THE BRITISH EXPEDITIONARY FORCE -AUGUST/SEPTEMBER 1914
Headquarters Staff: Commander in Chief: Sir John French.
'Wullie' Robertson, Henry Wilson, Murrary and Macdonogh were senior members of his staff.
The Cavalry Division.Commander, Major General Allenby, 5 Brigades (the third commanded by Gough - future C in C of the Fifth Army.)
1st Brigade: 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays), 5th Dragoon Guards, 11th Hussars.
2nd Brigade. 4th Dragoon Guards, 9th Lancers, 18th Hussars
3rd Brigade. 4th Hussars, 5th Lancers, 16th Lancers.
4th Brigade.Household Cavalry Reg.,6th Dragoon Guards (Carabinaires), 3rd Hussars.
5th Brigade. 2nd Dragoons (Royal Scots Greys) 12th Lancers, 20th Hussars.
D,E,I, J and L batteries, Royal Horse Artillery.
Ist Corps. (Sir Douglas Haig)
1st (Guards) Brigade. 1/Coldstream Guards, 1/Scots Guards, 1/Black Watch, 2/ Royal Munster Fusiliers.
2nd Brigade. 2/ Royal Sussex Regiment, 1/Loyal North Lancs, 1/ Northants, 2/King's Royal Rifles Corps.
3rd Brigade. 1/Queen's (Royal West Surrey Reg), 1/ South Wales Borderers., 1/ Gloucestershires, 2/Welch Reg.
'A'Squadron 15th Hussars
XXV, XXV1, XXX1X, XL111 Brigades, Royal Field Artillery.
26th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.
23rd and 26th Field Companies, Royal Engineers.
4th (Guards) Brigade
2/ Grenadier Guards, 2/ Coldstream Guards, 3/Coldstrem Guards, 1/ Irish Guards
2/Worcester Reg., 2/ Oxfordshire and Buckinghamshire Light Infantry, 2/ Highland Light Infantry, 2/ Connaught Rangers.
1/King's (Liverpool Reg), 2/ South Staffordshire Reg., 1/ Royal Berkshire Reg., 1/King's Royal Rifle Corps
'B'Squadron, 15th Hussars
XXX1V, XXXV1, XL1, XL1V Brigades, Royal Field Artillery
35th Heavy Battery Royal Garrison Artillery
5th and 11th Field Companies Royal Engineers.
IInd Corps (Sir James Grierson, then Sir Horace Smith Dorrien.)
7th Brigade. 3/Worcestershire Reg, 2/ South Lancashire Reg, 1/Wiltshire Reg, 2/ Royal Irish Rifles.
4th Brigade. 2/ Royal Scots, 2/Royal Irish Reg, 4/Middlesex Reg, 1/ Gordon Highlanders
5th Brigade. 1/ Northumberland Fusiliers, 2/ Royal Fusiliers, 1/Lincolnshire Reg, 1/ Royal Scots Fusilierfs.
'C' Squadron. 15th Hussars,XX111, XL, XL11, XXX Brigades, Royal Field Artillery.
48th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.
56th & 57th Field Companies, Royal Engineers
13th Brigade . 2/ King's Own Scottish Borderers, 2/ Duke of Wellingtons, 1/ Queen's Own (Royal West Kent) 2/ King's Own, (Yorkshire Light Infantry)
14th Brigade. 2/ Suffolk Reg, 1/ East Surrey Reg., 1/Duke of Cornwall's Light Infantry, 2/Manchester Reg.
15th Brigade. 1/Norfolk Reg., 1/ Bedfordshire Reg, 1/ Cheshire Reg, 1/Dorsetshire Reg.
'A' Squadron, 19th Hussars.
XV, XXV11, XXV111, V111 Brigades, Royal Field Artillery
!08th Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery,
17th & 59th Field Companies, Royal Engineers.
III Corps (formed on 30th August)
1/ Royal Warwickshire Reg, 2/ Seaforth Highlanders, 1/ Royal Irish Fusiliers, 2/ Royal Dublin Fusiliers
11th Brigade. 1/ Somerset Light Infantry, 1/East Lancashire Reg, 1/ Hampshire Reg, 1/ Rifle Brigade
1/ King's Own (Royal Lancashire Reg), 2/ Lancashire Fusiliers, 2/ Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, 2./ Essex Reg
'B'Squadron 19th Hussars
X1V, XX1X, XXX11, XXXV11 Brigades, Royal Field Artillery.
31st Heavy Battery, Royal Garrison Artillery.
7th & 9th Field Companies, Royal Engineers,
2/ Royal Welch Fusiliers, 1/ Cameronians, 1/ Middlesex Reg, 2/ Argyll & Sutherland Highlanders
Royal Flying Corps.2nd, 3rd, 4th and 5th Aeroplane Squadrons. 1st Aircraft Park.
