The British Campaign in France (may 1916)
From The Arthur Conan Doyle Encyclopedia
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The British Campaign in France. I. The Battle of Mons & II. The Battle of Le Cateau is the 2nd article, published in may 1916, in a series of 21 articles written by Arthur Conan Doyle serialized in The Strand Magazine.
- 1 Editions
- 2 Illustrations
- 3 The British Campaign in France (may 1916)
- 3.1 Chapter I. The Battle of Mons. (Continued)
- 3.2 Chapter II. The Battle of Le Cateau
- in The Strand Magazine (may 1916 [UK]) (2 maps, 5 photos, 3 ill.)
- in Everybody's Magazine (june 1916 [UK])
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916-1920, Hodder & Stoughton Ltd. [UK])
- in The British Campaign in France and Flanders (1916, George H. Doran Co. [US])
- in The British Campaign in Europe (1914-1918) (november 1928, Geoffrey Bles [UK])
The British Campaign in France (may 1916)
Chapter I. The Battle of Mons. (Continued)
The Rearguard Actions of Frameries, Wasmes, and Dour — The Charge of the Lancers — The Fate of the Cheshires — The Seventh Brigade at Solesmes — The Guards in Action — The Germans' Rude Awakening — The Connaughts at Pont-sur-Sambre.
The Rearguard Actions of Frameries, Washes, and Dour
After a night of flames and of uproar the day dawned, a day of great anxiety to the British commanders and of considerable pressure upon a portion of the troops. Sir John French had given instructions that the First Corps, which had been only slightly engaged the day before, should pretend to assume the offensive upon the extreme right wing in the direction Binche, whilst the Second Corps began its retirement. The enemy was following up rapidly, however, along the whole length of the British line, both flanks of which were exposed. Shortly after dawn the evacuated positions had been occupied, and Mons itself was in the hands of the advancing Germans. The Second Corps began its retreat, helped by the feint which was carried out by General Haig upon the right, and by the bulk of the batteries of both corps, but the pursuit was vigorous and the shell-fire incessant. A shell from the rear is more intimidating than twenty in the front. Hamilton's Third Division, which included the Eighth and Ninth Brigades, who had done such hard Work the day before, sustained the most severe losses, especially at Frameries, four miles south of Mons. Here the Ninth Brigade (Shaw's), which covered the retreat, was closely pressed from dawn by the pursuing Germans, and was subjected to a very heavy shell-fire. A barricade, erected in the village and manned by Captain Sandilands, of the Northumberlands, with his company, held up the German advance, and they were never permitted to reach the line nor to hustle the retirement. The Twenty-third Artillery Brigade (Butler) helped with its fire. The chief losses in this skilful covering action fell upon the 1st Lincolns and upon the 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, both of which lost about a hundred and fifty men, including Captain Rose, Lieutenants Bulbe, Welchman, and others. There was a stational ambulance in the village of Frameries, and a foreign nurse in its employ has left a vivid-picture of the wounded British rushing in to have their slighter wounds dressed and then running out, rifle in hand, to find their place in the firing line.
The remaining brigade of the Third Division, McCracken's Seventh Brigade, had detached one regiment, the 2nd Irish Rifles, upon the day before to reinforce the Eighth Brigade, and this regiment had, as already mentioned, some severe fighting, holding back the German advance after the retirement from the Nimy Peninsula of the Middlesex and the Royal Irish. It did not find its way back to its brigade until the evening of the 24th. The brigade itself, during the first day of the retreat, held a position near Ciply, to the south of Mons, where it was heavily attacked in the early morning, and in some danger as its flank was exposed. At ten o'clock it was ordered to retire viâ Genly towards Bavaye, and it carried out this difficult movement in the face of a pushful enemy in perfect order, covered by the divisional artillery. The principal losses fell upon the 2nd South Lancashire Regiment,which came under heavy fire from German machine-guns posted upon slag-heaps. This regiment was very hard hit, losing several hundred men. The brigade faced round near Bavaye and held off the pursuit.
Cuthbert's Thirteenth Brigade, keeping in line with their comrades on' the right, halted at Wasmes, some four miles from the canal, where they prepared some hasty entrenchments. Here, at the dawn of day, they were furiously attacked by the German vanguard at the same time that the Ninth Brigade was hard pushed in Frameries. The brunt of the fighting fell upon the 2nd West Riding Regiment, who lost heavily, were at one time nearly surrounded, and finally with dour Yorkshire pertinacity shook themselves clear. Their losses included their commander, Colonel Gibbs, their adjutant, three hundred men, and all their officers save five. The 1st West Kents also lost about a hundred men and several officers, including Major Pack-Beresford. For the rest of the day and for the whole of the 25th the brigade, with the rest of the Fifth Division, fell back with little fighting viâ Bavaye to the Le Cateau line.
On the evening of the 23rd the Fourteenth Brigade, still farther to the west, had fallen back to Dour, blowing up the bridge and road over the canal. After dark the Germans followed them, and Gleichen's Fifteenth Brigade then found itself in the position of rearguard and immediately exposed to the pressure of the German flanking movement. This was now threatening to envelop the whole of Ferguson's Fifth Division. The situation was particularly difficult, since this general had to make a flank movement in the face of the enemy in order to close up with his comrades of the Third Division. He was soon compelled to call for assistance, and Allenby, with his cavalry division which had already come across to the left rear of the Army, was advanced to help him. It was evidently the intention of the enemy to strike in upon the western side of the division grid pin it to its ground until it could be surrounded.
