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

General Head-quarters was in process of moving to St Quentin, twenty-six miles to the south, and it was thought probable that the C.-in-C. had gone there. This was unfortunate, as there were several matters I wished to ask him about. From Le Cateau I went south to the position selected by General Head-quarters, on which we were to meet the enemy next day. It was quite a good one - on rising ground with a fine field of fire and with several villages capable of defence along it. The right, or east flank was certainly turnable, but that did not matter as the I Corps were to go there. Then, with Forestier-Walker I allotted the ground for the two Divisions to occupy We constantly looking out for the arrival of the I Corps, and late the afternoon, when they did not appear I requested the Commander of the 5th Division to hold the ground on the north-east of Le Cateau until they arrived. This he did by sending back one and a half battalions of the 14th Brigade to entrench themselves there. Naturally the men

were dead tired; they had had two days' desperate fighting, and now had done a march of over twenty miles in a burning sun, and, as 60 per cent of them were reservists, were not in marching condition, and suffered terribly from sore feet. Some of the 5th Division were still out, the 28th Brigade R.F.A. only reaching Reumont, Sir Charles Fergusson's Head-quarters, at 11.30 p.m., and the divisional ammunition column did not arrive until the morning of the 26th. The arduous work of the day was much enhanced by a heavy thunderstorm in the evening drenching the troops to the skin.

My Staff established our Head-quarters at the village of Bertry, where I joined them at dark and awaited news of the arrival of my scattered troops. In the course of the afternoon, as far as I recollect about 6 p.m., I received a note from the Sub-Chief of the General Staff, Henry Wilson, saying the Chief had told him to warn me that orders would shortly be issued for continuing the retreat instead of standing at Le Cateau. The actual General Head-quarters' order reached me at 9 p.m., and my order to the II Corps to continue the retirement next day was issued at 10.15 p.m.

It will be difficult for any reader to realise the fog of war which surrounded us that night. Communication was most difficult, and although the Corps signallers, under that most resourceful of men, Major A. B. R. Hildebrand, R.E. (now Brigadier-General, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.), performed miracles with their wires and cables, it was impossible to find out the positions of units until hours after they reached them. Then it was not as if I only had the II Corps to deal with, for mixed up with them, fighting and retiring together, were the Cavalry Division, the 19th Infantry Brigade, and the 4th Division, none of which were under me, but were reporting their movements to and getting their orders from General Head-quarters, twenty-six miles to the rear. It is true that General Head-quarters issued an order timed I p.m. 25th August, placing the 19th Brigade under the II Corps, but it was then with the Cavalry Division, miles away, and Heaven knows when it got the order. only succeeded in collecting them next morning, when they were starting south from the town of Le Cateau. It appears that they had reached that place at 10 p.m. the night before, and, thoroughly exhausted, had dumped down in the marketplace and were resuming their retirement at 6 a.m. when my order caught them. This latter ear-marked them as my own reserves for the day, and most valuable they proved: a busy time of it they had, now supporting one part of the line, now another, and finally forming a rear-guard which, with that of the 15th Brigade, stubbornly covered the retreat of the 5th Division. The Brigade consisted of 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers, 1st Scottish Rifles, 1st Middlesex, and 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, and were then commanded temporarily by Lieutenant-Colonel Ward of the Middlesex in the absence of the Brigadier, Major-General L. G. Drummond. At last, about 8 p.m., I got news of the 3rd Division ; the main bodies of the 8th and 9th Brigades had reached the vicinity of their allotted positions about Audencourt and Inchy respectively about 6.30 p.m.; but there was still no news of the 7th Brigade, nor did I get any until the small hours of the 26th, and then to the effect that it had reached its destination at Caudry about midnight, but with the loss of the 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, part of the South Lancashires, and the 41st Battery R.F.A. Next day I heard that these units had reached Reumont and bivouacked there at 2 a.m., and had only rejoined their Brigade at 9 a.m. when the battle was pretty lively. Of the Cavalry Division and 4th Division I had no news, for they were not under me, though I had been given permission to call on the latter Division for help should I require it.

Rumours were afloat during the evening that the I Corps were heavily engaged, and reports came in that heavy firing was heard in the direction of Landrecies. This was serious as, if they were not nearer than that, it meant a gap of eight miles between the right of my Corps and the left of the I Corps.

Thus it will be gathered that, with the exception of a few units ofthe5th Division, no fighting units were on the position before dark, that a great many of those of the II Corps were on the move until after midnight, and that the 4th

Division only reached the position at daylight next day. I specify " fighting units," as all transport and impedimenta accompanied by baggage guards, cooks, clerks, sick, etc. had moved off from our line positions on the night of the 24th about midnight and had therefore mostly reached their new positions in the course of the next morning, so a large number of men were to be seen cooking, washing, and waiting for the arrival of their Corps. I mention this as a good deal has been written on the subject as evidence that troops were in camp early, for I feel sure these detachments I have mentioned were mistaken for the actual fighting troops—Map 9 of the Official History illustrates clearly the scattered situations of the troops on the night of 25th-26th August.