Even reckoning the Expeditionary Force to be made up of some 80,000 men, Britain, as war broke out, was still using the main of her regular army to guard her Empire. Isolated from the continent, she had no need of a large force at home. Relations with Germany in the first few years of the Century had been good, and an Entente Cordiale had been signed with France in 1904. At that time there were no thoughts of a European war, far less of a World Conflict, but when Kaiser Wilhelm's intentions to become the 'Admiral of the Atlantic', to build a navy to rival Britain's, to give that navy speedy access to the North Sea through the Kiel canal, and to expand his overseas Empire were made plain, they brought with them a definite clash of interests. After 1911 (when Germany sent a gunboat as the first stage to developing a port at Agadir on Morocco's Atlantic coast) a future war became not only possible, but extremely likely.
The British War Office started to make preparations as soon as the Agadir crisis was over, producing a War Book, that, as month succeeded month, grew into a comprehensive guide answering every possible circumstance if war came from the reorganising of railway timetables to the commandeering of heavy horses that pulled municipal tramcars and sending them to haul guns instead: from the issuing of warrants for reservists to travel to their regiments to the way the national and army postal services would work hand in hand to supply letters and parcels to front line troops, wherever they might be. As a piece of forward thinking and planning, it was detailed, imaginative and thorough.
The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand on 28 June 1914 lit the fuse to a waiting powder keg. Austria, determined to stifle Serbian aspirations for independence, started to tread on Russian toes in the Balkans; France still burned to avenge the loss of Alsace and Lorraine to Prussia forty and more years before. Within a matter of weeks, half the northern hemisphere had gone fighting mad. A test mobilisation of the British Army's 2nd Division took place on 27 July, and by then Winston Churchill had ordered the Grand Fleet to remain in a state of war readiness after the Spithead Review ended. Within two more days the War Office was sending out the order that placed Britain on a war footing. Austria was already fighting Serbia: Germany was recalling her officers from leave, and, within twenty four more hours was mobilising her forces.
Germany, to avoid fighting France and her ally, Russia, on two fronts at once,, operating von Schlieffen's plan evolved years before, would sweep through neutral Belgium, by-pass Paris, swing east, and so pulverise the French operating Grandmaison's planned attack on the Alsace/Lorraine border that they became the paste in a German sandwich. There was one drawback. Belgian neutrality had been guaranteed by Prussia herself as well as by France and Britain. How, it was asked in Germany, would Britain be likely to react?
Germany had not to wait long to find out.
On 2 August, giving the excuse that France had attacked her first, Germany demanded free access through Belgium. Early next morning Belgium promised a fierce resistance to any invader. London sent a note to Germany demanding assurance that Belgian neutrality would be respected, and at the same time ordered mobilisation. Throughout that Bank Holiday Monday the question across Europe was 'would Britain stand by France?' When Germany invaded Belgium the following morning, it was 'would Britain go to war for Belgium?' The answer was soon given. Britain's ambassador in Berlin delivered an ultimatum that unless Germany withdrew her troops by midnight, she could consider herself at war with Great Britain and her Empire.
One member of the British Army was already in France. On 27 July a Lieutenant Spears had been sent to act as liaison officer at the French Ministry of War, and once Britain had entered the war (because, in the words of the German Chancellor, of 'a scrap of paper') he was able to abandon civilian dress and take up his duties officially. By Saturday 8 August British advanced parties were in France, and on the 10th the first of the main force was on its way to join them. Spears knew nothing of this, and at General Lanrezac's Fifth Army Headquarters was subjected to comment and innuendo regarding the non-arrival of his countrymen. Perhaps, it was hinted, it was because the British were having a belated holiday paddle, or as the banks had been closed, they hadn't been able to draw out the money for the fare?
Thanks to the War Book, however, it took little more than a week before more than 80,000 men, their vehicles, horses, ammunition and equipment had joined the advanced parties and Lieutenant Spears in France. Commandeered trains took reservists to their battalions and their battalions to the ports. From there they sailed to Boulogne, to Rouen and to Le Havre. They sailed in merchant ships and on cross-channel ferries. For the most part, they sailed by night. Sir John French had been given command of this 'contemptible little army'. Under him were two Corps Commanders - Sir Douglas Haig and Sir James Grierson. There could not have been a greater contrast between the Commander in Chief and Haig. Sir John was a dapper man with an eye for the ladies. Haig, commanding the Ist Corps, was taciturn and distant. The food-loving Sir James Grierson's command of the IInd Corps was brief. After a sudden fatal heart attack at Amiens, Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien took over command.