The Charge of the Lancers
The first menacing advance in the morning of the 24th was directed against the flank of the British infantry who were streaming down the Eloges-Dour high road. The situation was critical, and a portion of De Lisle's Second Cavalry Brigade was ordered to charge near Andregnies, the hostile infantry being at that time about a thousand yards distant, with several batteries in support. The attack of the cavalry was vigorously supported by L Battery of Horse Artillery. The charge was carried out by three squadrons of the 9th Lancers, Colonel Campbell at their head. The 4th Dragoon Guards and 18th Hussars were in support. The cavalry rode with magnificent dash amidst a heavy but not particularly deadly fire until they were within a few hundred yards of the enemy, when, being faced by a wire fence, they swung to the right and rallied under the cover of some slag-heaps and of a railway embankment. Their menace, or the fine work of Major Sclater-Booth's battery, had the effect of holding up the German advance for some time, and though the cavalry were much scattered and disorganized they were able to reunite without any excessive loss, the total casualties being a little over two hundred. Some hours later the enemy's pressure again became heavy upon Ferguson's flank, and the 1st Cheshires and 1st Norfolks, of Gleichen's Fifteenth Brigade, which formed the infantry flank-guard, incurred heavy losses. It was in this defensive action, fought near the village of Dour, that the 19th R.F.A., under Major Alexander, fought itself to a standstill with only three unwounded gunners by the guns. The battery had silenced one German unit and was engaged with three others. Only Major Alexander and Lieutenant Pollard with a few men were left. As the horses hail been destroyed the pieces had to be man-handled out of action. Captain Grenfell, of the 9th Lancers, bleeding from two wounds, with Sergeants Davids and Turner and some fifty men of the regiment, saved these guns under a terrible fire, the German infantry being within close range. During the whole long, weary day the batteries and horsemen were working hard to cover the retreat, while the surgeons exposed themselves with great fearlessness, lingering behind the retiring lines in order to give first aid to the men who had been hit by the incessant shellfire. It was in this noble task — the noblest surely within the whole range of warfare — that Captain Malcolm Leckie, Captain Kempthorne, and other brave medical officers met with a glorious end, upholding to the full the traditions of their famous corps.
The Fate of the Cheshire
It has been stated that the 1st Cheshires, in endeavouring to screen the west flank of the Second Corps from the German pursuit, were very badly punished. This regiment, together with two companies of the Norfolks, occupied a low ridge to the north-east side of the village of Eloges, which they endeavoured to hold against the onflowing tide of Germans. About three in the afternoon it was seen that there was danger of this small flank-guard being entirely cut off. As a matter of fact, an order had actually been sent for a retreat, but had not reached them. Colonel Boger of the Cheshires sent several messengers, representing the growing danger, but no answer came back. Finally, in desperation, Colonel Boger went himself and found that the enemy held the position previously occupied by the rest of Gleichen's Brigade, which had retired. The Cheshires had by this time endured dreadful losses and were practically surrounded. A bayonet charge eased the pressure for a short time, but the enemy again closed in and the bulk of the survivors, isolated amidst a hostile army corps, were compelled to surrender. Some escaped in small groups and made their way through to their retreating comrades. When roll was next called, there remained five officers and one hundred and ninety-three men out of twenty-seven officers and one thousand and seven of all ranks who had gone into action. It speaks volumes foe the discipline of the regiment that this remnant under Captain Shore continued to act as a useful unit. These various episodes, including the severe losses of Gleichen's Fifteenth Brigade, the attack of the Second Cavalry Brigade, and the artillery action in which the 119th Battery was so severely handled, group themselves into a separate little-action occurring the day after Mons and associated either with the villages of Eloges or of Dour. The Second German Corps continued to act upon the western side of the Second British Corps, whilst the rest of General von }Cluck's army, except the Ninth Corps, followed it behind. With three corps behind. him, and one snapping at his flank, General Smith-Dorrien made his way southwards, his gunners and cavalry labouring hard to relieve the ever-increasing pressure, while his rear brigades were continually sprayed by the German shrapnel.
It is to be noted that Sir John French includes the Ninth German Corps in Von Flock's army in his first despatch, and puts it in Von Bulow's second army in his second despatch. The French authorities are of opinion that Von Kluck's army consisted 01 the Second, Third, Fourth, Seventh, and Fourth Reserve Corps, with two divisions of cavalry. If this be correct, then part of Von Bulow's army was pursuing Haig, while the whole of Von Kluck's was concentrated upon Smith-Dorrien. This would make the British performance even, more remarkable than it has hitherto appeared, since it would mean that during the pursuit, and at the subsequent battle, ten German divisions were pressing upon three British ones.
A small reinforcement had joined the Army on the morning after the battle of Mons. This was the Nineteenth Brigade under General Drummond, which consisted of the 1st Middlesex, 1st Cameronians, 2nd Welsh Fusiliers, and 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders. This detached brigade acted, and continued to act during a large part of the war, as an independent unit. It detrained at Valenciennes on August 23rd, and two regiments, the Middlesex and the Cameronians, may be said to have taken part in the battle of Mons, since they formed up on the east of Condé, on the extreme left of the British position, and received, together with the Queen's Bays, who were scouting in front of them, the first impact of the German flanking corps. They fell back with the Army upon the 24th and 25th, keeping the line Janlain-Solesmes, finally reaching Le Gateau, where they eventually took up their position on the right rear of the British Army.
As the Army fell back, the border fortress of Maubeuge with its heavy guns offered a tempting haven of rest for the weary and over-matched troops, but not in vain had France lost her army in Metz. Sir John French would have no such protection, however violently the Germans might push him towards it. "The British Army invested in Maubeuge" was not destined to furnish the head-line of a Berlin special edition. The fortress was left to the eastward, and the tired troops snatched a few hours of rest near Bavaye, still pursued by the guns and the searchlights of their persistent foemen. At an early hour of the 25th the columns were again on the march for the south, and for safety.
It may be remarked that in all this movement what made the operation most difficult and complicated was, that in the retirement the Army was not moving direct to the rear, but diagonally away to the west, thus making the west flank more difficult to cover as well as complicating the movements of transport.
