London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Retreat from Mons in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE RETREAT FROM MONS

In modern warfare the boundary line between the words "victory" and "defeat" is not easy to fix. It is perhaps particularly difficult to fix in relation to the part played by any arbitrarily selected group of regiments; the fact being that the value of results achieved can only be truly gauged from the standpoint of their conformity with the general scheme. So thoroughly is this now understood that the word "victory" or "defeat" is seldom used by either side in connection with individual actions, except in relation to the strategical bearing of such actions on the ultimate aims of the War Council.
The name of Mons will always be associated in the public mind with the idea of retreat, and retreat is the traditional companion of defeat. Incidentally, too, retreat is bitterly distasteful both to the soldier and the onlooking public. It must be borne in mind, however, that retreat is a more difficult operation than advance, and that when a retreat is achieved with practically intact forces, capable of an immediate advance when called upon, and capable of making considerable captures of guns and prisoners in the process of advance, a great deal of hesitation is needed before the word "defeat" can be definitely associated with such results.

During the first three months of the war the general idea on both sides was to stretch out seawards, and so overlap the western flank of the opposing army. At the moment of the arrival of the British Force on the Belgian frontier, Germany had outstripped France in this race to the west, and there was a very real danger of the French Army being outflanked; so much so, in fact, that in order to avoid any such calamity, a rearrangement of the French pieces seemed called for, to the necessary prejudice of the general scheme. However, at the psychological moment, the much-discussed British Force materialized and became a live obstacle in the path of the German outflanking movement. Its allotted task was to baulk this movement, while the French combination in rear was being smoothly unfolded.
It is now a matter of history that this was done. The German outflanking movement failed; Von Kluck's right wing was held in check; and the British Force fell back unbroken and fighting all the way, while the French dispositions further south and west were systematically and securely shaping for success.
Was Mons, then, a defeat? For forty-eight hours the British had held up the German forces north of the Maubeuge—Valenciennes road; the left of the French Army had been effectively protected, and—over and above all—the British Force had succeeded in retiring in perfect order and intact, except for the ordinary wear and tear of battle. It had "done its job;" it had accomplished the exact purpose for which it had been put in the field, and it had withdrawn thirty-five miles, or thereabouts, to face about and repeat the operation.

In attaching the label to such a performance, neither "victory" nor "defeat" is a word that quite fits. Such crude classifications are relics of primordial standards when scalps and loot were the only recognized marks of victory. To-day, generals commanding armies rather search for honour in the field of duty—duty accomplished, orders obeyed. These simple formulæ have always been the watchwords of the soldier-unit, whether that unit be a man, a platoon, a company or a regiment. Now, with the limitless increase in the size of armaments, a unit may well be an Army Corps, or even a combination of Army Corps, and the highest aim of the general officer commanding such a unit must be—as of old—fulfilment of duty, obedience to orders.
To the Briton, then, dwelling in mind on the battle of Mons, the reflection will always come with a certain pleasant flavour that the British Army was a unit which "did its job," and did it in a way worthy of the highest British traditions. More than this it is not open to man—whether military or civilian—to do.

The British Army continued its retreat from the Maubeuge road in the early morning of the 25th. The original intention of the Commander in Chief had been to make a stand along this road. That, however, was when the numbers opposed to him were supposed to be very much less than they ultimately turned out to be. Now it was known that there were three Army Corps on his heels, to say nothing of an additional flanking corps that was said to be working up from the direction of Tournai. This last was quite an ugly factor in the case, as it opened the possibility of the little British Force being hemmed in against Maubeuge and surrounded. The road system to the rear, too, was sketchy, and by no means well adapted to a hurried retreat—especially east of Bavai; nor was the country itself suitable for defence, the standing crops greatly limiting the field of fire. All things considered, it was decided not to fight here, but to get back to the Cambrai to Le Cateau road, and make that the next line of resistance.

