Thursday, 27 November 2014

Haig takes flight

The image of the British stiff upper lip is frequently associated with the military leaders of WW1. Since they are almost always hidden beneath bushy moustaches in posed photos, it would be difficult to argue. However, the BEF had walked into an overwhelming hammer of teutonic force in the early actions in Belgium, and  from most accounts I have read there was certainly some wobble in the upper lips of  both John French, Commander in Chief, 
and Douglas Haig, Commander of 1 Corps - half of the BEF. Some of French's actions during the long retreat caused great consternation, and led to his later replacement by Haig. As for Haig himself, we can see below that the official military historian of the war took a very dim view of Haig's actions after Mons.

In the light of these actions (at Mons), French resolved that the BEF had to put distance between itself and its powerful opponent until a favourable opportunity arose to counterattack. But the retreat was complicated by the terrain that lay ahead – mainly the Forest of Mormal.

Further west, Kluck had further success, taking Tournai, Valenciennes and finally Lille. With this position, Kluck had almost sandwiched the BEF from West and East, and he hoped that Colonel French would take the BEF into the fortress town of Maubeuge for shelter, where he could lay siege. However, French had a much more ambitions retreat in mind. He wanted, initially at least, to put the forest of Mormal between his men and the pursuing Germans. The forest was a dense tract of woodland some 35 miles square, sitting directly astride the BEF’s route. This is when French he took his (in)famous decision to send I Corps to the east of the forest, to Maroilles and Landrecies,  and II Corps to the West in the direction of Le Cateau. 

Tuesday 25th was a summer’s day of intense and glaring heat, and the British army found the long march in the dust a trying business. At the end of the day, on the east, the rearguard of the Grenadiers finally halted just south of the Sambre in the town of Landrecies, where in the dark they encountered a forward group of German cavalry, who were pushing through the centre of the forest, and therefore caught up unexpectedly quickly. The most important consequence of the brush at Landrecies was that it caused Haig, the corps commander, temporarily to succumb to panic. During the night’s exchange of fire and confusion in the streets he persuaded himself – and Sir John French – that his force was threatened with disaster. Col. James Edmonds, a divisional chief of staff who later became British official historian of the war, wrote brutally of this episode in a 1930 private letter to an old comrade: ‘D.H. had … been thoroughly shaken by the business at Landrecies, had drawn his revolver and spoken of “selling our lives dearly”. Undoubtedly he also thought Smith-D[orrien] was in a bad way. In any case, he played a selfish game, marched off leaving Smith-D in the lurch, although the firing at
German graves with a line of British headstones at the
Le Cateau cemetery.
Beyond, the open fields where Smith Dorrien took the
decision to stand and fight
Le Cateau and march of the Germans across the front of his rearguard was reported [to Haig].’

However, a brave stand by the Munster’s battalion had delayed the German advance, albeit with terrible losses. James Edmonds concluded after the war: ‘Beyond question, they had arrested the enemy’s pursuit in this quarter for fully six hours, so that their sacrifice was not in vain.’ The stand ensured that the main body of I Corps would not be troubled by German pursuit for several days.

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