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

It is undoubtedly a fact that after Le Cateau we were no more seriously troubled during the ten days' retreat, except by mounted troops and mobile detachments who kept at a respectful distance.

That the enemy received a very serious blow, and losses far heavier than ours, and gained a wholesome respect for the efficiency of British troops are facts beyond dispute, and the failure of their official accounts to expatiate on the battle is ominously suggestive of their being none too proud of the results. Then, again, one has only to study Von Kluck's orders and subsequent movements to appreciate that his Army was delayed and misled for a sufficient period to gain valuable time for Paris to prepare.

Those orders of Von Kluck on the evening of the 26th indicate that his army rested that night on the north side of the Le Cateau position, from which it may be deduced that he was unaware of our retirement and had been hit sufficiently hard to prevent his making a further attempt to take the position that evening. Again the hour given in the order for moving on the 27th was not till 5 a.m., which is also significant. The German account of the battle concludes with this statement : " The whole B.E.F., six Divisions, a

Cavalry Division and several French Territorial Divisions opposed the First Army," which statement alone is flattering to the prowess of the portion of the B.E.F. who stood at Le Cateau. Perhaps Von Kluck's own testimony is as weighty as any which could be produced. I therefore quote from a letter dated 22nd June 1924 from Major-General the Hon. Sir F. Bingham, who, on recently becoming Governor of Jersey, had just resigned the position he had held for years as British Chief of the Military Mission in Germany :

" I saw Von Kluck again and asked him if you might quote what he said, and he said: ' Certainly, he may say that I always had the greatest admiration for the British Expeditionary Force. It was the wonderful kernel of a great Army. I have already said it in my book. The way the retreat was carried out was remarkable. I tried very hard to outflank them, but I could not do so. If I had succeeded the war would have been won.' "

Then, as further proof of the success of our rear-guard battle, I quote the following from the Official History :

" In fact, the whole of Smith-Dorrien's troops had done what was thought to be impossible. With both flanks in the air, they had turned on an enemy of at least twice their strength, had struck him hard, and had withdrawn, except on the right front of the 5th Division, practically without interference, with neither flank enveloped, having suffered losses certainly severe, but, considering the circumstances, by no means extravagant. The men looked upon themselves as victors, some indeed doubted whether they had been in a serious action, yet they had inflicted upon the enemy casualties which are believed to have been out of all proportion to their own, and they had completely foiled the plan of the German Commander."

As a final and overwhelming testimony to the value of the day. General Joffre telegraphed to our C.-in-C. thanking him in the warmest terms for " the powerful effect that battle had had on the security of the left flank of the French Army."

There was a short, sharp action on the morning of the 27th. The 11th Brigade of the 4th Division were just to the south-east of Bellincourt (seven miles north of St. Quentin) when at 9.30 a.m. the cavalry reported enemy in the adjacent villages, and German guns opened fire at a thousand yards range. The Hampshires were ordered to cover the retirement, and Colonel S. C. F. Jackson of that Regiment led his men against the guns, and unfortunately was wounded and made a prisoner. His men, however, although they could not recover their C.O., held on until their Brigade was safe away, and then withdrew. By that night, the 27th, and early the next morning (August 28th) the whole of the three Divisions were south of the Somme Canal, thirty-five miles from Le Cateau, in little over thirty hours. A wonderful performance for troops who were worn out before they left the battle-field ; their spirit, too, was splendid, for they were whistling and singing as they came along. The C.-in-C. came up to see them as they marched again south from Ham on the morning of the 28th, and I was very proud of their carriage. The 15th Brigade of Artillery, which had lost all its guns except two and many of its men, went by the Chief as though they were in the Long Valley.

Just before the Chief came up I had met an officer of the 4th Division whom I had known for years. I had a short talk with him, and, noticing that he was not quite in his usual spirits, asked him if anything was the matter. He replied it was " the order " he had just received from me. He then went on to explain that an order had come to his Division a short time before saying the ammunition on wagons not absolutely required and other impedimenta were to be unloaded and officers and men carried to the full capacity of the transport. He went on to say that the order had had a very damping effect on his troops, for it was clear it would not have been issued unless we were in a very tight place. I told him I had never heard of the order, that the situation was excellent, the enemy only in small parties, and those keeping at a respectful distance, and that I was entirely at a loss to understand why such an order had been issued. Further, that I would at once send to Divisional Head-quarters to say the order was to be disregarded. My counter-order actually reached the 3rd and 5th Divisions in time, but the 4th Division had already acted on the order, burning officers' kits, etc., to lighten their wagons.

