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Wilfred Owen's Places: The Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors (Looking North)

Wilfred Owen killed in Action.

The Sambre-Oise Canal at Ors

This photograph shows the exact location on the towpath of the Sambre-Oise canal where, on 4th November 1918 at 5.50 a.m., Wilfred Owen and his "D" Company of the 2nd Bn. Manchester Regiment, lined the bank ready to attempt a crossing of the canal and then to attack the Germans holding the opposite bank (attacking left to right on the photograph). Their objective was in the region of La Motte farm. The Manchesters’ "C" Company was in position to Owen’s right hand as he faced the far bank and next to them and holding the canal bank and the village of Ors with its canal lock and broken bridge, was the lst Bn. Dorsetshire Regiment. As will be seen in the picture, the canal bends to the left and it was just round this bend that the 16th Bn. Lancashire Fusiliers, under the command of the former second in command (he of the 10 wounds…..and the…. utterly soldierly soldier) of the 2nd Manchesters-Lieutenant-Colonel J.N.Marshall (Irish Gds.)-took up their positions on the canal bank.

The success of the battalions’ coming attack would depend firstly, on the effectiveness and superiority of the British artillery. Secondly, on the co-operation of the 206th and 218th Field Companies of the Royal Engineers together with men from the Division’s Pioneer battalion, the 16th Bn. Highland Light Infantry (City of Glasgow Regt.). Their task was to construct rafts, pontoons and bridges (rigid and floating) so that the attackers could first negotiate the wide and deep ditches beside the canal and then get across the canal itself to form a bridgehead on the far bank. Additionally, they were required to bridge the gap at the Ors lock so that the Dorsets could get across and this involved floating a pontoon carrying a span of bridge down the canal and into the lock. Furthermore, in order to assist the 1st Dorset’s attack, an officer in that battalion was to cross the canal in a collapsible boat.

In the event, the pontoon carrying the span of bridge was destroyed by enemy fire and the Dorsets’ officer-Lt Cassalman-failed to reach the canal’s far bank when his collapsible boat capsized. Despite the bravery of the men of 218th Field Company R.E. and the very heavy casualties suffered, the bridges they constructed for the Manchesters and Lancashire Fusiliers, were quickly destroyed although two platoons of the Manchesters succeeded in getting across to the far bank. A Manchesters’ officer, 2nd Lt James Kirk won a posthumous Victoria Cross here. Before being shot in the head he had paddled himself out across the canal on a raft and opened fire with a Lewis gun on the defending German forces.

Lt.Colonel Marshall also won a posthumous V.C. being killed when he attempted to lead his men across a floating bridge which the 218th Field Company R.E. had just repaired.

Miraculously, despite intense artillery and machine-gun fire at close range, both Major Waters and Sapper Archibald of 218th Field Company who had both been involved in the attempts to bridge the canal survived. They were both awarded the V.C.

Wilfred Owen did not survive. Somewhere on the bank in this picture he was killed. His friend 2nd Lt. Foulkes, who was wounded in the attack, said that Owen was last seen trying to cross the canal on a raft under very heavy gunfire.

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