The Battle of the Sambre (1st-11th November, 1918)

The courses of the large rivers Sambre and Scheldt are so directed that between them is left a broad avenue where no great natural obstacle bars an invasion of France from the north-east. Here, on high ground between the smaller rivers of the Ecaillon and Rhonelle, stands the fortress-town of Le Quesnoy. Founded before the XL century, it was a place of considerable importance in the ancient French Hainault. It was surrounded in the middle of the XII. century by extensive ramparts, which did not prevent its capture by several of the great captains in mediaeval and modern history. It had fallen, for example, to Louis XI. (1447), Henry II. of France (1552), the Spaniards (1568), Turenne (1654), Eugene (1712). In 1793 it had been captured by the Austrians, and with its recovery in the following year is connected one of the earliest recorded uses of telegraphy. Before it the English soldier had, in the year of Crecy (1336), been for the first time exposed to the fire of cannon.  The fortifications had been maintained and improved, notably by Vauban, who remodelled them in the light of developing military science, but already before the war were rightly considered obsolete. The town contained an arsenal, barracks, military and civil hospitals, and a municipal college. Its population of barely 5,000 was mostly employed in the manufacture of iron ware, cotton thread, sugar, and leather. It is entered by 3 roads, 1 from the east, 1 from Orsinval and the north through the Valenciennes Gate, and 1 from the south-east passing between 2 lakes and entering by the Landrecies Gate.


The principal blow was to be delivered on the morning of 4th November, 1918 along the front of the Fourth Third and First Armies for a distance of about 30 miles from the Sambre, north of Oisy, to Valenciennes, with the co-operation of the French First Army southwards. The Sambre itself on the right of the attack, the Mormal Forest, the thickset nature of the country generally, and the successive river lines falling to the Scheldt across the direction of the advance, threatened to prove difficult obstacles. It was the Allies' intention, however, now to secure that complete victory which had just eluded their grasp in October and which would hurl the Germans back on the Meuse. Nor were their hopes to be disappointed or deferred. It should, moreover, be noted that while the French and Americans were exercising great and increasing pressure towards the Meuse, it was the decisive operation now undertaken by the British Armies which definitely crushed the enemy's resistance, forced retreats in front and on either flank, and compelled him to sue for an armistice. Rich in dramatic values, the pursuit of the broken forces of the invaders brought the Armies of the Empire back to Mons and over the Belgian frontier. These final operations are called the Battle of the Sambre (1st-11th November).

The role allotted to the Division was, in conjunction with the 37th Division on the right and the 62nd Division of the VI. Corps on the left, to attack and establish a line from the western edge of the Mormal Forest northwards through the more distant outskirts of Herbignies to the cross-roads at Tous Vents. This line was nearly 4 miles east of our present positions and 2½ miles beyond the eastern ramparts of Le Quesnoy. Should opportunity offer, it was proposed to exploit success still further eastwards through the Mormal Forest. 

Without intense bombardment, which would destroy historic monuments and material wealth and cause casualties among the civil population, a frontal assault on the fortress-town was impossible. It was arranged therefore to envelop it from the flanks. The attacking troops would move past on the south and north of it to a series of intermediate objectives, forming as they advanced flanks to face and eventually to encircle the town. During this movement the ramparts would be screened by smoke. The operations proposed fell into 5 phases: 

(a) 5.30 a.m.—The Rifle Brigade, with 3 battalions in the line, would capture the railway and draw an are round the western side of Le Quesnoy from south to north (the Blue Line).

(b) 7.29 a.m.—The reserve battalion of the Rifle Brigade would pass through the right battalion south of the town, and a battalion of the 1st Brigade, at 7.51 a.m., pass through the left battalion north of the town, both battalions establishing positions which would be in a level with and beyond the eastern ramparts, but not yet connected with each other. (The Blue Dotted Line.)

