- from 'T.P.'s Journal of Great Deeds of the Great War' October 17, 1914
- 'The Retreat from Mons'
- by W. Douglas Newton
Fighting on the Continent
This is, I believe, the first attempt which has appeared in print to give a full, clear, and connected account of the great Battle of Mons. Studying maps, reading between the lines of Sir John French's historic dispatch, analysing and comparing the sparse and lean accounts of the war correspondents, above all, picking- up bits here and there from the soldiers' letters, my brilliant contributor, Mr. Douglas Newton, has succeeded, I believe, in giving a picture of the battle, not merely dramatic and moving, but full and accurate. Unfortunately, he has had to break off the story at one of the most critical points ; but the story will be continued in the next number, and brought to a conclusion. This is my method of carrying out what I regard as the purpose of this publication namely, to substitute a clear for a chaotic picture of the chief events in the story of our own army. I trust that such a narrative, brilliant, accurate, and orderly, will bring home more clearly than detached accounts, the stirring, moving and inspiring story of our gallant soldiers. T. P.
The hawk that is called by the Germans the dove (Taube) came sliding with its sinister grace over the entrenched lines of the English. It hung over the camp like a bird searching out its prey, and the jolly British Tommy tried to bring it down with his rifle. Then, in a long curve, the aeroplane turned and swept north again. A few minutes later there flowered above the British army the first delicate white balloon of shrapnel-smoke. The battle of Mons had begun.
Germany over the Borders
There had been much fighting before. After the irreparable act of August 3rd, when Germany in arms had come with ruthless stride over the borders of Belgium, the whole of Europe had sprung to arms, and had used them. Germany, following its iron-bound gospel of attack by time-table, had lunged a great covering army through the core of the easy Flemish plains, in order to pave the way for the advance of her huge military machine in its attack on the heart of France, Paris. Across the road of these forces the devoted Belgians flung themselves. Their cavalry fought the Germans inch by inch along the road of their advance; and when the cavalry had done its best and fell back, the steel and concrete of Liege's forts took a hand in the stern game. It was the awful impact of Liege that definitely shat- tered for all time the German military rule-of-thumb rush. Before the Homeric ardour of Liege's defence the invading armies were held up, and under the screen of that check the corps of England and France mobilised and flung themselves into the battle line. On August 14th France was in touch with Belgian arms, and on August 16th England woke up to find that, after a lapse of ninety-nine years, a British army was again out campaigning on its most glorious battle-ground, the Continent. Five days later this army was at work in its age-old way, playing the same old game it had played to the downfall of its enemies throughout the centuries. It was fighting a rearguard action with superb and smiling equanimity. With unhurried gait it was retreating before overwhelming odds, even as its fathers had retreated in 1809. And even as Sir John Moore had done, Sir John French was doing. He was falling back with a line unbroken and undismayed, and . as he retired he was blunting the attack of his foes with smashing victories.
The Battle Front
The battle front of England at Mons was planned on the grand scale of modern war. It was twenty-five miles long, though for all that it was but a segment of the monstrous line of the Allies, which extended well over two hundred miles. The main body of the British force lay along two sides of a very flat triangle that had its apex at Mons. Cut in a rigid trench fifteen miles from end to end, and facing dead north, a canal ran from the village of Condé to the town of Mons; then the line turned a little back and ran eastward ten miles to Binche. Condé was on of the main British army; Binche right.
Behind the moat of this canal lay the major portion of General Smith- Dorrien's force (the 2nd Corps), and his outposts were strung beyond it. From Mons to Binche were Sir Douglas Haig's men (the 1st Corps). Massed about Binche lurked the eager British cavalry. The 3rd Corps was only just coming up, but, even with their absence, eighty thousand men waited along the line for the attack of Germany. The country in which the men lay was a gentle country, and with the August sun mellowing it, it reminded the English of their own Cotswold valleys. Little villages gemmed it, and towards Binche it was rolling gently in small hills. About Mons and its canal the ground was flat and much cut up with many deep dykes filled with muddy water. In front of the English line the country was dense with undergrowth and young woods. Out of these woods, and in the serene air of the afternoon of Sunday, August 23rd, the German hordes came rolling.
The first abrupt surprise of shrapnel shelling caught some of the outposts, the West Kents, for example, at the awkward moments of bathing parade and dinner. Some of the men were only armed with towels, and some only with food pannikins. For an instant there was a whirl of confusion. Then the infantry pulled themselves together and sprang for their arms. In a flash they had lined out in their trenches and were ready to meet the enemy.
