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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment


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I understand that Wilfred Owen of the Manchester Regiment was killed in action on 4th November 1918 and was involved in the crossing of the Sambre Canal which was taking place on that day.

Is anyone in able to add any more details as to how he died and what the Manchesters were doing on that day? I have a number of casualties that I am researching in the Highland Light Infantry who were KIA on the same day helping to build bridges across the canal



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Helen McPhail & Philip Guest have it all in their Leo Cooper 'Wilfred Owen' and it must be covered somewhere on this huge and wondrous site.

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It actually isnt very well covered in either the Manchester's War Diary or any of the Histories. This is the write=up of one of my memorial researchees, James Kirk who was KIA with Owen. It might give you a flaour:-

"Just before 6am, on 4 November 1918, James was with two companies of the Battalion, and other troops, on the towpath of the Sambre-Oise canal, near the village of Ors in northern France. The Germans were entrenched on the opposite bank. The key to the success of the attack would be the ability of Royal Engineers units to construct rafts and pontoons that would allow the British troops to storm across.

There is nothing to add to the extract from the London Gazette, 3 January 1919, which confirmed his posthumous Victoria Cross award.

“For most conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty north of Ors on 4 November 1918, whilst attempting to bridge the Oise canal. To cover the bridging of the canal he took a Lewis gun and, under intense machine gun fire, paddled across the canal on a raft and, at a range of ten yards, expended all his ammunition. Further ammunition was paddled across to him and he continuously maintained a covering fire for the bridging party from a most exposed position till killed at his gun. The supreme contempt of danger and magnificent self-sacrifice displayed by this gallant officer prevented many casualties and enabled two platoons to cross the bridge before it was destroyed.”

James had been wounded in the face and arm, before being shot through the head. He died instantly.

The Official History of the War recounts “The attempt by 2nd Manchesters and 16th Lancashire Fusiliers to cross the canal, north of Ors, was unsuccessful. 218th Field Company, Royal Engineers, threw two bridges, but the southern one was smashed after two platoons had crossed, machine gun fire prevented the use of the other and over two hundred casualties were suffered.”

James is buried alongside the poet Wilfred Owen who served with him in the 2nd Battalion and was also killed. Four Victoria Crosses were won in that action. The War ended a week later. "


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Dominic Hibberd's excellent biography of Owen adds a little more...

Two Manchester Companies (one of them Owen's) were to assemble back from the canal to avoid the initial 5 minute barrage on the far bank. The barrage would then lift 300 yds to in front of La Motte farm.

When the barrage lifted from the bank, the companies were to rush forward and provide covering fire whilst the infantry assault bridge was built across the canal. The intention was they would then cross before the barrage in front of La Motte farm ended (30 minutes). The Manchesters were in a lane a quarter of a mile from the canal, and the first part went well, as they rushed to the bank and the piers of the bridge were put in place.

But then, machine guns and trench mortars opend fire on them, and fog that had shielded them began to clear. James Kirk (mentioned above) took a Lewis gun on a raft and paddled across to lead the attack. A Major Walters went across to help complete it. He then led two platoons of the Manchesters across before the bridge was smashed by a shell.

Wilfred was killed soon after this; according to his mother Susan Owen, two men from his platoon went to see her and said he was killed whilst "helping his men to get some planks across". He was possibly also on a raft, but the actual details will never be known.

Shortly after, the Manchesters attack was called off, although on the left flank it continued, where Marshall (of the Lancashire fusiliers) I believe won another of the VC s.


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The 16th HLI had become the 32nd div pioneer Bttn in feb 1918. From the Bttn History is the following:


The last staged battle of the war - the Battle of the Sambre!

On November 4 the conflict began for the possession of this final moat of the german resistance. the IX Corps was to strike with the 1st Divion on the right and te 32nd Division on the left. This was even a more perilous emprise than the crossing of the St Quentin Canal. Bridges had to be thrown over the heavily-fortified waterway near Sty Souplet, in the dark hours before dawn. Two companies of the 16th HLI, with three companies of the RE, essayed the task. the other two companies were given to the 97th Brigade to assist the infantry attack. The passage was to be on cork floats with connecting timbers, the work of construction to be covered by lewis guns and rifles. Thirty yards away from the pioneers were German canalside nests of machineguns which stuttered in metallic bursts as the building went on in the deep gloom. Flares lit the waters in phosphorescent spasms and silhouetted the builders into easy targets. But the Sappers and pioneers worked grimly on for, without their persistence, the success of the day had been imperilled. A and C companies in this work, suffered severe casualties.

After the fragile bridges were ready, the attacking battalion was ordered to cross, but the leaders hesitated for a moment in the face of staggering enemy fire which claimed their Colonel as one of its first victims. The pioneers of the 16th HLI, observing the delay, appealed to Major H.S.Waters, 218 Field Company RE, under whom the companies were working, to be allowed to essay the capture of the other bank. But the Major, who was to recieve the Victoria Cross for personal bravery during the Battle of the Sambre, refused the request on the ground that they had performed a trying task and suffered sufficient casualties. The two bridges so perilously flung over the Canal, permitted the frail waves of infantry to pass over before being destroyed; but were again in repair to carry the whoilw Division before midday.

The Commander of the Fourth Army sent this message after the successful action -"Please convey to the 32nd Division my congratulations and warm thanks for their success today. The strong opposition they met with on the Canal and the determined way in which they overcame it and forced the passgae is deserving of high praise".

pp124-5 Chalmers

As is mentioned elsewhere in the history, this was the 5th time since 8/8/18 that the Germen front line had been breached by assault, with a 70 mile advance, during 50 miles of which the 32nd Division had been in the front line.


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If you are interested, there are some pictures of the locality in which Wilfred Owen was killed on my website, see here.



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