The greater part of the Fourth Division of the Third Army Corps, corning up from the lines of communication, brought upon this day a welcome reinforcement to the Army and did yeoman work in covering the retirement. The total composition of this division was as follows:—
THIRD ARMY CORPS.
DIVISION IV. — General Snow.
10th Infantry Brigade — Gen. Haldane.
1st Irish Fusiliers.
2nd Dublin Fusiliers.
11th Infantry Brigade — Gen. Hunter Weston.
1st Somerset L. infantry.
1st East Lancashire.
1st Rifle Brigade.
12th Infantry Brigade — Gen. Wilson.
1st Royal Lancaster Regiment.
2nd Lancs. Fusiliers.
2nd Innis. Fusiliers.
Artillery — Gen. Milne.
XIV. Brig. R.F.A. 39, 68, 88,
XXIX. do. 125, 126, 127
XXXII. do. 27, 134, 135
XXXVII. do.(How.) 31, 35, 55.
Heavy R.G.A. 31 Battery
These troops, which had been quartered in the Ligny and Martigny area, received urgent orders at one in the morning of the 25th that they should advance northwards. They marched all night to Biastre, where they covered the retreat of the Army, the Third Division passing through their lines. The Fourth Division then retired south again, having great difficulty in getting along, as the roads were choked with transport and artillery, and fringed with exhausted men. The Twelfth Brigade (Wilson's) was acting as rearguard, and began to experience pressure from the pursuers, the Essex men being shelled out of the village of Bethencourt, which they held until it was nearly surrounded by the German cavalry. The line followed by the division was Biastre — Viesly — Bethencourt — Caudry — Ligny and Haucourt, the latter village marking the general position which they were to take up on the left of the Army at the line of Le Cateau. Such reinforcements were mere handfuls when compared with the pursuing hosts, but their advent heartened up the British troops and relieved them of some of the pressure. It has been remarked by officers of the Fourth Division that they and their men were considerably taken aback by the worn appearance of the weary regiments from Mons which passed through their ranks. Their confidence was revived, however, by the undisturbed demeanour of the General Headquarters Staff, who came through them in the late afternoon of the 25th. "General French himself struck me as being extremely composed, and the staff officers looked very cheerful." These are the imponderabilia which count for much in a campaign.
Tuesday, August 25th, was a day of scattered rearguard actions. The weary Army had rested upon the evening of the 24th upon the general line Maubeuge — Bavaye — Wargnies. Orders were issued for the retirement to continue next day to a position already partly prepared, in front of the centre of which stood the town of Le Cateau. All rearguards were to be clear of the above-mentioned line by 5.30 a.m. The general conception, was that the inner flanks of the two corps should be directed upon Le Cateau.
The intention of the Commander-in-Chief was that the Army should fight in that position next day, the First Corps occupying the right and the Second Corps the left of the position. The night of the 25th found the Second Corps in the position named, whilst their comrades were still at Landrecies, eight miles to the north-east, with a cavalry brigade endeavouring to bridge the gap between. It is very certain, in the case of so ardent a leader as Haig, that it was no fault upon his part which kept him from Smith-Dorrien's side upon the day of battle. It can only be said that the inevitable delays upon the road experienced by the First Corps prevented the ensuing battle from being one in which the British Army as a whole might have tested the mettle of Von Kluck's invading host.
The Seventh Brigade at Solesmes
Whilst the whole Army had been falling back upon the position which had been selected for a stand, it was hoped that substantial French reinforcements were coming up from the south; The roads were much blocked during the 25th, for two divisions of French territorials were retiring along them, as well as the British Army. As a consequence, progress was slow, and the German pressure from the rear became ever more severe. Allenby's cavalry and horse-guns covered the retreat, continually turning round and holding off the pursuers. Finally, near Solesmes, on the evening of the 25th, the cavalry were at last driven in, and the Germans came up against McCracken's Seventh Brigade, who held them most skilfully until nightfall with the assistance of the 42nd Brigade R.F.A. and the 30th Howitzer Brigade. Most of the fighting fell upon the 2nd Irish Rifles, but all four regiments were strongly engaged, and the South Lancashires again had substantial losses. The Germans could make no further progress, and time was given for the roads to clear and for the artillery to get away. The Seventh Brigade then followed, marching, so far as possible, across country and taking up its position, which it did not reach until after midnight, in the village of Caudry, on the line of the Le Cateau-Courtrai road. As it faced north once more it found Snow's Fourth Division upon its left, while on its immediate right were the Eighth and the Ninth Brigades, with the Fifth Division on the farther side of them. One unit of the Seventh Brigade, the 2nd Irish Rifles, together with the 41st R.F.A., was lost in the darkness and confusion and wandered away with the cavalry. The rest were in the battle line. Here we may leave them in position while we return to trace the fortunes of the First Army Corps.
Sir Douglas Haig's corps, after the feint of August 24th, in which the Second Division appeared to be attacking with the First in support, was cleverly disengaged from the enemy and fell back by alternate divisions. It was not an easy operation, and it was conducted under a very heavy shell-fire, which fell especially upon the covering guns of Colonel Sandilands' Thirty-fourth Artillery Brigade. These guns were exposed to a concentration of fire from the enemy, which was so intense that a thick haze of smoke and dust blotted out the view for long periods at a time. It was only with difficulty and great gallantry that they were got away. An officer of the Sixth Brigade, immediately behind them, writes: "Both going in and coming back the limbers passed my trench at a tearing gallop, the drivers lying low on the horses' necks and screaming at them to go faster, while on the return the guns bounded about on the stubble field like so many tin cans behind a runaway dog." The guns having been drawn in, the corps retired by roads parallel to the Second Corps, and were able to reach the line Bavaye-Maubeuge by about 7 p.m. upon that evening, being on the immediate eastern flank of Smith-Dorrien's men. It is a striking example of the historical continuity of the British Army that as they marched that day many of the regiments, such as the Guards and the 1st King's Liverpool, passed over the graves of their predecessors who had died under the same colours at Malplaquet in 1709, two hundred and six years before.
