Celebrating ANZAC Day with the village of Le Quesnoy, a town liberated from four years of German occupation by New Zealand soldiers on November 1918
Having been to Le Quesnoy before, we managed to organise some friends for a second ANZAC weekend visit to the tiny French village in northern France.
With a 19 strong contingent, spread over 4 cars, taking the ferries and rail tunnel to Calais was probably the hardest leg. For our two car loads, dealing with Heathrow Europcar was probably not the best start. Long story cut short, we got on the road having to make up lost time waiting with a heavy foot on the accelerator. It was apparently “OK” though…the attendant for Europcar told us he drives 150km all the time on the M25, never had a ticket. When it comes in the mail, that is where we will send it…
Arriving in the P&O Ferries Dover terminal with a few minutes to spare, we settled in to a steady cruise, a few beers and a bit of banter en route to Calais. The accommodation in Dunkirk at 2am in the morning was Spartan with the fragrance of wet dog, we didn’t deserve much better as waking up the patron and half the hostel only added to our reputation. France won’t know what hit it…
Arriving a little late to Beaudignes, we were greeted by our local hosts. We disrupted the opening speech of the WWI historian Herb with the clatter of chairs. Once settled, he started again.
With Herb we traveled to the Romeries war cemetery, walked amongst the graves and heard the stories of the many wooden crosses that were placed at the locations of fallen soldiers across the rolling hills. Only a few were expatriated home for burial due to the sheer logistics in finding, identifying and returning the glorious dead home – they remain interred on the fields of battle. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission designed and erected multiple graves throughout the French countryside – the design much like that of an English garden, with a crusaders cross ( with a sword), a symbol to represent not only Christian, but multiple faiths facing a sarcophagus like slab; an altar to sacrifice.
The Vertigneul Church yard bore several more graves, including that of Serjeant Henry James Nicholas, Victoria Cross recipient for brave actions in December 1917.
Private Nicholas, who was one of a Lewis gun section, had orders to form a defensive flank to the right of the advance, which was checked by heavy machine-gun and rifle fire from an enemy strong-point. Whereupon, followed by the remainder of his section at an interval of about 25 yards, Private Nicholas rushed forward alone, shot the officer in command of the strong-point, and overcame the remainder of the garrison of sixteen with bombs and bayonets, capturing four wounded prisoners and a machine-gun. He captured this strong-point practically single-handed, and thereby saved many casualties. Subsequently, when the advance reached its limit, Private Nicholas collected ammunition under heavy machine-gun and rifle fire.
London Gazette, 3 January 1918
A few days prior to the liberation of Le Quesnoy and the subsequent German surrender, Nicholas was killed while on guard duty. Buried alongside in the same church yard is the grave is the grave of a German soldier. Many German soldiers were not afforded the same graves of the Allied forces, in large part due to being on the former enemies soil and the leases required to maintain them.
Returning to the main hall for lunch – bread, ham, emmental cheese and the finest pate, we met more of the locals and began our walk into town, along a similar route taken by the New Zealand Battalions in their assault of the French medieval town. The locals recited poems and verses by locals and soldiers. We were also joined by the younger generation, eager to meet us and maintain the local form of tradition – one of whom had spent the better part of her OE in New Zealand making a documentary now showing at the local cinema.
The memorial depicted the members of the New Zealand Battalion scaling the wall at the sluice gate. Over the course of the seige, three ladders were destroyed. This one was salvaged and under supporting artillery fire on the ramparts, was used effectively to force immediate surrender from the Germans at no harm to the local residents. This was against initial orders to shell the town and ending up putting the soldiers at greater risk, which is why they are so revered by the village inhabitants.
Making our way into the town we dispersed to explore the surrounds with several returning to our farmhouse accommodation in Romeries to check in and become acquainted with our host and her menagerie of animals.
The Association Le Quesnoy Nouvelle-Zélande, put on a great spread for dinner. With the New Zealand Ambassador to France and MP Paula Bennett in attendance, we were wined and dined in true French fashion. Herb was the star of the show – He has been coming back every year for the last twenty to take guided tours and remains the main source of historical information. Surprisingly he only knew five French words…
Following the dinner, some found large opened bottles of red wine carelessly left on the table. Some took it upon themselves to see none of this went to waste – a la Mitch a couple years ago. Mitch wasn’t keen to fall to the same fate and besides wanted to make sure he would attend the dawn service this time around.
The next morning while many were still enjoying their sleep, half of us made it down to the dawn service. A moving occasion with full NZ and French military representation.
Arriving back to our homestay we found a scene of absolute devastation. The karaoke and red wine infused orgy of the previous night resulted in a few red wine “stains” with reckless sleepwalking, sleeptalking and sleepfurniture moving. Our host who so nicely taxied us to and from the party and put us up was obviously not impressed.
The ride back to Calais was relatively rapid, taking turns sleeping and entertaining the driver, we made it in good time. The scene of the tent city in the Calais dunes was sobering; all kinds of immigrants, refugees and persons waited for opportunities to stow away in trucks in order to emigrate to the United Kingdom. While we had just returned commemorating a war fought a hundred years ago, the visible signs of wars current persist.
Again, we found the commemorations moving and a significant reminder of New Zealand’s identity forged in the battlefields of Europe. Glad we made this journey again bringing many others with us. Special thanks to Jonno and Katie who helped organise respective carloads to make the logistics easier.