When New Zealand troops liberated the fortified town of Le Quesnoy on 4 November 1918, the elected mayor of Le Quesnoy was nowhere to be seen. The inhabitants of Le Quesnoy would have to wait for the Armistice to be able to see their mayor once again. So what had happened to Achille Carlier during the war?
Achille Constant François Charles Carlier was born in Le Quesnoy on 5 September 1873. The youngest son of Achille François Carlier, Conseiller d’arrondissement1 and member of the Republican Party and Jeanne Carlier née Bleunar had been a Corporal during his military service in the 84th Régiment d’Infanterie stationed in Le Quesnoy and was later discharged from any military duties as he suffered from a weak heart.
In 1904, Achille Carlier was elected a city councillor, became mayor of Le Quesnoy in 1908 and was re-elected as mayor in 1912. By the end of July 1914, Carlier closed the printer works he had recently bought near Paris and went back to Le Quesnoy as rumours of war became more persistent. The three regiments stationed in Le Quesnoy: the 84th Régiment d’Infanterie, the 284th Régiment d’Infanterie and the 4th Régiment d’Infanterie Territoriale were mobilised in early August and the mayor and the inhabitants bid them an emotional farewell at the station.
At the end of the European summer 1914, Carlier and the Le Quesnoy city council were faced with a volatile situation that was evolving extremely quickly. Rumours were rife and news was inconsistent and unreliable. The Quercitains, the Le Quesnoy inhabitants, saw on 24 August 1914 the arrival of 1,500 Belgian civilians in their town. The fleeing refugees were hurriedly housed in the military barracks that had been vacated a few weeks earlier. “Men, women and children who had fled at the last minute, had slept from one place to another in barns or stables. All showed the same expression of fear, tiredness and lack of food.”2 Achille Carlier, the mayor, had bread made overnight so the Belgians could leave the following day with some food at least.
That very day, on 25 August 1914, the first German soldiers appeared in Le Quesnoy. Although the invasion according to several sources did not cause any loss of life, the German soldiers’ behaviour brought panic to the hearts of many. Houses were ransacked, food and wine pilfered, furniture broken, clothes stolen. The soldiers left the town laden with goods and destroyed what they could not carry with them.
Although some inhabitants fled to the nearby Mormal Forest, which offered a natural refuge from the invaders, many went home in the end as the forest was only going to be a temporary refuge. A few left and managed to reach unoccupied France.
Meanwhile Achille Carlier and the city council were trying to get organised: food requisitions were started with food such as rice, pasta, coffee taken from shops that were closed and fresh vegetables from private gardens. The city council issued its own currency so that inhabitants could buy essentials. Communications with other towns were made even more difficult when the postmaster had communication cables cut so that the enemy could not use them later.
On 8 October 1914, the invasion became officially an occupation as the first German Governor of Le Quesnoy arrived and took charge of the newly created Kommandantur. Le Quesnoy was part of the Valenciennes sector now in the Occupied Zone of Germany, which was organised in eight sectors. The Occupied Zone in France had a total population of 2,285,000 people. The population of both Belgium and Poland were also under German occupation.
In order to counteract food requisitions by German authorities and provide some bread to the inhabitants, Achille Carlier had a small mill hidden away which was used to grind dwindling quantities of wheat illegally. The flour thus obtained was mixed with the flour – a mixture of rye and potato starch - bought from the German authorities, which made the bread more palatable. Several mills were hidden in the town, some owners were caught.
On 22 October 1914, the Committee for Relief of Belgium or CRB was created in London. It was presided by the American mining engineer Herbert Hoover, future president of the United States. The Netherlands, the United States of America and Spain, as neutral countries in the conflict, supported the CRB whose original aim was to supply food rations to Belgium. This was later extended to Poland and eventually Northern France. Officially, the French government did not support the idea as they thought it was Germany’s responsibility to feed civilians living under German occupation. However, in reality, the CRB would channel money made available by the French government via Belgium. The task ahead was of epic proportions: feeding over 11 million people in times of war, finding food sent from all over the world, finding transport so that food would eventually reach the intended population. Challenges and difficulties had to be overcome at international, national and regional levels. In Le Quesnoy Achille Carlier was designated as the representative of the Comité Français d’Alimentation, the French branch of the CRB. As such Carlier was in charge of distributing food rations to 50 towns and villages under the Le Quesnoy Kommandantur’s jurisdiction. This had to be done under close supervision by the German authorities.
Hostages were chosen in case local inhabitants would not follow the Kommandantur orders and retaliation was needed: Carlier, members of the city council, hospital workers, the local priest, all were taken hostages on a regular basis.
Achille Carlier, who had suffered a heart attack on the day of the German invasion, was supported in his work by two deputy mayors Mr Croix and Mr Deleporte. Both Croix and Deleporte would stay in Le Quesnoy and M. Deleporte would then become acting-mayor from mid-1915 until mid-November 1918.
During the first Battle of Le Cateau fought in late August 1914, as British and French troops were retreating before the German advance, Allied troops suffered casualties. The wounded found themselves looked after by the local population, in farms, private houses and hospitals. In Le Quesnoy hospital, four Allied soldiers, three French and one British, remained after the German invasion. Suffering from very serious wounds, they were unable to be moved. In June 1915, Achille Carlier and Dr Gaston Flament were denounced by a refugee from Saint-Quentin for harbouring these soldiers. The lady in question later became the mistress of the Governor of Le Quesnoy. Both Carlier and Flament as well as the four soldiers were taken prisoners on 29 June 1915. After a summary trial held the following day, Carlier, Flament and the British soldier Wokins were sentenced to death. Their sentences were later overturned to five and ten years of hard labour respectively.