The Guards in Action
On August 25th General Haig continued his retreat. During the day he fell back to the west of Maubeuge by Feignies to Vavesnes and Landrecies. The considerable forest of Mormal intervened between the two sections of the British Army. On the forenoon of this day the vanguard of the German infantry, using motor transport, overtook Davies Sixth Brigade, which was acting as rearguard to the corps. They pushed in to within five hundred yards, but were driven back by rifle-fire. Other German forces were coming rapidly up and enveloping the wings of the British rearguard, but the brigade, through swift and skilful handling, disengaged itself from what was rapidly becoming a dangerous situation. It is stated that these pursuing troops were the Ninth Corps from Von Bulow's army, so that the British had to do not only with Von Kluck's great host, but with this extra corps as well. The weather was exceedingly hot during the day, and with their heavy packs the men were much exhausted, many of them being barely able to stagger. In the evening, footsore and weary, they reached the line of Landrecies-Maroilles and Pont-sur-Sambre. The Fourth Brigade of Guards, consisting of Grenadiers, Coldstream, and Irish, under General Scott-Kerr, occupied the town of Landrecies. During the day they had seen little of the enemy, and they had no reason to believe that the forest, which extended up to the outskirts of the town, was full of German infantry pressing eagerly to cut them off. The possession of vast numbers of motor lorries for infantry transport introduces a new element into strategy, especially the strategy of a pursuit, which was one of those disagreeable first experiences of up-to-date warfare which the British Army had to undergo. It ensures that the weary retreating rearguard shall ever have a perfectly fresh pursuing vanguard at its heels.
The Guards at Landrecies were put into the empty cavalry barracks for a much-needed rest, but they had hardly settled down before there was an alarm that the Germans were coming into the town. It was just after dusk that a column of infantry debouched from the shadow of the trees and advanced briskly into the street, which was dimly lit by a few oil lamps. A strong picket of the 3rd Coldstream under Captain Monck gave the alarm, and the whole regiment, with the 2nd Grenadier Guards, stood to arms, while the rest of the brigade, who could not operate in so confined a space, remained in reserve. The van of the approaching Germans shouted out that they were French, and seemed to have actually got near enough to attack the officer of the picket and seize a machine-gun before the Guardsmen began to fire. There is a single long village street, and no means of turning it, so that the attack was forced to come directly down the road.
The Germans' Rude Awakening
Possibly the Germans had the impression that they were dealing with demoralized fugitives, but if so they got a rude awakening. The advance party, who were endeavouring to drag away the Machine-gun, were all shot down, and their comrades who stormed up to the houses were met with a steady and murderous fire which drove them back into the shadows of the wood. Several guns were brought up by them, and fired at a range of five hundred yards with shrapnel and case, but the British infantry lay low or flattened themselves into the doorways for protection, while the 9th British Battery replied from a position behind the town. Presently, believing that the way had been cleared for them, there was a fresh surge of dark masses out of the wood, and they poured into the throat of the street. The Guards had brought out two machine guns, and their fire, together with a succession of volleys from the rifles, decimated the stormers. Some of them got near enough to throw band bombs among the British, but none effected a lodgment among the buildings.
From time to time there were fresh advances during the night, designed rather to tire out the troops than to gain the village. Once fire was set to the house at the end of the street, but the flames were extinguished by Corporal Wyatt, of the 3rd Coldstream. The Irish Guards after midnight relieved the Coldstream of their vigil, and in the early morning the tired but victorious brigade went forward unmolested upon their way. They had lost a hundred and fifty of their number. Lord Hawarden and the Hon. Windsor Clive of the Coldstream and Lieut. Vereker of the Grenadiers were killed, four other officers were wounded. The Germans in their close attacking formation had suffered very much more heavily. History has shown many times before that a retreating British Army still retains a sting in its tail.
At the same time as the Guards' Brigade was attacked at Landrecies there was an advance from the forest against Maroilles, which is four miles to the eastward. A troop of the 15th Hussars guarding a bridge over the Sambre near that point was driven in by the enemy, and two attempts on the part of the 1st Berkshires, of Davies' Sixth Brigade, to retake it were repulsed, owing to the fact that the only approach was by a narrow causeway with marshland on either side, where it was not possible for infantry to deploy. The 1st Rifles were ordered to support the Berkshires, but darkness had fallen and nothing could be done. The casualties in this skirmish amounted to one hundred and forty-four killed, wounded, or missing. The Landrecies and Maroilles wounded were left behind with some of the medical staff. At this period of the war the British had not yet understood the qualities of the enemy, and several times made the mistake of trusting surgeons and orderlies to their mercy, with the result that they were inhumanly treated, both by the authorities at the front and by the populace in Germany, whither they were conveyed as starving prisoners of war. Five of them, captains Edmunds and Hamilton, Lieut. Danks (all of the Army Medical Corps), with Dr. Austin and Dr. Elliott, who were exchanged in January, 1915, deposed that they were left absolutely without food for long periods. It is only fair to state that at a later date the German treatment of prisoners, though often harsh, was no longer barbarous.
The Connaughts at Pont-sur-Sambre
A small mishap — small on the scale of such a war, though serious enough in itself — befell a unit of the First Army Corps on the morning after the Landrecies engagement. The portion of the German army who pursued General Haig had up to now been able to effect little, and that little at considerable cost to themselves. Early on August 26th, however, a brisk action was fought near Pont-sur-Sambre, in which the 2nd Connaughts, of Haking's Fifth Brigade, lost six officers, including Colonel Abercrombie, who was taken prisoner, and two hundred and eighty men. The regiment was cut off by a rapidly advancing enemy in a country which was so thickly enclosed that there was great difficulty in keeping touch be tween the various companies or in conveying their danger to the rest of the brigade. fly steadiness and judgment the battalion was extricated from a most difficult position, but it was at the heavy cost already quoted. In this case again the use by the enemy of great numbers of motor lorries in their pursuit accounts for the suddenness and severity of the attacks which now and afterwards fell upon the British rearguards.
