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The History of the Canterbury Regiment, N.Z.E.F. 1914 - 1919

Chapter XVII. — The Battle of the Sambre

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Chapter XVII.
The Battle of the Sambre.

The 2nd Brigade remained in the neighbourhood of Vertigneul, in support to the Division, till November 4th. During this time the line was advanced by "peaceful penetration, "till the left flank of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, which was holding the line on the whole Divisional front, rested at the point where the Beaudignies-Orsinval road crosses the Valenciennes-Le Quesnoy railway. From there the line ran south, parallel to the Solesmes-Le Quesnoy railway, and about a quarter of a mile west of it. Further south, in the sector of the adjoining Division, the front line crossed the railway east of Ghissignies, and swung towards the south-east.

Meanwhile, Valenciennes had fallen to the Canadians on November 1st. The Allied Command had anticipated that directly this town fell the time would be ripe for a decisive attack, which would deprive the enemy of the power to withdraw to a shorter front for the winter. There were already indications of an early withdrawal by the enemy, particularly on the nor them and southern portions of the front, so that it was necessary that the attack should be made without delay. This attack was made on November 4th, by the British Fourth, Third, and First Armies, on a thirty mile front from Oisy, on the Sambre River, to Valenciennes.

The British attacks in the latter part of October had been in a north-easterly direction, their object being to outflank Valenciennes from the south, and so to compel the enemy to evacuate this town. As a result of these tactics, the left flank of the Third Army bent back towards the west; but the advance of the XVII Corps and the First Army through Valenciennes, on November 1st and 2nd, had resulted in the establishment of a line running practically due north and south, with its northern flank protected by the marshes north-east of Valenciennes. The attack of the 4th was accordingly directed due east again.

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To quote again from Sir Douglas Haig's Despatch of December 21st, 1918:—

"The nature of the country across which our advance was to be made was most difficult. In the south the river had to be crossed almost at the outset. In the centre the great Forest of Mormal, though much depleted by German wood-cutting, still presented a formidable obstacle. In the north the fortified town of Le Quesnoy, and several streams which ran parallel to the line of our advance, offered frequent opportunities for successful defence. On the other hand our troops had never been so confident of victory or so assured of their own superiority."

The length of the front to be attacked by the New Zealand Division was two thousand five hundred yards; and six hundred yards from the starting point was the town of Le Quesnoy, occupying almost half the Divisional frontage. The town was protected by a double moat and rampart; and although its fortifications were of little use against modern siege artillery, they were a formidable obstacle to infantry. Our natural reluctance to bombard the town, seeing that it was occupied by French civilians, made easier the task of its defenders. Rather than sacrifice lives in an assault on the town, the General Officer Commanding the Division decided to hold the enemy from the front, and to send troops round on both flanks, to meet at the back of the town and cut off the garrison.

The 3rd (Rifle) Brigade attacked at 5.30 a.m., and advanced to the Orsinval-Le Quesnoy road, north of the town, and to Cantiane, on the Le Quesnoy-Englefontaine road, south of the town. Between these points it reached a line running in a semicircle round Le Quesnoy, and almost on the edge of the moat on the western side of the town.

In the second stage of the attack the 1st Brigade took part. As there was no room to manoeuvre on the Divisional front north of Le Quesnoy, this brigade advanced in a south-easterly direction from the area of the 62nd Division, on the 1eft of the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade, and established a line on the north and north-east of the town, with its left flank at Ramponeau. At the same time, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade advanced its right flank in a north-easterly direction, till the right portion of its line ran parallel to, and a quarter of a mile south-west of, the Le Quesnoy-Jolimetz road.

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The third stage of the attack saw the two brigades linked up on the "Green Line" (north of Jolimetz-Potelle-Villereau) and in touch with the 37th and 62nd Divisions on the right and left respectively. Le Quesnoy was now completely surrounded and cut off, and the 1st Brigade took over the whole of the Divisional front, the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade being left to deal with Le Quesnoy, which was still holding out.

At 10.30 a.m. the 1st Brigade made a further advance, and by noon had reached a line running north and south through Herbignies, with its right flank close to the Forest of Mormal. Patrols were pushed forward into the forest, and by midnight the brigade had reached its final objective, having penetrated three thousand yards into the forest on the right, and reached Sarloton on the left. At Le Quesnoy the garrison, numbering about a thousand, had held out until about 4.30 p.m., when the 3rd (Rifle) Brigade stormed the ramparts and entered the town, after strenuous and picturesque fighting.

The 2nd Brigade, in Divisional support, had concentrated early on the morning of November 4th in the fields to the south-west of Beaudignies. There it remained till two in the afternoon, when it was ordered to move up, so as to be ready to pass through the 1st Brigade and resume the advance on the morning of the 5th. Le Quesnoy was at this time still holding out, so that a lengthy detour through Ghissignies and Louvignies was necessary to avoid machine-gun fire from the town. The 1st Canterbury Battalion was commanded by Major A. D. Stitt, as Lieutenant-Colonel Row had been attached to brigade headquarters for liaison duties. The battalion halted for tea at Moulin Goffart, north-west of Jolimetz, and spent the night in Herbignies. The 2nd Battalion (under Major N. R. Wilson) marched across country from Louvignies to the Le Quesnoy-Jolimetz road, and by way of the last named village to its bivouac, area west of Herbignies. The march was a very trying one for all battalions of the brigade.

