A Highland Regimental Scout recounts his experience of the Retreat from Mons. This is a superb account of the early stages of the First World War in Europe. Its author was a infantryman of the British Army who had been a serving soldier for seven years before the outbreak of war. His principal speciality was as a scout within his famous Highland regiment-the Black Watch. As an author he is able to deliver a gripping story in an impactful, spare style, ideal for conveying this narrative of non-stop combat as French's 'contemptible little army' fought stubbornly from Mons to the Marne. The quality and professionalism of the British Regular Army of the period shines through on every page of this story of dogged retreat during a time of fluid manoeuvring. Cassells' was a war of charging Uhlan cavalry, of famous regiments like the Scots Greys playing their traditional cavalry role, of advancing grey waves of German infantry, and the of a hugely outnumbered army falling back, undaunted in spirit and bloodily contesting every inch of ground. This book cannot be recommended too highly--not only is it a riveting account of the Retreat from Mons the ordinary fighting infantryman knew, but it is a first rate narrative of personal experiences at the sharp end of war in the early Twentieth century.
As we, the other scouts and I, advanced, firing details, which had been left behind under close cover by the Germans, did a good deal of execution amongst us. The hay-stacks, particularly, gave us a great deal of trouble. More than once, one of them would be disrupted as though by some sort of explosion from the inside, and machine guns would begin spraying our skirmishing lines. So it became an important part of our scouting operations to search all hay-stacks and farm houses. And continually we were under what, ordinarily, would be termed heavy fire.
The ground over which we were passing had been the scene of sharp fighting, earlier. We came across scores of dead Germans and a few French. In the midst of a field dotted with a particularly large number of haystacks was a farm house. When we were about thirty or forty yards from it and on opposite sides, we leaped up and dashed toward it as hard as we could run. It is a fact that this is the safest way for patrols to approach a house. If any of the enemy are inside, they become excited when they see men rushing toward them and are likely to open fire instead of waiting until the scouts get inside and then killing them noiselessly. Their aim is also more uncertain at a running man than it is at one sneaking along slowly, and, most important of all, whether the scouts are killed or not, the noise of the rifle fire alarms the main body and the party in the house is detected. Troolan (my scout partner) and I arrived at this particular farm house on a dead run without having drawn any fire or detected the least sign of life. We tried all the doors; they were locked. The windows, too, were bolted from the inside. Troolan smashed one in, got inside, and opened the door for me. We searched the building rather hurriedly and discovered no sign of any one having been there. Just as we were going out, I had a premonition that I ought to look further.
"Wait outside and watch," I said to Troolan, "and I will take another look around."
He posted himself outside. Very cautiously I stepped down the cellar stairs. The boards seemed to squeak and groan like a lumbering farm wagon. It was dark as pitch, but I did not dare to make a light. It would have been fatal if any one really was lurking there. Something scurried across the floor. I felt the hot blood surge under my scalp. For a second I expected to see a red flash in the utter darkness and feel a bullet smash into my body. Then I discovered that it was only a rat.
I thought I heard breathing. I stood stock still, and strained my eyes on every side till they ached as if they would burst from their sockets. I was trying to catch the reflection of some stray beam of light from the eyes of a man or the barrel of an automatic, but I do not believe that so much as a pin point of light was diffused in that whole black pit. Suddenly I almost laughed aloud, although I knew that to do so might mean instant death. The breathing that I heard was my own. Cautiously I thrust out my foot to descend another step.
There was a shout outside.
"Run to the door quickly," Troolan was yelling.
I leaped up the stairway regardless of what might be behind me and dashed toward the kitchen door to get outside the house. Just as I did so, I saw a shadow flit along the ground past the kitchen window. Guessing where the man must be who cast it, I fired through the wooden wall of the kitchen at about the height of the average man's breast. Then in a couple of bounds I was outside. There stood Troolan looking very much surprised and grieved when he saw me. His rifle was half drawn up to his shoulder, and he was in the attitude of getting ready to fire.
Perspiration broke out on my forehead. I realised that the shadow had been Troolan's and from the look of him I had come very nigh to killing him.