The Retreat from Mons
The Battle of Le Cateau and the Action at Néry
24 August to 2nd September 1914
24 August 1914
On the left flank of the B.E.F. the 19th Infantry Brigade, of which the 1st Middesex were now part, had retired on Jenlain via Elouges. "The retirement," the Brigade diary reports, "was carried out in good order and with little loss". Near Elouges the Brigade was placed under the orders of General Allenby, commanding the Cavalry Division. From Elouges the direction was changed SE*., and Jenlain was reached about 4 p.m., 13 miles. The village was entrenched. The 1st Battalion Middlesex had retired from St. Aybert at about 2.30 a.m., carrying away their wounded, and reached Jenlain apparently without having joined action with the enemy. For by now the 2nd German Corps (First German Army) had arrived and was engaged in endeavouring to turn the left flank of the B.E.F. Very early in the morning a British aeroplane had observed this Corps moving via Peruwelz round the N.W. of Condé. * The Regimental History says South East but this seems to be an error, the direction to Jenlain from Elouges is South West. In the book "The War the Infantry Knew", it is clear the 19th Brigade retreated first south then north of east via Quiévrain to Elouges then back again to Quiévrain and hence to Jenlain.
During the day the Cavalry and the 5th Division of the IInd Corps had been heavily engaged with the enemy, whose efforts were bent upon holding the B.E.F. to its ground whilst the turning movement from the left developed. Von Kluck's intention was to hem the British up against the fortress of Maubeuge and, in conjunction with the Second German Army, surround it.
In an excellent summary of the operations which took place on the 24th August, the Official History states:- "Thus ended the first day of the retreat. All circumstances considered, although the casualties were considerable, the operations had been remarkably successful. The 5th Division had, indeed, been called upon not only to defend six miles of front, but also, with the help of the Cavalry and of the 19th Infantry Brigade, to parry von Kluck's enveloping attack; but it had triumphantly accomplished its tasks. The flanking battalions to the east and west, it is true, suffered much, but only one had been actually overwhelmed, not a single gun had been lost, and the enemy had been very severely punished. Our troops were still confident that when on anything like equal terms they were more than a match for their opponents; the one trouble that really oppressed them was want of sleep. Long after nightfall the battalions of the 3rd Division were passing the cross-roads in Bavai, the men stumbling along more like ghosts than living soldiers, unconscious of everything about them, but still moving under the magic impulse of discipline and regimental pride. Marching, they were hardly awake; halted, whether sitting or standing, they were instantly asleep. And those men on the eastern flank of the Corps had done little fighting and endured little pressure during the day. Even worse was it on the western flank, where cavalry and infantry had had hard fighting from dawn till dusk, and many a man had been for over 24 hours without sleep or food. And this, it must be borne in mind, was only the beginning of the retreat."
25th August 1914
The 1st Battalion Middlesex (in Brigade) marched out of Jenlain at 4 a.m., retiring on Haussy, which was reached about midday. Here the 19th Brigade was called upon to support the Cavalry, who were in action with the enemy W. and NW. of Haussy. Although under shell-fire, the Middlesex sustained no casualties, and the march was resumed to Solesmes, where, south of the town, the 19th Brigade passed through the outposts of the 4th Division, thence on to Le Cateau. The latter village was reached at 10 p.m., where, tired and worn out (the Brigade had marched 19 miles during the day), the battalions bivouacked in the square and goods station. Thus, practically without incident so far as the Middlesex Regiment was concerned, closed the first stages of the Retreat from Mons. But the enemy from the front and on the left of the B.E.F. was closing in, and action could not long be delayed.