All along the immense battle front the British hurried to arms without confusion. The infantry moved out to their stations and stood ready in their trenches. Those who had not entrenched dug themselves in at once. They prepared their lines, as an eye-witness declared, with extraordinary rapidity, sometimes doing so under a lash of shrapnel so deadly that the men had to lay flat on their stomachs as they dug.
In the heart of the screening woods facing the lines the infernal symphony of the German artillery got to work; it beat up and up in terrible roarings. Every gun seemed to concentrate to shatter the lines in the trenches in such a way that the blue-grey rush of the German military machine might sweep them aside in its first effort. All the sky above the waiting British became palled with the soft, fleecy cloud of exploding shrapnel, and the earth was threshed with the iron hail of the down-slashing bullets. The British infantry lay on its face and laughed They could not as yet strike back, but they could wait.
British artillery in action
The Artillery's Job
Meanwhile the artillery was doing its job, and it did it extraordinarily well. The English artillery has a reputation which it will exchange with no one; it lived up to that reputation. The guns smashed at the enemy with devastating effect. At one time they picked out a German battery, and, getting the range prettily, they loosed a squall of shell at it. The German guns fought for a moment, grew feeble, became silenced altogether.
The German artillery at the outset began as it was not going to go on. It ranged badly. The shells leaped the trenches and killed a myriad worms in the fields behind, but no Englishmen. The English Tommy sat back in his earth and delivered himself of much shrewd humour at the expense of the feeble shooting; caps were hoisted on sticks to encourage the gunners. Presently over the billowing cumulus of shrapnel-smoke the aeroplanes again came sliding. They reached the British trenches, hovered over them, then some shiny object or a small black-smoke bomb dropped from the machines. Immediately the hidden German gunners gripped themselves together, and the shrapnel came beating on top of the trenched men, striking right and left with its prodigal hands of iron. The irrepressible British infantrymen flattened themselves to earth, coiled into the smallest possible compass behind their earthworks, and took to playing marbles with the bullets from the shrapnel shells.
The Blue-Grey Mass
As the thunder of the guns deepened, the general advance of the German force began. On the extreme right that is, on the Binche line the enemy were soon pressing with desperate force. Under cover of the awful rain of the artillery fire, the dense masses of the blue-grey infantry were trying to push their charge home. Here the trenches were weakest, for the British had gone to earth in haste, and some of the men, the Royal Irish and the Suffolks, for example, had only just come off a long and trying march under a hot sun. Still, though his lines may be weak in theory, the British soldier can prove himself strong enough in practice. The attack that was meant to overwhelm failed to overwhelm. As the packed ranks of Germans came on like a crowd breaking away from a football match, the British private, disdaining the lash of the shrapnel, held his fire.
British cavalry in a French village
The Dashing Cavalry Leader
The Germans rolled forward, singing hymns, some say, evidently exultant, evidently certain that the massed rush was going to sweep the English out of the field. The English lines remained inscrutably calm. So they remained until the enemy arrived at the most deadly point of their rifles' trajectory. Then in a crash every trench loosed, every spitting maxim was turned on full at the tap. "It was like cutting down hay," the privates said. Before that awful pelting of nickled bullets, rank after rank of the blue-grey host went sinking into the earth. The Germans stuck to it gamely, pushing on in a dazed way; but the gale of that awful, steadily calm British firing was too much for them; its scythe-like cut threw them down in heaps. They wavered, broke, and went back.
The German hosts were charging English infantry for the first time in history. They were in for the lesson that other nations had learnt since the bowmen taught it at Cressy; they were suffering as others had suffered in their ignorance. "Our line in the trenches was thin, but our shooting was very accurate and the fellows were very cool," one man wrote home in a letter; and this was quite true. The infantry were not only shooting, they were aiming as though they were out for efficiency marks at the butts. Even when they got the order for rapid firing, they did not throw a shot away, and in any case it was almost a difficulty to miss the massed Germans, for they moved forward against the positions in flat grey plaques that gave the riflemen a target like a wall. "It was like shooting down rabbits. They fell down in heaps." In one place a breastwork five feet high was formed of the corpses, and the men had to run from the trenches to find out when and how the Germans were advancing. It was an awful reaping of slaughter. Greedy as he is for a fight, the English private was filled with disgust at this wholesale and abominable killing.
