Although Europe was at peace for the first half of 1914, plans for the invasion of France by tens of thousands of German soldiers, supported by a huge resource of material and artillery, were well in place. By contrast the small standing army of Great Britain languished in its garrisons. When war broke out the B. E. F was hastened to the continent in little more than a week. That the British were not annihilated in the first days of conflict demonstrates the quality of every aspect of the British Army, which many at that time believed to be the best army—man for man—in the world. However, no force of its size could stop the inexorable advance of the enemy, German superiority in numbers began to tell and the retreat from Mons was ordered. By the 25th of August the First German Army was so hard on the heels of the British II Corps that, despite orders to the contrary, Smith-Dorrien, the corps commander, realising that he could not rely on support while his corps retreated, defied Sir John French and ordered his men to stand and fight at Le Cateau, east of Cambrai. There the British fired shrapnel shells into the advancing Germans, inflicting and sustaining terrible casualties, but ensuring that the B. E. F would exist to fight another day. Angry at the time, Sir John French later freely acknowledged that Smith-Dorrien’s action had saved the army from destruction. Published to coincide with the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, this unique Leonaur book contains two accounts of the fighting at Le Cateau, an iconic example of the British Army performing at its very best.
Leonaur editions are newly typeset and are not facsimiles; each title is available in softcover and hardback with dustjacket.
During the night of August 25/26 orders had reached the C.R.A. that the retirement was to be continued; consequently XXVIII R.F.A. had been detailed for work with the rearguard on August 26. XXVIII accordingly moved north along the Roman Road, about 3 a.m., to take up a rearguard position m the neighbourhood of Pont des Quatre Vaux so as to assist the 13th Infantry Brigade to cover the withdrawal of the Fifth Division from its bivouacs around Reumont, and this position was to be maintained until 11 a.m.
The morning broke fine but cool and very misty, and thus the selection of this rearguard position was very difficult. Just before dawn (about 2.30 a.m.), as a preliminary measure, the Fifth D.A.C. had been ordered to move to Fremont at 4 a.m. and there await further orders. At Fremont it would be equally well placed either to retire or to supply ammunition if necessary.
At dawn (4 a.m.) R.F.A. Brigade commanders and the B.C. of 108 Heavy Battery met the C.R.A., as arranged overnight, to carry out the reconnaissance of the position; but as a retirement had now been ordered this precaution became unnecessary, when the counter-order was received some golden minutes had been wasted. Further, the Fifth Divisional front was now to extend from the high ground beyond Le Cateau to Troisvilles (inclusive) so any detailed reconnaissance became out of the question. As the front was between four and five miles in length this precluded any central supervision of the divisional artillery, also it was practically impossible for the brigade of howitzers to control the German guns from any central position.
Consequently the C.R.A. detailed a brigade of 18-pdrs. to each section of the line allotted to the three infantry brigades of the division, attached a howitzer battery to each of the flank brigades, and ordered their commanders to come into action at once in close co-operation with the infantry defence. Thus XV R.F.A., with 37 (Hows.) of VIII R.F.A., were to co-operate with the 14th Infantry Brigade holding the right section on the east of the Roman Road; XXVIII R.F.A., as already arranged, would act with the 13th Infantry Brigade in the centre section, holding the big spur to the west of the Roman Road; whilst XXVII R.F.A. (less 120), with 65 (Hows.), were detailed to work with the 15th Infantry Brigade holding the left section, from the big spur just mentioned to Troisvilles (inclusive).
At 4 a.m. orders had been sent to XV R.F.A. to move towards Le Cateau; naturally these orders contained no indication that an action was to be fought, as the decision to stand and fight had not yet reached the C.R.A. On receipt of the orders the brigade moved forward and then halted in the valley, in mass, midway between Reumont and the Pont des Quatre Vaux.
Lieut.-Col. Stevens, commanding XV R.F.A., at once went forward towards the Pont des Quatre Vaux to confer with the B.G.C. 14th Infantry Brigade. Meanwhile XXVIII R.F.A. had already reached its allotted ground; and the C.O. of XXVII R.F.A., on hearing of the change of plan, proceeded immediately to the front to report to the infantry brigadier under whom he was to work.
Thus, despite the unfavourable weather of the previous evening and the unavoidable loss of time through changes in plan, very prompt arrangements were made in the Fifth Division for the co-operation of its artillery with the infantry allotted to hold the very exposed flank of the line.
As the action was obviously a delaying one naturally the C.R.A. kept in hand only the smallest proportion of his command. At first this reserve of artillery consisted of one 18-pr. Battery (120 of XXVII), one 4.5" Howitzer Battery (61 of VIII) and the 108 Heavy Battery.
The general idea that was to underlie the employment of the artillery in this division on August 26 was that the howitzers and 60-pdrs. should be used primarily for counter-battery work, whilst the 18-pdrs. would co-operate closely with their infantry in resisting to the last every German attack. The idea of holding on at all costs was very marked throughout this division.
Note.—The diaries furnish evidence that it is very hard to reconcile; but this is not uncommon, and it is often due to the exaggerated brevity of the diary.
The C.R.A. in his account states that during the night 25/26, orders had been received to continue the retirement, and implies that the counter-order, to stand and fight it out, did not reach him till after 4 a.m. on August 26, when the officers had assembled for the reconnaissance. This is borne out by the action of XXVIII which moved about 3 a.m. to take up a rear-guard position.
O.C. XXVII states, however, that at 1.30 p.m. (a.m.?) he received orders from the C.R.A. grouping his brigade temporarily with the 15th Infantry Brigade. He started immediately on foot to report to the B.G.C. in question. The diary of the 108 H.B. states that, at 12.30 a.m., orders were received that the Le Cateau position was to be held, 108 H.B. forming part of the artillery reserve under the C.R.A., and adds that the reconnaissance took place at 4.30 a.m. on August 26. It must not be overlooked that the corps conference at Bertry was not held until about 2 a.m. (Vide start chapter 5.)
In the foregoing description the C.R.A’s account has been followed.