26th August 1914
When dawn of the 26th August broke, a day long to be remembered in British military history, a thick mist hung over the hills and the valleys of the battlefield-to-be. The town of Le Cateau (in which the 1st Middlesex with other units of the 19th Infantry Brigade had snatched a few hours' rest in the square and goods station) was at an early hour encumbered with a miscellaneous collection of vehicles of various formations, ambulances and G.S. wagons jostled civilian carts and battalions' transport. As a result, the 19th Infantry Brigade, which had originally received orders to be clear of the town by 5.30, had to hang on until 6.30 a.m., and the 1st Middlesex, detailed as rear-guard, came into action with the enemy. For, as already stated, very soon after 6 a.m. German artillery, hidden from view by the mist, opened fire from N.N.E. of Le Cateau. Under cover of their artillery the German infantrymen advanced, and by 6.30 am. had penetrated the outskirts of the town even as the British troops were withdrawing. This was the beginning of the enemy's attempt to penetrate the gap between the I and II Corps and roll up the right flank of the latter. A little street fighting took place in Le Cateau, and, as the Middlesex acted as rear-guard, it is possible that the Battalion exchanged shots with the enemy, but there are no records to that effect. The Battalion diary, however, states: "Germans had entered town before we got away: leaving town, came into action, keeping enemy back till all clear: leaving town, going S.W., passed through hastily thrown-up trenches of 5th Division and took up position in support of 5th Division by wood north of Reumont."
Meanwhile, the hostile artillery fire had greatly increased in volume, and shells were falling thick and fast upon the right flank of the IInd Corps, the high ground between Le Cateau and the Roman Road receiving special attention. The right of the British line, i.e., the 14th and 13th Infantry Brigades, was caught in enfilade by German guns firing from concealed positions south of Neuvilly, and casualties became heavy.
About 9 a.m. the 1st Middlesex and 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, still just south of the Wood N. of Reumont, were ordered out to occupy and entrench the slopes S.W. of the Roman Road, i.e.; the right flank of the 14th Infantry Brigade, whilst the two remaining battalions of the 19th Brigade were sent off to report to the G.O.C. of the 14th "to assist a situation described as critical, but these two battalions were scarcely engaged."
The Middlesex and Highlanders deployed about 10 a.m. and moved eastwards, the latter Battalion occupying a position on the right of the Manchester Regiment (14th Brigade), on the high ground about the Le Cateau-Reumont road. The Middlesex dug (or rather, "scraped") entrenchments about 1000 yards N. of Les Essarts Farm, from which position the Battalion supported the Highlanders. Both battalions were now under heavy shell fire, from which there was no shelter as their hastily dug entrenchments were but "scrapings" in the ground, for entrenching tools had been lost or thrown away during the first phase of the retreat from Mons. The time was now between noon and 1 p.m.
The intention of the Germans in the Battle of Le Cateau is perfectly clear when the nature of their attack is considered. They had fallen heavily upon the right flank (5th Division and 19th Infantry Brigade) of the IInd Corps, but until a much later hour than 6.30 a.m. the centre of the British line was not subjected to the same severity of attack, though against the left of the line (4th Division) vigorous efforts were made by the enemy to turn that flank. The centre of the line was held by the 3rd Division, 9th Brigade (Troisvilles), 8th Brigade (Audencourt) and 7th Brigade (Caudry), in the order given from right to left.
Owing largely to the splendid devotion of the artillery, the right flank had maintained its position and had beaten off heavy infantry attacks: "After nearly six hours of incessant and overwhelming fire the right of the British line, which rested on Le Cateau, still stood firm. The German infantry was steadily increasing in numbers on their front and, despite all efforts, was drawing steadily nearer. Their right flank was open, they were searched with fire from right and left, and strong columns, betokening the advance of tile German IIIrd Corps, were closing in upon the right flank. It mattered not: they had been ordered to stand." (from the Official History)
Shortly before 1 p.m. Sir Charles Fergusson (G.O.C., 5th Division), from his Headquarters at Reumont, "could see that the right of his Division was shaken and might shortly give way," and he reported the situation to IInd Corps Headquarters. A little later, observing that the enemy was making determined efforts to work round his right towards Bartiel, he suggested that unless assistance was given him he had better begin the retirement. At 1.40 p.m. the G.O.C., 5th Division, received a message from the Corps Commander asking him to hold his position "a little longer so as to allow the preliminary movements of the retirement to take effect, but to begin the withdrawal of the 5th Division as soon as he should think fit." The 3rd and 4th Divisions had been ordered to follow the withdrawal of the 5th in succession.