Once they had arrived in France, the British were moved towards the Belgian frontier. Originally joint discussions had decided that the British Expeditionary Force should assemble round Le Cateau and Maubeuge, then take a position on the French left wing, protecting the flank, while the main action of the Franco/German war was fought out in Alsace and Lorraine. Now that Belgium had been invaded, and in spite of French assertions that it was a feint, the British War Office realised that if the Germans invaded France through Belgium, General Lanrezac's Fifth Army could well be swept aside, and only a fractional alteration of course would be needed for von Kluck's First Army to encircle the BEF and destroy it. By now it was too late for the plans to be changed.
France had worked out methods of rail travel that avoided lengthy stops in shunting yards while carriages, trucks and flat-bed wagons were reorganised for different kinds of forces, by providing 'multi-purpose' trains with a main component of trucks for 8 horses, or 40 men. It may have been economical on time and labour, but it was an uncomfortable method of transport. Patriotic citizens of Le Havre, waving off a trainload of British leaving for the front, were treated to a chorus of moo-ings and baa-ings as the cattle trucks full of soldiers rolled past Dealing with the number of trains moving to the front caused inevitable delays, and even when on the move, a train rarely exceeded twenty miles to the hour - more often it was ten.
Sir John French travelling in greater comfort and considerably quicker by car, made several courtesy calls before arriving at French Fifth Army Headquarters in Rethel. His first meeting with General Lanrezac was an utter disaster. As the French Headquarters staff were suffering from a severe attack of 'spy mania', the two commanders met alone, and having only the vaguest knowledge of each other's language, it was plain when they reappeared that each thought the other a fool. This set the scene for inter-allied misunderstandings and doubts that continued for full twelve months and more.
The intention was that the British and French should advance shoulder to shoulder and drive the invading Germans out of Belgium. Lanrezac was none too pleased when Sir John told him the BEF could not possibly be in place before 24 August. News of battles in the east was sparce, and knowledge about the progress of the German advance through Belgium, non-existant. As the heat-haze cleared on 20 August, Royal Flying Corps aircraft were the first to sight the long German columns moving through Louvain - and they seemed to be endless. That day the Belgians were driven back into Antwerp and triumphant Germans entered Brussels. Joffre ordered his left wing to move forward and bring their advance to a halt.
British advanced parties were already on their way to take up positions round Mons ready for this joint advance, setting up a line along the Mons Conde canal on the French left. To gain touch with their ally might have seemed a simple matter, but in an area where mining villages and slag heaps prevented easy movement and observation, and with the added complication that the French Fifth Army was already embattled with the Germans (and not doing too well) the exercise was proving difficult.
British Cavalry was told to search out the enemy positions to the north, and to contact the French to the south. However, until all the BEF had arrived, there would be a nine mile gap between the allies, and this was constantly increasing as the French were forced back - but the BEF was on its way, not only on its way, but on its way to a position that would see it standing straight in the path of the German right flank as it wheeled to march round Paris. By now a party of Dragoon Guards - a hundred and fifty strong - was quartering the countryside, searching for the enemy. They found them near the little village of Casteau between Mons and Brussels, and a sabre charge and the first British rifle shot of the war saw five prisoners taken.
By evening that day, the guns of the Royal Field Artillery were arriving round Mons, their gunners extremely weary, having been on the road for many hours. Back at his headquarters at Le Cateau, Sir John French was having dinner and refusing to travel to a second meeting with Lanrezac on the grounds that it was too far, and too late in the day. The reports about German numbers and positions had been dismissed in cavalier fashion by the British Operations section as exaggerated: that probably the only Germans seen had been a few mounted troops and Jaegers.
At British Headquarters in Le Cateau next day, it was confirmed that the French Fifth Army centre had been driven in, with its troops in retreat and the gap between the allies widening by the hour. The joint Franco-British advance planned towards Soignies was dead in the water. The British, now out on a limb in the Mons salient, would be cut to pieces, and when Lanrezac asked for the BEF to attack on its own and hold back the German threat of encirclement, it was tantamount to asking for the fabled Angels of Mons to intervene..
General French, instead of joining in the withdrawal, sent back a message promising to cover Lanrezac's retreat by defending the Mons salient for twenty four hours. As the staff car carrying that message sped out of Le Cateau, not far away, more units of the BEF were hurrying along the roads on either side of the Mormal forest to join their comrades in the Mons salient, and clocks throughout France were marking the start of August the twenty third.
Von Kluck did not know the exact position of the BEF. He expected them to be round Tournai. At 6 that morning German cavalry moved on the IInd Corps' positions at Obourg, and its leading horseman was shot by riflemen of the Middlesex Regiment. A German patrol galloping towards Nimy's swing bridge also lost men to the fire of the Royal Fusiliers. After the cavalry, came the infantry marching shoulder to shoulder in columns, to be mown down by a combination of machine gun and the 'fifteen rounds a minute rapid fire' that British Regular Infantry could shoot. German losses were horrendous.