The attack of the 2nd Brigade on November 5th was carried out, on the whole Divisional frontage of two thousand five hundred yards, by the 2nd Otago Battalion on the right and the 1st Canterbury Battalion on the left. The latter battalion moved forward at 3.30 a.m. to its assembly positions on the Bavai-page 283Englefontaine road, on the edge of the forest of Mormal. At this place the trees had been cut, but from half a mile forward of the left flank, and a mile and a half forward of the right flank, the whole of the country over which the advance had to be made was covered either with forest of tall trees or else with very tall and dense undergrowth.

The order of battle, from right to left, was the 12th and 13th Companies, with the 2nd Company in support and the 1st Company in reserve. On the left flank was the 62nd Division. The attack was made at 5.30 a.m. under a creeping barrage, and little serious resistance was met with before Forester's House, on the road which runs north through the forest to Obies and Bavai. Here the advance was held up till the leading companies had worked round from the flanks; this manoeuvre was completed about 9 a.m., when the house was taken, with five machine-guns, one minnenwerfer, and numerous prisoners.

In spite of the fact that the 2nd Otago Battalion was held up on the right, and that the left flank was two thousand five hundred yards in advance of the 62nd Division, the battalion pushed on another fifteen hundred yards to its final objective. This was captured after heavy fighting. Battalion headquarters was established at Forrester's House shortly after its capture; and during the day this, and the forest generally, was heavily shelled by the enemy.

After capturing the final objective, the companies advanced another half a mile, to a line fifteen hundred yards west of the eastern edge of the forest. Here they were held up on the western edge of a wide clearing, by machine-gun fire from both flanks; and particularly from the standing forest on the right. The 2nd Otago Battalion was now coming up on that flank, but had not advanced as far as the 1st Canterbury Battalion. The position on the left flank, which now ran along the northern edge of the forest, was very dangerous; for the 62nd Division was still far behind, and the enemy could be seen in considerable numbers a long way behind the flank of the leading troops.

The 2nd Canterbury Battalion had moved from its bivouac area just before daylight, and advanced through the forest in close support to the 1st Battalion. At 2 p.m. the Brigadier, having not yet received the report that the 1st Battalion's final page 284objective had been taken, ordered the 2nd Battalion to pass through and continue the advance on the left flank. In the meantime, the 1st Battalion had already passed beyond its objective, and was approaching the clearing near the eastern edge of the wood.

Owing to the density of the wood, and the length of the front, the companies of the 2nd Battalion found difficulty in keeping in touch with battalion headquarters, which was continuously changing its location as the battalion advanced. The leading companies were therefore in better touch with the 1st Battalion companies than with their own battalion headquarters, and were earlier in hearing of the 1st Battalion's advance beyond its final objective than was the Commanding Officer of the 2nd Battalion.

When the orders to go through the 1st Battalion reached the leading companies, the 1st Battalion had already advanced to take the objective assigned by the Brigadier to the 2nd Battalion. It was not until the 1st Battalion had been held up, and Major Wilson had come forward to confer with Major Stitt, that the position was cleared up. The two Commanding Officers then arranged that the 2nd Battalion should relieve the 1st, which was to leave one company to protect the left flank.

By 4 pm. the relief was complete, and the 2nd and 12th Companies of the 2nd Battalion were holding the western edge of the clearing, with the 1st Company on the northern edge of the wood, on the left flank. The 13th Company and battalion headquarters were half a mile further back. Patrols were sent out, and the enemy was reported holding the other side of the clearing, while no touch could be gained with either of the Otago Battalions on the right flank. Later on, it was reported that the 2nd Otago Battalion had cleared the wood on the right, and a fighting patrol sent out by the 2nd Company established a post on the road on the eastern edge of the forest. The enemy, however, was still holding in strength part of the wood on the left of and behind this post, and was also reported to be three hundred yards east of the edge of the wood. It was now quite dark, and no further advance could be attempted.

The brigade was relieved during the night by a brigade of the 42nd Division. The 1st Canterbury Battalion marched at page 2858 p.m. direct to the barracks at Le Quesnoy; but the 2nd Battalion was not relieved till after midnight, and so halted at dawn at Herbignies for a hot meal. Rain had begun to fall early on the morning of the 5th, and continued all day, so that everybody was very wet, and the going through the forest was very difficult. Altogether, the 5th/6th was one of the most exhausting days of the last phase of the war; for the advance in the rain all day—long though it was—was shorter than the march back to Le Quesnoy. Both battalions were dead tired when they reached Le Quesnoy, but there they found comfortable billets, with fires to warm themselves and dry their clothes.

The Regiment's casualties from October 23rd (inclusive) had been as follows:—
1st Battalion.Officers.Other Ranks.
Killed in Action and Died of Wounds2*25
2nd Battalion.Officers.Other Ranks.
Killed in Action and Died of Wounds224

Total for both battalions: 4 officers and 49 other ranks killed, and 10 officers and 216 other ranks wounded.

The following is the official summary of the total casualties of the Canterbury Regiment from the formation of the New page 286Zealand Expeditionary Force up to and including January 5th, 1919:—
Officers.Other Ranks.
Died of Wounds24527
Died of Disease6155
Dead, Cause Unknown250

* 2nd Lieutenants T. Bell and A. H. W. Ell (both killed 23rd October).

Lieutenant H. G. McNiven (killed 24th October), 2nd Lieutenant L. W. P. Reeve (died of wounds 13th November).