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Official History of the Otago Regiment, N.Z.E.F. in the Great War 1914-1918

Fall of Le Quesnoy

Fall of Le Quesnoy.

A British assault launched on the first day of November culminated in the capture of Valenciennes, to the north, and withdrawals along the Le Quesnoy-Valenciennes front.

Then followed the announcement that the First, Third, and Fourth British Armies, with an overwhelming strength in men and guns, were to deliver a combined attack over a front of 30 miles, extending from the Sambre River in the south, near Oisy, to Valenciennes in the north. The curtain was about to be rung down on the closing scenes of the great drama.

The geographical features of the country across which this great sweep was to be made presented several obstacles to a rapid advance. In the south was the Sambre River; in the centre the deep forest of Mormal; against the northwestern flank of the forest, and standing sentinel-like over its portals, the old citadel town of Le Quesnoy.

The New Zealand Division, in conjunction with the 37th Division on the right, and the 62nd Division on the left, was to establish itself on the line Franc a Louer-Herbignies-Tous Vents; and if opportunity offered was to exploit success through the Foret de Mormal and towards the Sambre River. The citadel town of Le Quesnoy was not to be attacked directly; but troops moving north and south were to form a flank which would encircle the ramparts. The front over which the New Zealand Division was to operate was approximately 2,500 yards wide. Le Quesnoy occupied a considerable part of that frontage; and moreover was only 600 yards distant from the starting point of operations. The great double moat and rampart which surrounded the town represented a serious obstacle to assaulting infantry, but afforded the enemy small protection against modern artillery; page 374 but the German garrison which sheltered behind its walls were comparatively secure from artillery bombardment because of the large population of French civilians also contained in the town. The decision arrived at in respect of Le Quesnoy was that the artillery barrage should search the ramparts only for a period of fifteen minutes, and then cease on the western and north-western faces while patrols pushed forward in an endeavour to ascertain if the town was still occupied, and if so, in what strength.

The opening stage of the attack of the New Zealand Division was entrusted to the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and the second stage to the 1st Infantry Brigade. Should the operation prove successful to the limits laid down, the 2nd Infantry Brigade was to take up the running. The general advance, immediately hitherto conducted in a north-easterly direction, was now to turn due east. At the commencement of operations the line of the IV. Corps (of the Third Army), which embraced the New Zealand Division, extended north and south, slightly west of and parallel to the Le Quesnoy-Solesmes railway line until it reached Ghissignies, where it turned to the south-east.

At 5.30 a.m. on November 4th the artillery of three Armies, massed in preponderant weight over a front of 30 miles, broke out in thunderous barrage; behind this avalanche of destructive force advanced the thousands of indomitable infantry. The vast, complicated machinery of attack was in full motion.

The assaulting troops of the New Zealand Division met with almost instant success. Converging from right and left, they had at an early hour completed the envelopment of Le Quesnoy and its enemy garrison. Thereafter the advance swung ahead as an operation distinct from that which aimed at the capture of the town. An endeavour was made by the surrounding force of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade to force an entrance to Le Quesnoy; but this method of attack was found to be impracticable against the heavy fire of machine guns directed from the shelter of the ramparts. In the early afternoon a German prisoner was sent into the town to inform the garrison that they were surrounded, and calling upon them to surrender. At 4 p.m. a Stokes shell bombardment was placed along the northern ramparts. It was then that page 375 the enemy fire practically ceased. Half-an-hour later parties of New Zealand troops entered Le Quesnoy by the Porte der Valenciennes, and the capture of the town and the dramatic surrender of the garrison of over 700 of the enemy, officers and men, followed.

In the meantime, troops of the 1st Infantry Brigade had passed through the 62nd Division, to the left of the New Zealand Division's front, and established themselves on a line forming a flank and facing the northern side of Le Quesnoy. Then, in conjunction with troops of the 3rd Brigade, who occupied a similar flank line on the southern side, the advance was continued to the line of Villereau-Potelle-Jolimetz, east of Le Quesnoy and fronting the Foret de Mormal. The 1st Infantry Brigade then took over the whole of the Divisional front, and at 10.30 a.m. continued the attack towards the furthest line of the detailed advance. By noon it had reached its final objective, represented by a line extending north and south through Herbignies. Strong patrols were now sent forward to maintain touch with the enemy; by midnight they had penetrated Mormal Forest to a depth of 3,000 yards.

This had proved a day of extraordinary successes for the New Zealand Division. The net results of its operations had been an advance of over six miles, the capture of Le Quesnoy, Rompaneau, Villerau, Potelle, and Herbignies (thereby liberating many French civilians), with nearly 2,000 prisoners, over 70 howitzers and field guns, many of them complete with gunners, drivers and horses, and a formidable tally of machine guns and trench mortars.