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

Chapter XX

page 373

Chapter XX.

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.

Mormal Forest.

The time had now arrived for exploiting to the utmost this brilliant success. The 2nd Infantry Brigade, which was in Divisional support with the commencement of operations, had moved forward at an early hour and concentrated to the south-west of Beaudignies. The Otago Regiment left Neuville at 8 a.m., and after halting in the concentration area over midday, pushed on again, past Le Quesnoy, still in the hands of the enemy, to Herbignies, where final dispositions were completed for the day. There was a certain amount of page 376 shelling over this area after arrival, and in the 1st Battalion some casualties were incurred, included among the wounded being 2nd-Lieut. A. H. King, M.C., Battalion Signals Officer, and the Rev. E. J. Tipler, C.F.

At 8.30 p.m. orders were issued to the effect that the 2nd Infantry Brigade was to pass through the 1st Infantry Brigade at dawn on November 5th, when the attack was to be renewed, supported by artillery. For this operation the 2nd Battalion of Otago Regiment was to be disposed on the right of the Brigade front, and the 1st Battalion of Canterbury Regiment on the left. On these two Battalions reaching the final objective laid down for them, the 1st Battalion of Otago and the 2nd Battalion of Canterbury were each to pass two companies through the leading formations and maintain the pressure, but were not to attempt to pierce any heavy enemy resistance.

At 1.30 a.m. on November 5th, 10th and 14th Companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment advanced from Herbignies to take up positions 200 yards in rear of the foremost troops of the 1st Battalion of Wellington. At 4 a.m. 4th Company, in support to 10th Company, and 8th Company, in support to 14th Company, followed suit. Three objectives were assigned to the Battalion—first, a road running north and south 3,000 yards from the starting point; second, a road running north and south 1,700 yards further ahead; and third, a road extending across the eastern edge of Mormal Forest; involving a total advance of approximately 7,500 yards, and the whole of it though densely wooded country.

The attack was renewed at 5.30 a.m. The supporting artillery barrage descended along a line 200 yards in advance of the foremost troops, lifted 500 yards and rested there ten minutes, repeated the lift and then died out. The leading Companies advanced in the formation of patrols supported by platoons; the support Companies followed on a three-platoon frontage. No enemy resistance was encountered until Forester's House was reached. The enemy was found to be occupying this position and the high ground in rear in some strength; the machine gun and rifle fire from these points causing a temporary check. At an earlier stage the direction and speed of the advance had been seriously threatened by the dense undergrowth. Lieut.-Colonel Hargest page break
Forester's House, Mormal Forest—showing Graves of the Last Soldiers of the Regiment to Fall in Action.

Forester's House, Mormal Forest—showing Graves of the Last Soldiers of the Regiment to Fall in Action.

page 377 having then with characteristic dash galloped forward and personally restored the situation, continued with the leading troops until the original impetus of the advance had been regained and the resistance at Forester's House and locality overcome. To bring about the destruction of the enemy at this point, 10th Company threatened it from the right and 14th Company from the left. A patrol from the former Company succeeded in reaching within 50 yards of the house, but there came under machine gun and rifle fire, the patrol commander, 2nd-Lieut. R. A. Savage, and one other rank being killed. An attempt was then made against the left flank, and two platoons from 14th Company worked their way to the rear. It was now observed that the enemy was preparing to evacuate the position. At 11 a.m. its capture was effected, two machine guns and about 30 prisoners being accounted for.

The Headquarters of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment were now established at Forester's House. It was not long before the building became the target of accurate shell fire. Lieut.-Colonel Hargest was standing at the entrance as one of these shells burst, and was momentarily stunned; almost as he withdrew a second shell demolished the front of the house.

When Companies were reorganised, the advance was resumed. The line of the second objective was reached without material opposition. At this point there was occasion for further reorganising, the heavy undergrowth having made it host impossible to maintain connection and direction. It was also decided by the Commanding Officer to adopt a new formation. In accordance with this decision, the Battalion was disposed on a three-company frontage, with one Company, the 8th, and the attached Vickers guns in support. At 1.30 p.m. the Battalion advanced to the capture of the final objective. The left and centre Companies encountered very little opposition, but the right Company, the 4th, was obstructed by machine gun fire until the enemy was driven from his ground.

At 3 p.m. orders were received to the effect that the Battalion was to cease its advance for the day at 4 pm., and that a definite line was to be formed so that the 42nd Division could effect the relief of the New Zealand Division that night. The Battalion thereupon moved forward rapidly in order to page 378 reach its final objective within the appointed time. At 3.45 p.m. the advance had penetrated to the most extreme point set by operation orders, which was beyond the great Foret de Mormal and approximately 7,500 yards from the starting point. The enemy had endeavoured to maintain his hold on the eastern edge of the Forest; but the strong and relentless pressure of our troops, and the accurate bursts of Lewis gun and rifle fire broke down all resistance. Many of the enemy were killed, a number of prisoners and machine guns were captured, and the remainder of the garrison beat a hasty retreat across the open in the direction of the Sambre River.

The advance of the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment had been closely attended by the 1st Battalion, which had to contend against the same difficulties of maintaining connection and direction. It was originally intended that the 1st Battalion should pass through the foremost troops of the 2nd Battalion east of Mormal Forest, in order to secure the line of the Sambre south of Hautmont. This intention was not carried out; and when the 2nd Battalion, on reaching its final objective, found that the troops to right and left were not up in line, 4th Company of the 1st Battalion formed a defensive flank to the right, while 8th Company took up a corresponding position to the left.

During the night the 42nd Division relieved the New Zealand Division in the line. The two Battalions of the Regiment thereupon commenced their long trek back through the Forest towards Le Quesnoy. The 1st Battalion completed an unbroken march to billets in the citadel town, a distance of about nine miles; the 2nd Battalion halted at Maison Rouge, and at 9 a.m. on the 6th resumed its journey to Le Quessnoy.

The casualties sustained by the 2nd Battalion of the Regiment on the 5th included two officers and nine other ranks killed, all of them during the earlier stages of the advance. They were among the last New Zealanders to fall in action on the Western Front; on the following day, November 6th, their bodies were reverently laid to rest alongside Forester's House, in the shade and silence of the forest.

The enemy resistance encountered during the deep advance through Mormal Forest had been more remarkable page 379 for its surprise possibilities than for its stubbornness; but the density of the undergrowth, the persistent rain, the heavy crashes of artillery fire among the tall trees, and the great distance covered, made the operation an exhausting one. But its success was decisive and complete; and as the last offensive action of the World War in which the Regiment was engaged, it represented a fitting climax to the gallant and enduring service performed by those who had travelled down the long, hard road to Victory.