At the beginning of 1918 New Zealanders feared that their sacrifice might be in vain, as Germany appeared to be winning the war. With Russia’s withdrawal following the overthrow of the tsar in the Russian Revolution, Germany could concentrate on the Western Front, to which it transferred more than 30 divisions from the east. This massive accretion of strength hung like a pall over the Allied front line.
Back to the Somme
When the blow fell, on 21 March 1918, it created the biggest crisis of the war for the Allies. A huge gap was torn in the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) front. In the New Zealand Division’s finest hour, New Zealand and other troops were thrown into the gap to try to halt the oncoming enemy. Fighting on the old Somme battlefield of 1916, they managed to blunt the offensive. German thrusts elsewhere were also halted. The New Zealanders spent a difficult summer on the now stabilised line.
New Zealand remembered
Le Quesnoy was captured by New Zealand soldiers on 4 November 1918, a week before the armistice, with the loss of some 80 men. They had climbed the ramparts in ancient fashion, using ladders rather than allowing the historic town and its civilian inhabitants to be bombed. The locals expressed their gratitude with a New Zealand garden, a Rue de Nouvelle Zélande and an Avenue des Néo-Zélandais. An Anzac Day service is held there every year.
The Allied offensive
The United States had entered the war in April 1917. With American forces appearing at the front, better Anglo-French coordination and improving morale as the Germans faltered, the Allied armies struck back from August 1918. A series of blows drove the increasingly demoralised enemy back. The New Zealand soldiers excelled in this open-country fighting. They helped breach the Hindenburg Line, the main German defence system. By November they had reached the walled town of Le Quesnoy, in northern France, which they captured in a daring assault.
End of the war
Abandoned by its allies – Bulgaria, Turkey and Austria-Hungary all ceased hostilities – its population restive as the blockade undermined morale and its armies in disarray, Germany accepted defeat. An armistice on the Western Front came into effect at 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918. New Zealanders at the front quietly rejoiced; at home celebrations were marred by the ravages of the influenza pandemic.
The New Zealand Division took part in the occupation of Germany’s Rhineland, stationed in the vicinity of Cologne. But this proved a short-lived assignment, and by April the troops had been pulled back to Britain and the division disbanded. Repatriation began almost immediately, though the large numbers and the lack of shipping meant that men often had a prolonged wait before going home. Unrest simmered and there were several riots in the camps. The last group of soldiers did not reach New Zealand until March 1920.