London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Le Cateau in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton


LE CATEAU

The battle of August 26th is loosely spoken of as the Cambrai—Le Cateau battle, but, as a matter of fact, the British troops were never within half a dozen miles of Cambrai, nor, for that matter, were they actually at Le Cateau itself. The 5th Division on the right reached from a point halfway between Le Cateau and Reumont to Troisvilles, the 15th Brigade, which was its left-hand brigade, being just east of that place. Then came the three brigades of the 3rd Division, the 9th Brigade being north of Troisvilles, the 8th Brigade on the left of it north of Audencourt, with the 7th Brigade curled round the northern side of Caudry in the form of a horseshoe. Beyond was the 4th Division at Hautcourt. The whole frontage covered about eight miles, and for half that distance ran along north of the Cambrai to St. Quentin railway.
The 4th Division, under Gen. Snow, had just arrived from England; and these fresh troops were already in position when the Mons army straggled in on the night of the 25th and was told off to its various allotted posts by busy staff officers. The allotted posts did not turn out to be all that had been hoped for. Trenches, it is true, had been prepared (dug by French woman labour!), but many faced the wrong way, and all were too short. The short ones could be lengthened, but the others had to be redug. The men were dead beat: the ground baked hard, and there were no entrenching tools—these having long ago been thrown away. Picks were got from the farms and the men set to work as best they could, but of shovels there were practically none, and in the majority of cases the men scooped up the loosened earth with mess-tins and with their hands. The result was, trenches by courtesy, but poor things to stand between tired troops and the terrific artillery fire to which they were presently to be subjected.

The battle of Le Cateau was in the main an artillery duel, and a very unequal one at that. The afternoon infantry attack was only sustained by certain devoted regiments who failed to interpret with sufficient readiness the order to retire. Some of these regiments—as the price of their ignorance of how to turn their backs to the foe—were all but annihilated. But this is a later story. Up to midday the battle was a mere artillery duel. Our infantry lined their inadequate trenches and were bombarded for some half a dozen hours on end. Our artillery replied with inconceivable heroism, but they were outnumbered by at least five to one. They also—perhaps with wisdom—directed their fire more at the infantry than at the opposing batteries. The former could be plainly seen massing in great numbers on the crest of the ridge some two thousand yards away, and advancing in a succession of lines down the slope to the hidden ground below. They presented a tempting target, and their losses from our shrapnel must have been enormous. By the afternoon, however, many of our batteries had been silenced, and the German gunners had it more or less their own way. The sides were too unequal. Our infantry then became mere targets—Kanonen Futter. It was an ordeal of the most trying description conceivable, and one which can only arise where the artillery of one side is hopelessly outnumbered by that of the other; and it is to be doubted whether any other troops in the world would have stood it as long as did the 2nd Army Corp at Le Cateau. The enemy's bombardment was kept up till midday. Then it slackened off so as to allow of the further advance of their infantry, who by this time had pushed forward into the concealment of the low ground, just north of the main road. By this time some of the 5th Division had begun to dribble away. That awful gun fire, to which our batteries were no longer able to reply, coupled with the insufficient trenches, was too much for human endurance. Sir Charles Fergusson, the Divisional General, with an absolute disregard of personal danger, galloped about among the bursting shells exhorting the division to stand fast. An eye-witness said that his survival through the day was nothing short of a miracle. It was a day indeed when the entire Staff from end to end of the line worked with an indefatigable heroism which could not be surpassed. In the 19th Brigade, for instance, Captain Jack, 1st Cameronians, was the sole survivor of the Brigade Staff at the end of the day, and this was through no fault of his. While supervising the retirement of the Argyll and Sutherlands, he coolly walked up and down the firing line without a vestige of protection, but by some curious law of chances was not hit. He was awarded a French decoration.

In spite of all, however, by 2.30 p.m., the right flank of the 5th Division had been turned, the enemy pressing forward into the gap between the two Army Corps, and Sir Charles sent word that the Division could hold its ground no longer. Sir Horace sent up all the available reserves he had, viz., the 1st Cameronians and 2nd R. Welsh Fusiliers from the 19th Brigade, together with a battery, and these helped matters to some extent, but the immense numerical superiority of the enemy made anything in the nature of a prolonged stand impossible, and at 3 p.m. he ordered a general retirement. This was carried out in fairly good order by the 3rd and 4th Divisions, which had been less heavily attacked. The withdrawal of the 5th Division was more irregular, and the regiments which stuck it to the end—becoming practically isolated by the withdrawal of other units to right and left—suffered very severely.