Accordingly, about four o'clock on the morning of the 25th, the whole army turned its face southward once more. The 5th Division, which during the process of retirement had geographically changed places with the 3rd Division, travelled by the mathematically straight Roman road which runs to Le Cateau, along the western edge of the Forêt de Mormal, while the 3rd Division took the still more western route by Le Quesnoy and Solesme, their retreat being effectively covered by the 1st and 3rd Cavalry Brigade At Le Quesnoy the cavalry, thinking that the enemy's attentions were becoming too pressing, dismounted and lined the railway embankment, which offered fine cover for men and horses. From here the Germans could be plainly seen advancing diagonally across the fields in innumerable short lines, which the cavalry fire was able to enfilade and materially check.
In the meanwhile the 1st Army Corp, which had throughout formed the eastern wing of the army, had perforce to put up with the eastern line of retreat on the far side of the Forêt de Mormal, a circumstance which—owing to the longer and more roundabout nature of the route followed—was not without its effect on the subsequent battle of Le Cateau. The six brigades belonging to the last named corps started at all hours of the morning between 4 and 8.30, at which latter hour the 2nd Brigade—the last to leave—quitted its billets at Feignies and marched to Marbaix. The 1st Brigade went to Taisnières, the 4th to Landrecies, the 6th to Maroilles, while the 5th got no farther than Leval, having had a scare and a consequent set-back at Pont-sur-Sambre.
Here then we may leave the 1st Army Corp on the night of the 25th, considerably scattered, and separated by distances varying from ten to thirty miles from its partner, which was at the time making preparations to put up a fight along the Cambrai—Le Cateau road.

The original scheme agreed between the Commander in Chief and his two Army Corps commanders, had been that the 2nd Division should pass on westward across the river at Landrecies and link up with the 5th Division at Le Cateau, blowing up behind it the bridges at Landrecies and Catillon. This scheme was upset by the activity of the enemy on the east side of the Forêt de Mormal, rear-guard actions being forced upon each of the three divisional brigades at Pont-sur-Sambre, Landrecies and Maroilles respectively. These rear-guard actions, coupled with the longer and worse roads they had to follow, in the end so seriously delayed the retirement of the 2nd Division as to entirely put out of court any question of their co-operation with the 2nd Army Corp at Le Cateau on the 26th.
The 4th Brigade got the nearest at Landrecies, but it got there dead beat and then had to fight all night. The 1st Division was a good thirty miles off at Marbaix and Taisnières, where it had its hands sufficiently full with its own affairs. This division may, therefore, for the moment, be put aside as a negligible quantity in the very critical situation which was developing west of the Sambre. The movements of the 2nd Division were not only more eventful in themselves, but were of far greater practical interest to the commander of the 2nd Army Corp in his endeavour to successfully withdraw his harassed Mons army. We may, therefore, follow this division in rather closer detail during the day and night of the 25th.

In reckoning the miscarriage of the arrangements originally planned, it must not be lost sight of that the march from the Bavai road to the Le Cateau road was the longest to be accomplished during the retreat. From Bavai to Le Cateau is twenty-two miles as the crow flies. It is probable that the 5th Division, following the straight Roman road, did not greatly exceed this distance, but to the route of the 3rd Division it is certainly necessary to add another five miles, and to that of the 2nd Division, ten. In reflecting that the pursuing Germans had to cover the same distance, the following facts must be borne in mind. The training of our military schools has always been based to a very great extent on the experience of the previous war. The equipment of our military ménage is also largely designed to meet the exigencies of a war on somewhat similar lines to that of the last. Our wars for sixty years past have been "little wars" fought in far-off countries more or less uncivilized; and the probability of our armies fighting on European soil has always been considered as remote. Germany, on the other hand, has had few "little wars," but has, on the other hand, for many years been preparing for the contingency of a war amidst European surroundings. As a consequence, her army equipment at the outbreak of war was constructed primarily with a view to rapid movements on paved and macadamized roads; certainly ours was not. The German advance was therefore assisted by every known device for facilitating the rapid movement of troops along the roads of modern civilization. Later on, by requisitioning the motor-lorries and vans of trading firms, we placed ourselves on more or less of an equal footing in this respect, but that was not when the necessity for rapid movement was most keenly felt. The Germans reaped a double advantage, for not only were they capable of quicker movement, but they were also able to overtake our rear-guards with troops that were not jaded with interminable marching.
It must also be borne in mind that a pursuing force marches straight to its objective with a minimum of exhaustion in relation to the work accomplished, an advantage which certainly cannot be claimed for a retreating force which has to turn and fight.