(c) 8.56 a.m.—Two fresh battalions of the 1st Brigade would pass through the Blue Dotted Line north of the town, gradually striking south-east as well as east, and meeting a further advance (beginning 8.47 a.m.) of the reserve battalion of the Rifle Brigade on the south of the town. The converging movements would meet on the Green Line, and the 1st Brigade take over the whole front. The Rifle Brigade would mop up Le Quesnoy.

(d) 10.20 a.m.—The same two 1st Brigade battalions would advance from the Green Line for the final objective. (The Red Line.)

(e) Should enemy resistance weaken, patrols would establish the Red Dotted Line some 3,000 yards further eastwards.

Progress was made further into the Mormal Forest, but at midnight, 5th/6th November, 2nd Otago, 2nd Canterbury and 2nd Auckland, the last New Zealand infantry to be in the line, together with the support troops of the 2nd Brigade began to be relieved by the 42nd Division.  1st and 3rd Artillery Brigades continued in support of the British and followed over the Bavay road. On the 11th the New Zealand batteries moved back to Villereau towards the Divisional area.

The result of the brilliant and final victory of the 4th and succeeding days was to break once for all German resistance. Rawlinson and the French by their advance on the right had turned the pivot of resistance on the Sambre. Opposition had been shown to the First Army on the 5th and 6th, but by the 9th the enemy was in forced retreat along the front of the attack and to the extreme northern limit of the British sector, where the Fifth Army captured Tournai and the Second Army crossed the Scheldt and reached Renaix. On 10th November, with cavalry and cyclists preceding the infantry, the advance of the 5 British Armies had continued, reaching the environs of Grammont and Ath. In the early morning of the 11th the Canadians had captured Mons. "The enemy was capable neither of accepting nor refusing battle. The utter confusion of his troops, the state of his railways congested with abandoned trains, the capture of huge quantities of rolling stock and material, all showed that our attack had been decisive. It had been followed on the north by the evacuation of the Tournai salient and to the south, where the French forces had pushed forward with us, by a rapid and costly withdrawal to the line of the Meuse. The strategic plan of the Allies had been realised with a completeness rarely seen in war. When the armistice was signed by the enemy, his defensive powers had already been definitely destroyed. A continuation of hostilities could only have meant disaster to the German Armies and the armed invasion of Germany.

Together with the Division and the Otago Mounted Rifles, the Cyclists also had since August been engaged in the British offensive partly with the III. Corps (temporarily commanded by General Godley) but mainly with the XXII. Corps. On occasion they had experienced hard fighting. In this last battle also they took an active part, and one of their companies was actually in the outpost line near Givry when hostilities ceased. 

If the Division felt some regret that this interesting experience was denied them, they had every reason to feel satisfaction with the result of their 2 days' operations. In their last action they had surpassed even their own high standard. They had seized all objectives assigned, and had driven a deep wedge with unrivalled rapidity into the German line. The passage of the Mormal Forest on the 5th under conditions of aggravated difficulty was in itself a notable performance; and, judged by material gains, the operations on the 4th were the most successful of all the Division's actions during the war. On that day they had advanced 6 miles, capturing Le Quesnoy, Ramponeau, Villereau, Potelle and Herbignies with nearly 2,000 prisoners, 60 field guns, many complete with gunners drivers and horses, and hundreds of machine guns. The German Staff professed a belief in the deterioration of their enemies' morale. They were never more mistaken. The spirit animating the British Armies was of the highest.

The élan displayed by every arm and every unit of the New Zealand Division received recognition in a unique order issued by General Russell on the 8th in Le Quesnoy:—“The Divisional Commander wishes to express to all ranks his appreciation of their work during the past fortnight's operations. At no time has the Division fought with more spirit and determination, nor have its efforts at any time been crowned with greater success. The Divisional Commander is convinced that the results achieved are due to the determination of every individual to do his utmost towards the common end."

Source: New Zealand Electronic Text Centre