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

I referred a short way back to the congestion which was likely to occur unless the 5th Division could work off to the west, and to prepare to meet it, should it arise, Forestier-Walker had sent a Staff Officer (I am almost sure it was Major Kincaid Smith) to report on the nature of the country behind the west flank of that Division. When therefore at about 3 p.m. pressure on the flank and the fact that it was fighting a desperate action, put out of the question any edging of the 5th Division to the west, I directed the 3rd Division, then free of the enemy, to move across its rear.

This resulted in the 7th Brigade, which was in reserve, going to Wargnies, six and a half miles west of Bavai, with the 8th supporting it, and the 9th, which had been on rearguard, in reserve nearer Bavai.

This move worked admirably, for it secured the west flank, gave the harried 5th Division an area to fall back into where both its flanks could be secure, and gave more shoulder-room to the I Corps, which was getting a bit compressed between Maubeugeand Bavai, chiefly owing to the fact that the direction of retirement rendered it necessary that some of the troops of the two Corps should use the same road for a time.

Though this manoeuvre involved an interchange of positions of the two Divisions in subsequent movements no complications resulted. Again we had suffered heavy losses, 2,200 in the II Corps, 250 in the Cavalry, 100 in the I Corps, and 40 in the 19th Brigade. The II Corps' losses thus amounted to 3,784 in the two days, or about 17 per cent. of its infantry war strength.

In a day of such brilliant fighting it would seem almost invidious to mention any troops in particular, but I think I can emphasise the glorious work of the 15th Brigade in the flank-guard fight near Elouges, when they lost over 1,100, one-third of their fighting strength, but saved our exposed flank.

At 6 p.m., hearing the Chief had come up from Le Cateau to his advanced Head-quarters at Bavai, I sought him out and found him in the Mairie, and, describing the action of the II Corps and its positions, asked for instructions as to our further retirement. The Chief replied that I could do as I liked, but that Haig intended to start at 5 a.m. I remonstrated, saying that unless we moved early we should have a repetition of that day (the 24th) when orders had been issued too late to avoid the enemy coming to close grips. He asked me what I proposed. I replied that I wished to start off my impedimenta, which had already been in bivouac several hours, soon after midnight, followed by the troops at such times as would ensure my rear-guards being south of the Valenciennes-Jenlain—Bavai road by 5 a.m. Sir John concurred, remarking that Haig could still do as he intended. I then crossed the room to the table where Sir Archibald Murray, the Chief of the Staff, was working, and asked him to induce the Chief to issue an order for the whole force to move early and simultaneously. Murray said he would see what he could do later on, and he was evidently successful, for an order was issued, timed 8.25 p.m., ordering the B.E.F. to move to the Le Cateau position and to be clear of the Jenlain-Bavai-Maubeuge road by 5.30 a.m. Soon after midnight the transport, reserve ammunition columns, etc., were on the move, and by 5.30 a.m„ in accordance with G.H.Q. orders, my rear-guards were endeavouring to leave the Jenlain-Bavai-Maubeuge road, but the whole Corps was delayed somewhat by the passage of General Sordet's Cavalry Corps, which, ordered to the west of the Le Cateau position, was moving from east to west. It will be seen from the order that the boundary, east of which I could not go, which separated the I and II Corps in this day's march, was the very straight road from Bavai to Montay, which latter place is one mile short of the town of Le Cateau. On the I Corps side of this road is the forest of Mormal, devoid of practicable roads leading in the direction in which the B.E.F. was moving; consequently the I Corps had to march on the east side of this forest and to maintain communication with the II Corps through it—a matter of supreme difficulty. As a matter of fact, I heard nothing of the I Corps throughout the day. No information was sent me by G.H.Q. concerning it, and I imagined that all was going well and we should join upon the Le Cateau position in the evening according to orders.

The nearest part of the Le Cateau position was some two miles beyond the town, and as the II would occupy the western half and the I Corps the eastern half, the distances we had to march were about the same. In any case it was a very long march with troops worn out with incessant fighting and by lack of sleep, for by the shortest road over twenty miles had to be covered and as much as twenty-five by the longest.

I heard, some time afterwards, that the I Corps had had considerable difficulties to deal with, for although but little interfered with by the enemy, they had had to cross and recross the Sambre and to share roads with French troops retiring in the same direction, and further that they had been some hours late in starting that morning, with the result that they had only reached the line Landrecies-Maroilles-Marbaix when night overtook them and they had gone into billets, thus leaving a dangerous gap of eight miles between the two Corps. These delays were quite unknown to me at the time, and, as I record later, it will be seen that I counted on the I Corps coming into line with us on the Le Cateau position in accordance with G.H.Q. operation order, and that I sent back weary troops to the east side of the town of Le Cateau to look out for them and to guard the flank until they appeared.