But it went on. The English had formed the habit of sitting tight, and they sat tight. They felt that in time the force of the attack must expend itself, for they still remained under the impression that they were facing an enemy no more than their equal in strength. "From information I received from French headquarters I understood that little more than one, or at the most two, of the enemy's army corps, with perhaps one cavalry division, were in front of my position; and I was aware of no attempted outflanking movement by the enemy. I was confirmed in this opinion by the fact that my patrols had encountered no undue opposition in their reconnoitring operations. The observations of my aeroplanes seemed also to bear out this estimate." So wrote General French. Even while he was thinking this, at least three German corps were moving on to his front, and a fourth was menacing his extreme left flank, endeavouring to turn his line, held with extreme gallantry by the Black Watch and the artillery, at Tournai.
Yet if he did not know in actual fact, the awful pressure on his front was telling him something. Hour after hour the enormous battering- ram of the German advance was pressing his line, trying to buckle it, trying to pierce it altogether with the lunging effort of the German rush. The English were fighting them back, but against the enormous odds their strength was draining. The Royal Irish, holding, with the Middlesex, the Roval Scots, and the Gordons, an important cross road, were subjected to awful attacks of shell fire and infantry. They thrust back the infantry, but under the tempest of lead their ranks were woefully thinned. Cavalry was hurled at their line in the hope of breaking it with the terror of the charge. The Gordons and the Irish Rifles blew great wounds in the hurling ranks, and the stuttering maxims in the trenches carved and slashed the squadrons into rags.
The Grinding Pressure
Still the pressure grew more and more awful. The bayonet was attempted against the swarming hordes. But the Germans were not built of the stuff that can meet the steel with a sprinting English regiment behind it. The Cheshires tried it, but at the chilly glint of steel the advancing waves wilted, broke, and "went on squealing." Only at one place along the battle line did the charge get home. "The South Lancashires did it," said a man. "The Germans don't want any more of that stuff." They were not so lucky when the English horsemen got busy. There was no holding the horsemen once they were loosed. As the dense masses of German infantry worked right up to the trenches, the trenches would cease fire. Then the cavalry were on them. "Hell's fury blazed from the eyes of the trapped Germans." As the horsemen drove home, they tried to hold their ground, the flail-like sabres sank and hacked amid them; then, "with a bloodcurdling wail, they ran as though the fiends were after them"; and as they ran they cast aside their rifles, caps, bandoliers, and everything anything that would hamper.
The Last Shell and Man
Yet, as the day went on, the trenched line was wearing thin. The awful tempest of artillery fire was eating the heart out of the defence. Slowly but surely as the evening drew near the British batteries were silenced. They fought in the artillery's way to the last shell and the last man. One half battery drew the attention of the German guns by the accuracy of its fire. Several batteries combined to crush it out of existence. It was a fight between a David and half a dozen Goliaths. One by one the guns were silenced as the men serving them were killed. At last one man, Driver Butcher, was left. He went on working, doing his best steadily and calmly. He was ready to fight the whole massed force of German artillery by himself, and it was only with reluctance that he retired when an officer called him off. The calmness was not his alone. The whole of the superb corps was imbued with it. When another battery was put out of action, an officer, apparently oblivious of the torrent of shell bursting about him, walked from gun to gun, making each useless. At another point, rather than lose their guns, two drivers took their horses through a storm of shell, limbered up, and brought them away safely.
As night came on it was seen that this right wing of the Army was too greatly outnumbered to hold its own. It had fallen back already to a position on higher ground; now, as evening came on, and after being as many as fifteen hours under fire, it learnt for the first time of the vast forces massed against it. Worse, it heard of the retirement of the French on its right. Slowly, therefore, and with its line yet unbroken, the right wing fell back. And as it fell back General Sir Philip Chetwode's happy cavalry, with its tunics off, broke up every effort of the enemy to cut up the rear with the yelling electricity of their headlong charges. "We went through the Uhlans like brown paper," said the enthusiastic General.
two British commanders
A Weakened Line
When the right wing fell back to the high ground, the force under General Smith-Dorrien lined along the canal had been left in a weakened position. At any moment the enemy might break through the angle of the two forces and fall upon his flank. When the right wing actually retired his line was endangered. They, too, had been fighting heavily all day. The enemy's dragoons and Uhlans had endeavoured to win the canal, and had been driven back; and after this the enemy played its usual game had tried to suffocate the British line by sheer weight of numbers. They wanted to get to the canal and over it, either by the bridges still standing or by pontoons they carried with them. The English were determined they would not. Lined along the canal and in the ground about it the Scots Borderers, the East Surreys, the West Kents, the Suffolks, and the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders raked the advance of the German infantry for hours, drove them back, and continued to do so without flinching under a rain of shells. As elsewhere, the Germans paved the way for their infantry advance by a tremendously concentrated artillery fire. With their brothers all over the field, the lined-out regiments took this awful bombardment with heads "bloody but unbowed." They sang the war-chant of their legions, "It's a long, long way to Tipperary," and they cheered to a man every time the enemy tried to hit the big gasometer in Mons and missed it, though it probably meant death to every man in the line if that fateful coup had been brought off.
