In the service of one’s country, Mary Varnham

Le Quesnoy 1918: New Zealand’s Last Battle
Christopher Pugsley
Oratia, $45.00,
ISBN 9780947506490

My father served on the Western Front, having signed up at the age of 17 or thereabouts. He came from a lonely farm in the Akatarawa Valley, so joining a bunch of other young men and sailing to the other side of the world must have seemed alluring and exciting. The use of the word “serve” is interesting, though. I’m sure he had no intention to serve anyone or anything other than himself. It was a great escape. Few of the estimated 74,000 New Zealanders who, like my father, found themselves stumbling through oozing mud, running across open ground under fire, or clambering for miles through torturous forest undergrowth, would have seen this as something they had wanted or expected to do.

But, once there, what choice was there but to carry on?  To desert meant being condemned to death. One of the harrowing stories in Christopher Pugsley’s new book, a comprehensive account of New Zealand’s engagement in the battle for and around the French medieval town of Le Quesnoy, is of a 34-year-old Australian who enlisted in March 1916 while working in Kawhia. From the moment the man arrived in the United Kingdom he was in trouble, Pugsley reports. In September, while still at camp, he was court-martialled for being absent without leave, drunk, resisting arrest, and telling military police they could go fuck themselves. Presumably, he’d realised he’d made a mistake signing up.

He claimed to be remorseful, saying his trouble was caused “entirely by drink”, but things got worse when he was with 2 Auckland Company in France. He took off at least six times, was sentenced to the dreaded and dreadful Field Punishment No 1, and finally, after another absence of seven weeks, was court-martialled, found guilty of desertion, and sentenced to death, although the sentence was suspended, presumably because a live soldier was of more use in battle than a dead one. Despatched to Le Quesnoy, he received a fatal gunshot wound. Three days later, the war was over.

Pugsley is a meticulous historian, and his book will undoubtedly become the classic work on what he calls “New Zealand’s Waterloo moment”, but you come away with the sobering thought that the campaign to take back Le Quesnoy, which has come to assume near-mythical status in this country, was, in fact, a tragically pointless waste of lives. 

The battle for the town and the surrounding territory took place on November 4 and 5, 1918. Although negotiations for an armistice did not officially begin until November 8, by the end of September the German army high command had informed Kaiser Wilhelm II and the Chancellor that the war was lost. The March offensive was long behind it and, in the words of a young British artillery officer, “the Germans were securely held”. The morale of German soldiers was low, and desertions were common. On October 5, the German government told the American president Woodrow Wilson it wanted to negotiate an end to hostilities. Germany’s position was, as the official record of the New Zealand Division states, “ultimately impossible”. The Ottomans, Bulgarians and Austro-Hungarians had already capitulated. Why then, did the Allies press on as much as a month later with a campaign that involved three British armies (including the New Zealand Division), one American army and one French? 

Pugsley quotes uncritically from a letter from Britain’s Lieutenant-General George Harper to the New Zealand division commander Major-General Russell that the New Zealand action at Le Quesnoy “did much to decide the finish of the war”, but provides no evidence for this. It remains an unexamined statement, part of an enduring myth.

For most New Zealanders, used to the popular retelling of the tale, the liberation of Le Quesnoy appears like a boys’ own adventure, with brave New Zealand soldiers scaling ladders up towering walls, culminating in the final famous ascent by Leslie Averill, which led the German officer in charge of the town to surrender his 1000-strong garrison with barely a shot fired and no harm to civilians. What Pugsley makes clear, however, is that this was a bloody campaign. In chapter after chapter, he lists the New Zealand dead, until the total reaches nearly 200. 

The deaths in what he lauds as “the grand finale” of New Zealand’s war pale into insignificance by comparison with the total of 12,855 New Zealand soldiers who died on the Western Front. But they have, nonetheless, a terrible poignancy. And they do not include the walking dead – the young men who, in this final week of the war, were physically and psychologically wounded, who would struggle to fit back into life back home, and who, when the Depression came in the 1930s, would be, like at least 50 per cent of WWI veterans, unemployed or unemployable. My father, severely wounded in a leg in 1917, had spent a year recovering in the New Zealand soldiers’ hospital at Walton-on-Thames before, like many others, he was sent back to help deliver the coup de grâce to the enemy. He took a shell in his other leg at Le Quesnoy, thus joining the ranks of war amputees and what we call today sufferers of post-traumatic stress disorder.

The vicious northern French winter was setting in, and Pugsley quotes from a regimental history that “elaborate precautions were taken to counteract the deadly shock produced by the action of cold upon wounded men”. This included that a man, while being operated on, his limbs held in position by another soldier trained for the task, would be “placed over a blanketed frame heated by oil stoves”. 

Pugsley is not a stylish writer, but he is a passionate student of military engagements, and the book relates in astonishing, almost clinical, blow-by-blow detail, the course of the Battle of the Sambre, as the wider campaign is known. This makes for heavy reading, which is fortunately alleviated by illuminating quotations from soldiers’ diaries and other sources, including the invaluable oral history archive of interviews with WWI veterans presciently recorded in the 1980s by Jane Tolerton and Nicholas Boyack.

Much of the soldiers’ accounts is matter-of fact: “We had to run in pairs when we were in a battle, just in case one of us got killed or something”, a rifleman says. But a few, like Private Monty Ingram’s diary entry for 1 Wellington Company’s action on the outskirts of Le Quesnoy, would rank with the finest war poetry: “Suddenly the air is rent with the deafening thunder of artillery gunfire”. Ingram writes: 

The hour has struck! Popping of Vickers! Barking of field guns! Booming of heavies! Flashes in the greying dawn! Black smoke, red smoke, white smoke! Leaping earth, flying clod, and ripping steel! … We do not proceed far before we observe prisoners running towards us with shambling gait through the crashing shells, their arms held high, faces deathly white, eyeballs protruding, their whole bodies trembling with terror.

Although, for many soldiers, the battle ended at Le Quesnoy, for days afterwards there were, in the surrounding area, including the dense Mormal Forest, what a driver called trips “to guns at midnight” – followed by attempts to clear out the remaining Germans. The last three New Zealanders to die in action in the war were hit by a single shell that burst beside a gun. The grandson of Stewart Kennedy, one of the men killed, told Pugsley, “My grandmother never overcame her grief … [she] wore black for the remainder of her life and found images of him too painful to have in the house”. It’s a chilling reminder that behind the myths of war, the epic accounts of bravery, the museums, and the memorials to the fallen, is simple, unquenchable sorrow.

Mary Varnham is publisher and editor-in-chief at Awa Press.

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Posted in Non-fiction, Review, War
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