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

By way of comparison I would mention that at Le Cateau, where the position was infinitely superior for a defensive action, the extreme front was only nine miles, and there I had ten brigades available, whereas in my front of twelve miles on the 23rd and 24th I only had six brigades.

The fighting was over for the time and our troops, though weary, and in spite of their heavy losses, were in tremendous heart and full of confidence in their superiority to the enemy; and in this they were justified, for, although numerically vastly superior, the Germans had succumbed absolutely before the steady discipline and accurate rifle-fire of the British soldier. It was this rifle-fire, and the fog of war so thick on both sides, which were the outstanding features of the day.

The rapid and accurate rifle-fire to which our men had been trained was an eye-opener to the enemy, and they believed at the time that they were opposed by an enormous number of machine-guns. Their losses were very heavy, for they came on in dense formations, offering the most perfect targets, and it was not until they had been mown down in thousands that they adopted more open formations. For some years the British Army had toiled to perfect itself in this rapid rifle-fire; it had given an immense amount of hard work and it was satisfactory to find that the toil and trouble had been more than justified. As to the fog of war, we certainly had no idea that such large forces were against us—the German account gives three and a half Divisions against our 3rd Division and two and a half against our 5th—whereas the Germans had no idea of our whereabouts or our strength. In his orders for the 23rd, so our Official History tells us, all the German Commander, General Von Kluck, could tell his troops was that he knew of a British Squadron of Cavalry near Mons, and that a British aeroplane had been shot down. The Germans do not appear to have known where we had landed, or that we were actually in the line of battle.

There is no doubt that the II Corps felt very proud of themselves that night, and justly so; but their losses had been heavy—1,571 killed and wounded, whereas those of the I Corps had only been 40.

The day, too, had given me great confidence not only in the troops and their leaders but in my own Staff. It had been a great day for testing the latter, as reports, some of them none too rosy, had been coming in in a continuous stream, and Forestier-Walker was never for a moment at a loss as to how to deal with them and as to what instructions to issue to remedy a difficult situation.

It was during this afternoon too that Allenby's Cavalry Division was moved along our rear from east to west to take up a position in the neighbourhood of Thulin, a difficult operation, necessitating keeping roads, thronged with battle impedimenta, clear, and this was admirably carried out by the II Corps Staff. The 8th Brigade (Doran's) had heavy work with the enemy, and it was not until 3 a.m. on the 24th that they were back at Nouvelles, three miles south of Mons and the same distance east of Frameries.

The II Corps then stood generally on the line from right to left Nouvelles-Ciply-Frameries-Paturages-Wasmes-Hornu-Boussu, confidently awaiting renewal of the battle at dawn ; for the C.-in-C. had issued orders that this was to be done.

Nothing could be more flattering to their grand fighting spirit than the German accounts, which show that the enemy were completely stopped all along the line with, to use their own words, bloody losses.

At about II p.m. a message from G.H.Q. summoned my Chief Staff officer to Army Head-quarters at Le Cateau, about thirty miles away, and it was past 3 a.m. on the 24th when Forestier-Walker returned to my head-quarters to say that the C.-in-C. had, in view of fresh information, decided that instead of standing to fight, the whole B.E.F. was to retire. I naturally asked him for the plan of retirement, and was told that G.H.Q. were issuing none, though he had gathered that the idea was for the I Corps to cover the retirement of the II, but that I was to see Haig and arrange a plan with him.

There must have been some very good reason why four or five hours of valuable time had been lost by sending for staff officers instead of sending the order and plan for retirement directly the Chief had decided on it. It must be remembered that we had prepared for continuing the fight and our fighting impedimenta, such as ammunition columns, were close behind the troops and blocking the roads, and before a retirement could commence, these would have to be cleared away; also that it would take a long time to get the change of orders to the troops, and lastly that I had to find out what Haig was going to do. All this could have been done and the retirement actually begun before dawn had we known in time. As it was, daylight was already breaking when the order reached me and some hours must elapse before the retirement could commence, by which time we should be in deadly grips with the enemy and would have to carry out one of the most difficult operations in war, namely, breaking off a fight and retiring with the enemy close on the top of us. Such were the thoughts which flashed through my mind. However, my staff were quite unruffled ; Forestier-Walker quickly got his retirement orders out, and the invaluable A.Q.M.G., Rycroft got the roads clear by sending the impedimenta off.

