Webmatters Title
Webmatters : The Capture of Le Quesnoy, 4th November 1918
Rough Map of Area

Le Quesnoy

Scaling the Walls of Le Quesnoy

If you have visited the Menin Gate at Ieper you will be aware that immediately on the outside of the wall (another created by Vauban—Ieper used to belong to France) there is a moat that runs around the town.

At Le Quesnoy much of the moat on the western side is dry but it was known that the stream feeding the lakes ran underground along the western side and the worry was that the Germans might decide to flood that section as well.

Le Quesnoy, the fortifications

The general layout of the town in 1918

This moat was further protected by an outer wall of demi-lunes and counterguards about 8 metres high which were not only garrisoned but served to break up the view of the inner wall which is about 20 metres high.

There are a number of bastions jutting out from the walls and these allow fire to be directed towards the attacking enemy and along the flanks of the wall. If the town was going to have to be stormed then the only way in was going to be the old fashioned way—over the wall with scaling ladders.

The outer walls with the hornwork on the left

The Hornwork on the left and the town wall on the right
The bridge leads to the Fauroeulx Gate

Confronted by the ramparts the riflemen vied with each other to be the first to get into the town. On the south-eastern side the 3rd Rifles had hoped to gain access by the Landrecies Gate, follow the road along the hornwork and then cross the bridge via the Fauroeulx Gate (The traditional way of conquering the town). The bridge however was heavily defended and casualties were taken.

With the 1st Rifles too far away on the south-western side and 1st Auckland out of range to the north-east it looked as though the best chance now lay with the 2nd Rifles. At about 0800 hours a small group managed to gain one of the outer defences but were then driven back by fire.

For the next attempt, two platoons were sent forward. This had no more success because those who got to the wall were caught by the flanking fire from the bastion and those who were supposed to be laying down covering fire were too exposed to the defenders.

A new attempt was made to approach but this time from the Valenciennes Road near the railway on the northern side of the town. By 1600 hours mortars were in possession and began shelling the ramparts.

 

4th Battalion NZ Rifle Brigade

Facing the western flank of the citadel the 4th Rifles had only been required to advance to the railway line (now replaced approximately by the ring road). This did not discourage them from sending patrols into the maze of fortifications. Lt Colonel Harold Barrowclough and his Intelligence Officer, 2nd Lieutenant Lesie Averill came forward to locate the companies and do a bit of exploring of their own.

Basic outline of a Vauban citadel

The structure of a Vauban citadel allowed covering fire from all points
The incline of the structures ensured that each inner layer looked down on the outer

By 0900 hours Averill had located a small breach in one of the outer walls. 2nd Lieutenant Francis Evans of B Company led a patrol forward and managed to get through near this breach. His attempt however to get to the inner wall and scale it resulted in disaster: he and one of his men were killed and the others were pinned down for the next six hours.

Francis Evans is buried at Romeries in the Communal Cemetery Extension (Grave: X A 6)

Although the defenders were laying down rifle and machine gun fire it was ascertained through prisoners that the rank and file were all for laying down their arms but the officer corps was intent on making a stand.

Under some pressure from other units who were trying to advance (and did not want to be bothered by a long detour around the town) Lt Colonel Barrowclough decided in the afternoon that he would attempt to approach the walls.

The walls of one of the demi-lunes

Part of one of the outer defence works faced by the Riflemen

Moving all their machine-guns onto the seized outer ramparts the 4th Rifles swept the town walls with fire and rifle-grenades in the hope of driving the defenders away long enough to get close to the inner wall.

Averill was now ordered forward with a Lewis gun section and a scaling ladder. They managed to climb over the first demi-lune easily enough and then scaled another wall where they met up with other riflemen. From this point they were now within the final section of the dry moat with the citadel wall directly in front of them.
The major problem facing Averill was not so much the wall as the fact that he realised that his ladder would not be long enough. Fortunately between the two bastions was a 30 cm wide bridge with a sluice gate. On the far side, a slim ledge ran along the wall. If they could get to the ledge the ladder would do the job.

The first attempt was driven off by a shower of grenades thrown by defenders who had gone back to their posts despite the machine gun barrage on the walls. Although the entire party managed to get back this reception gave serious concern. There was only one ladder and that meant no more than four men could climb at a time: all this presuming that they could get across the bridge in the first case.

One of the Caponier on the remparts

A Caponier, or covered way linking sections of the defences
The inner wall in the background shows the earth embankment and grass which helped hide the top of the ladder

A battle party led by 2nd Lieutenant H Kerr and accompanied by Averill was organised into three teams. One for each of the flanking bastions and the third to secure the top of the ladder.

Under cover of all the fire that was available the party worked its way across the sluice-bridge to the wall. With fingers crossed the ladder was raised and found to not only reach the top of the wall but to slightly overlook it. Luckily for the attackers the grass on top of the wall concealed the ladder from view.

It was about 1600 hours and with two of the men steadying the ladder Averill went up. Reaching the top he surprised two Germans who fled with Averill firing his revolver after them. He was now joined by Kerr and the two men could see that the machine gun post covering the moat had been abandoned.

Clambering down the embankment into the town they found that any Germans they came across soon fled. With the remainder of the battalion now clambering their way up the ladder, led by Lt Colonel Barrowclough himself, the task of mopping up the town had begun.

Realising that they had been beaten, the Germans surrendered and a short time later the 2nd Rifles were able to enter by the Valenciennes Gate—pipped at the post.

The New Zealand Memorial at Le Quesnoy

The New Zealand Memorial is only fifty metres from the actual position climbed by Averill

About seven hundred prisoners were taken along with two field guns and eighteen machine guns. The 4th Rifles had suffered just fourteen men killed and forty wounded. The 2nd Rifles losses were slightly more, but, in comparison to the task before them, both battalions had got off remarkably lightly.

The townsfolk went wild with delight and although the Division would see a few more days of fighting, their final battle was over. They had finished at Le Quesnoy with one of the most spectacular achievements of the war and a strong bond between Kiwis and Quercitains was formed.