Sunday, 7 December 2014

Heroics at Le Cateau and beyond



The Great Retreat in one of those annals in British Military history, like Corunna and Dunkirk, where a strategic defeat is as inspirational as a victory. The BEF fought staunchly in both its significant August battles (Mons and Le Cateau), but its fire injured the enemy sledgehammer much less than optimists supposed then and the likes of us have imagined since. Horace Smith-Dorrien's (S-D) heroic defiance of Sir John French's order to continue retreating was forced on him by circumstances, and he had little option but to fight a battle. He found himself in a really tricky position in the beet and stubble fields around Le Cateau, from which he was fortunate to escape, with under-acknowledged French assistance. Only as a consequence of luck, French mass and German fumbling did the BEF escape a disaster that its inadequate size and the incompetence of its commander-in-chief (John French) made likely. But multiple heroic actions by small groups and larger battalions, not only at le Cateau but throughout the Great Retreat, particularly at Nery and Villers-Cotterets, enabled the orderly retreat of most of the BEF, and the regrouping that followed to contribute positively to the Battle of the Marne.

French made his temporary HQ here
just south of the Belgian border

Le Cateau 26 August 1914
The BEF continued its retreat southwards, with Haig's I Corps on the east of the Forest of Mormal making fairly rapid progress.
To the west, S-D was in a worse position. He had a very tough day of marching on 25th, and his 3rd Division had held and beaten off at Solesmes an attack by Marwitz’s cavalry plus German infantry. By dusk he had reached a position on the left bank of the Selle, west of Le Cateau. Conditions there were difficult, and the men were exhausted. In the early hours of the morning he had to decide whether he could risk retreating them further, or first should stand and fight.
S-D, the Commander of II Corps, was a soldier with a track record of great experience and of a temperament not easily excited or fazed. If he thought it necessary to stand and fight “Very well gentlemen – we stand and fight”, it probably was.

Hastings’ view of Le Cateau (in Catastrophe)
The previous evening, II Corps had issued Operation Order No. 6, which began: ‘The Army will continue its retirement tomorrow.’ In the small hours of the 26th, however, Smith-Dorrien felt compelled to reconsider. French later very publicly castigated Smith-Dorrien in his memoirs regarding this. Given II Corps’ predicament, however, it is hard to see how its commander could have acted otherwise. He proposed to try to inflict ‘a stopping blow’ on the Germans, to gain a breathing space in which to resume his retirement

The action Smith-Dorrien fought on 26 August, 568th anniversary of Crécy, proved much bloodier than Mons – indeed, as costly in British lives as was D-Day in June 1944, a world war later. It was utterly unlike almost everything that happened to its survivors in the ensuing four years. This was the last significant battle the British Army would ever fight in which a man standing on the rising ground a mile or so north-west of Le Cateau might have beheld most of the day’s critical points within his own range of vision. The little town nestled in a valley, surrounded by fields of agriculture.  

Against S-D’s 55000 men, Kluck opposed not less than 140,000. He was surprised to find the British in position, and hoped to have, at last, the decisive battle he had been hoping for.  His tactics were the same as at Mons – a frontal artillery attack to be followed by enveloping infantry advances on the flanks. The battle proper began at about 7am, with a terrific German bombardment. The ridge S-D held was studded with small villages, the church spires of which made good targets for the German artillery. The  British artillery, though heavily outnumbered, fought back. The brigades which had performed so well at Solesmes the day before were again in the thick of the action at Caudry.
The beautiful le Cateau cemetery
and memorial
At 1pm S-D decided it was time to withdraw, and an orderly retreat began, aided by the French forces in the area. By sunset the II Corps was tramping over the belt of upland in which the rivers Scheld and Sambre rise, and on the morning of 27th halted north of St Quentin where the slope falls to the valley of the Oise. The chief miracle of Le Cateau had been achieved in that S-D had got away his forces, with 8,000 casualties and the loss of only 36 guns. This was Kluck’s worst failure, given his superiority in men and arms, and he compounded it by sending cavalry further to the west where he thought the BEF was headed. This made Haig’s retreat easier, and Kluck’s cavalry were dealt with by the French.

By 28th August, the two parts of the BEF had been re-united, between La Fere and Noyon. Still retreating they would be well placed, unwittingly, to take advantage of the shift in centre of gravity that was taking place. On the evening of 25th August, Joffre had ordered Maunoury to leave the 3rd Army in the SouthEast, and to make up a new 6th army to reinforce the left wing of the Allied front.
Kluck’s 1st Army had changed to move in a south-easterly direction, east of Paris. However, its right wing scraped against the BEF’s rearguards on 1 September, resulting in violent clashes at Néry and Villers-Cotterêts.
One of several amazing rearguard actions on the
great retreat occurred at Etreux by the Munsters


What had begun as a disaster for the British had ended in a striking victory. The German 4th Cavalry Division had been so badly mauled that its commander ordered it to scatter into its component parts to evade British pursuit. The action at Néry had effectively destroyed the German right wing formation and it would take several days to recover.



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