Memories of Forty-Eight Years Service
Chapter 24a - The Retreat from Mons : Le Cateau
ON the 27th July 1914 a wire from the War Office directed me
to guard all vulnerable points in the Southern Command, as Austria was
attacking Servia and there were distinct possibilities of Britain being
involved in a European War.
Two days later further orders came to the effect that the
precautionary period was to be recognised. This was a period provided for under
the Mobilisation for War Scheme which involved reinforcing certain stations
throughout the command.
On the 3rd August all training was stopped and troops in
camp ordered to their peace stations. Next day I was told that mobilisation, to
commence from the morrow, had been decided on, and on the 5th war against
Germany was declared. That day too I was directed to hand over my command to
Lieutenant-General Sir William Pitcairn Campbell, a proved leader in the Boer
War, and to take command of a Home Defence Army under Sir Ian Hamilton. The
next few days were taken up in seeing the units of the 3rd Division under
Major-General Hubert Hamilton entrain for their ports of embarkation, and in
visits to London and the War Office in connection with my new army, and it was
not until the 13th August that I actually handed over the Southern Command to
During my visits to the War Office I had several discussions
with Lord Kitchener, who had become Secretary of State for Warespecially
on the subject of the expansion of the Army. I was very insistent that, rather
than use all available material for creating entirely new Divisions, it were
preferable to build up on the existing Territorial Army, splitting each unit so
as to provide many more cadres, and filling up the cadres thus created by
recruits and the many trained ex-officers and men who offered themselves from
civil life. I argued that this system of expansion would provide efficient
units in the shortest time, and would leave available for training purposes a
very large number of excellent instructors who would otherwise be merged into
the fighting ranks. Lord Kitchener was sympathetic, as he always was, and asked
me to draft a scheme. This I did, but it was not accepted.
On the 17th August came the sad news of the death of the
commander of our II Corpspoor Jimmy Grierson, the man who was heart and
soul a soldier, who, once a persona grata with the Kaiser, and a welcome guest
in the German Army, had of late years seen through their wily machinations, and
devoted himself to preparing the Army and himself for the day when the Germans
should unmask. Der Tag had arrived, and Grierson landed in France, bursting
with enthusiasm and thirsting for the fray, when the cruel blow fell and the
nation lost an unrivalled leader in the very hour of her need.
Little did I think, on receiving the news, how his death
would affect me; but the following morning, much to my surprise, I received a
telegram appointing me to succeed him, and directing me to go and see the
Secretary of State at once.
Lord Kitchener's first words to me, when I entered his room
at the War Office that afternoon, expressed grave doubt as to whether he was
wise in selecting me to succeed Grierson, since the C.-in-C. in France had
asked that General Sir Herbert Plumer should be selected to fill the
appointment. However, after thinking the matter over, he adhered to his
decision to send me.
I think I justified that decision, for the first six months
at any rate, and especially after the battle of Le Cateau, for the C.-in-C. was
so genuinely grateful to me, for having, as he described it in his generous
dispatch, of 7th September 1914, saved his left wing, that he did not stint his
praise of the Corps during that period. Perhaps the strongest evidence of his
confidence in me was his . selecting me at the end of the year for command of
one of the two armies, which larger organisations had become necessary by the
increase in the size of the British forces in France.
But to return to the 18th August. After my interview I was
commanded to Buckingham Palace, and there most graciously received by Their
Majesties. I then returned to Salisbury to say farewell to my family, and on
the 20th, accompanied by my personal Staff (Major Hope Johnstone, A.M.S.,
Captain W. A. T.Bowly, A.D.C., and Colonel W. Ryeroft, who had been appointed
as A.Q.M.G. to the II Corps in succession to Colonel Edye (injured in a motor
accident), I reached Boulogne in the evening of the 20th, and was much
impressed by the lack of excitement, the general cheerfulness and efficient
arrangements at that busy port.
On arriving at Amiens at 8 a.m. I was met by the
Inspector-General Lines of Communication, Lieutenant-General Sir F. Robb, who
gave me my orders, which were to join the headquarters of my Army Corps at
Bavai at once. The train took me as far as Landrecies, where I was met by
Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. A. V. F. Russell, Grenadier Guards, who was
Military Attache at Berlin and had just had the unpleasant experience of
leaving that place, and the less unpleasant one of joining the Staff of the II
Corps. He took me the fifteen miles to Bavai by motor. After an interview with
my new Staff and being placed au courant with all they could tell me of the
situation, I motored back to see the C.-in-C. at Le Cateau, some eighteen
miles. He received me pleasantly, and explained the general situation as far as
he could, for the fog of war was peculiarly dense at that time. I gleaned,
however, that we were to move on the morrow to the general line of the
Mons-Conde Canal, the I Corps on the right, my Corps on the left, the latter's
position to be along the line of the Canal from Mons westward, but that it was
only to be a preliminary step to a further move forward which would take the
form of a slight right-wheel into Belgium, the British Army forming the outer
flank, pivoting on the French 5th Army. Shortly after leaving G.H.Q. on my
return journey to Bavai I found the road blocked, bullets flying, and the sound
of firing. Fairly puzzled as to how the enemy could have got there, I got out
of my motor to find a battery in considerable confusion held up by
sharpshooters across the road. It turned out to be a case of mistaken identity.
The battery had been challenged by some French Territorials on outpost duty,
and not understanding what was required of it had tried to push on, with the
result that fire was opened on it and one of our gunners killed and two
wounded. This was a bad beginning, but a brief parley arranged matters and I
got to my head-quarters at 11 p.m., approved of the orders for the move next
morning, and turned in.
The Staff of the II Corps differed from that of the I Corps,
which was the regular Aldershot Staff accustomed to work together, in that it
had been improvised, and had yet to learn each other's peculiarities; but I had
nothing to complain of, for I found an exceptionally capable and highly trained
body of officers, who inspired me with confidence at once and fully justified
it. Brigadier-General G. T. Forestier-Walker (now Major-General Sir George) was
my able Chief of the General Staff, assisted by Colonel R. S. Oxiey,
Lieutenant-Colonel T. H. Shoubridge, Lieutenant-Colonel the Hon. J. H.
Gathorne-Hardy, and Captain B. Walcot, whilst the Adjutant and
Quartermaster-General's Staff had Colonel W. B. Hickie (now Major-General Sir
William) at its head with Colonel W. Rycroft (now Major-General Sir William)
and Major J. B. Wroughton as assistants.
The Corps was composed as follows :
- 3rd Division, Major-General Hubert Hamilton.
- 7th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General F. W. N.
- 3rd Worcestershire, 2nd South Lancashire, 1st Wiltshire,
2nd Royal Irish Rifles
- 8th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General B. J. C.
- 2nd Royal Scots, 4th Middlesex, 2nd Royal Irish, 1st
- 9th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General F. C. Shaw.
- 1st Northumberland Fusiliers, 1st Lincolnshire, 4th Royal
Fusiliers, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers.
- Divisional Troops
- C Squadron 15th Hussars, 3rd Cyclist Company. 23rd
Brigade R.F.A. 107th, 108th, and 109th Batteries and Ammunition Column.
- 40th Brigade R.F.A. 6th, 23rd, and 49th Batteries and
- 42nd Brigade R.F.A. 29th, 41st, and 45th Batteries and
- 30th Howitzer Brigade R.F.A. 128th, 129th, and 130th
Batteries and Ammunition Column.
- 48th Heavy Battery R.G.A. and Ammunition Column.
- 3rd Divisional Ammunition Column.
- Royal Engineers, 56th and 57th Companies.
- 3rd Signal Company, 3rd Divisional Train, and 7th, 8th,
and 9th Field Ambulances.
- 5th Division. Major-General Sir C. Fergusson,
- 13th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General G. J.
- 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers, 2nd Duke of
Wellington's West Riding, 1st Queen's Own Royal West Kent. 2nd King's Own
Yorkshire Light Infantry.
- 14th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General S. P. Rolf.
- 2nd Suffolk, 1st East Surrey, 1st D.G. Light Infantry,
- 15th Infantry Brigade. Brigadier-General Count
- 1st Norfolk, 1st Bedfordshire, 1st Cheshire, 1st
- Divisional Troops
- A Squadron 19th Hussars, 5th Cyclist Company. 15th
Brigade R.F.A. 11th, 52nd, and 80th Batteries and Ammunition Column.
- 27th Brigade R.F.A. 119th, 120th, and 121st Batteries and
- 28th Brigade R.F.A. 122nd, 123rd, and 124th Batteries and
- 8th Howitzer Brigade R.F.A. 37th, 61st, and 65th
Batteries and Ammunition Column.
- 108th Heavy Battery R.G.A. and Ammunition Column. Royal
Engineers, 17th and 59th Field Companies. 5th Signal Company, 5th Divisional
Train, and 13th, 14th, and 15th Field Ambulances.
Unfortunately our concentration was not completed, but the
French were so insistent on our moving forward to cover their left flank that,
although short of guns. Field Hospitals, and Engineer units, the C.-in-C.
decided to go without them, as the news of the enemy was that they had left
Brussels and were advancing west and south of that town. The morning of the
22nd saw us moving, and some twelve to fifteen miles took us to the line of the
Canal, where in accordance with orders we took up a line of outposts extending
from Pommeroeul (five miles east of Conde) round the north side of Mons to Nimy
and thence to Givry, twenty-one miles in all. The 3rd Division went into
billets round Mons in the area of Nimy-GhlinFrameries-Spiennes, and were
there by 1 p.m., whilst the 5th Division rather later occupied the Canal on
their left from Jemappes to Pommeroeul. Sir Douglas Haig's I Corps, which had
moved on our right, took up a position facing north-east, prolonging our line
by some seven miles, i.e. about a quarter of the B.E.F. front. As we were
facing north except on the east of Mons, where we faced north-east, it will be
appreciated that the British line formed a considerable salient with the town
of Mons at the apex.
During this day we saw nothing of the enemy, but the Cavalry
Division and 5th Cavalry Brigade had some smartish work towards Binche.
Our news of the enemy was very vague, but the general
opinion was that considerable German forces were moving towards us and that
contact on the morrow was almost a certainty.
The delight of the inhabitants, their hospitality, their
enthusiastic greetings and hearty cheering as we moved along, were very
inspiring, and I own to a feeling of shame when a few days later we were
hurrying to the rear leaving these poor people at the mercy of a none too
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