An outstanding first hand account and history of the first battles of the Great War
The Great War had long been planned by Imperial Germany and its army stood ready to advance through Belgium and France with a force of overwhelming superiority. Both the Belgian and French nations rushed to arms, but were overwhelmed. The small British regular army in the form of the B. E. F was mobilised and thrown into the battle line in a matter of days. It met the advancing German masses at Mons and, much to the astonishment of the enemy, who allegedly referred to the B. E. F as that ‘contemptible little army,’ gave a superb account of itself. However, no army of its size could hold against the numbers that opposed it and it was inevitable that it would be overrun. So began one of the most outstanding achievements in the history of the British Army, the dogged retreat from Mons. The man of the hour was undoubtedly Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, who, when it was clear that retreat was no longer possible, saved the army from annihilation when he ordered his men to stand and fight around Le Cateau. The allies halted before Paris, turned and began a counter offensive across the Marne and Aisne that rolled the German invaders back to Ypres. Arthur Corbett-Smith was an officer of the Royal Horse Artillery and was present throughout the events described here. His first-hand experiences, anecdotes and history of the campaign are a highly readable narrative which delivers the facts of the events of Summer and Autumn, 1914. This Leonaur Original two-in-one volume, coincides with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War in 1914 and has never before been available in this form.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
A regiment of German Dragoons had pushed its way south through the little village of Moncel after the retreating British. Now had come the inexplicable order to abandon the pursuit and return the way they had come. It was not in the best of tempers that the dragoons clattered once again down the village street, for the cursed English cavalry had been leading them a rare dance all the afternoon, and the experience had not been a pleasant one.
“Captain Schniff with a squadron will hold the village till further orders,” the colonel commanded as he took the remainder of the regiment with him on the northern road.
The captain did not feel too happy about the position, and thought once or twice of telephoning to headquarters for a couple of maxims. However, deciding to make the best of it, he turned his attention to instilling a little wholesome respect for “kultur” into the villagers. Unfortunately, his class was likely to be a small one, for everybody had fled with the exception of three old women, two girls, two old men and four or five children.
Nothing daunted, he and his men set to work upon the principles officially laid down by his government, with the gratifying result that before nightfall the two old men had both been shot for trying to defend their womenfolk from insult; one girl had been outraged and had escaped somewhere after shooting the man with his own carbine, and the remainder had been reduced to a state of mental and physical paralysis.
Thus the night passed without further incident. But in the early morning the outposts fell back upon the village with the news that British cavalry had been seen in considerable strength moving in their direction. With a hurried order to the senior sergeant Captain Schniff made his way to a small outhouse at the end of the village where the field-telephone line ended, and in a few seconds had informed his brigade H. Q. that he was expecting an attack in force at any minute.
It came before he had removed the receiver-cap from his head.
Three sudden shots and Captain Schniff, running out into the street, found himself in the middle of a whirl of men and horses. Half his squadron had mounted, the rest had just got hold of their horses when the wave of British cavalry swept in from the south. A troop of the 9th Lancers, acting as advance guard, had driven in the outposts, and not knowing, and caring less, what the enemy strength might be, had galloped straight at the village
. A few minutes of mad cut and thrust and the old people were avenged. The lancers cleared the street from end to end almost in a single sweep. By the little outhouse door stood Schniff, pistol in hand. His first shot brought down a trooper with a bullet through his chest. His second tore a cut through a horse’s shoulder. Then the wave swept over him. It passed; but the German captain still stood against the lintel, pinned to the wood with a sabre thrust clean through the neck.
Ranks were re-formed, two or three scouts sent forward to the north, and a message was despatched to the main body to report. There with the 9th Lancers were the 18th Hussars, and a brief debate followed as to whether they should push on or hold the village for a spell. The Colonel in command of the lancers knew fairly accurately the enemy strength in cavalry in the immediate neighbourhood, and the odds against the British were rather heavy.
However, the point was soon decided for them. Captain Schniff’s telephone message had been promptly acted upon, and some four new German squadrons were already well on the way to support their comrades. Our outposts fell back in their turn with the report that the enemy were approaching fast from two sides.
A squadron of the Hussars was at once sent forward with orders to dismount and get under cover ready to open fire as they saw the best opportunity. The lancers were formed up clear of the village, but still out of sight of the advancing Germans. The joking and laughter have for the moment died away, and every man sits as though carved in stone with that curious, empty feeling inside which will always creep over one when waiting for the moment. Officers nervously fidget at the reins and try to appear unconcerned as they rack their brains for a sentence or two of encouragement or warning for their men. The colonel is well out to the front carefully judging the ground and distance. There is a gentle dip in the ground which his eye at once tells him is the spot where the shock should come. That extra down gradient will be worth to him a score more men.
“We’ll get them all right,” a subaltern says over his shoulder. “They always pull in a bit when we’re on them.” He had been through it before with his men, and knew about that odd, sudden shrinking which seems to attack German cavalry at the critical moment. The men knew too, and they instinctively settled to a tighter grip in the saddle, every eye on the man who was to lead them. The eternal seconds passed and the tension grew till it was well-nigh unbearable; just as when a bowstring is slowly drawn back until it seems that the yew will surely snap.
Suddenly the colonel sees that the moment has come. The enemy are riding diagonally across his front, and it may be possible to meet them before they can fully change direction. The signal is given and the lancers have started, so steadily that they might be entering the arena at Olympia for the musical ride.
The pace increases. The colonel has given his men plenty of room, for they’ll need every bit of advantage they can get. “Steady, men, steady!” The enemy have begun to wheel—Now! One tremendous bound forward and the gallant horses are stretched out to the uttermost. Down the slope they thunder. Each man tries to pick an opponent, but there is no time. There is one mighty crash all down the line. The lancers have got home. Heave! and they are through. Through, with hardly a check of the pace, and on. The files close in and the men begin to drag at the bit reins. A wheel into section, and so to the village, again.
The Germans, too, have checked and wheeled round, but they are not so steady. Though by far the heavier cavalry they have been badly mauled. It was like the little English ships sailing through and raking the great galleons of the Spanish Armada. Still, they recover and turn to retire the way they had come. Back they trot, re-forming ranks as they go. Now they have reached the northern end of the village. Now three hundred yards past, when there is a sudden burst of rifle fire and a hail of bullets ploughs through the hardly formed ranks.
(You had forgotten all about the Hussars, hadn’t you?)
But the Germans know what discipline means, and they are courageous enough too. There is a momentary confusion, but a sudden word of command pulls them together, and about eighty odd men from the inner flank wheel about.
“By Jove!” exclaims the Hussar squadron leader, “they’re actually going to charge us.” Then, after a moment to make sure, “Cease fire!—we’ll wait for ’em,” he adds to himself.
The other officers and N.C.O.’s see in a moment what they are to do. It is an old trick, but it calls for nerves of steel to carry it out. The Hussars had been firing “rapid independent” on the retiring Germans, and it is not always easy to get your men quickly in hand again, especially when there is an avalanche of men and horses coming down on top of you. Still, the Germans do not hold a grinding monopoly in discipline, and you might say that a crack British regiment will go one better, for the men are trained and disciplined as human beings, not machines.
“Not a shot till you get the word, and then two good volleys,” sings out the O.C. “Aim low.”
The German cavalry has covered 150 yards. They are getting alarmingly close, and coming for all they are worth dead straight. Again it is just a matter of seconds, but the O.C. is as cool as though it were practice on the Pirbright ranges.
100 yards! and—“Fire!”
Every Hussar had picked his man, and that one volley accounted for practically the entire line of dragoons. They say that only ten got back.