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Memories of Forty-Eight Years Service
Chapter 24b - The Retreat from Mons : Le Cateau

My own head-quarters were at Sars-la-Bruyere, south-west of Mons and Frameries, some six miles from the former and three from the latter. That afternoon I motored round the outposts and reconnoitred the positions as far as I had time, for the distances were great and my presence at my head-quarters, with so much to arrange, was necessary for a considerable part of the daylight available. In my hasty survey I had come to the conclusion that, from a fighting point of view, our position was a very difficult one. The ground on the enemy's side of the Canal commanded it from comparatively short ranges, and was densely wooded, giving them the advantage of a covered approach. Any idea of fighting a serious action on the outpost line was therefore out of the question, although such a thing in any case would have been impossible in view of the enormous extension of the Corps, covering as it did twenty-one miles with only two Divisions.

I came to the conclusion that our only hope, if attacked in force, would be to hold a less extended position in rear on which the outposts could fall back. This, however, was not very encouraging, as although the ground rose considerably on a general line some two to three miles south of the Canal it was so broken up by the pitheads and wired enclosures, and so thickly covered with houses, that any organised effective defence must involve great risks. To obtain an accurate idea of the unsuitability of the ground, I recommend a careful study of the graphic description given in the Official History, written by Brigadier-General J. E. Edmonds, C.B., C.M.G., R.E., from which I quote the following (page 63) :

" The space occupied by the II Corps in particular, within the quadrangle Mons-Frameries—Dour—Boussu, is practically one huge unsightly village, traversed by a vast number of devious cobbled roads which lead from no particular starting-point to no particular destination, and broken by pit-heads and colossal slag-heaps, often over a hundred feet high. It is, in fact, a close and blind country, such as no army had yet been called upon to fight in against a civilised enemy in a great campaign."

Then on our right was the salient town of Mons, open to fire from north, east, and west, and quite indefensible, situated as we were.

However, that night I was happy in my mind, for official news of the enemy given me indicated no great strength, and I fully expected that the Chief's expressed intention of moving forward again next day would be carried out. I had been given no information of the somewhat serious happenings in the French Army on our right, which I learned

years later, namely, that it had been forced back, and was already some nine miles south of Mons with a gap of at least nine miles between the right of our I Corps and the left of the XVIII French Corps, thus leaving us in a very vulnerable, indefensible, and salient position. Had I known of this serious situation I doubt much if my night's rest would have been as enjoyable as it proved to be—for I should have been racking my brain as to what the object of our remaining so isolated was and why we did not retire.

Mercifully, I was in blissful ignorance—nor was I disillusioned next morning when about 6 a.m. the Chief appeared at my head-quarters, and, addressing his Corps and Cavalry Division Commanders assembled there, told us (vide his dispatch of 7th September 1914) that little more than one, or at most two, enemy Corps, with perhaps a Cavalry Division, were facing the B.E.F. So it was evident that he too was in blissful ignorance of the real situation. Sir John was in excellent form, and told us to be prepared to move forward, or to fight where we were, but to get ready for the latter by strengthening our outposts and preparing the bridges over the Canal for demolition. I took the opportunity of emphasising the weakness of my general line and the danger of holding on to the Mons salient, remarking that I was issuing orders for the preparation of a retired position south-west and clear of the town of Mons to cover, should a retirement become necessary, the advanced troops at Nimy and Obourg who would have to fall back behind Mons, as soon as things got so hot as to risk their being cut off. The Chief expressed himself in agreement, and approved my action. He then went off to Valenciennes to order the 19th Brigade, who were detraining there, to prolong the outpost line from my left to Conde. The dispositions of the II Corps were roughly as follows : 3rd Division (Hubert Hamilton). The 8th Infantry Brigade (Doran) on the right in touch with the I Corps, the 2nd Royal Irish holding the hill " Bois la Haul," just south-east of Mons. The 1st Gordons and

2nd Royal Scots about Harmignies. The 4th Middlesex in the outpost line from Bois la Haut to Obourg, north-east of Mons. The 9th Infantry Brigade (Shaw) on the left of the 8th, three battalions, the 4th Royal Fusiliers, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers, and lst/5th Fusiliers holding the outpost line on the Canal from the left of the 4th Middlesex to the bridge of Mariette, some six miles, with the 1st Lincolns in reserve at Cuesme, one mile south-west of Mons.

The 7th Brigade (McCracken) in Divisional reserve about Ciply, two miles south of Mons. The 5th Division (Sir Charles Fergusson) continued the line along the Canal westwards from Mariette.

