London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Le Cateau Problem in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE LE CATEAU PROBLEM

It is necessary now to cast a momentary eye upon the general situation of the British forces on the night of August 25th. The 3rd and 5th Divisions, in spite of the severe fighting of the 23rd and 24th, and in spite of great exhaustion, had successfully accomplished the arduous march to the Le Cateau position. The 19th Brigade and the 4th Division, the latter fresh from England, were already there, extending the selected line towards the west. So far, so good. The 1st and 2nd Divisions, however, owing to causes which have already been explained, were not in a position to co-operate; and it was clear that, if battle was to be offered at Le Cateau, the already battered 2nd Army Corp (supplemented by the newly-arrived troops) would have to stand the shock single-handed.

A consideration of these facts induced the Commander in Chief to change his original intention of making a stand behind the Le Cateau road, and he decided to continue his retirement to the single line of rail which runs from St. Quentin to Roisel, where his force would be once more in line. This change of plan he communicated to his two Army Corps commanders, Sir Douglas Haig and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The former fell in with it gladly; the latter, however, was not to the same extent a free agent, and he returned word that, in view of the immense superiority in numbers of the German forces, which were practically treading on his heels, and of the necessarily slow progress made by his tired troops, it was impossible to continue his retirement, and that he had no alternative but to turn and fight. To which the Commander in Chief replied that he must do the best he could, but that he could give him no support from the 1st Army Corp, that corps being effectively cut off by natural obstacles from the scene of action. As a matter of fact the 1st Division was a good thirty miles away to the east at Marbaix and Taisnières. The 2nd Division was nearer, but very much scattered, the 5th Brigade—owing to rear-guard scares—being still twenty miles behind at Leval, and quite out of the reckoning, as far as the impending battle was concerned. The 4th Brigade, on the other hand, in spite of its all-night fight at Landrecies, might, by super-human efforts, have crossed the Sambre during the night at the little village of Ors, and reached the flank of the Le Cateau battlefield towards eight on the following morning; but the wisdom of such a move would have been more than questionable in view of the complete exhaustion of the troops, and, in point of fact, no such order reached the brigade. The orders were to fall back on St. Quentin, and by the time the first shot was fired at Le Cateau, the brigade was well on its way to Etreux.

Four miles further east, at Maroilles, the order to retire raised some doubts and a certain difference of opinion among the various commanders of the 6th Brigade as to the best route to be followed in order to arrive at the St. Quentin position. Local opinion was divided, and, in the end, the commanders assembled at midnight in the cemetery to decide the point, with the result that it was arranged that each C.O. should follow the road that seemed best to him.
It will be seen then that the disposition of the 1st Army Corp was such that the Commander in Chief by no means overstated the case when he told Sir Horace that he could give him no help from that quarter. The position of the 2nd Army Corp was now very nearly desperate, and it is to be doubted whether Sir Horace or the Commander in Chief himself saw the dawn break on August 26th with any real hope at heart that the three divisions west of the Sambre could be saved from capture or annihilation.
On paper the extrication of Sir Horace's force seemed in truth an impossibility. Three British divisions, very imperfectly entrenched, were awaiting the onset of seven German divisions, flushed with uninterrupted victory, and backed up by an overwhelming preponderance in artillery. Both flanks of the British force were practically in the air, the only protection on the right being the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Brigade at Le Souplet, and on the left Allenby with another two Cavalry Brigades at Seranvillers. As a buffer against the German army corps which was threatening the British flank from Tournai, two Cavalry Brigades were clearly a negligible quantity. Desperate diseases call for desperate remedies, and the Commander in Chief had recourse to the only expedient in which lay a hope of salvation from the threatened flank attack, should it come.

General Sordet was at Avesnes with three divisions of French cavalry, and the Commander in Chief—with all the persuasion possible—put the urgency of the situation before him. The railways were no help; they ran all wrong; cavalry alone could save the situation; would he go? General Sordet—with the permission of his chief—went. It was a forty mile march, and cavalry horses were none too fresh in those days. Still he went, and in the end did great and gallant work; but not on the morning of the 26th. On that fateful day—or at least on the morning of that fateful day—his horses were ridden to a standstill, and he could do nothing.