The route allotted to the 5th Division and 19th Infantry Brigade lay southwards along two roads (i) via Bertry-Marence, and thence the Roman Road to Vermand; (ii) via Reumont- Maurois-Busigny-Bohain---Brancourt-Joncourt-Bellenglise. the 3rd Division was to retire via Montigny-Clary-Elincourt-Malin-court-Beaurevoir-Gouy--Bony-Hargicourt-Jeancourt.
Immediately west of Le Cateau the enemy was now making desperate efforts against the British line. Splendid efforts were made by the devoted artillery to beat the enemy back, but in great numbers the German infantry swarmed across the Cambrai road and, falling upon the gallant 2nd Suffolk Regiment (14th Brigade) and three platoons of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (19th Infantry Brigade) were finally overwhelmed. Before the end came, however, these devoted British soldiers had taken heavy toll of the enemy, "two officers of the Highlanders, in particular, bringing down man after man, and counting their scores aloud as if at a competition." But although the Suffolks and Highlanders were overwhelmed, the enemy's advance was stayed by other troops.
It is impossible to go into all the details of that fine action, but during that tense period two companies of the 1st Middlesex, with two half-companies of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the 59th Field Company, R.E., and two companies of the 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers (the latter belonging to the 9th Brigade) had moved down the western slope of the valley of the Selle to meet the threat from the right flank. Soon (towards 3 p.m.) the Germans were seen advancing from the east across the spur on the opposite side of the valley. At once the Highlanders and the machine-gun section of the Middlesex engaged them at 1,200 yards range, whereupon the enemy hesitated, and finally beat a retreat. Half an hour later the Germans again ventured to show themselves, advancing in extended order, and although it was not so easy for the machine guns to beat them back, the guns of two Horse Artillery batteries compelled them again to seek shelter. Thus the further advance of the Germans was, for the time being, held up and the retirement began.
The 1st Middlesex, on the right of the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, now withdrew up the valley of the Selle towards Reumont. About 4 p.m., on all remainder of force retiring, retirement was ordered by Lieut.-Colonel Ward, commanding the Battalion. Retirement was successfully carried out in good order via Reumont, where hospital was established in Church, which was shelled. Battalion, after Reumont, now became somewhat broken up owing to congestion of road. Retirement proceeded S. of Estrées, where Battalion went into bivouac about 10 pm (Battalion Diary, Middlesex Regiment) The casualty list of the 1st Battalion for 26th August gives the numbers as Capt. H. E. Spence and the Battalion M.O., Capt. McConagay, wounded, 2 other ranks killed, 36 wounded and 74 missing, with an added note "many more probably."
What might have happened had the Germans closely pursued the British troops as the latter withdrew in a south-westerly direction from the battlefield of Le Cateau, it is impossible to say. But they did not. Von Kluck's Divisions were "dead beat "! Their second pitched battle with the B.E.F. had again inspired them with a wholesome fear of the deadly use to which the British soldier put his rifle, whilst the British Artilleryman had again demonstrated that, though out-numbered by about four to one, his shooting was without its equal. Heavy casualties, exhaustion and, moreover, the continual uncertainty of the exact whereabouts of Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien's troops, held up the German advance, and, indeed, von Kluck did not issue orders for the pursuit to continue until early on the 27th, by which time the B.E.F. was some miles distant, having almost lost touch with the enemy.
After the battle the 1st Battalion Middlesex had reached Estrées at about 10 p.m., and had gone into bivouac, a march of 15 miles. The 4th Middlesex had retired to Vermand, though it must have been very late when the Battalion arrived, for the village is between 30 and 35 miles from Audencourt, an altogether extraordinary marching feat after fighting all day. This statement is authenticated both by 4th Battalion Diary and the private diary of Lieut.-Colonel H. W. E. Finch, late 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.