Out of its Native Air
Over their prone ranks, too, the aeroplanes came soaring, giving the range to the avid gunners with their smoke signals and Deitz morse- discs. But here one aeroplane at least played the game too long and too daringly. He came flying above the lines, and he flew too near. The gunners behind let him come on. Then suddenly out of his native air a shell punched him. The machine shivered, crumpled, and fell in a trailing wreck across the sky. It was a score against the air-scouts; but it mattered little. The enemy had got the range, and they hammered away mercilessly at the wearing-down tactics.
Some of the West Kents, the Scottish Borderers, and the East Surreys were across the canal holding the bridge heads against the enemy. There was a battery of guns with them. The Germans concentrated on these guns, and, fighting to the last man, all the gunners died. When the pieces were silenced, the grey-green, juggernaut infantry came on. The outposts on the further bank fought with desperation. Attack after attack came at them, and was driven back; but each wave left the little force weakened, and, though reinforcements came, in the end the juggernaut process was successful and the mastery of the further bank was gained. Those who could, made their escape across the bridges. Those who could not, stayed and fought. A detachment of the Surreys was hemmed in in this way. As soon as they discovered their predicament they resolved to sell their lives dearly. They took cover, and fired until firing was no longer possible; then the heroic few fixed bayonets and charged armies. They were all but exterminated, but they died game.
- left : British troops on the banks the Mons canal
- right : cavalry on a Flanders road
The Battle of the Bridges
With the bank held by the Germans, a series of battles began to burn with fury about the bridges. The Engineers had been busy all day blowing up the barges in the canal with gun-cotton; now they blew up all that they could of the viaducts. They did it under fire with the calm audacity of the Engineers. One bridge they shattered so effectively that there was nothing of it left when the smoke lifted. At one of these bridges the fuse failed to act. It was a bridge held by a devoted company of the Scottish Borderers. When the failure was made obvious there was no hesitation about what must be done. In an instant a sergeant and three men of the company dashed out on to the bridge, and under the fire of the enemy ran at the fuse. The three men dropped in their tracks, but the sergeant gained his object. Without losing a precious moment in thought of self, he hacked the fuse short and fired it. When the bridge was destroyed, he, too, Was destroyed.
Over the Smoking Water
Foiled at the bridges, the enemy massed on the bank, and tried to win a way across with their pontoons. The artillery duel built up to an indescribable clamour as each side strove to drive the other from the mastery of the canal bank. Masses of men advanced on the German side, and were blown out of existence almost immediately by the English guns and rifles. Still they pressed on, and slowly, slowly, they began to work their pontoon bridge across the smoke-clouded face of the water. They did so under frightful loss and in a battling that had become a positive butchery. As they built out their flat spans the clustering shrapnel puff-balls formed a deadly corona about them, and the startling accuracy of the British guns destroyed their work of blood and wounds. Ten times they got their pontoons nearly over, and ten times the gunners splintered them to ruin.
But by now it was beginning to be understood that the splendid effort of the British was in vain. The enemy were attacking with an increasing, and not a decreasing, force. Away to the east Namur had, quite unexpectedly, fallen; nearer along the same line the French were going back. Fresh hordes, possibly released from the investing lines of Namur, were hurling into the fight. Behind the German front great motor transports were hurrying more and more men to attack the English. Away tô the far west, ,at Tournai, a giant turning movement had unexpectedly developed, and a small force, 700 strong, found itself battling against 5,o.co. Sir John French's flanks were in grave danger. It was time to retire here as well as on the right wing.
The "Dirty Shirts" of Delhi
With great reluctance Sir Smith-Dorrien's men began to fall back in the evening of Sunday and throughout the morning of Monday. They still did it fighting desperately against the ever-increasing odds. And they did it with acts of heroism that blazed like diamonds in the fine fabric of the retreat. The Munsters, the "Dirty Shirts" of Delhi fame, wrote for themselves across the scroll of this retirement a story of undying glory. Called to the aid of a stricken Royal Horse battery, they flung themselves in the path of a charging regiment of Lancers and beat them off with terrific impetuosity. To these guns, and under a storm of shell, they clung throughout the day, and when the order for retirement came, so furious were the Irish lads at having to leave the pieces that they had so bravely saved, that they harnessed themselves to the limbers and, scorning the shell-fire, dragged them themselves right out of action to safety. Only one battery was lost in the retreat; the other batteries limbered up, and, with traces taut, bits jingling, and steady in line, they came out from under fire with all the coolness they showed on parade at Woolwich in the piping times of peace.
