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THE LANCASHIRE FUSILIERS,
1914-1918
The Sambre-Oise Canal; and the last two V.Cs.
"SAMBRE"
15th and 16th Battalions
At the end of October the right of the British line was close to
the Sambre-Oise Canal but was not right up to it in all places. The
clearing of the remaining German elements on its western bank and
the forcing of the canal itself were therefore the first task to be
accomplished in that quarter. The canal was a formidable obstacle,
being seventy-five feet wide from bank to bank and thirty-five to
forty feet wide at water level except at the locks, where it was
narrower. In November, I918, it had an average depth of seven
feet of water and was everywhere unfordable; all bridges had been
demolished or partly broken. The Germans had provided them–
selves with further protection by flooding the Iow ground on both
sides of the canal and turning much of it into swamps, which were
also fed by small streams, particularly near Ors. The higher ground
on the west of the canal consisted largely of small orchards and
paddocks, enclosed by almost impenetrable hedges, which restricted
observation and made the keeping of direction difficult. To the
east of the water, the country was a series of valleys and ridges,
rather like an English dairy-farming countryside, with much wire
and many hedges.
The main offensive, involving at the outset the forcing of the
water obstacle just described, was timed for 4th November, a
memorable date: for on that day five Victoria Crosses were won by
members of a single brigade group, including an officer and a serjeant
of the XX. It was decided that preliminary operations must be
carried out to obtain complete control of all ground on the west of
the canal, the most important point being the Happegarbes spur
which runs north-west to south-east 2,000 yards west-south-west
of Landrecies and commands the canal as far as Catillon, nearly
three miles away. The capture of this feature was entrusted to the
I5th Battalion (Lieutenant-Colonel C.
E. R.
G. Alban, D.S.O.,
Liverpool Regiment), which moved into the line in the low ground
west of the spur and astride the
Le
Cateau-Landrecies road on 30th
October. At 6 a.m. on 2nd November the battalion attacked on a
three-company front, supported by two tanks, of which only one
survived to reach the objective. For strong resistance was met from
the outset and even the forming-up had to be carried out under
heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Lieutenant C. Lees showed
great coolness and skill in handling his company at this difficult
stage. The battalion fought its way slowly forward. Serjeant
J.
Clarke, who was in command of a platoon, in particular showed
great determination in leading his men on; and when they were
held up by heavy machine-gun fire, he rushed forward through a
thick, strongly-held hedge, captured four machine guns in succession
and bayoneted the crews single-handed. A little later, in spite of
the heavy casualties sustained by his platoon, he led the survivors