We may now return to the 2nd Division, setting out from La Longueville on its stupendous undertaking. At first the whole division followed the one road by the eastern edge of the Forêt de Mormal, the impedimenta in front, the troops plodding behind. This road was choked from end to end with refugees and their belongings, chiefly from Maubeuge and district, and the average pace of the procession was about two miles an hour. An order came to hurry up so that the bridges over the Sambre could be blown up before the Germans came; but it was waste of breath. The troops were dead beat. Though they had so far had no fighting, they had done a terrible amount of marching, counter-marching and digging during the past four days, and they were dead beat. The reservists' boots were all too small, and their feet swelled horribly. Hundreds fell out from absolute exhaustion. The worst cases were taken along in the transport wagons; the rest became stragglers, following along behind as best they were able. Some of the cavalry that saw them pass said that their eyes were fixed in a ghastly stare, and they stumbled along like blind men. At Leval the division split up, the 4th Brigade taking the road to Landrecies, and the 6th that to Maroilles. The 5th Brigade, which was doing rear-guard to the division, got no farther than Leval, where it prepared to put up a fight along the railway line; for there was a scare that the Germans were very close behind. The Oxfordshire Light Infantry were even sent back along the road they had already travelled to Pont-sur-Sambre, where they entrenched. The Germans, however, did not come.

The Fight at Landrecies

The 4th (Guards') Brigade reached Landrecies at 1 p.m. This brigade had made the furthest progress towards the contemplated junction with the 2nd Army Corp, and they were very tired. They went into billets at once, some in the barracks, some in the town. They had about four hours' rest; then there came an alarm that the Germans were advancing on the town, and the brigade got to its feet. The four battalions were split up into companies—one to each of the exits from the town. The Grenadiers were on the western side; the 2nd Coldstream on the south and east; and the 3rd Coldstream to the north and north-west. The Irish Guards saw to the barricading of the streets with transport wagons and such-like obstacles. They also loop-holed the end houses of the streets facing the country.
As a matter of fact the attack did not take place till 8.30 p.m., and then it was entirely borne by two companies of the 3rd Battalion Coldstream Guards. At the north-west angle of the town there is a narrow street, known as the Faubourg Soyère. Two hundred yards from the town this branches out into two roads, each leading into the Forêt de Mormal. Here, at the junction of the roads, the Hon. A. Monck's company had been stationed. The sky was very overcast, and the darkness fell early. Shortly after 8.30 p.m. infantry was heard advancing from the direction of the forest; they were singing French songs, and a flashlight turned upon the head of the column showed up French uniforms. It was not till they were practically at arms' length that a second flashlight detected the German uniforms in rear of the leading sections. The machine-gun had no time to speak before the man in charge was bayoneted and the gun itself captured. A hand-to-hand fight in the dark followed, in which revolvers and bayonets played the principal part, the Coldstream being gradually forced back by weight of numbers towards the entrance to the town. Here Captain Longueville's company was in reserve in the Faubourg Soyère itself, and through a heavy fire he rushed up his men to the support of Captain Monck.