A Night of Terror
Throughout that night the men fell back in a movement that was terrible but superb. The enemy were determined that the cloak of darkness should not save the force, and all through the black hours they strove to catch and crush the moving columns. The covering, troops, the Guards among them, beat the attacks back with an unfaltering fire, refusing to be annihilated. In their determination to overwhelm the British the Germans had resort to every mechanical means for searching them out. All night long the frigid beams of the searchlights moved their uncanny arms over the countryside, feeling for the troops. When they found their quarry they held steady, bathing the men in their callous, unwinking, inhuman glare, while down the lane of light the shrapnel and the singing bullets poured in a spate of death. When the searchlight failed, the aeroplanes took up the task. They hung over the retreat, dropping star shell that lit the country for miles with its pallid flame, and all the men it showed were shelled. But these efforts were unavailing. The troops were superbly handled; nothing went amiss. Through the night and its terrors the British went stumbling, but they stumbled under brilliant guidance. When the dawn came they were still retiring but they were still unbroken, still undefeated.
To Crush the British
Writing to his son Joseph, the great Napoleon once said that the General who went forward without having first prepared a line of retreat deserved to be shot. General Sir John French was not of the type of leader that came under that drastic ban. He had not only prepared a line of retreat, but he knew exactly how he was going to retreat. It had now become perfectly obvious that the Germans were concentrating every effort to drive the English right out of the field, that they meant by hook or by crook to smash for the rest of the war "French's contemptible little army." The enemy were crowding every possible man into the volume of attack, and his masses were making desperate efforts to turn the left. He was determined to crush the British if he could, and if he could not, at least to drive the army into the fortress of Maubeuge, where they might be bottled up and presently smashed to pieces by the big siege howitzers he had in his train. It was an excellent plan; its one fault was that the English were commanded by a man with brains enough to see through the cunning move. It was Sir John French who dictated the line of retirement, not the German Headquarters Staff.
Throughout Monday the English held fast to a new position resting on the fortress of Maubeuge, while the army from the Mons line fell back and worked themselves into safe positions. A demonstration was made on the right towards Binche, and this thrust the Germans back and enabled the tired forces to retire. The day was a reiteration of Sunday. The British lines were sowed with the awful storm of shell, and under this cloud of shrapnel the dense infantry masses pushed forward to buckle the front. The English line was made of unbreakable material; it stood rigid. More of our troops were hurried up from the communications and came to help their fellows in t'he battle; but, in spite of this relief, the pressure was too enormous. Soon Sir Charles Fergusson, on the left, was complaining of the abnormal strain, and General Allenby's cavalry was moved out to his aid. Here they did brave work, checking with headlong charges the over-impetuous Germans. Sometimes they smashed right into the very lines of their foe with irresistible brilliance. So charged the 9th Lancers at Thulin.
The Modern Balaklava
In the line before them a battery of heavy guns was cutting the English front with the savagery of their fire. The guns were well concealed under straw thatching, and the English artillery could make no impression upon them. Word was sent to the 9th Lancers that these guns were to be cleared out. Colonel Campbell formed his squadrons up, and as the first three wheeled into line, the fourth, C Squadron, determined not to be left behind, wheeled, cheering with them. The command snapped out, and over a field laced with shell, fogged with battle smoke, and drenched with pouring rifle bullets the 9th went racing to the guns. Long lines were torn in their ranks, the shells sank into them, flaring redly, wire concealed in the long grass tripped the leaders up. But on, with unparalleled élan, the swinging horsemen lunged. They were on to the guns, they were stabbing and slaughtering the gunners; the guns were theirs. The splendid dash had done its work.
With the guns put permanently out of action the Lancers came back, but it was a terrible return. Batteries caught them on the flank, and the rifles screamed up and up in a furious desire to slaughter them all. They suffered heavily, and many were dispersed. It was in this state that the heroic Captain Grenfell extricated his men. Wounded in both legs, he led his squadron under the cover of a railway embankment and gave them the necessary breather. From here he charged the foe again, and was again wounded, but he got the remnants of his squadron away, and though he was taken to a temporary hospital, he broke out and took his place at the head of his men.
