Armistice between Germany and the allies; the Ottoman and Austro-Hungarian Empires had surrendered on 30 October and 3 November respectively.

Le Quesnoy

The liberation of Le Quesnoy in the week before the end of the Great War remains one of the most dramatic in New Zealand military history to this day. Such was the impact on the town and its inhabitants that the events of 8 November 1918 have been commemorated each year since 1919.

The town of Le Quesnoy is a walled mediaeval fortress, protecting a river valley that for centuries was swept by warfare. Settlement dates back to the 12th century and its fortifications, constructed to defend what was then the Spanish Netherlands, to 1536. The region was captured by France in 1654 and under King Louis XIV, the military engineer Sébastien le Prestre de Vauban was ordered to build a series of forts to protect the new north-east borders so they could never be recaptured. Le Quesnoy was one of his best examples. He constructed a maze of ramparts, high walls, causeways and tunnels surrounded by moats.

In early November 1918, New Zealand forces neared Le Quesnoy, which had been taken by German forces in August 1914. Rather than smashing down the historic fortifications with artillery fire, it was decided to use infantry instead. The 3rd New Zealand (Rifle) Brigade was given the task and commenced an encircling movement by the 2nd and 4th Battalions. The 2nd approached from the west while the 4th advanced towards the Valenciennes Gate.

The attack was launched on 4 November and several hundred prisoners taken. The battalions linked up at the village of Herbignies, two kilometres to the east of Le Quesnoy. In an endeavour to spare lives, several German prisoners were sent forward with messages calling on the defenders to surrender. On the available evidence, the soldiers were prepared to end the fight but their officers refused.

It was clear the town had to be assaulted. Covered by mortar and machine gun fire and shrouded by mist and smoke projected forward by the Royal Engineers, the New Zealanders moved forward under fire from enemy machine guns and snipers, moving towards the outer ramparts.

Slowly the New Zealanders moved forward as British artillery pounded the outer defences. Using scaling ladders provided by the engineers, they breached the outer defences. The battalion’s commanding officer, Lt Col H Barrowclough, personally directed the assault. At around 4pm, Lieutenant H W Kerr led a patrol to a location on the walls where a narrow bridge was located. It was about the only place where scaling ladders could reach the crest of the defences. He took with him 2nd Lieutenant L C L Averill MC, the battalion’s intelligence officer who had already spent much of the morning reconnoitring the defences. Supported by mortars and covering fire from Lewis machine guns, they reached the bridge and erected the ladder. It was steadied by two riflemen and Averill was first up, followed by the rest of the battalion.

Recognising the fait accompli, the Germans soon surrendered and shortly afterwards the 2nd Battalion marched through the Valenciennes Gate. The New Zealanders were greeted by cheering crowds who appeared from behind closed doorways as soon as they saw them. A German prisoner proved helpful in locating those of his colleagues who were hiding underground and soon some 700 enemy soldiers were in captivity.

At 11am the next day, a parade was held with the 4th Battalion formed up in the square. As the Official History recorded: “… preceded by the Mayor and town Councillors and the band of the 2nd Battalion, the parade marched past the brigadier and down a long lane of wildly applauding civilians, across the ramparts and back to billets in (nearby) Solesmes. There was not a vehicle in the transport but was flying the tricolour and each platoon had its load of flowers and flags and souvenirs from the delighted people.” Next day, the French President, Raymond Poincaré, paid an official visit to the New Zealanders providing a guard of honour at the Place d’Armes while on 14 November, there was an exchange of flags between the town and the Division.

To this day, 2nd Lieutenant L C L Averill MC is remembered as the first New Zealander into Le Quesnoy. Born on 25 March 1897 and a medical student at the time of enlistment, he volunteered for the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in 1916. He left with the 34th Reinforcements in early 1918. Averill was awarded a Military Cross for “exceptional gallantry and fine leadership” during the assault on Bapaume in August 1918. After the war, he completed his medical studies and spent many years in practice in Christchurch, New Zealand. For the rest of his life he remained attached to Le Quesnoy. In 1961 he was appointed a Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George (CMG) for outstanding services to medicine and the community and in 1968 the town of Le Quesnoy appointed him Citoyen d’honneur. In 1973 he received the ultimate accolade when the French Government made him a Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur. He died in Christchurch on 4 June 1981.

A plaque commemorates his gallantry (and indirectly that of Lieutenant Kerr). It is located on the inner ramparts where Averill scaled the ladder. New Zealand sculptor A R Fraser produced a model from which the French sculptor Félix Desruelles prepared the memorial. It was unveiled at a ceremony on 15 July 1923 attended by Marshal Joseph Joffre, Lord Alfred Milner (who had served in the wartime British Cabinet) and the New Zealand High Commissioner in London, Sir James Allen. The plaque can be viewed from a position opposite the now empty moat. To its left is the narrow sluice-gate bridge where Averill’s ladder stood.

Victory at last

At 11am on Monday 11 November 1918, the guns fell silent along the Western Front after Germany agreed to armistice terms set by Allied governments. The Division was out of the line, at Beauvais and Fontaine, in northeastern France. The news was received by telegraph at 8am that morning and the Official History recorded this climactic event: “The news was received by the Division and by the Armies generally in a matter-of-fact way, totally devoid of any emotion. A Divisional service of Thanksgiving was held on 14th November.”