27th August 1914
At 1.30 a.m. on the 27th the 1st Middlesex marched from Estrées on St. Quentin, the Battalion forming the rear-guard of the 19th Infantry Brigade. Strange scenes were witnessed that morning. The roads south were packed with transport and ambulances, supply wagons and countless civilian vehicles. Units were seemingly hopelessly mixed, and "confusion worse confounded" reigned. But a wonderful spirit of cheerfulness permeated the ranks of the tired, hungry and very woebegone-in-appearance battalions, as they trudged, whistling and singing, limping and hobbling, along the dusty roads. From St. Quentin, the 1st Middlesex (in Brigade) passed on to Ham, thence east to Ollezy, a little village about 6 miles away, where, at 4 p.m., the Battalion and the Brigade bivouacked. Colonel Ward (commanding 1st Middlesex) had assumed temporary command of the 19th Brigade, Major R. J. Ross, also of the 1st Battalion, acting temporarily as Brigade Major. Ollezy is about 50 miles from Le Cateau, and the Brigade had covered this distance since the evening of the previous day. Little wonder that the men were dead beat.
28th August 1914
At dawn on the 28th the troops were early astir, the 19th Brigade being ready to move off at 4.30 a.m. It was, however, 6 a.m. before the 1st Middlesex, again detailed as rearguard, relieved the outposts guarding the crossings over the Crozat Canal, and marching S.S.W. via Cugny-Noyon and Pont l'Evêque to Pontoise went into bivouac at the latter place at about 10 p.m. The day's march had been 17 miles. "Both men and horses," says the 19th Brigade Diary, "were badly in need of rest, and had it not been for the help of some empty wagons in carrying men who were ' done ' there would have been many more stragglers."
Neither the 1st nor 4th Battalion had been in touch with the enemy through-out the 27th and 28th.
29th August 1914
On the night of the 28th-29th, when all movements had been completed, the Ist Corps was south of the River Oise and La Fère in the northern edge of the Forest of St. Gobain and Coucy, from Fressancourt to Amigny: the 5th Cavalry Brigade was at Sinceny (S.E. of Chauny): 1st Cavalry Brigade at Berlancourt, 2nd Cavalry Brigade at Flavy le Meldeux-Plessis and 3rd Cavalry Brigade at Jussy: the IInd Corps was north and east of Noyon, on the line Freniches-Genvry--Pontoise: the 4th Cavalry Brigade was at Cressy. The right of the B.E.F. was six miles in rear of the left of the Fifth French Army, but the left of the Force was in touch with Sordet's cavalry.
Late at night on 28th Sir John French issued orders for the B.E.F. to halt and rest on the 29th, conditionally on all formations being withdrawn "to the south of a line practically east and west through Nesle and Ham connecting with the French at Vendeuil." (Official History (Military Operations) of the War.)
Thus it came about that on the 29th the 1st Middlesex remained in bivouac at Pontoise until 5 p.m., at which hour the Battalion placed two companies on outpost duty for the night.
30th August 1914
Nothing of importance happened on the 30th August. The 1st Battalion at Pontoise withdrew outposts at 6 a.m. after the bridges had been destroyed and then marched off southwards to Attichy (N. of Aisne River), where the Battalion arrived at 5.30 p.m. and billeted.
31st August 1914
The 1st left Attichy at 7.30 a.m., and continued the retirement all day through the Forêt de Compiègne, thankful for the cool shade of the trees. At 6.30 p.m. the Battalion arrived in St. Sauveur (in the S.W. corner of the Forest), where outposts were posted in conjunction with 12th Infantry Brigade (4th Division). Each Battalion had marched nearly 20 miles without molestation by the enemy.
1st September 1914
But the 1st September was to tell a different story. For by that date von Kluck (First German Army) had changed direction. His headlong march on Paris, hitherto in a south-westerly direc-tion, was suddenly changed, and on the 31st his Corps were directed against the line of the Oise from Compiègne to Chauny. In view of the action which took place on the following day (1st September) the position of the B.E.F. on the night 31st August- 1st September is interesting. The Ist Corps had halted for the night in the northern exits of the Forêt de Villers Cotterets ( 1st Division around Missy, 2nd Division in the Laversine area). The left of the Fifth French Army was 12 miles north, near Vauxaillon. The IInd Corps was in the Coyolles area, S.W. of Villers Cotterets, and at Crépy-en-Valois, 5th Division on the east, 3rd Division on the west. The IIIrd Corps had made a flank march through the Forêt de Compiègne to the S.W. corner of the forest about Verberie : a gap of five miles existed between the inner flanks of the 2nd and 3rd Corps, though the latter was in touch on its left with the French through part of the Cavalry Division.