The Operation was Full of Danger
Heroic deeds were, however, unavailing against such odds. The pressure continued unabated. The French were still falling back, and the British had no support to face the determined efforts of the enemy to get round the left flank and so end the first great engagement of the war in complete disaster for the Allied arms. General Sir John French determined to retire again. "The operation," he laconically admits, "was full of danger and difficulty, not only owing to the very superior force in front of me, but also to the exhaustion of the troops." In this terse sentence does he discuss one of the most brilliant military feats of modern times. The "very superior force" stood for no less than 120,000 of picked German troops. They were animated by a burning determination to crush the force before them. They felt that they must beat the English now or never.
On Tuesday, August 25th, the most critical phase of the battle of Mons began to develop. The Germans were receiving greater and greater accumulations of men, and they determined to use them with all their force and power. To stand before that horde was to court disaster. "Once more, therefore," as a military writer has put it, "our troops drew off from the deathtrap and fell back on to Cambrai and Le Cateau." The British troops had been legging it for two days; they had been subjected to an attack that has no parallel in the history of warfare; they were crying out for rest and sleep. But they went back stubbornly facing their foe with undiminished ardour. As the infantry retired the cavalry was loosed at the Germans again, and again they went in, yelling, to the terror of their foes. The German cavalry and infantry simply turned and ran from them. Every now and then the English infantry faced about, and from hastily dug trenches swept their foe back with devastating volleys. The English artillery., turned, and with an electric "Action front," fell into position and fought the Germans off. As usual, they fought until every spark of life had been extinguished. The 80th Battery R.F.A. worked their guns to the last gasp. The .two other batteries brigaded with them had been silenced, and one by one five of their own pieces had gone out of action; yet, undismayed, Lieutenant Mirrlees and two gunners kept a gun going at a sound rate of fire until the last shell had been expended, and they were forced to retire, all of them unwounded.
The Fight in the Air
Again, as in previous battles, the enemy's aeroplanes were brought into use to locate the defending lines; only by now our own aviators had taken their measure. As one soared over the army, up went a British plane after him; the German swerved and tried to make off, but the
Englishman was too skilful. He rose up in the sweeping spirals of flight, working to get above his rival. With all his cunning the German strove to break away. For two minutes the gaping army played audience to the new and thrilling drama of air fighting. Then both men -began to fire, the little jetting puffs of smoke breaking away from the machines. They fired and circled in a breathless way; all at once the German machine checked and came swooping earthwards on a long vol-plane. When it touched ground the aviator was dangerously wounded, and the waiting infantry captured his machine and burnt it.
By noon of this day General French's army was-trenched in the cornfields about the villages, principally that of Cateau, and holding the enemy for the time. But only for the time. To aid the devilish work of his field batteries and his infantry attacks; the German had brought up his heavy howitzers. The huge shells from these burst with vast and shattering explosions all along the English line, blowing men in groups to fragments, slaying by sheer concussion, and digging for themselves with their explosion great cavities that would bury men by the half-dozen. And as the day went on these monsters were moved closer and closer, until they seemed right on top of the defending trenches. Flesh and blood, one thought, could not stand this Gargantuan attack, but the British soldier stood it. Cheerfully he made jokes about the personal appearance of the shells, coolly he smoked his "fag," admired the self-sacrifice of his officers, talked football; and sat tight. When the Germans advanced their packed infantry, the packed infantry "got it in the neck." The rain of shells has yet to be fired that will damp the courage of the British infantryman.
- left : on the Mons canal
- right : retreating south
Exhausted but Stubborn
Another night, and another repetition of the old story. The French still retiring, and the overwhelming enemy pushing forward with all his strength to envelop the left flank. And in actions the same old story, too. Once more the tired but stubborn English lifted themselves out of their trenches and went back. Far into the evening Sir Douglas Haig was manoeuvring his men and getting them back, with the skill of infinite capacity, along the road that goes through the eastern fringes of the Forêt de Mormal. As his men moved back, Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien stood firm, fending off the attack to the west. At ten o'clock the retiring force arrived in Landrecies. Here the utter exhaustion of the force called a halt, as it was seen to be impossible to move them further. The army bivouacked, and it was hoped that the enemy would hold off for the night at least.
