London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Retreat from Le Cateau in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE RETREAT FROM LE CATEAU

Le Cateau may without shame be accepted as a defeat. There was at no time, even in anticipation, the possibility of victory. It was an affair on altogether different lines to that of Mons. At Mons the British Army had been set a definite task, which it had cheerfully faced, and which it had carried through with credit to itself and with much advantage to its ally. Its ultimate retirement had only been in conformity with the movements of that ally. Everything worked according to book.
But Le Cateau was quite another affair. Here we find half the British force temporarily cut off from the other half by force majeure, and turning at bay on a pursuer whom it could no longer escape. There was never any question of victory. The disparity in numbers and in armament left no room for illusions on that score. Searching deep below the surface, we might perhaps find that the main factor in deciding that Briton and German should cross swords at Le Cateau was the primitive impulse—always strong in the Anglo-Saxon breed—to face an ugly crisis and die fighting. In the event the British force faced the foe, and fought, but it did not die—as an army; a result due to consummate generalship on the part of the Army Corps Commander, aided by a strange laxity, or over-caution, as the case may be, on the part of the enemy.

Why the Germans did not pursue with more vigour will never be known till the history of this period comes to be written from the German side. The failure to pursue after Mons is intelligible. While the 2nd Army Corp was defending the group of manufacturing towns north of the Valenciennes road, the 1st Army Corp on the right was thrown forward in échelon, and formed a standing menace to the left flank of the advancing enemy. A too eager pursuit, in advance of the general line, might well have resulted in the isolation and capture of the German right.

At Le Cateau, however, there was no such risk. Here the German attack had been mainly concentrated against the 5th Division, evidently with the idea of turning the British right flank, and forcing in a wedge between the 1st and 2nd Army Corps. This was in effect done, and all that remained was for the Germans to push their advantage home in order to separate, at any rate, a large percentage of the 2nd Army Corp from the main body on its left. This could have been effected without any fear of a flank attack from the 1st Army Corp, that corps being at the time far too scattered and distant to make any concerted move; and in any case being hopelessly cut off by the Sambre.
Why this programme was not carried through to its consummation can only be guessed at. It may be that the enemy had only imperfect information as to the movements of the 1st Army Corp; or it may be that they were deterred by the knowledge that General d'Amade was hurrying up on their right flank from the direction of Arras with the 61st and 62nd Reserve Divisions; or it may be again that the advancing troops had been too roughly handled by the British at bay to allow of pursuit. This last hypothesis is not only the most flattering to British self-esteem, but it is also eminently possible. In any case the fact remains that they did not pursue. Sir Horace, on the other hand, had no idea of letting this supineness on the part of the enemy influence his own policy.
The troops were kept moving. On the afternoon of the 26th, the 5th Division managed to get back as far as Estrées, and the 3rd Division to Vermand and Hargicourt, each arriving at its destination about dark. The weather was very bad, and the majority of the men were crowded into farm-barns, but many dropped by the roadside where they were and slept, heedless of the pouring rain.

On the far side of the river the 4th and 6th Brigades, whom we last saw at Landrecies and Maroilles, got to Etreux and Hannappes respectively about 2 p.m., and bivouacked by the roadside; but the 5th Brigade, moving by way of Taisnières and Prisclies, could get no further than Barzy, and was therefore still far behind the line of the 2nd Army Corp retreat, and, in fact, of its own division. The 2nd Brigade got to Oisy without mishap. The 1st Brigade was not so fortunate, the Munster Fusiliers being overtaken at Bergues and captured en masse with the exception of some 150 who escaped with the aid of the 15th Hussars. Two guns of the 118th Battery, which were with them were captured at the same time. A mile or two further south, on the high ground just beyond Etreux, the brigade was again attacked, the Black Watch, who were then doing rear-guard, coming under a severe artillery fire. This was most effectively replied to by the 117th Battery under Major Packard and the pursuit was checked. The battery in withdrawing was charged by a squadron of German cavalry, but the charge died away under the fire of the Black Watch.