Dawn broke upon August 26th, a day upon which the exhausted troops were destined to be tried to the limit of human endurance. It was the date of Von Kluck's exultant telegram in which he declared that he held them surrounded, a telegram which set Berlin fluttering with flags. On this day the First Army Corps was unmolested in its march, reaching the Venerolles line that night. There was woody country upon the west of it, and from beyond this curtain of trees they heard the distant roar of a terrific cannonade, and knew that a great battle was in progress to the westward. It was on Smith-Dorrien's Second Corps and upon the single division of the Third Corps that the full storm of the German attack had broken. In a word a corps and a half of British troops, which two hundred and twenty-five guns, were assailed by certainly four and probably five German corps, with six hundred guns. It a no wonder that the premature tidings of a great German triumph were forwarded that morning to make one more item in that flood of good news which from August 21st to the end of the month was pouring in upon the German people. A glittering mirage lay before them. The French lines had been hurled back from the frontier, the British were in full retreat, and now were faced with absolute disaster. Behind these breaking lines lay the precious capital, the brain and heart of France. But God is not always with the big battalions, and the end was not yet.
Chapter II. The Battle of Le Cateau
The Order of Battle at Le Cateau — The Stand of the 2nd Suffolks — Major Yate's V.C. — The Fight for the Quarries — The Splendid Work of the British Guns — Major Parker's Desperate Sally.
Reference has already been made to the retirement of Smith-Dorrien's Second Corps, covered by Allenby's cavalry, throughout the 25th. The heads of the columns arrived at the Le Cateau position at about 3 p.m., but the rearguards were fighting far into the night, and came in eventually in an exhausted condition. The Fourth Division, which was still quite fresh, did good and indeed vital service by allowing the tired units to pass through its ranks and acting as a pivot upon which the cavalry could fall back.
Sir John French had reconsidered the idea of making a stand at Le Cateau, feeling, no doubt, that if his whole Army could not be consolidated there the affair would be too desperate. He had moved with his staff during the evening of the 25th to St. Quentin, leaving word that the retirement should be continued early next morning. Smith-Dorrien spent the afternoon and evening going round the position, but it was not until 2 a.m. upon the morning of the 26th that he was able to ascertain the whereabouts of all his scattered and weary units. About that time General Allenby reported that his cavalry had been widely separated, two and a half brigades being at Chatillon, six miles east of Le Cateau, the other one and a half brigades being near Ligny, four miles west of the same town. General Smith-Dorrien was in the position that his troops were scattered, weary, and in danger of losing their moral through continued retreat in the presence of an ever-pressing enemy. Even with the best soldiers such an experience too long continued may turn an army into a rabble. He therefore made urgent representations by wire to the Commander-in-Chief, pointing out that the only hope of checking the dangerous German pursuit was to stagger them by a severe counter. Sir John assented to the view, with the proviso that the retirement should be continued as soon as possible. Smith-Dorrien took under his orders the cavalry, the Fourth Division, and the Nineteenth Brigade, as well as his own corps, and issued orders for the battle which he knew would begin within a few hours.
Owing to the gap of eight miles between the nearest points of the two corps, both flanks of the position were in the air. Smith-Dorrien therefore requested the cavalry brigades from Chatillon to move in and guard the east flank, while the rest of the cavalry watched the west. He was less anxious about the latter, as he knew that Sordet's French cavalry was in that direction.
The Order of Battle at Le Cateau
The exhausted infantry, who had now been marching for about a week, and fighting for three days and the greater part of three nights, flung themselves down where best they could, some to the north-east of Le Cateau, some in the town, and some along the line of very inadequate trenches which had been hastily prepared by civilian labour. In the early dawn they took up their position, the Fifth Division to the right near the town. Of this division, the Fourteenth Brigade (Rolt's) was on the extreme right, the Thirteenth (Cuthbert's) to the left of it, and the Fifteenth (Gleichen's) in reserve. To the west of the Fifth Division lay the Third, their trenches covering the villages of Troisville (Ninth Brigade), Auden-court (Eighth Brigade), and Caudry (Seventh Brigade). Behind Caudry one and a half brigades of cavalry were in reserve to strengthen the left wing. From Caudry the line was thrown back to meet a flanking movement and extended to Haucourt. This portion was held by Snow's Fourth Division. Sordet's cavalry had passed across the rear of the British position the day before, and lay now to the left flank and rear of the Army. There were rumours of approaching French forces from the south, which put heart into the weary men, but, as a matter of fact, they had only their own brave spirits upon which to depend. Their numbers, putting every unit at its full complement, were about seventy thousand men. Their opponents were four army corps at the least, with two divisions of cavalry — say, one hundred and seventy thousand men with an overpowering artillery. Subsequent reports showed that the guns of all five army corps had been concentrated for the battle.
It has been said that Rolt's Fourteenth Brigade was at the extreme right of the line. This statement needs some expansion. The Fourteenth Brigade consisted of the 1st East Surrey, 2nd Suffolk, 2nd Manchester, and 1st Cornwalls. Of these four regiments, half of the East Surrey had been detached on escort duty and the other half, under Colonel Longley, with the whole of the Cornwalls, bivouacked in the northern suburbs of Le Cateau on the night of the. 25th. In the early morning of the 26th the enemy's advanced guard got into the town, and this detachment of British troops were cut off from their comrades and fired upon as they assembled in the streets of the town. They made their way out, however, in orderly fashion and took up a position to the south-east of the town, where they fought an action on their own account for some hours, quite apart from the rest of the Army, which they could hear but not see. Eventually the First Division of Cavalry fell back from Chatillon to join the Army and picked up these troops en route, so that the united body was able to make its way safely back to their comrades. These troops were out of the main battle, but did good work in covering the retreat. The whole signal section of the Fourteenth Brigade was with them, which greatly hampered the brigade during the battle. Two companies of the 1st Surreys under Major Tew had become separated from their comrades after Mons, but they rejoined the British line at Troisville, and on the morning of August 26th were able to fall in on the rear of the Fourteenth Brigade, where, as will be seen later, they did good service.
