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

The order to stand and fight drawn up by Forestier-Walker was clear and to the point, but the difficulty was to get it to the troops in time. It was fairly easy for Corps Headquarters, as they had simply to send copies of the order to the four Divisional head-quarters and the 19th Brigade, but the difficulties increased in mathematical progression when it came to informing the smaller units, many of whose positions were only very roughly known. Captain Walcot took the order to the 4th Division and I went myself to Fergusson (5th Division) about 4 a.m. to explain matters to him, and to learn all I could about the positions and state of the troops of his Division. Whilst I was talking to him the rearguard of the 3rd Division passed, having been out all night. Fergusson pointed to them as another indication of the impossibility of continuing the retirement at once. He added that the men of his own Division were exhausted, and that, although they might continue their rearward march in a fashion, it would be a slow and risky business; he further remarked he was relieved by my decision to stand and fight. There is no doubt but that there was the greatest difficulty in getting the orders round—in fact some few units never got them, but conformed to the movements of the troops which had. The orders given provided for the immediate retirement of all transport not necessary to the battle so as to leave our roads free for the troops later. The disposition of troops was as follows : the 5th Division on the right, or east, the 3rd Division in the centre, and 4th Division on the left, each Division having approximately three miles of front. The Brigades of Infantry, of which there were ten, commencing from the right at the town of Le Cateau, fought as follows : 14th, 13th, 15th, 9th, 8th, 7th, 11th, 10th, and 12th, with the 19th Brigade as my reserve—about Reumont at first.

Thus the 14th and 12th were in the most dangerous positions, being on exposed flanks, and both of them had desperate fighting. Allenby had arranged to dispose his cavalry as far as possible to guard the flanks, the 2nd Cavalry Brigade (de Lisle) and the 3rd Cavalry Brigade (Gough) being on the east flank near Bazuel, the 1st Cavalry Brigade (Briggs) being also on that flank but some miles farther south near Escaufour, and the 4th Cavalry Brigade (Bingham) first at Ligny, and later at Selvigny, that is towards the left or west flank, whilst Sordet's Cavalry Corps was in the neighbour hood of Walincourt, some two and a half miles south of Esnes, where the 12th Brigade had placed its outer flank.

A glance at the map will show that the line from east to west ran from the south of Le Cateau through the villages of Troisvilles, Audencourt, Beaumont, Caudry, Fontaine-au-Pire to Esnes. The head-quarters of the Divisions were: 5th at Reumont, 3rd at Bertry, close to my own head-quarters, and the 4th at Haucourt.

As in my account of the Battle of Mons I found it impossible to go into great detail, I shall follow the same principle here, and recommend my readers to study the graphic, detailed, and thrilling account given in the Official History.

I myself was almost pinned to my head-quarters, though once (about noon) I went up to see Fergusson. The only other time I left it was at about 6.45 a.m., when a cyclist brought me a message from Bertry Station, distant about half a mile, saying Sir John French wished to speak to me on the railway telephone. I motored there immediately and heard the voice of the Sub-Chief of the General Staff, Sir Henry Wilson, who had a message to give me from the Chief to the effect that I should break off the action as soon as possible. I replied that I would endeavour to do so, but that it would be difficult, and that I had hoped to be able to hold on until evening and slip away in the dark. Henry Wilson then asked me what I thought of our chances, and when I replied that I was feeling confident and hopeful of giving the enemy a smashing blow and slipping away before he could recover, he replied, " Good luck to you $ yours is the first cheerful voice I have heard for three days." With these pleasing words in my ear, which I shall never forget, I returned to my head-quarters. I should mention, however, that before I actually left the station Colonel J. Seely, who had lately been Secretary of State for War, arrived by motor with a similar message from the Chief.

The battle commenced in the streets of Le Cateau itself, the Germans having got into the houses and opened fire on the Cornwalls and two companies East Surrey, which troops were in the act of vacating the town, causing them to move out to the east and to fight their way back by a circuitous route taking them right to the rear of their Brigade. From how on the battle increased all along the line as more and yet more hostile guns came into action and hostile infantry advanced. An early attempt to turn our right flank was made, luckily not in great strength, and by II a.m. it had been foiled by the determined attitude of the 14th and