The six men were sent to a prison in Werden sur-Ruhr near Essen and arrived there on 3 July 1915. The prison harboured 300 French or Belgian prisoners-of-war alongside 500 German criminals.
The mayor and the four soldiers worked making baskets for shells, cutting stones or making paper. Dr Flament worked in the prison hospital. Their breakfast was a bowl of watery gruel made of rye and flour with a small piece of black bread made with rye, potatoes, rotten beans and straw. Lunch was a watery soup with corn, or barley and sometimes with carrots or beetroot. Dinner was a watered down version of the soup served at lunchtime. Prisoners suffered from malnutrition and by November 1915 Carlier had lost 26 kg. Carlier in very poor health was not able to make his daily allocation of 12 baskets and was punished by having three quarters of his usual daily food allowance withdrawn. Carlier ended up in the prison hospital where he stayed for two months.
By the end of November 1915, Achille Carlier’s family had successfully received the support of the Spanish ambassador and engaged a German lawyer Dr Grimm to defend the men’s cases. Carlier’s and Flament’s sentences were overturned to four months of prison at Anrath from 29 February 1916 until 11 March 1916. From there the two men were sent to Elberfeld prison where conditions were much easier.
Both Carlier and Flament were liberated on 10 June 1916. Flament returned to Le Quesnoy until 13 October 1916 when he was sent to a POW camp in Hanover for three weeks. He later returned to unoccupied France after a prisoners’ exchange. On 18 November 1916, Achille Carlier settled in Paris where he lived until the end of the war as German authorities would not accept his return in Le Quesnoy.
Following the liberation of the town by New Zealanders on 4 November 1918, New Zealand troops were billeted in Le Quesnoy and surrounding villages. Major Lindsay Inglis from the New Zealand Machine Gun battalion stayed with M. Deleporte, the second deputy-Mayor acting as Mayor of the town until the return of Achille Carlier3. On 10 November 1918, Le Quesnoy saw the visit of French president Raymond Poincaré, during which several photos were taken by New Zealand Official War photographer Captain Henry Armytage Sanders. On 13 November, a ceremony at the Le Quesnoy town hall saw flags being exchanged between the French and the New Zealanders: Achille Carlier gifted the first French flag that had been unfurled in Le Quesnoy after the liberation of the town and Brigadier-General Hart a New Zealand flag, that had been gifted by the Otaki parliamentary electorate to the New Zealand Division4.
After the war, Carlier was mayor of Le Quesnoy until late 1919 when Daniel Vincent, his political rival, was elected on 10 December. In his own words, Carlier “tried to maintain the moral of the population, to protect it from German exactions as best as he could and to organise food supplies.”5 Achille Carlier received the French Légion d’Honneur in 1921 for his role during the war. Achille Carlier died in 1943 and was buried in Le Quesnoy.
1. The modern equivalent of a député, a French Member of Parliament
2. "Défilé lamentable, indescriptible d'hommes, de femmes et d'enfants qui s'étaient enfuis au dernier moment, couchant d'étape en étape dans les granges et dans les écuries. Tous portent sur leur visage une expression de frayeur où se mêlent les traces de lafatigue et des privations." in René Delvallée, 24 August 1914 diary entry quoted in "Jolimetz 1914-2014 : Commémoration de la première guerre mondiale" on Jolimetz website.
3. Forthcoming book: Nathalie Philippe, Death among Good Men: First World War Reflections from New Zealand Major General Lindsay Inglis (Auckland: David Bateman, 2023), pp 265-6
4. John Crawford, The Devil’s Own War : The First World War Diary of Brigadier-General Herbert Hart (Auckland : Exisle Publishing, 2008) p. 269. See also endnote 1 in chapter 11.
5. "s’est efforcé de maintenir le moral de la population, de la protéger contre les exactions allemandes dans la mesure de ses forces et d’assurer son ravitaillement" quoted by Greg Chermeux from Achille Carlier’s application for the Légion d’Honneur.
- Rapport de M. Achille Carlier, Etat-Major de l’Armée, 2ème bureau, Section allemande, n° 1288, 21 janvier 1917 [Service Historique de la Défense, Vincennes].
- Peace Question. New Zealand Times, Volume XLIII, Issue 10136, 26 November 1918, Page 5
- “La famille Carlier”, unpublished material provided by Grégory Chermeux, Le Quesnoy historian and archivist.
- René Delvallée, diary quoted in "Jolimetz 1914-2014 : Commémoration de la première guerre mondiale" on Jolimetz website.
- Nathalie Philippe, “Food relief in occupied France” in Philippe, N., Pugsley, C., Crawford, J., Strohn, M. The Great Adventure Ends: New Zealand and France on the Western Front. (Christchurch: John Douglas Publishing, 2013).
- Collection items held at Auckland War Memorial Museum
Nathalie Philippe is a senior lecturer in the French programme at the University of Waikato. She is working on a book on life in Le Quesnoy during the First World War with Le Quesnoy historian Grégory Chermeux. Nathalie is also working with the New Zealand Memorial Museum Trust on creating a Living Memorial in Le Quesnoy which honours the unique story of New Zealand’s effort in the last week of the war in freeing the inhabitants of the walled medieval town from occupation.
Cite this article
Dr Nathalie Philippe.
Achille Carlier, Mayor of Le Quesnoy during the First World War. Auckland War Memorial Museum - Tāmaki Paenga Hira. First published: 28 October 2022. Updated: 1 November 2022.