The arrival of the reserve company made things rather more level as regards numbers, though—as it afterwards transpired—the Germans were throughout in a majority of at least two to one. Col. Feilding and Major Matheson now arrived on the spot, and took over control. Inspired by their presence and example, the two Coldstream companies now attacked their assailants with great vigour and drove them back with considerable loss into the shadows of the forest. From here the Germans trained a light field-gun on to the mouth of the Faubourg Soyère, and, firing shrapnel and star-shell at point-blank range, made things very unpleasant for the defenders. Flames began to shoot up from a wooden barn at the end of the street, but were quickly got under, with much promptitude and courage, by a private of the name of Wyatt, who twice extinguished them under a heavy fire. A blaze of light at this point would have been fatal to the safety of the defenders, and Wyatt, whose act was one involving great personal danger, was subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for this act, and for the conspicuous bravery which he displayed a week later when wounded at Villers-Cotteret.

In the meanwhile Col. Feilding had sent off for a howitzer, which duly arrived and was aimed at the flash of the German gun. By an extraordinary piece of marksmanship, or of luck, as the case may be, the third shot got it full and the field-gun ceased from troubling. The German infantry thereupon renewed their attack, but failed to make any further headway during the night, and in the end went off in their motor-lorries, taking their wounded with them.

It turned out that the attacking force, consisting of a battalion of 1,200 men, with one light field-piece, had been sent on in these lorries in advance of the general pursuit, with the idea of seizing Landrecies and its important bridge before the British could arrive and link up with the 2nd Army Corp. The attack failed conspicuously, inasmuch as the enemy was driven back with very heavy loss; but it is possible that it accomplished its purpose in helping to prevent the junction of the two Army Corp's. This, however, is in a region of speculation, which it is profitless to pursue further.
The Landrecies fight lasted six hours and was a very brilliant little victory for the 3rd Coldstream; but it was expensive. Lord Hawarden and the Hon. A. Windsor-Clive were killed, and Captain Whitehead, Lieut. Keppel and Lieut. Rowley were wounded. The casualties among the rank and file amounted to 170, of whom 153 were left in the hospital at Landrecies. The two companies engaged fought under particularly trying conditions, and many of the rank and file showed great gallantry. Conspicuous amongst these were Sergt. Fox and Pte. Thomas, each of whom was awarded the D.C.M. The German losses were, of course, unascertainable, but they were undoubtedly very much higher than ours.

At 3.30 a.m. on the 26th, just as the 2nd Army Corp in their trenches ten miles away to the west were beginning to look northward for the enemy, the 4th Brigade left Landrecies and continued its retirement down the beautiful valley of the Sambre.

Maroilles

On the same night the town of Maroilles further east was the scene of another little fight. About 10 p.m. a report arrived that the main German column was advancing on the bridge over the Petit Helpe and that the squadron of the 15th Hussars which had been left to guard the bridge was insufficient for the purpose. The obstruction of this bridge was a matter of the very first importance, as its passage would have opened up a short cut for the Germans, by which they might easily have cut off the 4th Brigade south of Landrecies. Accordingly the 1st Berks were ordered off back along the road they had already travelled to hold the position at all costs. The ground near the bridge here is very swampy, and the only two approaches are by means of raised causeways, one of which faces the bridge, while the other lies at right angles. Along this latter the Berks crept up, led by Col. Graham.

The night was intensely dark, and the causeway very narrow, and bounded on each side by a deep fosse, into which many of the men slipped. The Germans, as it turned out, had already forced the bridge, and were in the act of advancing along the causeway; and in the pitch blackness of the night the two forces suddenly bumped one into the other. Neither side had fixed bayonets, for fear of accidents in the dark, and in the scrimmage which followed it was chiefly a case of rifle-butts and fists. At this game the Germans proved no match for our men, and were gradually forced back to the bridge-head, where they were held for the remainder of the night.

In the small hours of the morning the Germans, who turned out not to be the main column, but only a strong detachment, threw up the sponge and withdrew westward towards the Sambre, following the right bank of the Petit Helpe. Whereupon the 1st Berks—having achieved their purpose—followed the rest of the 2nd Division along the road to Etreux.