Western Front 1918: The German Offensives


The Battle of the Selle, 17 – 25 October 1918

By 11 October British forces had closed up upon the retreating Germans, now hastily dug-in immediately to the east of the River Selle. Haig, sensing the enemy’s near exhaustion, initiated a series of operations designed to get British troops in strength across the river, and clear a way for a move against the Sambre-Oise Canal, a further five miles to the east.

Lorries carrying infantry forward near Joncourt whilst gunners of the Royal Field Artillery pull an 18-pounder field gun from a ditch.After a six day halt for preparations and artillery bombardments Fourth Army troops attacked in thick mist at 5.20am on Thursday 17 October; infantry and tanks, preceded by a creeping barrage, moved forward on a ten mile front south of Le Cateau. The centre and left of Fourth Army forced crossings of the river despite unexpectedly tenacious enemy resistance and much uncut wire. Fighting was particularly fierce along the line of the Le Cateau – Wassigny railway. The right of the attack, across the upland watershed of the Selle, made most progress and by nightfall enemy defences had been broken and Le Cateau captured. Severe fighting continued on 18 and 19 October, by which time Fourth Army (much assisted by the French First Army on its right) had advanced over five miles, harrying the enemy back towards the Sambre-Oise canal.

Third and First British Armies (immediately to the left, north, of Fourth Army) maintained the offensive pressure next day. In a surprise joint night attack in the early morning of 20 October Third Army formations secured the high ground east of the Selle. Following a two day pause, to bring up heavy artillery, the attack was renewed on 23 October with a major combined assault by Fourth, Third and First Armies; the fighting, which continued into the next day, resulted in further gains.

The Battle of the Selle constituted a highly significant British victory: considerable advances were made and over 20,000 prisoners taken.


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