The story of the rescue of the Munsters by the 15th Hussars is one of which the latter regiment may well be proud. Two troops only of the 15th Hussars were engaged, and yet the number of honours that fell to them is remarkable. Mr. Nicholson got the Cross of the Legion of Honour, Sergt. Papworth got the Victoria Cross, and Sergt. Blishen, Corpl. Shepherd and Corpl. Aspinall the D.C.M.
The story of this affair is as follows: It was reported to the General commanding that the Munster Fusiliers were in trouble, and the 15th Hussars, who were acting as divisional cavalry, were sent back to help. The country in the neighbourhood of Bergues is a difficult one, being traversed by numerous narrow byways cutting in all directions, and the 15th Hussars, not knowing just where the Munster Fusiliers were, separated into troops and beat the country northwards. Just south of Bergues, where the road from that place meets the main road to La Capelle, Mr. Nicholson's troop found 150 of the Munster Fusiliers in great difficulties, with some Germans in pursuit not 200 yards distant. He at once dismounted the troop and, sending the horses off for shelter to a farmyard behind, lined the hedges on the side of the main road and opened fire on the Germans. These retired to a farm some 200 yards up the road, from which they presently brought a machine-gun to bear on the hedges, and under cover of this they shortly afterwards emerged, driving a herd of cattle before them down the road. The Hussars, however, shot down both cattle and Germans and sent the survivors scuttling back once more into the farm.

In the meanwhile the Hon. E. Hardinge's troop, having heard the firing, arrived on the scene from another direction and—also dismounting—crept up to a position from which they could command the farmyard, and opened fire on the Germans massed inside, doing tremendous execution at first, as it was a complete surprise. The Germans, however, quickly recovered themselves and returned the fire with machine-guns. Almost at the first discharge Mr. Hardinge fell mortally wounded, and Sergt. Papworth took over command of the troop.
Bodies of the enemy were now seen advancing on all sides, and it was obvious that, if the little British force was to escape being surrounded, it was time to move. There is always a disposition on such occasions for very tired men to throw up the sponge and surrender. In the present instance, however, any such inclination was summarily checked by the energy and determination of Mr. Nicholson and Sergt. Papworth, who, taking prompt charge of the situation, brought the whole party—Munsters and all—safely out of the difficulty. They had to put in twenty-eight miles of steady marching before they finally caught up with their division.

On the 27th the retreat was resumed, the troops starting as usual in the small hours of the morning. The 1st Division, in place of following the route taken by the 2nd Division, crossed the Sambre and went through Wassigny to Hauteville; the 2nd Division went to Mont d'Origny, and the 3rd and 5th Divisions joined up at Ham, the former, which had been greatly harassed and delayed throughout by hostile cavalry and horse artillery, arriving some hours after the other. On arrival at its destination the whole division dropped by the side of the road and slept.

Next morning the whole 2nd Army Corp followed the one road from Ham to Noyon, the 5th Division, which was still some hours ahead of the 3rd, passing on through Noyon to Pommeraye, where it billeted.
On the other side of the river the two divisions of the 1st Army Corp also joined up and went through La Fère to the group of villages to the south of that place, where they billeted, the 1st Brigade at St. Gobain, the 2nd at Frésancourt, the 4th at Berlancourt, the 5th at Servais and the 6th at Deuillet and Amigny.

The monotony of retreat was in some part relieved by several rear-guard brushes during the day between the 3rd and 5th Cavalry Brigade on the one hand and some Prussian Uhlans of the Guard on the other, in one and all of which the honours rested very emphatically with the British cavalry.

The 29th August, 1914, will probably be imprinted for ever in the minds of those who took part in the famous Mons retreat, for on this day the troops rested. For eight days they had now been marching practically without ceasing and the feet of many were literally stripped of skin; they had dug trenches innumerable and had fought various engagements, great and small, for the most part in the blazing heat of an exceptionally hot August, and with a minimum of sleep and food. But on the 29th they rested.

The whole Expeditionary Force was now once more in touch, and, with its arrival at the La Fère line, the acute pressure of the retreat may be said to have been at an end. The various divisions were re-organized; mixed up brigades were once more sorted out; stragglers and "temporarily attached" restored to their lost battalions, and the whole force put into ship-shape working order. Gen. Sordet, who had rendered incalculable service with his cavalry on our left flank, was now relieved by the 6th French Army, which came into position on our left in the neighbourhood of Roye, while the 5th French Army continued our line towards the east. The British Army, in fact, refreshed by its rest on the 29th, was now in perfect trim to turn and fight at any moment. But this was not to be for awhile yet. Gen. Joffre's scheme called for a still further retirement.

