Adam Rae McNeilly

From auditor to soldier.

Adam Rae McNeilly was from Lawrence, Otago. Adam was an excellent student. In his last year at Lawrence District High School, he was dux and won awards in English, Arithmetic, and Composition.

In 1909, Adam won Junior Honours in the Trinity School of Music examinations. In the same year, he passed the Junior Civil Service Examination and was offered a cadetship with the Inspection of Machinery Department.

In April 1909, instead of becoming an inspector of machinery, Adam joined the Audit Department. By the outbreak of WW1, he had attained the position of Audit Examiner, Class VII, and had passed the Senior Civil Service Examination.

Adam joined the New Zealand Expeditionary Force (Medical Corps) when he was 21. In August 1914, he was sent to Samoa as part of the Samoan Advance Party. In April 1915, after returning from Samoa, he resigned from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force and resumed work for the Audit Department.

In September 1915, he was medically assessed for military service and was declared “unfit – defective vision”. Despite this, Adam was allowed to rejoin the New Zealand Expeditionary Force in February 1917.

In July 1917, he was promoted to Corporal and, in February 1918, to Sergeant. In March 1918, he was posted overseas but was hospitalised in Suez with measles. In May 1918, after recovering, he was sent to Britain.

In September 1918, Adam went to France with the 2nd Battalion, Wellington Infantry Regiment. His military file records that he was “marched into field”, which meant that he took part in the fighting on the Western Front towards the end of WW1 that successfully forced the Germans to retreat to Germany.

The 2nd Battalion took part in several battles, including the battle to free the town of Le Quesnoy. Le Quesnoy is a medieval town that had been occupied by about 1000 German troops since the start of the war. The town was protected by a 12-metre-high ancient, thick, rampart made of earth faced with brick and topped with undergrowth and trees. A 100-metre-wide moat lay between the ramparts and an outer mound of earth. Thousands of French people remained in the town. German troops held strategic positions around Le Quesnoy. The town, which was next to a rail junction, was seen to be of strategic importance and had to be recaptured. It was the job of New Zealand troops to capture the town. The New Zealanders decided not to use artillery to attack the town to force the German troops out, as this would mean the death of French people and destruction of the town.

The New Zealand battle plan called for Le Quesnoy to be encircled, which first required German positions outside the town to be attacked. After heavy fighting, these positions were overrun. By noon, the New Zealanders had secured the outer mound and surrounded the town. The next stage of the plan was daring.

The New Zealanders had to find a way over the wide moat and then over the ancient ramparts.

The New Zealand plan was to build cork floats to cross the moat and to then prop long ladders against the ramparts and climb over. When this plan was first discussed, one of the officers recalls scoffing at the idea and asking for a copy of Ivanhoe so he could study this ancient method of assault.

The ladders were built, although all but one ladder was later destroyed by shelling from German artillery within the town. No way could be found to get over the ramparts until a brickwork sluice gate was discovered which crossed the moat on the western side of the town. Under cover from machine guns and after firing drums of burning oil onto the ramparts – which spread fire and smoke and caused the defenders to retreat – the remaining ladder was propped up on the brick sluice gate and climbed by the New Zealanders. Troops then made their way up the ladder, but on reaching the top soon came under heavy fire. However, the
New Zealand troops overcame this resistance and, soon after they entered the town, the German garrison surrendered late on the afternoon of 4 November. This bravery and daring came at a heavy cost: 84 (some sources say 122) New Zealanders were killed in the assault on the town.

In August 1919, Adam returned to New Zealand. In October 1919, he was discharged from the New Zealand Expeditionary Force. He did not rejoin the Audit Department.

Adam died in 1968.