Operation orders, issued at 8.30 p.m., gave the moves to be carried out on 1st September, providing that all units reached their destinations at night on 31st August: Ist Corps to the area La Ferté-Betz; IInd Corps to Betz-Nanteuil; IIIrd Corps to Nanteuil-Baron: Cavalry Division to Baron-Mont l'Evêque.
If the line of march of the First German Army and the retirement of the B.E.F. are compared, it will be seen that whereas the Germans were advancing south-easterly, the British were retiring in a south-westerly direction. Thus it came about that von Kluck's new movement to outflank the Allies was again doomed to failure; indeed, he was marching into the very net which General Joffre had spread to catch him. Nevertheless, his change of direction was responsible for the three actions which took place on 1st September:- the affair of Néry, the rearguard action of Crépy-Valois and the rearguard actions of Villers Cotterets; his advanced troops coming into contact with Sir John French's rearguards. But in only in one of these, the first, was the Middlesex Regiment concerned. In this action, however, the 1st Battalion acquitted itself splendidly.
It will be remembered that on the night of 31st August- 1st September the 1st Middlesex billeted at St. Sauveur in the south-west corner of the Forêt de Compiègne. The village was about 3 miles north-east of Saintines, where 19th Brigade Headquarters had put up for the night. The Brigade Diary states that "about 4 a.m. (1st September) a few Uhlans galloping along the village street (of Saintines) created some sensation, but calm soon prevailed."
At 5.30 a.m. the 1st Middlesex withdrew outposts and marched on Saintines, joining up with 19th Brigade Headquarters. About 6 o'clock the Brigade, having ascended the hills south of the village, was met by a messenger, who asked for assistance urgently for the 1st Cavalry Brigade and "L" Battery, R.H.A., which were in difficulties at Néry and had suffered very heavily. Major F. G. M. Rowley, (Major F. G. M. Rowley was promoted Lieutenant-Colonel on 1st September, 1914.) who temporarily commanded the 1st Middlesex, was ordered to march his Battalion off immediately towards Néry.
"The enemy appears to have got right round the Cavalry and had succeeded in placing some ten field guns within 800 yards of their camp. The Cavalry had a great many casualties, whilst their horses were lying dead in rows." (Diary 19th Infantry Brigade.) Taking the nearest available Company ("D") with him, Major Rowley at once set off southwards towards Néry. On arriving at the village he reported to the G.O.C. 1st Cavalry Brigade, who said that the Middlesex could best render assistance by attacking the German guns which were firing from the high ground east of the village. On reaching the eastern exits of Néry, "D" Company and the two Battalion machine-guns under Lieut. Jefferd came into action against the hostile battery. Rapid rifle fire and machine-gun fire was then opened, and after two minutes the German guns ceased firing. Major Rowley then ordered "D" Company to advance and capture the guns. With bayonets fixed and a cheer, the Middlesex men rushed across the small intervening valley and captured eight of the guns which had been firing on the 1st Cavalry Brigade and "L" Battery, R.H.A. With the exception of some 12 dead or badly wounded Germans the gun crews had fled. A few minutes later the German limbers were seen about 1000 yards away and fire was at once opened on them, but they retired rapidly and were seen no more. The guns were found to be undamaged, two of them being loaded. No horses, however, being available the sights were removed and the elevating gear damaged.
Meanwhile the two machine-guns under Lieut. Jefferd, after assisting in silencing the hostile artillery, had moved towards the sugar factory in rear of "L" Battery. Here they were under fire from the German gun escort, Lieut. Jefferd being wounded. About twenty minutes after the guns were captured, the German gun escort was seen retiring across the open from near the sugar factory, and on fire being opened on them about 25 surrendered. A little later some of the captured guns were brought away by the Cavalry, who had made up teams for the purpose. In the meantime one-and-a-half companies of the Middlesex, co-operating with a Cavalry Regiment, had captured a German field ambulance with a few prisoners, in the next village eastwards.
