The Battle of the Sambre, 4 November 1918, was a decisive British victory. The battle has, however, been to some extent somewhat neglected by historians: it was the last large-scale, set-piece battle fought by the British Expeditionary Force on the Western Front: the Armistice was only one week away. Seven Victoria Crosses were won and the poet Wilfred Owen was killed in action. In scale it was similar to the first day of the Battle of the Somme: thirteen divisions of the BEF led the assault on a frontage of approximately twenty miles, supported by over a thousand guns, with initial plans presuming an involvement of up to seventy tanks and armoured cars. The German Army was determined to hold a defensive line incorporating the Mormal Forest and the Sambre-Oise Canal, hoping to buy time for a strategic withdrawal to as yet incomplete defensive positions between Antwerp and the Meuse river and thereby negotiate a compromise peace in the spring of 1919. This is the only book devoted solely to this battle and includes original, bespoke, colour maps covering every inch of the battlefield. The work analyses the battle at the operational and tactical levels: the BEF was no longer striving for a breakthrough – sequential ‘bite and hold’ was now the accepted method of advance. Drawing on information largely from unpublished archives, including over 300 formation or unit war diaries, Dr Clayton casts a critical eye over the day’s events, examining the difference between plan and reality; the tactical proficiency of units engaged; the competence of commanders, some of whom proved capable of pragmatic flexibility in the face of stubborn enemy resistance and were able to adapt or even abandon original plans in order to ensure ultimate success. The role of the Royal Engineers is also highlighted, their tasks including devising improvised bridging equipment to facilitate the crossing of the waterway. Other questions are raised and answered: to what extent was this an ‘all-arms’ battle? Where does this engagement fit in the context of the BEF’s ‘learning curve’? Was it necessary to fight the battle at all? Was it indeed decisive? Dr Clayton’s analysis places the battle into its wider strategic context and reaches important, new conclusions: that this victory, hard-won as it was by a British army hampered by logistical, geographical and meteorological constraints and worn down by the almost continuous hard fighting of the summer and autumn, irrevocably and finally crushed the will of the German defenders, leading to a pursuit of a demoralised, broken and beaten army, whose means of continued resistance had been destroyed, thus expediting the armistice.
DECISIVE VICTORY The Battle of Sambre, 4th November 1918
The Battle of Sambre was the last of the large scale “set piece” actions on the Western Front. By that time, the German Armies had been under attacks since late July; had lost ground and huge numbers of men; and were heading towards defeat. But there was as yet no room for British complacency as their own losses had been enormous; their supply lines were becoming stretched; and the enemy had a maddening habit of continuing to fight despite everything. The book reveals how planning and preparations were still underway when the battle began, and that, while it was a clear success, things did not all go smoothly for the attacking side. Clayton argues – convincingly – that the British had reached an operational and tactical zenith in the offensives of August and September, and that by the Sambre the weather, ground and logistics worked against the all-arms technological warfare that had proven so successful. He concludes that the victory stemmed from the capability and experience of British command and well trained small units. Good maps help the reader and overall a very worthwhile book.
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