The battle of the Sambre of 1918 was the BEF’s last major battle of the First World War. The retreating Germans had one last pre-prepared defensive position, in part along the Sambre canal. By early November peace negotiations were well underway, but there was still a chance that the Germans would try and hold on into 1919 and try and fight a defensive battle on the German frontier. The BEF had been fighting and advancing since the battle of Amiens, giving it three months of experience of victory, but also meaning that it was running short of men and tanks, while the winter weather was beginning to have an effect on the fighting.
The BEF was given the task of attacking the Sambre line, in an attempt to prevent the Germans from stopping the Allied advance. The attack is examined corps by corps, and division by division, looking at the different problems faced by each unit, their levels of experience, their opponents, and tracing the course of each individual battle within the overall offensive. The result can be a bit dry in places, but does produce useful results.
This book gives an interesting insight into the role of the tank in this period. There weren’t enough of them left running by November for the BEF to rely on them, but whenever one did get to the front it could have a major impact, with several tanks recording as taking out a series of machine gun nests, allowing the infantry to advance at a lower cost than would otherwise have been the case.
The author’s main conclusion is that different parts of the BEF were at different stages of their learning curve during this battle, with some having absorbed the lessons of the war, making then very effective uses of combined arms tactics, with leaders capable of adapting flexibly to events on the battlefield, while others were less experienced, less flexible and as a result less successful, but despite these differences the BEF was more than capable of overcoming the last gasp resistance of the German army, which could still put up a good fight for some time, but lacked the resilience to hold out for an entire day.
1 - Contexts
2 - XVII Corps
3 - VI Corps
4 - IV Corps
5 - V Corps
6 - XIII Corps
7 - IX Corps
Author: Derek Clayton