Whatever the cause, the delay was of very serious moment to the II Corps, and indeed to the whole B.E.F. Had it not occurred the actions at Landrecies and Maroilles would not have taken place, and, instead of being out of touch with each other for the next six days, the two Corps would have had a united front on the night of 25th August under the hand of the C.-in-C. and the decision to fight at Le Cateau would not have rested with me. As things were, however, as will be seen later, the news that the I Corps was heavily engaged and the fear that their safety might be endangered unless the II Corps made a stand, though not the deciding factor, carried weight with me in coming to the decision I took in the small hours of the morning of the 26th.

It is evident that the G.O.C. I Corps considered his situation serious, for I see in the Official History that at 1.35 a.m. on the 26th he reported it as critical to General Head-quarters, at 3.30 a.m. he asked that troops near Le Cateau should advance straight on Landrecies to assist him, and further that he issued an order to his troops to dump supplies so that wagons might be freed to carry men's packs. These facts, given in the Official History, lead me to believe that the battle of Le Cateau must have prevented the situation in the I Corps from becoming even more critical.

But to return to my account of the day's proceedings. The rear-guard of the 5th Division, which was marching along the Bavai-Le Cateau road alongside the forest of Mormal, had a smart scrap with some Germans north-west of Bavai as they were moving off, but otherwise the Division, beyond a desperately hot march on a foot-wearying pave road, were unmolested and began to arrive at Le Cateau town at 3 p.m., though their tail was not there until after 8 p.m., and a few units much later, as will be seen. As the nearest part of the position allotted to them was some two miles south of the town, it was considerably later when they reached it. The 3rd Division, marching to the west of them, and the Cavalry Division and 19th Infantry Brigade, on roads still farther west, had quite a lot of rear-guard work, and eventually at Solesmes some very heavy fighting. The Brigade of II Corps on rear-guard was McCracken's, the 7th, and so well were they handled and so brilliantly did the two Battalions engaged (the South Lancashires and the Wiltshires) conduct themselves, that in consequence of a recommendation of General Allenby's, endorsed by the C.-in-C,, their Brigadier was promoted Major-General. This recommendation came in the form of a letter from General Allenby to me as Corps Commander, and was forwarded by me to the Chief. It so clearly describes what happened that I give it in extenso :


On the 25th August I had the task of covering the rear of the army in its western flank during the retirement on Le Cateau. Towards nightfall a fierce attack was made on the Cavalry Division under my command and a gap was opened between the rear and flank guards. The rear of the 2nd Army Corps was then passing through the town of Solesmes, a defile, and the situation became precarious. I had, at the time, only one Regiment of Cavalry to fill the gap. Riding to the rear of the column, I met Brigadier-General

McCracken, and gave him the situation. Brigadier-General McCracken at once rose to the occasion. He collected what troops were near to hand and led them to a position whence they could cover the column entering the defile. At the same time he stopped and brought into action a Brigade of R.F.A. and a Howitzer Battery. This ready initiative checked the enemy, but they brought several batteries into action under whose cover their infantry resumed the attack Until after dark Brigadier-General McCracken maintained his stand under severe gun and rifle fire, and did not retire until the rear of the column was in safety. He then withdrew skilfully and with comparatively few casualties. I consider that his ready and daring handling of the rear-guard averted a mishap which might have been a disaster. I am glad to be able to bring his action to your notice, as I think it deserves recognition.

Yours sincerely, E. H. H. ALLENBY.

I learned in the course of the morning that the 4th Division (General Snow, now Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas D'Oyly Snow) had reached Le Cateau from England, and was delighted to hear that the Chief had immediately pushed it out to Solesmes, about seven miles north-west of Le Cateau, to cover the retirement of the Cavalry and 3rd Division. He could not have chosen a better place, for most roads from the north converge on it and it was sure to be an objective of pursuing Germans. It was a very congested spot. and throughout the afternoon reports came in telling of the apparently hopeless mass of transport trying to pass through it on the way south. There were the wagons of the 3rd Division, the 19th Brigade, and the Cavalry Division, but there would have been little difficulty about them had it not been for French Territorial troops' impedimenta from Valenciennes, and especially masses of country carts and hand-carts laden with household goods and surrounded by countless numbers of civilian refugees, flying before the German advance.

The position of the 4th Division round the southern end of the town was just suited to give the time necessary for this congestion to melt away. This, however, did not happen in a minute, for, in a subsequent account which he sent to me, Snow says : « The movement of the rear-guard of the 4th Division was delayed until after midnight; the result was that the three brigades did not get on to the position till about daylight, that is between 3.30 and 5.30 a.m. on the 26th."

I had confined my own movements almost entirely to the eastern road, and when abreast of the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy witnessed the first fight in the air I had ever seen, and had the satisfaction of seeing the German aeroplane crash to the ground. I reached the town of Le Cateau at 3.30 p.m., and at once went to report myself to the C -in-C He was not there, but I found the Chief of Staff, who had little fresh information to give me and no news of the I Corps. The forest of Mormal, which kept the I Corps some four or five miles from us and General Head-quarters which had also moved west of the forest, for some ten miles of our march, had proved an impenetrable wall.


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