The Nineteenth Brigade had also bivouacked in Le Cateau and was nearly cut off, as the two regiments of the Fourteenth Brigade had been, by the sudden intrusion of the enemy. It had been able to make its way out of the town, however, without being separated from the rest of the Army, and it took up its position on the right rear of the infantry line, whence it sent ,help where needed and played the part of a reserve until towards the close of the action its presence became very vital to the Fifth Division. At the outset the 2nd Argyll and Sutherlands were in the front line of this brigade and the 1st Middlesex supporting them, while the other two regiments (2nd Welsh Fusiliers and 1st Cameronians) with a battery of artillery had been taken as a reserve by the force commander. No trenches had been prepared at this point, and the losses of the two front regiments from shell-fire were, from the beginning, very heavy. The other two regiments spent a day of marching rather than fighting, being sent right across to reinforce the Fourth Division and then being brought back to the right flank once more.
The Stand of the 2nd Suffolks
It was the Fifth Division, on the right of the line, who first experienced the full effect of the heavy shelling which about seven o'clock became general along the whole position, but was always most severe upon the right. There was a dangerous salient in the trenches at the cross-roads one mile west of Le Cateau which was a source of very great weakness. Every effort was made to strengthen the trenches, the Fifteenth Brigade and 59th Company R.E. working especially hard in the Troisville section. The Germans were moving round upon this right wing, and the murderous hail of missiles came from the flank as well as from the front, being supplemented by rifle and machine-gun fire. The 2nd Suffolks and 2nd Manchesters, the remaining half of Rolt's Fourteenth Brigade, being on the extreme right of the line, suffered the most. The guns immediately supporting them, of the Twenty-eighth Artillery Brigade, were quite overmatched and were overwhelmed by the devastating rain of shells, many of them being put out of action. A heavy battery, the 108th, some little distance behind the line, kept up a steady and effective fire which long held back the German advance. The pressure, however, was extreme, and growing steadily from hour to hour until it became well-nigh intolerable. Especially it fell upon the 2nd Suffolk Regiment, who held their shallow trenches with splendid tenacity. Their colonel, Brett, was killed, Major Doughty was wounded in three places, Captains Orford and Cutbill, with eight lieutenants, were on the ground. Finally, when the position of the brigade became untenable and it was ordered to retreat, the gallant Suffolks held on to their line with the desire of saving the disabled guns, and were eventually all killed, wounded, or taken, save for About two hundred and fifty men, while their neighbours, the 2nd Manchesters, lost fourteen officers and three hundred and fifty of their men. In this way the extreme right of the British line was practically destroyed.
The Nineteenth Brigade, in the rear of the Fourteenth, were able to observe the fate of their comrades, and about midday the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, Who had already lost a good many men from shellfire, advanced in the chivalrous hope of relieving the pressure. The regiment went forward as if on parade, though the casualties were numerous. They eventually gained the shelter of some trenches near the remains of the Fourteenth Brigade, but their gallant effort, instead of averting the threatened destruction, ended by partially involving them in the same fate. They could do nothing against the concentrated and well-directed artillery fire of the enemy. When eventually they fell back, part of B and C companies were cut off in their trench and taken. The rest of the regiment, together with the 1st Middlesex and two companies of the Royal Scots Fusiliers from the Ninth Brigade, formed a covering line on a ridge in the rear and held back the German advance for a long time. This line did not retire until 5 p.m., when it was nearly enveloped. General Drummond, commanding the Nineteenth Brigade, had met with an injury in the course of the action, and it was commanded during the latter part by Colonel Ward, of the 1st Middlesex.
Major Yates V.C.
The retirement or destruction of the Fourteenth Brigade exposed the flank of the Thirteenth (Cuthbert's) to a murderous enfilade fire, which fell chiefly upon the 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry. This brigade had defended itself successfully for six hours against various frontal attacks, but now the flank-fire braked it from end to end and practically destroyed the Yorkshiremen, who were the most exposed to it. On them and on the 2nd Scottish Borderers fell the great bulk of the losses, for the West Kents and the survivors of the West Ridings were in reserve. Of the two companies of the Yorkshire Light Infantry who held the foremost trenches, that on the right had only fifteen men left, with whom Major Yate attempted a final charge, finding his Victoria Cross in the effort, while the next company, under Major Trevor, had only forty-one survivors. Both the Yorkshire and the Border battalions lost their colonels in the action. Their losses were shared by the two companies of the 1st East Surreys under Major Tew, who had been placed between the Fourteenth and Thirteenth Brigades, and who fought very steadily in shallow trenches, holding on to the last possible moment.
Whilst the battle was going badly on the right, the Third Division in the centre and the Fourth Division on the left had held their own against a succession of attacks. The Eighth and Ninth Brigades drove off the German infantry with their crushing rifle-fire, and endured as best they might the shelling, which was formidable and yet very much less severe than that to which the Fifth Division bad been exposed. In the case of the Seventh Brigade (McCracken's), the village of Caudry, which it defended, formed a salient, since the Fourth Division on the left was thrown back. The attack upon this brigade from daylight onwards was very severe, but the assailants could neither drive in the line nor capture the village of Caudry. They attacked on both flanks at short rifle range, inflicting and also enduring heavy losses. In this part of the field the British guns held their own easily against the Ger-man, the proportion of numbers being more equal than on the right of the line.