This irregularity in retirement was noticeable all along the battle-front, some battalions grasping the meaning of the general order to retire with more readiness than others. Among those in the 5th Division who were slow to interpret the signal were the King's Own Scottish Borderers and the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
These two 13th Brigade battalions were next one another just north of Reumont, with the Manchester Regiment on the right of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry It was common talk among the men of the 5th Division that the French were coming up in support, and that, therefore, there must be no giving way. The French in question were—and only could be—Gen. Sordet's cavalry, who, at the time, were plodding away in rear on their forty mile trek to the left flank of our army, and who could never under any circumstances have been of help to the 5th Division on the right of the Le Cateau battle-front. However, that was the rumour and they held on. Some of the King's Own Scottish Borderers in the first line trenches saw some men on their flank retiring, and, thinking it was a general order, followed suit. Col. Stephenson personally re-conducted them back to their trenches. He was himself almost immediately afterwards knocked out by a shell; but the force of example had its effect, and there was no more retiring till the general order to that effect was unmistakable. This was about three o'clock. The final retirement of those battalions which had held on till the enemy was on the top of them was very difficult, and very costly in casualties, as they were mowed down by shrapnel and machine-gun fire the moment they left their trenches. It was during this retirement that Corpl. Holmes, of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, won his Victoria Cross by picking up a wounded comrade and carrying him over a mile under heavy fire. Another Victoria Cross in the same battalion was won that day by Major Yate under very dramatic circumstances. His company had been in the second line of trenches during the bombardment, and had suffered terribly from the enemy's shell-fire directed at one of our batteries just behind. When the German infantry came swarming up in the afternoon, there were only nineteen sound men left in the company. These nineteen kept up their fire to the last moment and then left the trench and charged, headed by Major Yate. There could be but one result. Major Yate fell mortally wounded, and his gallant band of Yorkshiremen ceased to exist. It was the Thermopylae of B Company, 2nd King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry This battalion lost twenty officers and six hundred men during the battle, and was probably the heaviest sufferer in the 5th Division. It stuck it till the last moment and the enemy got round its right flank.

The 3rd Division line, further west, was also forced about three o'clock in the afternoon, when the enemy in great numbers broke through towards Troisvilles, to the right of the 9th Brigade, causing the whole division to retire. The actual order to retire in this case was passed down by word of mouth from right to left by galloping Staff officers, who—in the pandemonium that was reigning—were unable to get in touch with all the units of each battalion. As a result the retirement was necessarily irregular, and—as in the case of the 5th Division—the battalions that "stuck it" longest found themselves isolated and in time surrounded. This was the case with the 1st Gordon Highlanders, in the 8th Brigade, to whom the order to retire either never penetrated, or to whom it was too distasteful to be acted upon with promptitude. The exact circumstances of the annihilation of this historic battalion will never be known till the war is over, but the nett result was that it lost 80 per cent. of its strength in killed, wounded and missing. The same fate overtook one company of the 2nd R. Scots in the same brigade. This company was practically wiped out and the battalion as a whole had some 400 casualties in killed and wounded. The whole division, in fact, suffered very severely in carrying out the retirement, the ground to the rear being very open and exposed, and the enemy's rifle and machine-gun fire incessant. The village of Audencourt had been heavily shelled all day and was a mass of blazing ruins, effectually barring any retirement by the high road, and forcing the retreating troops to take to the open country. Once, however, behind the railway, the retreat became more organized, and a series of small rear-guard fights were put up from behind the shelter of the embankment.

The 23rd Brigade R.F.A., under Col. Butler, put in some most efficient work at this period, and materially assisted the retirement of the 8th Brigade. With remarkable coolness the gunners, entirely undisturbed by the general confusion reigning, continued to drop beautifully-timed shells among the advancing German infantry. The work of the artillery, in fact, all along the line was magnificent, and deeds of individual heroism were innumerable. The 37th Battery, for instance, kept up its shrapnel-fire on the advancing lines of Germans till these were within 300 yards of its position. Then Captain Reynolds, with some volunteer drivers, galloped up with two teams, and hitched them on to the two guns which had not been knocked out. Incredible as it may appear, in view of the hail of bullets directed at them, one of these guns was got safely away. The other was not. Captain Reynolds and Drivers Luke and Brain were given the Victoria Cross for this exploit. Sergt. Browne, of the same battery, got the D.C.M. The 80th Battery was another that distinguished itself by exceptional gallantry at Ligny during the retreat, and three of its N.C.O.'s won the D.C.M. Near the same place the 135th Battery also covered itself with glory. In fact, it is not too much to say that the situation on the afternoon of August 26th was very largely saved by the splendid heroism of our Field Artillery; and for the exploits of this branch of the service alone the battle of Le Cateau must always stand out as a bright spot in the annals of British arms.

The Germans did not pursue the 3rd Division beyond the line of the villages above named. In the case of the 5th Division there was no pursuit at all, in the strict sense of the term. That is to say, there were no rear-guard actions. The division made its way through Reumont, to the continuation of the straight Roman road by which it had reached Le Cateau, and down this road it continued its retreat unmolested. Rain began to fall heavily and numbers of the men, heedless alike of rain or of pursuing Germans, dropped like logs by the roadside and slept.

The extrication of the Le Cateau army from a position which, on paper, was all but hopeless, was undoubtedly a very fine piece of generalship on the part of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The Commander in Chief in his despatch wrote: "I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command, on the morning of August 26th, could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation."