The Battle of the Selle River (17th-25th October, 1918)

The preliminary attack was initiated south of Le Cateau on 17th October by the Fourth Army, in co-operation with a French Army on their right. Heavy fighting ensued, but by the 19th the attacking troops were on the Sambre-et-Oise Canal south of Catillon and thence held a line along the Richemont stream east and north of Le Cateau. The right flank thus secured, the main preliminary attack on the Selle crossings was opened, on the 20th, when the Third and the right wing of the First Armies assaulted north of Le Cateau. In this operation the IV. Corps used the 5th on the right and 42nd Division on the left. Unless opposition should have ceased, it was not proposed for this first day to advance on the IV. Corps front beyond the high steep ridge south of Marou and beyond the road from Marou to Romeries. The attack would be continued on the 21st, but in the event of serious opposition it would be undertaken by fresh troops.


While the New Zealand infantry were to play no part in the opening moves, the artillery and certain other troops lent active support to the 42nd Division. In the preliminary attack had succeeded incapturing their final objective, but only after stubborn fighting. The general situation and the moving forward of our heavy artillery necessitated a slight pause before the larger advance all along the line towards the Mormal Forest and Valenciennes. It was arranged that this grand attack should be delivered on the 23rd by the Fourth Third and part of the First Armies on a frontage of 15 miles. For this operation the IV. Corps, continuing to strike north-east, proposed that a first limited stage of the attack should be carried out by the 5th and 42nd Divisions in the line, and that thereafter the 37th and New Zealand Divisions should pass through them to a series of intermediate objectives and on to the final objective. The advance of 20th October to the ridge south of Marou and the southwestern outskirts of Romeries had brought the Corps line to a distance of 2 miles east of the Selle. The task set the leading Divisions for the 23rd was to carry Beaurain and establish a line east of it with the left flank resting on Romeries and facing the village of Vertigneul.

By nightfall of the 24th, 2nd Canterbury had established outposts across the valley, with their left flank over the Le Quesnoy-Ruesnes road. During the day they captured an officer and 13 men, with 9 machine guns. To the north and north-east the high ground in their centre commanded a wide and diversified view over rich peaceful country. But it was not in that direction that the now exhausted men's eyes were turned. Only a mile eastwards, between intervening coppices, could be discerned the dense tree-tops which hid the ramparts of the ancient and famous fortress of Le Quesnoy.

By this time the Army objectives had been achieved generally all along the front. The line now ran from the western edge of the Mormal Forest past the western outskirts of Le Quesnoy and thence along the lower Rhonelle towards the Scheldt west of Valenciennes. On the New Zealanders' front the enemy was found to be established in strength along the Cambrai and Valenciennes railways. But northwards the 3rd Division had occupied Ruesnes and found indications in the forenoon of a further withdrawal. Immediately in front of Le Quesnoy the 3rd Rifles, apart from effecting local improvement in their position, could do little, but an advance might be effected round the town on the north. Orders were issued, therefore, for the 4th Battalion on the left to make good by the evening the line of the Valenciennes railway north-west of Le Quesnoy, after which the 2nd Battalion would pass through for exploitation.

The Rifle Brigade's effort was thus made when the action had already virtually reached its close. The Division, however, had been fully represented in the Corps' operations. The artillery and Engineers had borne an active share from the outset. The infantry's participation did not extend to the opening move of the 20th, and except for the Rifles' attack on the enemy's reorganised line was confined to the 2nd Brigade's advance on the 23rd and 24th. Its performance had, nevertheless, fully reached the level of the Division's best achievements up to this time. All objectives had been seized or passed with exemplary speed and precision. 524 prisoners and 8 guns, in addition to a vast array of machine guns and other trophies had been captured. 2nd Otago's skilful and resolute work at the St. Georges river, and 1st Canterbury's dashing and energetic seizure of the Ecaillon bridgeheads were exploits as gallant and successful as any in the long and honourable records of these battalions. Less dramatic but not less instinct with the soldierly spirit were the bold handling of the artillery, indefatigably eager and supremely competent to take advantage of fleeting targets and assist the line of bayonets; the staunch determination, true to death, of the Engineers at Pont-à-Pierres; and the impetuosity of the machine gunners, content only with a place in the foremost line. Nor did the administrative personnel escape dangers and fatigues or fail to overcome them. See more...

Source: New Zealand Electronic Text Centre