Whilst the right flank was crumbling before the terrific concentration of German guns, and while the centre was stoutly holding its own, farther to the west, in the Haucourt-Ligny direction, the Second German Army Corps was beating hard against Snow's Fourth Division, which was thrown back to protect the left flank of the Army, and to cover the Cambrai-Esnes road. Hunter-Weston's Eleventh Brigade was on the right, south of Fontaine, with Wilson's Twelfth upon its left, and Haldane's Tenth in reserve at Haucourt. As the German attack came from the left, or western flank, the Twelfth. Brigade received the first impact. The artillery of the division had not yet come up, and the 1st Royal Lancasters, stretched in a turnip patch, endured for some time a severe fire which cost them many casualties, including their Colonel Dykes, and to which little reply could he made. There were no cavalry scouts in front of the infantry, so that working parties and advanced posts were cut up by sudden machine-gun fire. Some of the covering parties both of the Lancasters and of the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers were never seen again. At about seven the British guns came up, the Fourteenth Brigade R.F.A. on the left, the Twenty-ninth in the centre, and the Thirty-second on the right, with the howitzers of the Thirty-seventh behind the right centre on the high ground near Selvigny. From this time onward they supported the infantry in the most self-sacrificing way. The German infantry advance began shortly afterwards and was carried out by wave after wave of men. A company of the 2nd Essex Regiment, under Captain Vandeleur, upon the British left, having good cover and a clear field of fire, inflicted very heavy losses on the Germans, though they were finally overwhelmed, their leader having been killed. The 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers in the front line were also heavily attacked and held their own for several hours. About ten o'clock the pressure was so great that the defence was driven in, and two regiments lost their machine-guns, but a new line was formed in the Haucourt-Esnes road, the retirement being skilfully covered by Colonel Anley, of the Essex, and Colonel Griffin, of the Lancashire Fusiliers. There the 2nd Inniskilling Fusiliers, the 1st Royal Lancasters, the 2nd Lancashire Fusiliers, and the 2nd Essex held firmly on until the afternoon under very heavy and incessant fire, while the Eleventh Brigade upon their right were equally involved in the fight. Two regiments of the Tenth Brigade (Haldane's), Irish Fusiliers and Seaforths, had dug themselves in on the high ground just north of Selvigny and repulsed every attack, but two others, the Dublins and Warwicks, had got involved with the Twelfth Brigade and could not be retrieved. The Signal Corps had not yet arrived, and the result was that General Snow had the greatest difficulty in ensuring his connections with his brigadiers, the orders being carried by his staff officers. At two o'clock, as there was a lull in the German advance, . Wilson of the Twelfth Brigade made a spirited counterattack, led by the 1st Warwicks, recovering many of the wounded, but being finally driven back to the old position by intense artillery and machine-gun fire.
It is worth recording that during this advance the Essex men found among the German dead many Jaeger with the same Gibraltar badge upon their caps which they bore themselves. It was a Hanoverian battalion who had been comrades with the old 56th in the defence of the fortress one hundred and fifty years before.
The Fight for the Quarries
The Eleventh Brigade (Hunter-Weston), on the night of the 12th, had meanwhile played a very vital part in the fight. This brigade was defending a position called Les Carrières, or the quarry pits, which was east of Fontaine and to the north of the village of Ligny. It was a desperate business, for the British were four times driven out of it and four times came back to their bitter work amid a sleet of shells and bullets. Parties of the 1st Somersets and of the 1st East Lancashires held the quarries with the 1st Hants and 1st Rifle Brigade in immediate support, all being eventually drawn into tit fight. Major Rickman, of the latter regiment, distinguished himself greatly in the defence. but was seriously wounded and left behind in the final retirement. Besides incessant gun-fire, the defenders were under infantry fire of a very murderous description from both flanks, In spite of this, the place was held for six hours until the retirement of the line in the afternoon caused it to be untenable. as the enemy was able to get behind it. The brigade then fell back upon Ligny under heavy shrapnel-fire, moving steadily and in good order. The Germans at once attacked the village from the east- and north-east. Could they have taken it, they would have been upon the flank of the British line of retirement. They were twice driven back, however, by the fire of the infantry, losing very heavily upon both occasions. About five o'clock, the Army being in full retreat, the brigade received orders to abandon Ligny and march upon Malincourt. The effect of a heavy shrapnel-fire was minimized by this movement being carried out in small columns of fours. A loss of thirty officers and one thousand one hundred and fifteen men in a single day's fighting showed how severe had been the work of Hunter-Weston's brigade. The Twelfth Brigade had also lost about a thousand men. Many of the guns had run short of shells. A spectator has described how he saw the British gunners under a heavy fire, sitting in gloomy groups round the guns which they had neither the shells to work, nor the heart to abandon.
Such was the general fortune of the British left. At the extreme edge of it, in the gap between the left of the Fourth Division and the town of Cambrai, Sordet's French cavalry had been fighting to prevent the British wing from being turned. There was some misconception upon this point at the time, but in justice to our Ally it should be known that General Smith-Dorrien himself galloped to this flank in the course of the afternoon and was a witness of the efforts of the French troopers.
The narrative has now taken the movements of the left wing up to the point of its retirement, in order to preserve the continuity of events in that portion of the field, but the actual abandonment of their position by Snow's Fourth Division was due to circumstances over which they had no control, and which had occurred at a considerable distance. Both the centre and the left of the Army could have held its own, though it must be admitted that the attack to which they were exposed was a very violent one gallantly pushed home.