This small action, insignificant as it may seem, is of considerable importance to Middlesex men, as the 1st Battalion of the Regiment was the first British unit to capture German guns in the war.
The 4th Cavalry Brigade and "I" Battery from St. Vaast, and a composite battalion of troops from the 10th Brigade (4th Division) from Verberie, had likewise responded to the call for help, which had been sent to them as well as to the 19th Infantry Brigade. The guns of "I" Battery unlimbered and came into action, but as they did so "L" Battery ceased firing, for all of its guns had either been put out of action or the gun teams killed or wounded.
After the action the general retirement was again continued, the Middlesex forming rearguard with the remainder of the 19th Infantry Brigade. "Of the eight guns captured by Battalion at least four were brought away, remainder having to be left as not enough horses for them." The Battalion billeted that night in Fresnoy.
The 1st Battalion withdrew outposts at 5.30 a.m. and marched off in a S.S.W. direction through Othis on Dammartin. The 19th Brigade formed the rearguard, and about midday a message reached the Middlesex that General Briggs, with his Cavalry Brigade, had a cavalry force of the enemy en l'air, and asked for the assistance of the guns of the rearguard. But the artillery could not find suitable gun positions, and nothing could be done. From Dammartin the Middlesex pushed on to Longperrier, where the whole Battalion (with the A. and S. Highlanders on the right and R.W. Fusiliers on the left) took up an outpost line, west of the village; the 1st Middlesex had also covered a distance of about 20 miles. The immortal story of the gallant action of "L" Battery, R.H.A., should be read in the Official History of the War. (One of the guns from the action and the 3 VCs won by Bradbury, Dolland and Nelson now reside in the Imperial War Museum, London.)
3rd-5th September 1914
If the word "incident" be taken to mean action with the enemy, the final stages of the Retreat from Mons, from 3rd to 5th September inclusive, were without incident. But, in common with their comrades of the B.E.F., the 1st and 4th Battalions of the Middlesex Regiment were very worn out and almost in rags. The long day marches in a merciless sun, short nights, often broken by alarms or spent on outpost duty, scanty rations picked up here an there from the roadside, where they had been "dumped" by the Army Service Corps in order that units as they passed might help themselves; the things which kept the British soldier going were pride of regiment, his wonderful cheeriness, and extraordinary sense of humour. It came out in all directions and at all times A civilian motor-driver, standing by the roadside and watching squad of men go by- "a sergeant and a dozen or so Tommies, a most disreputable exterior" -asked them to which battalion they belonged.
"You oughter know who we are," said the sergeant, somewhat haughtily. "We're the lot what was first in Mons and last out we are."
"That's right, " piped up a squeaky voice that came from diminutive member of the squad. "Buck, you beggar, buck. Tell 'em the tale."
A grin on half a dozen faces told that the small one might be expected to produce some comment when occasion permitted. The sergeant turned: "What's ailin' you, Shorty ?" he remarked
"Tell 'em the tale," croaked the little man. "First in Mons and last out. In at three miles an hour and out at eighteen. That's us, you bet," and he snorted as the squad roared in appreciative mirth. So they drifted on, anything but downhearted!
2nd to 5th September 1914
At midnight on 2nd September the 1st Battalion withdrew outposts west of Longperrier and, retiring on the village, resume its march S.S.W. on Lagny. The latter was reached by 9 a.m. but the Battalion went on to Chanteloup and bivouacked there a 1p.m. This proved to be a long rest, for the Battalion did no move out of the village until 2 a.m. on the 5th, when, marching via Ferrières-Chevry, the last and final billets-at Grisy-of the memorable Retreat were reached at 2a.m. Here two companies were placed on outpost duty west and north of the village; here also Lieut.-Colonel Ward returned to his battalion, a new Brigadier-Colonel the Hon. F. Gordon-having taken over command of the 19th Infantry Brigade. The 19th Infantry Brigade, with 4th Division, now formed the IIIrd Corps.