It was a vain hope. At 9.30 and in the dark of the summer night the pickets of the Coldstreams guarding the road that came out of the forest heard the muffled approach of an armed force. They challenged, and out of the darkness there came a voice crying out, "We are the French. Do not fire." The men held their fire; for the French, in answer to an urgent demand from the English commander, were expected to arrive. The men were not the French. A soldier in a French uniform certainly got among the Guards; he put his hand out to a private to shake hands, and as the private responded he stabbed the defenceless Englishman in the stomach. Then at that signal the Germans in French clothing made a rush. They caught the Guards unaware, but only for a minute. The Coldstreams opened on them briskly, and soon the first line was falling back. But they came on again in enormous numbers, pouring down into the narrow streets .of the little town from out the forest in a river of men. The Guards, 150 in number, were not to be beaten back. They lay on their faces across the road and sprayed a withering fire on to the head of the advancing column. Their maxims, mounted in the road and on house-tops commanding the road, were rap-rap- rap-rapping all night, whirling their bullets into the Germans with the nervous urgency of sewing machines.
150 Guards Save the Army
The clamour of battle that filled the narrow canon of the street was indescribable. The attacking infantry were carved down in solid chunks of death. All night the Guards battled, while behind them an exhausted army snatched the life-giving sleep. If they had broken, that army would have been overwhelmed. The enemy brought up a gun, and at point-blank range it began to fire on the devoted Coldstreams. For a moment it seemed as though the defence must cave under that decimating impact of shell-fire. Finely the major rallied them: "For God's sake, boys, don't retire. Come on up," he yelled, and the ranks closed and fought afresh. Rush after rush was made at the little band, but it held firm. One of its gunners silenced the German. gun with a well-aimed shot, and under the relief of its silence the maxims and the rifles worked a more vigorous havoc in that congested place. By the time the little affair was finished the German dead were piled in heaps across the road, and 1,500 are said to have been accounted for. Further along the line, near Le Cateau, the 5th Cavalry Brigade were busy cutting up the advancing army and covering the retreat. The Royal Lancaster Regiment was doing the same thing, checking all assertiveness on the enemy's part by a disturbing rush of British steel. The Dublin Fusiliers were in the thick of it, fighting like demons, in the usual Irish way.
Visions of a Second Sedan
The morning of the 26th broke ominously. The left wing, under Smith- Dorrien, lay in an exposed position, and was meeting the full force of the concentrated German attack. Three hundred thousand Germans were trying their hardest to encircle the tiny force, 700 guns were firing at it and trying to batter it to pieces. It seemed impossible that anything could save the corps. The Germans were apparently of this opinion, for the Berlin Press Bureau came out with the triumphant pan of a message that said, "The British Army, beaten before Maubeuge, has been forced to retire south. It is completely surrounded." Berlin became wild with joy, and visions of a second Sedan floated before the enraptured imagination of the populace. Indeed, the situation was desperate enough. Smith-Dorrien's force was attacked so fiercely that it became dangerous to withdraw it, because withdrawal would mean complete annihilation. It was impossible for General French to send any support; the French cavalry appealed to was far too exhausted to make a move in any direction. Alone General Smith-Dorrien's army faced an enemy pouring forward with the exultance of men certain of victory. On itself it alone depended, in itself was its own salvation.
A Magnificent Front
"There had been no time to entrench the position," and from unprotected fields " the troops showed a magnificent front to the terrible fire which confronted them," wrote the English commander, covering in those few words one of the most glorious days in the history of English arms. All day long the infantry fought under a shrapnel fire that might have "been turned on through a hose." All day long the English infantry stood firm against the swarming attacks thrust out against them. Six times did the enemy try to break the line, and six times the attack itself was broken and driven back. The enemy raged at the defenders with a hatred that was ferocious. Not only had the "contemptible little army" frustrated all their efforts to turn the flank and win the great battle for the German arms, not only had it saved the whole Allied line by the unshakable valour of its resistance, but it was scorning all the accepted rules of warfare, and refusing to be beaten when all the text-books could prove them crushed. No wonder the German raged at General Smith-Dorrien's men with all the passion of his packed masses. Smith-Dorrien stood between him and Paris. Smith-Dorrien held the door to France.
There was brave work done by brave regiments. The Dublin Fusiliers were well in it, and piling up honours for themselves. Whole ranks of the advancing foe were blotted out by the withering leaden blast from their rifles. The Dubliners were lying in a turnip field quite unprotected, and the enemy's machine guns played sad havoc with the ranks; but they gave as much as they took, and a trifle more. The Somerset Light Infantry did as well. Not only did they hold the Germans, but they turned back in their retreat and charged a line of hills set with villages. They had been marching for twenty-seven hours, but that made no difference; they went sweeping through the shrapnel straight at them. They got into the villages all right, but the enemy opened on them from a cornfield, and they had to retire. After the battle only two hundred men of the battalion answered the roll-call.
