Control or Delegation – Battle of the Sambre

I was at the presentation of a paper at Birmingham University this week on the Battle of the Sambre on 4th to 6th November 1918. The battle is mainly remembered for the death of the poet Wilfred Owen.

The details of the battle are not important, except that the Germans were defending a canal, on both sides. The British needed to be able to cross the canal (Owen was killed in attempting to cross).

One interesting aside is that the Royal Engineers (being engineers) started to address the problem of crossing the canal some weeks before anyone else thought about the issue.

The canal crossing had mixed results. In part there was an element of German mistakes, combined with luck. Occupying both banks of the canal meant that the Germans had to be able to cross it themselves, so in some instances had left undefended plank bridges (while heavily defending the stone bridge further along). This allowed British infantry to cross almost unopposed in places. So always adapt a plan to circumstances, and to dumb luck.

Methods of crossing varied from rafts to collapsible boats to bridges. Even the bridges varied from wheeled light bridges to cross a narrow lock to hinged bridges which could be installed quickly to pontoon bridges which had to be bolted together in the water (and thus under fire).

One issue at the Battle of the Somme in 1916 was the attempt to make decisions at Corps level, when they were out of touch with the reality of the front line. At Sambre, General Braithwaite of XII Corps effectively told his divisional commanders “Here is your objective, you decide how to achieve it. Let me know what resources you need”.

The result was much more flexibility in the light of changing circumstances, but also more patchy execution. There was something of a silo mentality, so that captured materials were not shared between Divisions, nor were innovative ideas. Hence the method of bridging the canal varied significantly not only in their method, but in their speed, effectiveness and in their casualty rates.

So what can we learn? As always, delegate not abdicate. Be aware of the potential problems of delegation, as well as its benefits. Set up mechanisms to share best practice and avoid silo thinking, and use your authority as a leader to ensure that these mechanisms work.

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