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

I had no reports from General Sordet during the day, but had heard that French infantry was fighting in Cambrai. These turned out to be General d'Amade's Territorial troops, who finally left Cambrai in a west and south-westerly direction about 2 p.m. That their help to us was very material there can be no doubt, for on the 23rd d'Amade's advanced troops under General de Villaret, straight from Paris, reached Tournai and on the 24th held up the German II Corps directed on Cambrai for several hours, drawing them after them as they fell back that afternoon and the 25th. The delay, and the brave front shown by these Territorials were of vital importance to us, as otherwise it is almost certain we should have had another Corps against us on the 26th.

I had a momentary shock about 5 p.m. on getting clear of the village of Maretz, about three miles south of Maurois on the Roman road, for I suddenly heard very heavy artillery fire away to the north-west, which I reckoned was behind the 4th Division outer flank and feared the enemy had got behind Snow; but was much relieved, on galloping to a hill about a mile in that direction, to recognise the short sharp crack of the famous " seventy-fives," and then I knew they were French guns and probably Sordet's, and this they turned out to be. On reaching St. Quentin I took the opportunity of sending a message to General Sordet to thank him, and also of sending a note to the C.-in-C. asking him to express thanks to him through the French C.-in-C.

In an order of the day which I published on the 29th (see further on) I also informed the troops of our indebtedness to General Sordet's Corps.

We had not been long retiring when down came the rain, and the discomforts of the poor weary troops were increased a hundredfold. In order to sort out the units and get them formed again, Staff Officers had been sent ahead two miles beyond Estrees, and most efficiently they performed their work. To this point was a long, weary march of sixteen miles from Reumont. How the men did it I still cannot realise—dead tired, hungry, and wet to the skin; but they did it, and went on again at 4 a.m. on the 27th through St. Quentin to Ham, another twenty miles.

The 3rd and 4th Divisions kept on parallel roads to the west of the 5th. On reaching Estrees at 9.30 p.m. I transferred from a horse to a motor and started off to St. Quentin to report matters to the C.-in-C., taking Bowly (A.D.C.) and Prince Henri d'Orleans with me. I had an excellent motor and Al chauffeur placed at the disposal of the G.O.C. II Corps by the generosity of Lord Derby. As we motored along in the wet and dark the head-lights disclosed ammunition boxes glistening in the rain on each side of the road for a considerable distance, and I concluded they had been dumped there as a reserve supply for us by General Headquarters. On reaching St. Quentin I heard that General Head-quarters had left that place in the middle of the day and had gone to Noyon, thirty-five miles farther off. There was nothing to be done but to go on, but before doing so I went to the station to find the Director of Railways, Colonel Macinnes, R.E., to ask him what trains he could give me for weary and wounded men in the morning. He told me he had orders from General Head-quarters to send all trains away, but agreed to keep them until I returned from Noyon. Outside the station I saw an excited officer, and asked him what he was doing. He said he commanded an Ammunition Column, and in retreating had heard that German Uhlans were about, in fact he talked of hearing shots. He had, therefore, in order to lighten his wagons, thrown all his ammunition away and galloped into St. Quentin and was just going off again. This accounted for the boxes I had seen in the road. The officer in question proved himself later on both brave and efficient, and I should have omitted the incident had it not given rise to a rumour that German Cavalry was closing on St. Quentin, which was perfectly untrue, and unfair to our own Cavalry Division, which was skilfully covering our east flank and keeping the enemy at a distance.

I reached Noyon at about an hour after midnight on 27th August and had some difficulty in finding the house where G.H.Q. was established. All had retired to rest, but gradually some of the staff appeared and then the Chief himself, clad in his robe de nuit. There was a convenient billiard-table in the room with a white cover, and spreading a map thereon I explained briefly the events of the day. Sir John appeared relieved, though he told me he considered I took much too cheerful a view of the situation, and he again took exception to my optimism two days later. I then, having got permission from the Quartermaster-General, Sir William Robertson, to use any trains the Director of Railways could spare, hastened back to St. Quentin railway station, getting there as dawn was breaking. Macinnes placed at my disposal seven trains. I then took up my quarters at the Mairie with my Staff, transacted some business and watched all the weary troops march through St. Quentin, turning off those who could march no farther to the railway station. Thus ended the first and principal phase of the retreat. I might be expected to discuss whether the Battle of Le Cateau was worth the candle—with its heavy losses. The latter were :

Cavalry . . . . . 15
3rd Division . . .. 1,796
5th Division . . .. 2,366
4th Division . . . . 3,158
19th Infantry Brigade . . 477

Total . . .. 7,812 and 38 guns.