So when I met the Chief I told him of this order, being fully convinced someone had issued it by mistake. However, when Sir John told me it was his order and emphasised the necessity for it by refusing to accept, what he called, my optimistic view of the situation, there was nothing more to be said. Later on I ascertained that the order had come from G.H.Q. when I was away, and, being a C.-in-C's order of an urgent nature, my administrative Staff had rightly circulated it at once. It was unfortunate, for had I seen it I should have protested to G.H.Q. before circulating it and I feel sure the Chief would have cancelled it on learning the true situation, and thus have saved an increase of suffering to those who by acting on it sacrificed their spare clothes, boots, etc., at a time when they urgently needed them.

This day we marched to Noyon, about twelve to fourteen miles, crossing the Oise at that place. I was able to see most of the troops on the march. They could not understand why we were retiring, for they considered they had given as good as they got every time they had met the Germans, and were anxious to go at them again. I took the opportunity of explaining that we were not falling back because we had been beaten, but to comply with the French strategical scheme. I was particularly struck by the march discipline of the Artillery. They made a brave show. How glad we were to get four hours' sleep at last. The whole army wanted it. I reckoned that my Staff and I had averaged less than two hours' sleep in the previous six nights.

On the 29th we had a little trouble getting the 3rd and 4th Divisions south of the Oise. Both had been delayed the previous night helping de Lisle's Cavalry Brigade to keep the enemy off. It was on this day that General Pulteney (now Lieutenant-General Sir William Pulteney,

K.C.B., K.C.M.G., K.C.V.O., D.S.O.) arrived to form the III Corps and, two days later, took from me the 4th Division and 19th Brigade which General Head-quarters had left with me since the 26th. Otherwise, beyond moving my Corps five miles, ready for the next day's march, we did little. I, however, was called to General Head-quarters at Compiegne, some twelve miles south of Noyon, to receive instructions from the C.-in-C. I found with him the Chief of Staff (Murray), Haig, and Allenby; General Joffre and one or two of his Staff were also there. This was very interesting, as it was the first time I had seen the distinguished Chief of the Allies. Joffre gave us good news of the progress of an attack by the 18th, 5th, and 10th French Corps towards St. Quentin (known as the battle of Guise) which he had ordered to help us. We heard subsequently that the French right was successful in driving the Germans back, but that their left, as the British did not assist, could make no progress.

The main object of the meeting, however, appeared to be a discussion between our Chief and the French Chief. The latter wanted us to remain up in the line, but the British Chief was insistent that the B.E.F. must continue withdrawing as it was not in a fit state to fight until it had repaired damages, especially in the matter of material. Consequently we resumed our retreat next day, twelve miles to the Aisne. It was on this day that I published the following to the troops :


As it is possible the troops of the 2nd Army Corps do not understand the operations of the last few days, commencing on the 21st instant with the advance to the line of the Mons Canal and ending with a retirement to our present position on the River Oise about Noyon, the Commander of the Corps desires to let Troops know that the object was to delay the advance of a far superior force of the enemy to enable our Allies to conduct operations elsewhere. This object, owing to the skilful handling of the Commanders of units and the magnificent fighting spirit shown by all ranks against overwhelming odds, and in spite of very heavy casualties, was achieved, and the French Army is now reported to be advancing.

That our difficulties were not greater in the retirement from the HAUCOURT-CAUDRY—BEAUMONT-LE CATEAU position on the 26th instant is largely due to the support given by French troops, chiefly General Sordet's Cavalry Corps, operating on the west flank of the British troops, and we may be thankful to our gallant comrades in arms.

General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, whilst regretting the terribly heavy casualties and the weary forced marches, in which it has been impossible to distribute the necessary amount of food, begs to thank all ranks and to express his admiration of the grand fighting and determined spirit shown by all ranks, and his pride in being allowed to command such a splendid force.

He is sure that, whenever it is thought necessary to assume the offensive again, the Troops will be as pleased as he will himself.

On the 31st we marched fifteen miles to Crepy-en-Valois through some very broken country with a burning sun. It was this day that we again came into touch with I Corps, separated from us since the 25th.

I have really now fulfilled my object, which was to give the public my own account as Corps Commander of the grand performances of the II Corps at the Battles of Mons and Le Cateau, and in the early days of the retreat, and I shall deal in less detail with my account of the remainder of the time I was in France ; for, except in the large strategic movements such as the transference of the Army from the Aisne to Flanders, which were in the C.-in-C.'s hands, from the time we reached the Aisne, and commenced trench warfare, a Corps Commander's wings became clipped in so far as manoeuvring was concerned. As a matter of fact, in the beginning of October, when we first moved into Flanders, there was again a period of open fighting, and there I may have to be a little more discursive.

In trench warfare, excepting when a big push has to be carried out, holding the enemy, attacking him and gaining ground are mainly planned by local Commanders, and are largely in the hands of the troops in the trenches, and their splendid deeds are as far as possible recorded in the Official History. However, to take my readers to the Aisne, which includes the Battle of the Marne, I will reproduce my diary, written at the time from the 1st to 12th September, as I think it will convey a fair idea of our daily doings.


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