At 1 p.m. on the 29th the French Generalissimo visited the Commander in Chief at his Head Quarters at Compiègne and explained to him the outline of his plan. Sir Douglas Haig, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and Gen. Allenby were also present. As a result of this conference, the bridges over the Oise were blown up (an operation which again cost us some good lives from among the R.E.), and the British force retired another twenty miles to a line north of the Aisne, between Soissons and Compiègne.
The 2nd Army Corp set out on this march about 3 p.m.; the 1st Army Corp followed some twelve hours later, marching in one column through the Forêt de St. Gobain, after which it divided up, the 1st Division going to L'Allemande and the 2nd Division to Passy.

On the morning of the 31st the march was once more resumed, the 2nd Division leaving at 6.30 a.m. and marching via Pernaut and Cutry to Soucy, which was reached at 4.30 p.m., while the 1st Division retired to Missy-à-Bois.
The 3rd Army Corp took a wrong turn near Vellerie this day and for a time lost themselves, but in the end joined up with the new line, which reached—broadly speaking—from Crépy to Villers-Cotterêts.

Villers-Cotterêts

At the latter place we were again forced into a rear-guard action. At nine o'clock the 4th (Guards') Brigade, which was acting rear-guard, was overtaken at Soucy, where—in accordance with orders—it had faced about while the 2nd Division was having a two hours' halt for rest and dinner. It was no case of surprise, the brigade being thoroughly prepared and, indeed, expecting to have to hold the enemy in check.
Dispositions were therefore made accordingly. The 2nd Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream held the ground from Montgobert to Soucy, with the Coldstream lining the long grass ride that runs through the woods at Haramont. They were supported by two batteries of the 41st Brigade R.F.A. The 2nd Coldstream and Irish Guards were posted in rear of the first line along the northern edge of the Forêt de Villers-Cotterêts, at the base of the ridge known as the Rond de la Reine.

The enemy commenced by shelling the front line, and shelling it with such accuracy that Gen. Scott-Ker ordered the Grenadiers and 3rd Coldstream to fall back through the 2nd line and take up a position in rear. This was done, but subsequently these two battalions were brought up into line with the Irish Guards along the northern edge of the wood, whilst the 2nd Coldstream were sent back to take up a covering position in rear of the wood, along the railway east and west of Villers-Cotterêts Halte. Such was the position without much change up to midday, when the enemy's attack began to slacken and shortly afterwards they appeared to have had enough of it and drew off. The 4th Brigade thereupon resumed its march as far as Thury, which was reached about 10.30 p.m. Their casualties in this action amounted to over 300. The Irish Guards had Col. the Hon. G. Morris and Lieut. Tisdall killed; Major Crichton and Lord Castlerosse wounded. In the Grenadiers the Hon. J. Manners and Lieut. McDougall were killed, and in the Coldstream, Lieut. G. Lambton was killed and Captain Burton and Captain Tritton wounded. The Brigadier-Gen. Scott-Ker was himself badly wounded in the thigh, and the command of the brigade was taken over by Col. Corry.

Néry

The same morning witnessed a very heroic little action at Néry. During the preceding night the 1st Cavalry Brigade had billeted in this little village, together with L Battery R.H.A., which was attached to the brigade. The village lies low in a broken and hilly country. To the south and east of it the ground rises suddenly and very steeply, forming a long ridge which juts out into the plain from the north. Along these heights Lieut. Tailby, of the 11th Hussars, was patrolling in the early morning, and in a very thick fog, when he suddenly bumped right into a column of German cavalry. He had hardly time to gallop back and warn the brigade before shot and shell began to fly thickly into the village. The German force, as it afterwards turned out, consisted of no less than six cavalry regiments, with two batteries of six guns each attached; and there is reason to believe that they were just as surprised at the encounter as was the 1st Cavalry Brigade However that may be, the advantage in position, as well as in numbers, was greatly on the side of the Germans, who, from the heights they were on, completely dominated the ground below. Even the sun favoured them, for when that broke through about five o'clock, it was at the backs of the enemy and full in the faces of the defenders.