13th Brigades, helped by the Cavalry and R.H.A. Soon after 9.30 a.m. the pressure on that flank had become so serious that I had to send up the Argyll and Sutherlands from my reserve Brigade to assist, and later on another battalion of this Brigade, the 1st Middlesex, had to reinforce the same area. About 10 a.m., in view of reports from Ligny, I moved the remaining two battalions, the Scottish Rifles and Royal Welch Fusiliers, westward to Montigny. On the left, or west of our position, the fighting was early very serious where the 11th and 12th Brigades were, and the King's Own lost nearly half their strength. In the centre of the line matters were not so serious, and our troops easily held their own, but there also it was no child's-play : villages were taken and retaken, and gunners and infantry were conspicuous by their heroic conduct. The features of the fighting were the overwhelming artillery-fire of the enemy (who had the guns of four, and some say five, Corps in action against us), the glorious feats performed by our own Artillery, and the steadiness and accurate fire of our own infantry which had proved so deadly at Mons. After six hours' fighting we were holding our own everywhere, and every effort of the enemy to come on was defeated; but the strain was beginning to tell on our exposed east flank, and at 1.40 p.m. Colonel Gathorne Hardy, of my Staff, who was watching events for me at 5th Divisional Head-quarters at Reumont, brought me a message from Sir Charles Fergusson, saying his troops were beginning to dribble away under their severe punishment, and he feared he would be unable to hold on until dark. The Germans had already penetrated between his 13th and 14th Brigades, had practically wiped out the Suffolks, had brought up guns to short ranges, and were shelling heavily his own head-quarters at Reumont. The Division had stood to the limit of human endurance, and I recognised that the moment had arrived when our retirement should commence, and, requesting Gathorne Hardy to hurry back to Fergusson and tell him to order an organised retirement at once as the best means of saving a disastrous rush to the rear, I put in motion the plans already in possession of Divisional Commanders. These were to the

effect that, when they got the order, they were to commence retiring by Divisions along the roads allotted to them. My Chief Staff Officer thereupon sent out the necessary instructions, saying the retirement would commence from the right.

I now made the last use of my reserve, which consisted of one battery, the Scottish Rifles and Royal Welch Fusiliers of the 19th Brigade, by sending them off to take up a position astride the Roman road leading from Le Cateau to Maretz to cover the retirement of the 5th Division. This, as I have already said, and refer to again later, they carried out most efficiently, materially helped, however, by the rear-guard of the 15th Brigade under the cool leadership of Colonel Ballard, whom I have already mentioned in connection with similar services two days previously. It was now about
2 p.m., and Edmonds (the official historian), who was then General Snow's G.S.O.I, arrived at my head-quarters in Bertry to tell me that General Snow was quite happy as regards his Division, and felt sure he could hold his own and that no retirement was necessary. He wrote me subsequently that he was much amused with my attitude, as all I said was : " The order has gone out, and now I am going to try and get some lunch."

Fergusson's order to his Division to retire naturally took some time to reach his troops, and it was well after 3 p.m. before the rearward move of the 5th Division commenced. The troops were so hopelessly mixed up, and so many leaders had gone under, that a regular retirement was almost impossible, especially too as the enemy was close up and pressing hard. Thanks, however, to the determined action of Major Yate of the Yorkshire Light Infantry, who sacrificed himself and his men in holding the Germans off, the troops of the 5th Division got back on to the road. Luckily the 15th Infantry Brigade was intact, and they about Troisvilles, the 19th Brigade about Maurois, and the R.H.A. guns of the cavalry farther to the east and south kept the enemy off and prevented the envelopment of our flank and enabled the troops to get away. When the 3rd Division saw the 5th retiring they took it up, and finally the 4th Division. Both these two last-named Divisions, less heavily assailed than the 5th, and with their flanks better guarded, could have remained where they were certainly until after dark and had little difficulty in retiring, in comparatively good order, the 9th Brigade in perfect order taking all their wounded with them. If the 4th Division were slightly more mixed up and irregular in their formations, it was due to the fact that they were immensely handicapped by their shortage of the necessities for fighting a battle (already described), largely in consequence of which their losses had been so heavy, amounting to about 25 per cent. of their war strength.

It was after 4 p.m., when my head-quarters were retiring from Bertry, that I rode with my Staff to watch the 5th Division pass along the road south of Maurois. I likened it at the time to a crowd coming away from a race meeting, and I see the same simile in the Official History. It was a wonderful sight—men smoking their pipes, apparently quite unconcerned, and walking steadily down the road—no formation of any sort, and men of all units mixed together. The curious thing was that the enemy were making no attempt to follow. They respectfully kept their distance behind the rear-guards, and later allowed the latter to retire without pressing them. The 3rd and 4th Divisions were, as the plan of retirement provided for, considerably later in taking up the movement to the rear. But what undoubtedly decided the Germans not to follow up was the fact that several detachments did not receive the order to retire, but went on fighting, some of them far into the night, and we have to thank them largely for holding off the enemy, thus preventing his being aware that a general retirement had taken place. These detachments had marvellous and varied experiences which it is not in my province to relate here, for I did not hear of them until after, but I see the Official History describes them as less than 1,000 strong all told, a wonderful illustration of how a few resolute men can hold up an army. We had plenty of experience of that in the Boer War, for our enemies there were real experts at rear-guard fighting.


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