However, some of the fog was cleared away by the arrival of General Allenby, accompanied by his G.S.O.I, Colonel J. Vaughan (now Major-General, C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.) at my head-quarters at 2 a.m. Allenby told me his troops were much scattered, two and a half brigades being about Catillon, five miles east, and the other one and a half brigades at Viesly, six miles north-west of Le Cateau, that his men and horses were pretty well played out, and that he could not get into touch with General Head-quarters. He wanted to know what I was going to do, saying that unless I could move at once and get away in the dark, the enemy were so close that I should be forced to fight at daylight. I then sent for Major-General Hubert Hamilton, the Commander of the 3rd Division, whose head-quarters were close by, and asked him whether his troops could move off at once or at any rate before daylight, and his reply was very definite that the 3rd Division could not move before 9 a.m. The 5th Division were if possible in a worse plight, being more scattered, whilst of the 4th Division, which, though not under me, I could not possibly leave in the lurch, there was no news, except that they had last been seen after dark still in their positions south of Solesmes, covering the retirement of masses of transport and fugitives jammed up in the roads.

The following arguments passed through my mind: {a) It must be a long time after daylight before the whole force covered by rear-guards can get on the move.

{b) The enemy are in force close to our billets (for such Allenby had impressed on me).

(c) To turn our backs on them in broad daylight with worn-out men suffering from sore feet will leave us a prey to hostile cavalry supported by infantry in motors.

(d) The roads are encumbered with military transport and civilian fugitives and carts, some still on the enemy side of our position, and time to allow them to clear off is essential.

(e) The I Corps is reported to be engaged some miles northeast of us and to retire would expose their flank to the full brunt of Von Kluck's troops.

(/) The Cavalry Division can be of little help in covering our retreat, for this Allenby had told me.

{g) Our infantry have proved their staunchness and astounding accuracy with the rifle, our gunners are a marvel, and if Allenby and Snow will act under me, and Sordet will guard my west flank, we should be successful in giving the enemy a stopping blow, under cover of which we could retire.

Well do I remember the dead silence in the little room at Bertry when I was rapidly considering these points and the sigh of relief when, on my asking Allenby if he would accept orders from me, and he replied in the affirmative, I remarked : " Very well, gentlemen, we will fight, and I will ask General Snow to act under me as well." The die was cast, and it is lucky it was, for it appeared afterwards that the 4th Division did not commence moving back from opposite Solesmes until long after dark, the rear Brigade not until midnight, and only reached the fighting positions allotted to them on the west of the II Corps from Fontaine-au-Pire to Wambaix (a front of three miles) after daylight on the 26th. They were very weary, having journeyed straight from England, detrained at Le Cateau on the 24th, and marched thence at I a.m. on the 25th eight or nine
miles to Solesmes, been in action there all day, and marched back over ten miles in the dark to their position, which was reached after dawn on the 26th. The unfortunate part about this Division was that it lacked the very essentials for a modern battle. It had none of the following: Divisional Cavalry, Divisional Cyclists, Signal Company, Field Ambulances, Field Companies R.E., Train and Divisional Ammunition Column, or Heavy Artillery. Let the reader think what that means—no troops to give warning, neither rapidly moving orderlies nor cables for communication, no means of getting away wounded, no engineers, who are the handy men of an army, no reserve ammunition, and no long-range heavy shell fire—and yet the Division was handled and fought magnificently, but at the expense of losses far greater than, if they had been fully mobilised.

Having decided to fight, there was a good deal for my Staff to do. General Head-quarters had to be informed, a message had to be sent to General Sordet to tell him and ask him to guard my west flank, and Snow had to be asked if he would fight under me, and last, but not least, carefully detailed orders for the battle had to be drawn up and circulated. Forestier-Walker, who was a very clear thinker and rapid worker, soon got all this done. To make certain that General Sordet should get the request, in addition to my message to him, a wire was sent to General Headquarters asking them too to invoke his assistance.

General Snow received my message about 5 a.m. just as he was issuing orders to retire, and readily consented to remain and fight vnder my orders.

Snow wrote to me subsequently as follows : " When you sent to me the morning of the 26th to ask if I would stand and fight, I ought to have answered: ' I have no other choice, as my troops are already engaged in a battle of encounter, and it must be some hours before I can extricate them " The message informing General Head-quarters is referred, to in the Official History) p. 136, as follows :

" A lengthy message was dispatched by II Corps at 3.30 a.m. to General Head-quarters St. Quentin by motor-car, which was received there about 5 a.m., informing Sir John French in detail of the decision taken."

It was acknowledged by a reply, sent off from General Head-quarters at 5 a.m., which, after giving the latest information, concluded:

" If you can hold your ground the situation appears likely to improve. Fourth Division must co-operate. French troops are taking offensive on right of I Corps. Although you are given a free hand as to method this telegram is not intended to convey the impression that I am not as anxious for you to carry out the retirement, and you must make every endeavour to do so."

This reply cheered me up, for it showed that the Chief did not altogether disapprove of the decision I had taken, but on the contrary considered it might improve the situation.

Consciousness that I was acting entirely without G.H.Q. approval would not have lightened my burden, especially as I had another master to consider, namely. Field Service Regulations, which direct (sub-para. iii. of para. 13 of Section 12 of Part I) :

" If a subordinate, in the absence of a superior, neglects to depart from the letter of his order, when such departure is clearly demanded by circumstances, and failure ensues, he will be held responsible for such failure."


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