Imperial Germany had long planned the conflict that was to become the First World War, but when the onslaught came there was little sign that the nations which would be embroiled were prepared for the storm. Germany advanced in the east and west where French and Belgian armies were forced to retire by overwhelming odds. The small British Army, the ‘B. E. F’, was rushed to the continent with most of its troops having less than a week between garrison life and the firing line. Under Sir John French, it was allocated the western end of the line, and at Mons it inflicted far more causalities on the enemy than its numbers would suggest. No army of its size, however, could stand against the German superiority in men (at least five to one) or artillery and machine guns. An envelopment was inevitable and so a stubbornly fought retreat was ordered. Near Le Cateau, the British turned at bay and Smith-Dorrien’s determination to stand and fight undoubtedly saved the British Army from annihilation. Many people imagine the First World War as a stalemate of mud, wire and trenches, but in the first six months it was a great European war fought in much the same way that Napoleon, Wellington and Blucher had fought a century before. This Leonaur Original edition contains two concise accounts of the early campaign of the great conflict where the ‘Contemptible Little Army’ of the B. E. F earned undying fame in the history of military conflict.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
The attack had most certainly begun; and it began, as was expected, at the weakest and most critical point of the line, the canal loop, which was held by the Third Division. This division had the heaviest share of the fighting throughout the day, maintaining, longer than seemed humanly possible, a hopeless position against hopeless odds, the Second Royal Irish and Fourth Middlesex of the Eighth Brigade, and the Fourth Royal Fusiliers of the Ninth Brigade, particularly distinguishing themselves. The bridges over the canal, which our men held, after some preliminary shelling, were attacked by infantry debouching from the low woods which at this point came down to within three hundred or four hundred yards of the canal. These woods were of great assistance to the enemy, both here and at other points of the canal, in providing cover for their infantry and machine-guns. The odds were very heavy. One company of the Royal Fusiliers, holding the Nimy Bridge, was attacked at one time by as many as four battalions.
The enemy at first came on in masses, and suffered severely in consequence. It was their first experience of the British “fifteen rounds a minute,” and it told. They went down in bundles—our men delighting in a form of musketry never contemplated in the Regulations. To men accustomed to hitting bobbing heads at eight hundred yards there was something monstrous and incredible in the German advance. They could scarcely believe their eyes; such targets had never appeared to them even in their dreams.
Nor were our machine-guns idle. In this, as in many other actions that day and in the days that followed, our machine-guns were handled with a skill and devotion which no one appreciated more than the enemy. Two of the first Victoria Crosses of the war were won by machine-gunners in this action of the bridges: Lieutenant Dease, of the Royal Fusiliers, who, though five times wounded,—and, as it turned out, mortally wounded,—continued to work his gun on the Nimy Bridge until the order came for retirement, and he was carried off; and Private Godley, of the Royal Scots Fusiliers, who, lower down the loop, at the Ghlin Bridge, in the face of repeated assaults, kept his gun in action throughout.
The attack had now spread along the whole line of the canal; but except at the loop the enemy could make no impression. There, however, numbers told at last, and about the middle of the afternoon the Third Division was ordered to retire from the salient, and the Fifth Division on its left directed to conform. Bridges were blown up—the Royal Engineers vying with the other services in the race for glory: and by the night of the 23rd, after various vicissitudes, the Second Army Corps had fallen back as far as the line Montreuil-Wasmes-Paturages-Frameries. That the retirement, though successful, was expensive, is not to be wondered at, when it is remembered that throughout this action, as we now know, the Second Army Corps was outnumbered by three to one. All ranks, however, were in excellent spirits. Allowing for handicaps, they felt that they had proved themselves the better men.
It was a feeling which was to be severely tried in the next few days. At 5 p.m. on Sunday the 23rd, as the Second Corps was withdrawing from the canal, the British commander-in-chief received a most unexpected telegraph from General Joffre, the generalissimo of the Allied armies, to the effect that at least three German army corps were moving against the British front, and that a fourth corps was endeavouring to outflank him from the west. He was also informed that the Germans had on the previous day captured the crossings of the Sambre between Charleroi and Namur, and that the French on his right were retiring. In other words, Namur, the defensive pivot of the Anglo-French line, on the resistance of which—if only for a few days—the Allied strategy had depended, had fallen almost at a blow. By Saturday the Germans had left Namur behind, and in numbers far exceeding French predictions had seized the crossings of the Sambre and Middle Meuse and were hammering at the junction of the Fifth and Fourth French Armies in the river-fork.
The junction was pierced, and the French, unexpectedly and overwhelmingly assaulted both in front and flank, could do nothing but retire. By 5 p.m. on the Sunday, when the message was received at British Headquarters, the French had been retiring for anywhere from ten to twelve hours. The British Army was for the moment isolated. Standing forward a day’s march from the French on its right, faced and engaged by three German corps in front, and already threatened by a fourth corps on its left, it seemed a force marked out for destruction.
In the British Higher Command, however, there was no flurry. There is a thing called British phlegm.
The facts of the case, though unwelcome, were laconically accepted. Over General Headquarters brooded a clubroom calm. Airmen were sent up to confirm the French report, in the usual manner, and arrangements were quietly and methodically made for a retirement towards the prearranged Maubeuge-Valenciennes line. The hard-pressed Second Corps, which had farther to march, was the first to move. Early on the 24th it was marching south towards Dour and Quarouble, covered by the First Corps, which had been much less taxed, and was favourably placed to threaten the German left. This covering demonstration was well carried out by the Second Division, supported by the massed artillery of the corps. The retirement of the Second Corps, however, even with this assistance, was not made without much difficulty. By the night of the 23rd the enemy were already crossing the canal, and pouring down on the villages to the south.
Several rear-guard actions were fought here on the morning of the 24th, in which infantry and artillery equally distinguished themselves at Wasmes with notable success and much loss to the enemy; but, as every hour passed, the intention of the enemy to outflank from the northwest became more evident. Desperate fighting took place, the First Norfolks, First Cheshires, and One Hundred and Nineteenth Battery, R.F.A., detached as a flank guard under Colonel Ballard, of the Norfolks, holding the ridge from Audregnies to Flouges for several hours in the teeth of overwhelming opposition. To this little band, which cheerfully sacrificed itself, belongs the principal credit for holding up the turning movement of the enemy during the retirement of the 24th. They made a splendid stand, and six hundred of the Cheshires never got away.
Our cavalry, fortunately, were able to help also, and at once; for by an act of great foresight, long before the news arrived of a turning movement, Sir John French had transferred his cavalry division from the right flank to the left. They were in position there by the Sunday morning, and in the subsequent retirement did everything that men and horses could do to relieve the pressure. The dramatic action of General de Lisle’s cavalry brigade at Audregnies, where the Fifth Division was hard-pressed, is one of the best-known incidents of this day’s fighting, not only because it succeeded, though at a heavy cost, in delaying the enemy, but because it gave occasion to one of the most heroic performances of the Retreat.