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The Official History of the New Zealand Rifle Brigade

Part 1.—After Le Quesnoy

Part 1.—After Le Quesnoy.

Back to Solesmes and to Fontaine-au-Pire—Celebrations at Le Quesnoy—The New Zealand Division's service of thanksgiving—Training and recreation—Liberated British prisoners.

At the conclusion of the successful attack on Le Quesnoy the Brigade became Divisional reserve, and spent the night of 4th/5th November in billets and bivouacs in and around the captured town; but as the New Zealand Division was handing over the sector to the 42nd, we moved back on the following afternoon to billets in Solesmes, a march of eight miles in pouring rain.

Before leaving Le Quesnoy, the 4th Battalion paraded in the square and received from the Maire an address of welcome and thanks on behalf of the people of the town. As the battalion was to march past General Hart on its way out of the square, the Maire begged permission for himself and his councillors to follow behind the troops. They were, however, placed in front, and just as they came abreast of the General there was a sharp word of command, and with wonderful precision off came the hats in salute. That every head so uncovered was bald was curiously startling, yet one more reminder of the sacrifice the younger men of France were making in the service of their beloved country.*

At Solesmes the Brigade immediately commenced refitting, reorganizing and training. By the 8th the weather had cleared somewhat. The following day broke fine and sunny, and there commenced a most enjoyable period of fine, sharp weather. Recreational training formed a considerable proportion of the Brigade syllabus of work, and many stiffly-contested inter-company and inter-battalion football matches were played under almost ideal conditions.

* Lieut.-Col. Beere having returned from hospital, the command of the battalion was now handed over to him, and Major Barrowclough was transferred to the 1st Battalion, of which unit he assumed command, vice Lieut.-Col. Allen, wounded on the 4th.

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All personnel of the Brigade Details were recalled on November 10th, on which date we marched back, via Quievy, Bevillers and Beauvois, to billets in Fontaine-au-Pire, some fifteen miles south-west of Le Quesnoy.

At an early hour on November 11th, a telegram, on the ordinary pink field-message form, was received from Division, conveying the instruction: "Hostilities Cease at 11 A.M. To-Day." The conditions of the armistice were received and promulgated on the following morning. The great news was received with extraordinary calmness by all ranks; there was no excitement whatever, and training went on without interruption. After parade hours the terms of the armistice and the prospects of an early and certain peace were quietly discussed by little knots of men, who left unspoken their deeper thoughts of thankfulness.

On the afternoon of the 10th there had been a combined civil and military function at Le Quesnoy on the occasion of the visit of President Poincaré. The New Zealand Divisional Staff, the G.O.C. Brigade, and the various battalion commanders were present, and New Zealand troops formed the guard of honour. The French President was received by the Maire of Le Quesnoy in the Place d'Armes, and, having inspected the guard, he warmly thanked General Hart on behalf of France for the good services rendered by the Brigade. A short address to the assembled populace brought the brief but enthusiastic ceremony to a close, and the President hurried off to visit other liberated towns.

The Brigadier had, on the previous day, received from the Maire a French flag with an autograph letter of thanks for the deliverance of the city. This compliment was reciprocated on the 14th, when General Hart, in company with his four commanding officers, motored to Le Quesnoy to present to the town a New Zealand flag to commemorate the victory of November 4th.* Our party was received in state by the

* The New Zealand Division was not given to much waving of bunting, and some difficulty was experienced in finding flags for these unusual ceremonies. At the moment only two could be unearthed, and these, it would appear, had been gifts from the Otaki electorate in New Zealand, one to the Division and one to the Maori Pioneer Battalion. The latter was flown over the town to signalize its capture by the New Zealanders, while the former was placed at our disposal for presentation to the Maire.

page 470Maire in the presence of a great assemblage of townspeople, by whom the Brigadier's address was received with enthusiastic applause. The Maire was deeply moved, and on receiving the flag he caressed its folds and pressed it to his lips. In his remarks on formally accepting the gift, he stated that one of the principal streets of the town had been renamed in honour of the New Zealanders, and that an application had been made to the proper authorities for permission to add the New Zealand fern-leaf to the coat of arms of the city, this being the highest honour that it was in their power to confer. He mentioned, further, that the three guns captured by us in the vicinity and also presented to the Maire by the Brigadier on behalf of the New Zealand Division, were to be mounted above the three entrances to the town as a lasting memorial of the forcing of the ramparts.*

On Thursday, 14th, the whole Division held near Estourmel a service of thanksgiving in connection with the signing of the armistice. It was a beautiful day, and the occasion was one of more than ordinary solemnity, but the impressiveness of the ceremony, conducted in the open air, was marred some-what by the pranks of a great number of aeroplanes which joyfully darted hither and thither immediately overhead. On the following Sunday the 1st and 2nd Battalions held their divine service in the Fontaine Church, kindly and freely offered for the purpose by the curé, who further honoured the New Zealanders with his presence.

On account of the changed outlook the amount of definite military training was now largely reduced. For the purpose of maintaining smartness and physical fitness a formal parade

* The last of the four war memorials erected by New Zealand in France has been placed at Le Quesnoy. It takes the form of a great marble panel let into the wall itself at the spot where the entry was made, and on this is sculptured the winged figure of Peace Triumphant, with palm and laurel-wreath, and a representation of the section of wall with New Zealand soldiers passing up a ladder to its top. The inscription, in English and in French, reads: "In honour of the men of New Zealand, through whose valour the town of Le Quesnoy was restored to France, November 4, 1918." An ornamental garden and shrubbery, in which flax, toi-toi, veronicas, olearias, manuka, and other of our characteristic native plants predominate, and which will be under the constant care of the people of Le Quesnoy, has been arranged as a setting; and on the marble balustrade erected on the opposite side of the moat has been engraved, as if in reply to the oft-repeated enquiry, "Whence come these men?" the legend: "From the uttermost ends of the earth."

page 471lasting two hours was held each morning, while on two half-days in each week long route-marches were carried out. The afternoons were devoted to football, general sports, and other forms of recreational training; and twice weekly a regular programme of athletic competitions was worked through on the team system by the whole Brigade. Each night there were two cinema and two pierrot entertainments, and, as ever, the Y.M.C.A. provided refreshment for body and mind. The educational scheme was now rapidly developed, so much compulsory study, mainly along vocational lines, being imposed upon all ranks without exception.

Major Barrowclough was detached to Divisional Headquarters on November 20th as Assistant Educational Officer, and on the 23rd Major H. C. Meikle, released from duty at Havre, assumed command of the 1st Battalion until the return of Lieut.-Col. Allen from hospital on the 30th.

After the signing of the armistice, French civilians passed through our area daily in ever-increasing numbers on their return from the hands of the Germans. They had many harrowing tales to tell of the frightfulness of their treatment in captivity. It was noticed that they were wearing sabots or clogs, and it transpired that the Germans, before their retreat, had collected every make, shape and size of boots and shoes from civilians, issuing the more clumsy substitute in their place. Liberated military prisoners, too, were drifting back by every road, and we organized parties to meet them and bring them to our quarters, where they were provided with uniforms and supplied with food until they could be sent down to the coast. Without exception they were pinched and pale, and clad in every possible variety of ragged clothes. The English prisoners captured since March had, it seems, been treated with more than ordinary cruelty; exposed to all weathers and to shelling and bombing; neglected, insulted and beaten.