Of the above 2,600 were taken prisoners, but, whatever the losses, and whatever the results, I think I have shown that, without risking a debacle and jeopardising the-safety of the 4th Division and the I Corps, I had no alternative but to stand and fight. I claim no credit, but on the contrary realise to the full that fortune was on my side, firstly in having such an efficient force so skilfully and devotedly handled and led, and composed of troops so well disciplined and courageous as to be second to none in the world; and secondly in having an enemy who did not rise to the occasion. It may be inferred from the C.-in-C's dispatch of the 7th September 1914 that he considered it well worth the candle. He mentioned me in most generous terms in his dispatches. In that of 7th September 1914, he writes of Le Cateau : " I cannot close this brief account of this glorious stand of the British troops, without putting on record my deep appreciation of the valuable services rendered by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command on the morning of the 26th August could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation." And later in the same dispatch : " It is impossible for me to speak too highly of the skill evinced by the two Generals commanding Army Corps." In his dispatch of the 8th October, on the Battle of the Aisne, he says: " I further wish to bring forward the names of the following officers who have rendered valuable services. General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig I have already mentioned in the present and former dispatches for particularly marked and distinguished service in critical situations—since the commencement of the campaign, they have carried out all my orders and instructions with the utmost ability."

Again the following from his Sub-Chief of the Staff implies that the Battle was of value :


" Information about the enemy's losses. " In spite of their great superiority in numbers when opposed to the British forces, the enemy has suffered enormous losses.

" The damage inflicted by the II Corps, 4th Division, and 19th Brigade at Cambrai and Le Cateau prevented any serious pursuit during the retreat to St. Quentin, although the enemy's numerical superiority in this fight had been three to one. The losses are mentioned in the diary of a German reservist, killed a few days later, as causing terrible confusion and disorder, which could not be allayed for over an hour. During the fight the General commanding one of the enemy's Cavalry Divisions sent two wireless messages, which were intercepted, asking for help, adding in a second message that the need was most urgent. These losses have had the effect of making the enemy extremely cautious in his attacks, both with cavalry and infantry, until he has developed his artillery-fire to the utmost.

" The German Cavalry refuse to meet either the British or French Cavalry in the fight, and whenever they are threatened retire behind the protection of the cyclists, mounted infantry, and guns.

" The shooting of the German infantry and dismounted cavalry is ludicrously bad, and, although the German guns are extremely well served by aeroplane reconnaissance, their time-fuses are very inferior to those of the British and French artillery.

The following extract from a letter, which he allows me to publish, from Major-General John Vaughan, dated 24th June 1919, gives the cavalry point of view as to the necessity for fighting and the results of the Battle of Le Cateau:

" I remember accompanying General Allenby when we visited your H.Q. at Bertry. I also remember the situation as it appeared at the time to Allenby and me, your setting forth the reasons which determined you to fight, and the fact that Allenby thought you were right in doing so. In fact both Allenby and I were much relieved that you had determined to fight as, inter alia, it gave us a chance of getting hold of our scattered brigades again.

" I also remember the action of the French Cavalry under Sordet, who attacked the German right in the evening.

" To my mind this was a very opportune action on Sordet's part, as he had got outside the German flank—and their subsequent advance gave us [British Cavalry] no trouble at all. Prior to your action at Le Cateau the German Cavalry outflanked us via Tournai and Denain, and was a very serious menace.

" Feeling, most strongly as I do, that it was your action at Le Cateau, combined with Sordet's outflanking move that made the rest of our retreat possible and easy, I should certainly wish to give any evidence I can in support of this theory.

" From the British Cavalry point of view I consider that the Huns gave us no trouble at all after Le Cateau, as we were always able to fight delaying actions and retire at our leisure, once the German outflanking movement had petered out. " I am quite sure that the above is also Allenby's view."


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