The 13th Brigade (Cuthbert) took the next three miles to Les Herbieres. First came the 1st Royal West Kents with the 2nd Scottish Borderers on their left, the other two battalions, the 2nd Duke of Wellingtons and 2nd Yorkshire Light Infantry being in reserve in St. Ghislain. Lastly came the 14th Brigade (Rolf) from Les Herbieres, two and a half miles to the extreme left of the Corps at Pommeroeul bridge, the 1st East Surrey on the right with the 1st Cornwall Light Infantry on the left, and the 2nd Suffolk and 2nd Manchester in reserve.

The 15th Brigade (Gleichen), consisting of 1st Norfolk, 1st Bedford, 1st Cheshire, and 1st Dorset, were preparing a position in rear and in reserve about Dour.

I am not attempting to describe the positions of the Artillery, for, owing to the broken nature of the ground, the Batteries and even guns had to be very much scattered, and to take up positions where they could. Even if I had personal knowledge of their several positions it would take much space to describe them, and as it is I could only do so by copying from the official account, which is at everyone's disposal; but I can briefly say that the handling, initiative, and courageous action throughout this day and the next was something even for that distinguished Corps to be proud of; though even that standard was excelled by their deeds of heroism and self-sacrifice at the battle of Le Cateau. Again, I shall not attempt a full description of the fighting, but shall confine myself largely to my personal experiences.

We were not left long in doubt as to the chances of an action, for even whilst the C.-in-C. was talking to us at 6 a.m., though we did not know it at the time, our cavalry was in contact and the 4th Middlesex on outpost about Obourg were exchanging shots with the enemy. It was a Sunday morning, thick and wet at first, but clearing later became a lovely day. The church bells were sounding, and there were streams of people in every village in their black Sunday clothes going to church as if nothing unusual was happening.

At, as far as I recollect, about 9 a.m. I motored to the left of my outpost line at Pommeroeul, and leaving the car crossed the bridge and saw an interesting scrap between the Cornwalls and German scouts. I then passed along east on the south side of the Canal when about 10 a.m. the first German shell I had seen fired burst on the road just in front of my car close to Jemappes. The German guns, however, had been busy opposite Mons some time earlier, and this was natural from the nature of the enemy advance, which was more or less in the form of a left wheel, their outer or right flank coming on to the Canal last; in fact, some of our troops remained north of the Canal until 6 p.m.

It was a day of desperate and heavy fighting, especially on our right about Mons. In that salient and on the hill to the south-east of it, " Bois la Haut," the 8th and 9th Brigades were tried to the utmost, the 4th Middlesex losing half their strength; but they more than held their own and eventually fell back, evacuating the salient with the greatest skill, and at nightfall, although somewhat retired, our line was still unpenetrated. There was, however, a moment when the danger of penetration was very serious.

At about 7 p.m. a report came in saying that the enemy had penetrated the line near Frameries and were swarming through that village. I had no troops left, and all I could do was to request the 5th Division to push out to their right, which they did by sending the 1st Bedfords to Paturages. Knowing the gap was appreciable owing to the left flank of the 3rd Division in retiring having failed to join up with the right flank of the 5th Division, and that if the Germans' realised it there was nothing to prevent their pushing through in large numbers and rendering our position untenable, I sent the following message to G.H.Q. :

" To G.H.Q., G 271, August 23rd. Third Division report at 6.47 p.m. the Germans are in front of his main position and are not attacking at present, they are, however, working round 3rd Division on left flank. If it should appear that there is a danger of my centre being pierced I can see no course but to order a general retirement on Bavai position. Have I your permission to adopt this course if it appears necessary ? From II Corps, 7.15 p.m. (Signed Oxley, Colonel.) "

I then jumped into a motor and went to General Haig's head-quarters at Bonnet, some four miles away, and asked if he would allow Haking's 5th Infantry Brigade, which was on the road about two and 'a half miles from Frameries, to push on to cover the gap. I found Hubert Hamilton's G.S.O.2, Lieutenant-Colonel F. B. Maurice, there on the same quest. Haig readily gave his consent, and Maurice dashed off to tell Haking. The situation had, however, been almost restored by the 9th Brigade, and the Germans driven back before the 5th Brigade reached Frameries; but I would remark that although I had contracted my front to about twelve miles, it was still far too large for the troops I had and every man was practically in the front line, so that a break through, with no reserves to meet it, must have entailed retreat. Haking's borrowed Brigade remained to hold the gap.


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