All might have gone well had the Germans not been able to mass such an overpowering artillery attack upon the right of the line. it was shortly after midday that this part of the position began to weaken, and observers from the centre saw stragglers retiring over the low hill in the Le Gateau direction, At that hour the artillery upon the right of the British line was mostly silenced, and large masses of the German infantry were observed moving round the right flank. The salient of the Suffolks was in the possession of the enemy, and from it they could enfilade the line. It was no longer possible to bring u p ammunition o r horses to the few remaining guns. The greater part of the troops held on none the less most doggedly to their positions. A steady downpour of rain was a help rather than a discomfort, as it enabled the men to moisten their parched lips. But the situation of the Fifth Division was growing desperate. It was plain that to remain where they were could only mean destruction. And yet to ask the exhausted men to retire under such a rain of shells would be a dangerous operation. Even the best troops may reach their snapping point. Most of them had by the afternoon been under constant shrapnel-fire for eight hours on end. Some were visibly weakening. Anxious officers looked eagerly over their shoulders for any sign of reinforcement, but an impassable gap separated them from their comrades of the First Army Corps, who were listening with sinking hearts to the rumble of the distant cannonade. There was nothing for it but to chance the retirement. About three o'clock commanders called to officers and officers to men for a last great effort. It was the moment when a leader reaps in war the Jove and confidence which he has sown in peace. Smith-Dorrien had seat his meagre reserve, which consisted of one battery and two battalions, to take up a rearguard position astride the Le Cateau-St. Quentin road. Every available detail, that could pull a trigger, down to Hildebrand's signallers of the Headquarters Staff, who had already done wonderful work in their own particular line, were thrust into the covering line. One by one the dishevelled brigades were drawn off towards the south. One section of the heavy guns of the 108th Heavy Battery was ordered back to act with two battalions of the Nineteenth Brigade in covering the Reumont-Maritz road, while the 1st Norfolks were put in echelon behind the right flank for the same purpose.
The Splendid Work of the British Guns
The Fifth Division, with the Fifteenth Brigade as rearguard, considerably disorganized by its long hammering, retreated along the straight Roman road viâ Maritz and Estrees. The Third Division fell hack through Berthy and Clary to Beaurevoir, the Ninth Brigade forming a rearguard. The cavalry, greatly helped by Sordet's French cavalry upon the west, flung itself in front of the pursuit, while the guns sacrificed themselves to save the retiring infantry. Every British battery was an inferno of bursting shells, and yet everyone fought on while breech-block would shut or gunner could stand. Many batteries were in the state of the first R.F.A., which fired away all its Own shells and then borrowed from the limbers of other neighbouring batteries, the guns of which had been put out of action. Had the artillery gone the Army would have gone. Had the Army gone the Germans bad a clear run into Paris. It has been said that on the covering batteries of Wing, Milne, and Headlam may, on that wet August afternoon, have hung the future history of Europe.
Wing's command included the Twenty-third, Thirtieth, Fortieth, and Forty-second Brigades, with the 48th Heavy Battery ; Headlam's were the Fifteenth, Twenty-seventh, Twenty-eighth and Eighth, with the 108th Heavy ; Milne's, the Fourteenth, Twenty-ninth, Thirty-second, and 37th Heavy. These numbers deserve to be recorded, for every gun of them did great service, though many were left in ruins on the field. Some, like those of the 37th R.F.A., were plucked from under the very noses of the Germans, who were within a hundred yards of them when they were withdrawn, a deed of valour for which Captain Reynolds of that battery received the Cross. One by one those batteries which could move were drawn off, the cavalry covering the manoeuvre by their rifle-fire. and sometimes man-handling the gun from the field. Serving one day as charging cavaliers, another as mounted infantry in covering a retreat, again as sappers in making or holding a trench, or when occasion called for it as gun-teams to pull on the trace of a derelict gun, the cavalry have been the general utility men of the Army. The days of pure cavalry may have passed. but there will never be a time when a brave and handy fighting man who is mobile will not he in-valuable to his comrades.
Major Parker's Desperate Sally
It was about four o'clock that the Fourth Division, on the left flank, who had been maintaining the successful defensive already described, were ordered to begin their retirement. The Twelfth Brigade was able to withdraw with no great difficulty along the line Walincourt — Villiers — Vendhuile, reaching the latter village about nine-thirty. The doings of the Eleventh Brigade have been already described. There was considerable disintegration but no loss of spirit. One of the regiments of the Twelfth, the 2nd Royal Lancasters, together with about three hundred Warwicks, from, the Tenth Brigade, and some detachments of other regiments, were, by some mischance, isolated in the village of Haucourt with no definite orders, and held on until ten o'clock at night, when the place was nearly surrounded. They fought their way out, however, in a most surprising fashion, and eventually made good their retreat.
One party, under Major Poole of the Warwicks, rejoined the Army next day. Another, which consisted of about sixty of the Royal Lancasters under Major Parker, were sur-rounded in a barn and fought on until the Germans blew in the gate with a Field-gun. Instead of surrendering, they then made a desperate sally, and, dashing out with their bayonets, they charged down the village street, which was full of German infantry. They actually cut their way through and got away into the open country. This small body, reinforced by scattered men of the Warwicks, the Dublin Fusiliers, and the Irish Fusiliers, remained for three whole days half a day's march in the rear of the Army,and yet, by a mixture of good luck and leadership, picked their way among the German advance guards until they rejoined the colours near Noyon.
Haldane's Tenth Brigade had got split up during the confused fighting of the day, half of it, the 1st Warwicks and and Dublins, getting involved with the Twelfth Brigade in the fighting on the Haucourt Ridge. The other two battalions, the 2nd Seaforths and 1st Royal Irish Fusiliers, kept guard as a reserve over the left flank of the division. Towards evening General Haldane, finding it hopeless to recover control of his lost regiments, collected the rest of his brigade, and endeavoured to follow the general line of retreat. He lost touch with the remainder of the Army, and might well have been cut off, but after a most exhausting experience he succeeded in safely rejoining the division at Roisel upon the 27th. It may be said generally that the reassembling of the Fourth Division after the disintegration they had experienced was a remarkable example of individualism and determination.