The lifting of the fog soon cleared up any doubts in the minds of all concerned as to how matters stood. On the heights above, with the sun behind them, were the six German regiments, dismounted, with their twelve guns. Down below in an open orchard on the western side of the village were the Bays and L Battery R.H.A. They were still in the position in which they had bivouacked the night previous. Beyond them were the 5th Dragoon Guards. The 11th Hussars were on the south-east side of the village nearest the enemy, but more or less hidden from view and protected from the enemy's fire by the lie of the land.

Then began one of those rare episodes which will live for ever in history and romance.

The position of L Battery had not been chosen with a view to action. Except for the fog, it would never have been caught there; but having been caught there it accepted the situation. Owing to the broken nature of the ground, only three of its guns could be brought to bear on the enemy's position, but these three were quickly at work. The Bays, who were the regiment chiefly in the line of fire, got their horses into safety and then joined in with rifle and machine-gun fire, taking what shelter they could; but this did not amount to much, and the sun was in their eyes. None of these disadvantages made themselves felt in the case of the 11th Hussars, who, from their sheltered position, were able to bring a most effective machine-gun fire to bear on the flank of the Germans. Their doings, however, we may pass by. The focus-point of German attention was the little Horse Artillery Battery down in the apple-orchard. This now became the target for a perfect tornado of shot and shell, and at a range of only 400 yards. Two of the three guns were quickly knocked out, and the fire of batteries, rifles and maxims became concentrated on the one that remained.
Men and officers combined to serve this one gun. Captain Bradbury, in command, had one leg taken off by a shell, but he propped himself up, and continued to direct the fire till he fell dead. Lieut. Campbell died beside him, as did also Brig.-Major Cawley, who came up with orders from Head Quarters. Lieut. Gifford and Lieut. Mundy both fell wounded, and Sergt.-Major Dorrell took over command. With the support of Sergt. Nelson, Gunner Darbyshire and Driver Osborne he cheerfully continued this absurd and unequal duel.

In the meanwhile the 5th Dragoon Guards had been ordered to work round to the north-east, in order to make a diversion from that flank. This they were able to do to a certain extent, though at some cost, Col. Ansell being shot through the head and killed at the very outset. The regiment, however, were not strong enough, single-handed, to make more than a demonstration, and the whole situation was far from promising when, by the mercy of Providence, the 4th Cavalry Brigade most unexpectedly arrived on the scene from the direction of Compiègne. These lost no time in dismounting and joining up with the 5th Dragoon Guards, the four combined regiments pouring a steady fire into the flank of the enemy.
This new development entirely changed the aspect of affairs, and, finding the situation getting rather too hot for them, the Germans made off hurriedly in the direction of Verrines, abandoning eight of their guns and a maxim.
They tried in the first instance to man-handle their guns out of action, but the steady fire of the cavalry on their flank, supplemented now by a frontal fire from the Bays, who had by this time installed their machine-gun in the Sugar Factory to the west of the village, proved too much for them, and they abandoned the attempt. The whole affair had so far lasted little over an hour; but the last word had yet to be said, for the 11th Hussars jumped on to their horses, galloped off in pursuit and captured fifty horses and a number of prisoners. The German casualties in killed and wounded were also considerable, and on our side the troops in the open orchard suffered very severely. The Bays showed great daring and activity throughout, Mr. de Crespigny particularly distinguishing himself. They lost seven officers, and out of L Battery only three men emerged unwounded. To the survivors of this battery, however, it must for ever be a source of gratification to reflect that the last shot in that preposterous duel was fired by the battered and bloodstained thirteen-pounder down in the apple-orchard, and that it was fired at the backs of the enemy.

Captain Bradbury, Sergt.-Major Dorrell and Sergt. Nelson were awarded the Victoria Cross, the former posthumously. The last two named were also given their commissions. Lieut. Gifford got the Cross of the Legion of Honour, and the entire battery earned a name which will live as long as history.

There is a sequel to this gallant little affair which is sufficiently satisfactory to record. The 1st and 4th Cavalry Brigade billeted that night at Borest, and continued their progress south next day through the Forêt d'Ermenonville. Here, abandoned among the birch trees of the forest, they found two of the guns which the Germans had succeeded in getting away from Néry. It was a small incident, but very satisfactory as a finale.