It must have been approaching noon when I found time to seek out Haig near Bonnet and discuss the retirement in accordance with G.H.Q. " plan of action," which was roughly that the I Corps should cover the retirement of the II, but that Haig and I were to meet and settle details. By the time I met him the I Corps' retirement, ably planned, was in full swing, for Johnny Gough, B.G.G.S., of I Corps, directly the Chief gave his orders to retire, wired from Le Cateau to Haig, so that the latter was able to issue his instructions at 2 a.m. and get his troops started off with such promptness that the main bodies of his Divisions reached their destinations at Feignies, La Longueville, and Bavai about 10 a.m., specially detailed rear-guards remaining in positions to help us. My G.H.Q. at Sars-la-Bruyere not being in telegraphic communication with Le Cateau, Forestier-Walker had had to bring the order to me by motor, and daylight was approaching, as I have already said, when he reached me. This happened almost simultaneously with the opening of the offensive, for the Germans opened a heavy fire against the right of II Corps before dawn and by 5.15 a.m. were attacking along the whole line. The orders issued by Forestier-Walker were clear and to the point. He told the 5th and 3rd Divisions that the I Corps was retiring first to certain positions in order to cover the retirement of the 3rd Division; this latter would head for Sars-la-Bruyere and when it did the 5th Division should aim at the line Blaugies and Montignies-sur-Roc. At 6 a.m. the 8th Brigade of the 3rd Division commenced falling back from Nouvelles and were not seriously troubled by the enemy. The 7th Brigade from Ciply and 9th Brigade from Frameries, however, were hard pressed, and drove off several determined attacks in which the Germans, according to their own accounts, lost very heavily, before they could retire. It was 9 a.m. before the 9th Brigade could leave Frameries towards Sars-la-Bruyere, and later still when the 7th Brigade moved off on Genly. The fighting was very heavy in the streets of Frameries, and the Lincolns and South Lanes as rear-guards of the 7th Brigade about Ciply had desperate fighting, the latter losing nearly 300 men before they could move off. These rear-guards by their devoted bravery had done their work, for the German dead lay thick on the ground, giving their Kameraden such a salutary lesson that the retirement of the 3rd Division was no longer interfered with.

I would call attention here to the fact that General Joffre had directed that the B.E.F. in its retirement should keep west of the fortress of Maubeuge, and a glance at the map will show that this necessitated a crab-like movement, the I Corps crowding in on the 3rd Division and that Division on the 5th Division, and unless the last could edge off more to the west the time would come when some troops would be squeezed out. I mention this as the situation actually arose later on and, having been foreseen, was provided for.

I will now briefly describe the movements of the 5th Division. They were holding a line from Paturages through Wasmes, Hornu, and Boussu— with reserves at Dour. They were subjected to heavy artillery fire before dawn, which continued for four hours, and appears to have made very little impression. Curiously enough, the event which first enabled the Germans to break their line was due to an accident, but as it gives a lesson of military importance I shall recite it. It will be remembered that on the previous evening Haig had lent me the 5th Infantry Brigade of his Corps to fill a gap between the 3rd and 5th Divisions, and well they did it. At 9 a.m. on the 24th, however, in accordance with orders from their own Division, that Brigade began retiring. At the time, although the fire was heavy, not a German was visible. Almost at once the flank of the 5th Division, exposed by the withdrawal of the borrowed Brigade, was in trouble, and the Bedfords and Dorsets had to fight hard to save a break through. I impute blame to no one, for in a retirement it was a very possible thing to happen; but the incident is a good illustration of the dangers of a divided command.

A lot of very brisk and complicated fighting took place and this is best read in the official account, for it is too detailed to find a place in this Memoir. The troops behaved magnificently, and many gallant deeds were performed. It was not until 11 a.m., when some of his advanced troops had already fallen back, that I was able to tell Sir Charles Fergusson that he was free to carry out a general retirement. This he proceeded to do, but not without some very severe fighting. One battery and the 2nd Battalion Duke of Wellington's had a desperate fight, inflicting very heavy losses and driving back six battalions of the enemy before they could retire themselves. This they did successfully but with a loss to the Duke's of close on 400. The Cavalry Division, with the 19th Brigade, which was attached to it, were retiring on the west flank of the Army, and, moving rather faster than the 5th Division, had exposed the latter's left flank. Then took place the action at Elouges so graphically described in the Official History, when Colonel C. R. Ballard (now Brigadier-General, C.B., C.M.G.), with the Norfolks and Cheshires of the 15th Brigade and the cavalry and guns, covered themselves with glory and held off an overwhelming force of Germans which had been sent by Von Kluck to envelop our left or west flank.

About 2.30 p.m. Colonel Ballard was able to retire, but the day was not over yet, for serious fighting continued all the afternoon. I regret to say that the Cheshires, who fought most gallantly, did not receive the order to retire, and were isolated and surrounded at Audregnies, when they fought until they were almost all killed and wounded and were forced to surrender—only two officers and 200 men out of a thousand of this Battalion were in bivouac with their Brigade that evening.

My head-quarters had moved back in the course of the morning from Sars-la-Bruyere to Hon, and whilst at that place Prince Henri d'Orleans reported himself to me with instructions from the Chief that he was to be attached to my Staff.


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