The Connaughts, too, got home with a magnificent charge, going through the enemy and tossing them aside like hay; in this way they retook from the enemy six of our guns. They were not even thoroughly satisfied with retaking them, for they went forward, driving the foemen back, and under their screen the gunners were able to creep up and draw the guns off. The Pompadours (Essex Regiment) were the heroes of a more dramatic moment. The heavy German cavalry came at them and tried to break them. The Britishers had only a moment to prepare, but without hesitation they came out of their trenches and rallied in groups. As they rallied, their rifle-magazines rapped off with the crisp fervour of defiance, and men and horses went down in ugly sprawling heaps. Still the horsemen came on. The thin voices of the officers could be heard against the din of the battle, and the naked sabres came slanting to the engage. The busy rifles flared again: and the cavalry charge was ended. The artillery, although outmatched by at least four to one, made a splendid fight and inflicted heavy losses. Five hours the guns fought under a determined shelling, and when they had to retire they went without flinching over open country through a fire that followed and searched every movement.
"At length it became apparent that, if complete annihilation was to be avoided, a retirement must be attempted," Sir John French's report states. This retirement was begun in the early afternoon, and the artillery and the cavalry covered it with fearless devotion. Smith- Dorrien fell back, as he had held on, fighting. Slowly and calmly the lines withdrew, and the enemy, exhausted by the determination of the resistance, was powerless to push home a victorious attack. So the day of days was over, and General Smith-Dorrien had saved the Army. "I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the Army could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operations." In those grave and sincere words Sir John French registers General Smith-Dorrien's claim to eternal fame. On that day the General commanding the British left wing took his stand beside Sir John Moore in the annals of his country.
That day, "the Glorious Twenty-sixth," was the last day on which the British arms had to bear alone the brunt of the huge German attack. On the two following days French forces, cavalry under General Sordct and reserve divisions under General D'Amade, came into line with our force and eased the awful pressure of the thrust. The retirement still went on, but the British took it more easily. On the 27th and 28th there was brisk fighting, in which the English cavalry scored well. In and about the woods of St. Quentin there was some grim work adoing. The German rush had not expended itself yet, and with their last efforts they still hoped to get through the Allies. But now they were held all along the line. When the pressure was at its height the Queen's Bays came in for a hot moment. They were surprised while watering their horses, and the horses were stampeded.
As they were capturing them, shrapnel, canister, and mitraille were "just making the air scream" about their ears. The Bays got out their maxims and answered the foe with a calmer, better-directed fire, ho'ding on until the artillery came to their aid. In spite of their galling,
they remained firm, and when at length the guns arrived they were able to turn the tables with a vengeance. At the call of the trumpet the Bays were into their saddles and at the enemy that had teased them so long. Their charge swept on to the guns in a way. the Germans have not yet learnt to stop, and the net result of that little engagement was eleven Krupp guns and many prisoners.
As at Waterloo
On the field of St. Quentin, too, the Scots Greys and the Black Watch repeated history and made it afresh. They went at the enemy as they had done at Waterloo, the Greys charging, the Black Watch clinging to the stirrup leathers. "Our men came on with a mighty shout, and fell upon the enemy with the utmost violence. The weight of the horses carried them right into the close-formed ranks of the Germans." When they were well home the Black Watch broke loose, and joined the wild work of the bayonet to the slashing flail of the heavy cavalry sabres. The Germans, taken completely by surprise, were broken up and repulsed with tremendous losses.
British troops resting during the retreat towards the Marne
The Last Phase
But by now the tide of the German advance was all but expended; it flowed on over the Aisne and to within striking distance of Paris, and then it slackened. In its expiring strength it caught the brave Munsters and cut them up severely. The Munsters had been left behind, and had to bear the brunt of the German attack. "They came at us from all points horse, foot and artillery and all and the air was raving with screaming, shouting men waving swords and blazing away at us like blue murder." The Irish lads stood up to them without the least sign of fear, and when the cavalry came down on them they caught them on their fixed bayonets, the rear ranks firing steadily. The Munsters would not surrender, and they tried their hardest to cut through the hemming wall of Germans. It was a brave, mad, awful fight, and if the battalion was all but exterminated, it went down with the colours of its high courage flying. And, in any case, it was a meet ending to the splendour of the retreat. For by now the tide had turned and was soon to be ebbing. There was to be a lull for a few days and then Compiègne and all the glorious rush of the Allied advance that made the battle of the Marne.
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