The Division was detailed to enter Germany as part of the occupying forces and, on 28 November, began its long march from Beauvais to Cologne. It passed through France as well as Belgium. On 1 December, King George V, accompanied by his sons Prince Edward and Prince Albert, inspected the Division. On 19 December, after marching 175 kilometres, it reached Verviers where the Pioneer Battalion detached and headed for home, the first of the Division to do so.

The Official History recorded the emotion of the occasion: “Everywhere received with the utmost enthusiasm and hospitality, the Division was particularly touched by the warmth of the reception given in Verviers. Bunting was displayed profusely and streamers bearing messages of welcome were suspended above the streets. Troops who chanced to halt in the town for the customary 10 minutes at 10 minutes to the hour went on their way, men, rifles, horses and wagons decorated with flags and flowers.”

March discipline remained high despite the awful roads and bad weather which were partly offset by the beauty of the Sambre, Meuse and Vesdre valleys and the centres through which they passed including Liège, Namur and Charleroi. On 20 November the 1st Battalion of the Canterbury Regiment became the first New Zealand infantry unit to cross the Rhine (by pontoon bridge) and be greeted by silent and expressionless crowds.

The Division was billeted around the city with the infantry at Leichlingen, Mülheim and Bensberg with the artillery at Deutz and Mülheim and Divisional Headquarters at Leverkusen. It was occupied in keeping the peace, guarding against the possible outbreak of violence and maintaining order.

An education programme was introduced to replace military training and preparations began to return the Division to New Zealand. First to go, in December, were those who enlisted in 1914 and 1915 and married men. As its strength was drawn down, the Division was progressively reorganised into smaller units until on 25 March 1919, its history came to an end.

In his farewell message, General Sir Alexander Godley, who commanded the New Zealand Expeditionary Force, wrote: “It has been a great privilege – and a privilege I have most fully appreciated – to have not only raised and brought from New Zealand such a force, but to have held the honour of holding the command of it throughout the whole period of the war…you will leave behind you a reputation for discipline, fighting qualities, steadiness, resource, initiative, hard work and gentlemanly conduct of which both you and New Zealand have every reason to be proud. […] New Zealand, I am convinced, is able and is destined to play a part in the world out of all proportion to her size and population.”

The Germans also held the New Zealanders in a certain regard. A German intelligence document, captured at Hébuterne, 24 kilometres southwest of Arras, reported: “A particularly good assault division. Its characteristics are a very strongly developed individual self-confidence or enterprise, characteristic of the colonial British and a specially pronounced hatred of the Germans. The Division prides itself on taking few prisoners.”

Returning soldiers sailed from France to Britain to await troopships home. There was inevitable delay, made worse by a shipping strike. A compulsory educational scheme was set up aimed at development of citizenship and practical skills run with the New Zealand YMCA which had already begun a school for disabled servicemen.

A sports committee was set up and the New Zealand Army rugby team competed in - and won - the Inter-services and Dominions championships, then the King’s Cup in 1919. The British Army and Royal Air Force represented Britain while the Commonwealth participants were the four Dominions: New Zealand, Australia, South Africa and Canada. They were then joined by France which competed for the Imperial Trophy. The New Zealand team (called the Kiwis) won that competition by 20 points to 3, at Twickenham on 19 April 1919, defeating a French army side that included Rene Crabos and Jauréguy Adolphe. The Kiwis went on to France in May 1919 and played two matches against a French side, winning 10-6 at Colombes and 14-13 at Toulouse. However, the matches were never recognised as official.

The side played 40 games, winning 35, drawing three and losing two. It was an appropriate memorial to the 13 All Blacks who lost their lives in the First World War, the most notable of whom being Dave Gallaher, captain of “The Originals”, the first national rugby union team to be known as the All Blacks. Gallaher played 26 representative games for Auckland and 36 for the All Blacks. He fought in the South African war then lied about his age so he could serve in World War I. He fought at Ypres but was mortally wounded during the Passchendaele offensive and died on 4 October 1917. In the world of rugby, he is remembered through the Gallaher Shield (the Auckland Rugby Union’s provincial championship, instituted in 1922), and the Dave Gallaher Trophy, contested by New Zealand and France since 2000.

 

 

Bibliography

The Oxford Companion to New Zealand Military History, Dr Ian McGibbon, Oxford University Press, 2000
From the Uttermost Ends of the Earth, the New Zealand Division on the Western Front 1916-1918, John H Gray, Wilsonscott Publishing, 2010.
Official Histories of New Zealand in the Great War, Volume 1 Gallipoli, Major Fred Waite, Whitcombe & Tombes Limited, 1919
Official Histories of New Zealand in the Great War, Volume 2 France: the New Zealand Division 1916-1919, Colonel H. Stewart, Whitcombe & Tombes Limited, 1921
New Zealand Artillery in the Field, Lieutenant J R Byrne, Whitcombe & Tombes Limited, 1922
New Zealand’s Great War, John Crawford and Ian McGibbon, Exisle Publications, 2007
The Day We Won the War, Charles Messenger, Weidenfeld & Nicholson, 2008