Lock No 1, Bois de l'Abbaye: 4th November 1918

2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment

Lock No 1 Battlefield, November 1918. This photo shows the ground over which the 2nd Royal Sussex advanced. (©Paul Reed)

Lock No 1 on the Oise-Sambre Canal was the extreme right wing of the British advance on 4th November 1918. It was here British positions joined with the French. On 4th November a crossing was forced at the Lock, involving units from the 1st Division, which had pretty much been in continuous action since the summer.

The attack was led by 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Dudley Johnson DSO (pictured right). They were assisted by the 409th Field Company Royal Engineers and 1st Australian Tunneling Company. The Royal Engineers supplied bridging parties to cross a small stream in front of the canal, and then larger bridges to cross the Lock. The Australians supplied parties with Bangalore Torpedoes and Push-Pipe mines to cut the wire. With the wire cut, and the obstacles bridged, the Sussex lads would storm the lock from positions just outside the nearby village of Rejet-de-Beaulieu, cross the canal and take the buildings and ground beyond towards Bois de l'Abbaye.

The assault began at 05.45 on 4th November, and while the wire was widely cut, the stream proved much wider than originally thought and some of the bridges needed for the lock had to be used to cross. Casualties in the Engineers were especially high, and much of the man-handling of the bridges had to be done by the infantry. Machine-gun fire from the Royal Sussex Lewis guns silenced the Germans in the Lock House, and the bridges

Map of the Lock, from Battalion War Diary (TNA WO95/1269).

were put in place and the Lock crossed, although some crossed on the Lock Gates themselves. By early morning most objectives had been taken, and the main road beyond Bois de l'Abbaye reached and held. One irony here struck a handful of men serving in 2nd Royal Sussex; as 'Old Contemptibles', members of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, they had marched down this road in the Retreat From Mons in August 1914; incredibly in what would be their last battle, they ended up back in the same places as four years before!

A large number of gallantry awards were awarded for bravery in this action, among them two Victoria Crosses to the officers who led 2nd Royal Sussex and 409th Field Company. Lt-Col Dudley Johnson's citation from the London Gazette reads:

"Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Johnson D.S.O., M.C., South Wales Borderers, attached 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex, for most conspicuous bravery and leadership during the forcing of the Sambre Canal on November 4th, 1918. The 2nd Infantry Brigade, of which 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex formed part, was ordered to cross the lock south of Catellon. The position was strong and before the bridge could be thrown, a steep bank leading up to the lock and a waterway about 100 yards short of the canal had to be crossed. The assaulting platoons and bridging parties Royal Engineers, on their arrival at the waterway were thrown into confusion by a heavy barrage and machine gun fire and heavy casualties were caused. At this moment Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson arrived and realising the situation at once collected men to man the bridges and assist the Royal Engineers and personally led the assault. In spite of his efforts heavy fire again broke up the assaulting and bridging parties. Without any hesitation he again organised the platoons and bridging parties and led them at the lock, this time succeeding in effecting a crossing after which all went well. During all this time Lieutenant-Colonel Johnson was under heavy fire, which, though it nearly decimated the assaulting columns, left him untouched. His conduct was a fine example of great valour, coolness and intrepidity, which, added to his splendid leadership and offensive spirit that he had inspired in his Battalion, were entirely responsible for the successful crossing."

The commander of the 409th Field Company RE, himself wounded in the action, was also awarded the Victoria Cross. Major George de Cardonnel Elmsall Findlay MC was born in 1889, and had previously been decorated at Passchendaele. His citation from the London Gazette reads:

"For conspicuous bravery and devotion to duty during the forcing of the Sambre-Oise canal at the Lock, two miles from Catillon, on 4 November 1918, when in charge of the bridging operations at this crossing. Major Findlay was with the leading bridging and assaulting parties which came under heavy fire while trying to cross the dyke between the forming-up line and the Lock. The casualties were severe and the advance was stopped. Nevertheless, under heavy and incessant fire he collected what men he could and repaired the bridges, in spite of heavy casualties in officers and other ranks. Although wounded, Major Findlay continued his task and after two unsuccessful efforts, owing to his men being swept down, he eventually placed the bridge in position across the Lock, and was the first man across, subsequently remaining at this post of danger till further work was completed. His cool and gallant behaviour inspired volunteers from different units at a critical time when men became casualties almost as soon as they joined him in the fire-swept zone, and it was due to Major Findlay's gallantry and devotion to duty that this most important crossing was effected."

Both men would survive WW1; Dudley Johnson would go on to command a Division in France in 1940, and serve throughout WW2; he died in 1975. Findlay also served in WW2 and later became Deputy Lieutenant of the County of Dumbarton in 1957. He died in Scotland in 1967.

Visiting The Lock No 1 Battlefield

Start at the village of Le Rejet-de-Beaulieu, where these units from 1st Division assembled on the eve of the battle. The majority of the dead from the action are buried in the civilian cemetery (GPS location 50°02.464'N, 3°37.938'E). There are 52 graves here, most of them from 2nd Royal Sussex Regiment and 409th Field Company RE. The Australian Tunnellers who died in the attack are also buried here; they are the last Australian battle casualties on the Western Front in WW1 (cemetery, below).

From here follow the D662 from Rejet-de-Beaulieu to the main road, D946, and turn left. You will cross over the Sambre canal, and after just under half a mile from the canal, take the first left for 'l'Ermitage'. Follow this minor road to its conclusion, next to a disused café. Park near here and walk up to the canal Lock and Lock house. This is the original building that was here in November 1918; compare the photo at the top of the page with the one below.

Just beyond the Lock House is the memorial to the 2nd Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment. This was erected by two 2nd Royal Sussex veterans in the late 1980s, one of whom was 'Josh' Grover MM. You can cross the Lock via the Lock Gates, and follow the path beyond the picnic table. This takes you down to the stream where most of the casualties were suffered in trying to cross it. 

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Memorial to 2nd Royal Sussex. Stream in front of the canal.

You can follow the track all the way back to Rejet-de-Beaulieu (which can be seen across the fields), but go a short way and look back, comparing the 1918 view above. The ground here has changed little in 90 years.


©Paul Reed 2008

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