There are more Kiwi flags in the tiny French town of Le Quesnoy than I’ve ever seen in one place before.
The sign on the door where I purchase my morning coffee reads (in English) “The shops of Le Quesnoy warmly welcome our friends from New Zealand”.
Ironically though the French barrister can’t understand my coffee order, but we smile and gesture until it’s understood.
I’d like a “coffee with milk please”.
As I sit there drinking it, I look out a window covered in French and Kiwi flags flying side by side onto a town square where once again the Kiwi flag flies proudly next to the French one.
We don’t share a common language but we do share a common bond.
Ironically this quaint French village knows more about the history of our World War 1 soldiers than most Kiwis.
That’s because it was the New Zealand division which liberated this town, freeing thousands of civilians from four years of German occupation in 1918. And they’ve never forgotten.
I’m ashamed to say I’d heard little of the liberation of Le Quesnoy until this year, despite this being what historians say is New Zealand’s most successful military campaign of WW1.
But it turns out I’m not alone. Today I met a woman who four months ago was looking over her father’s WW1 maps and decided to Google the places he’d served.
Turns out Le Quesnoy was one of them.
Up until that point she had no idea her father had helped give a French village back its freedom.
Even the Governor General tells me she didn’t realise just how significant the Kiwis’ involvement had been in this town until the centenary commemorations.
We study Gallipoli in depth at school, and rightly so, but there are other elements of WW1 which I think are also a huge part of our history and helped establish us as a nation.
The story of the bravery, sacrifice and success in Le Quesnoy is one of them – it’s a story that captures the imagination and is worth celebrating.
The New Zealand division knew there were thousands of French civilians inside the fortified town so they chose not to use heavy artillery to smash their way in, instead at greater risk to themselves, they decided to liberate it in a unique way.
To cut a long story short - they erected a ladder on a tiny ledge part way up the 13 metre high brickwork – it barely reached the top but one by one the Kiwi soldiers scaled it, and the enemy surrendered.
They took more than 2000 prisoners and liberated the people. By using a ladder they also managed to protect the town’s medieval walls (which the town is now trying to get classified as a World Heritage site).
Remarkably not a single civilian was killed, but unfortunately the same cannot be said for the Kiwi soldiers. 142 died that day or soon after.
It’s not a huge loss in the scheme of the overall WW1 losses but try tell that to the 142 families of men who didn’t come home.
The New York Times wrote “their winning of Le Quesnoy was a triumph of Valor and Tactics: New Zealanders did it.”
This was New Zealand’s last major action on the Western Front – a week later the war ended.
100 years on and a friendship has formed between the people of Le Quesnoy and the people of New Zealand.
And as this incredible story is shared among the newer generations of Kiwis, a bond the town of Le Quesnoy is determined to preserve.