In reply the Germans deluged the canal line with artillery fire, after which massed infantry again advanced to be cut down rank by rank. To the north-east of the salient the Germans crossed the canal by unguarded bridges, and started across the ground behind Mons railway station. A battalion of the Royal Irish was sent forward to reinforce the Middlesex , but after midday it was obvious both battalions would have to pull back.
At Nimy, the Royal Fusiliers were also under pressure. Shelling was causing casualties among the defenders on the canal bank, and their machine gun section up on the railway bridge was the target of concentrated fire. The tenacity of the gunners was such that two were awarded the Victoria Cross (one posthumously). The Fusiliers pulled back through Nimy with the advancing Germans close on their heels.
On Smith Dorrien's right flank, the Middlesex and the Royal Irish were in danger because the Ist Corps didn't arrive to extend the line south-east until early afternoon. Also the crossroads at Bascule had to be held by a party of cooks and storemen under the command of the Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant from the Royal Irish. This position was held against the German 35th and 85th Infantry Regiments until well after midnight. Fighting continued to spread along the canal. The Royal West Kent Regiment and a battalion of the King's Own Scottish Borderers held off the Brandenburg Grenadiers (who lost more than 500 casualties in the action) until nightfall, when, after the engineers had blown as many bridges as possible, Smith-Dorrien told his forces to pull out.
The British had lost over 1,600 men - mainly from the Middlesex, Royal Irish and Royal Fusiliers. Estimated enemy losses were over 5000.
The retreat from Mons had begun.
The two British Corps were ordered to pull back to a line running through Bavay, arranging the details of the move between them. Ist Corps was able to get clear without too many problems, but Smith-Dorrien's IInd Corps had a more difficult time. The 3rd Division withdrew first, then the 5th Division found its flank exposed as the cavalry had already pulled out and a corps of German troops was making for the gap. A battalion of Cheshires round Audregnies, a similar force of Norfolks along the ridge towards Elouges and a gun battery from the Royal Field Artillery in between them were sent to win time for the retreat to take place. Two German divisions were advancing, supported by heavy shrapnel fire deluging the defenders, coming from guns on the Mons-Quievrain road. The British artillery was putting down an effective counter barrage, but Major General Allenby, his cavalry sent to help the defence, ordered his Lancers and Dragoon Guards to charge the enemy guns.
Unfortunately for the troopers, a wire fence stood between them and their objective, and the charge ended in a confused mass of struggling, injured and dead horses and riders. The battalion of Cheshire troops never received the order to pull out, and fought on until early evening, when the two hundred survivors from the original force of a thousand had to surrender.
By now many of the British troops had marched 120km. in five days, and had been in battle. The first day of the retreat had cost their Expeditionary Force over 2,500 men, and as their retreat went on next day, the two Corps marching on either side of Mormal Forest, harassed by heat, soaked by a thunderstorm, aware of hovering German cavalry, hungry and trying to make their way through competing columns of refugees, were made up of very tired men.
Sir John French's Headquarters by now had pulled back from Le Cateau to St. Quentin, and he sent orders to his Corps Commanders to form a line running through Le Cateau for the night and to move off again the next morning. The Guards Division of Haig's Ist Corps, acting as rearguard, had already clashed with the enemy at Landrecies, while Smith-Dorrien at Bertry, south-west of Le Cateau. found that the cavalry covering his retreat had pulled out and that his rearguards were still coming in, absolutely exhausted. If his troops were not up and away by dawn, the Germans would be on them. He decided to strike a blow that might force the enemy to a temporary halt. Major General Snow in command of the 4th Division, some of whose units had just arrived, agreed to fight under his leadership, but Sir John French, back at St. Quentin gave only reluctant agreement, feeling that every effort should be made to continue the retreat.
The IInd Corps fought where it stood. Smith-Dorrien's two divisions, the 5th on the right and the 3rd on the left, took up position below the road running between Le Cateau and Caudry, from where the units of Snow's 4th Division held a line south-westward towards Esnes. Later that day (26th) Sordet's Cavalry Corps with its quick-firing '75s'arrived on the British left. On the right of the line the 3rd and 5th Divisional artillery moved forward to hearten and support the infantry, and, because there was no time to establish gun pits, they took up position in the open, using such cover as was available in the ground between the main road and a sunken track behind that ran more or less parallel to it. Three batteries, each of six guns, were on a small hill just below Le Cateau supporting men of the Suffolk Regiment. As the Germans moved in from the north to attack, the gunners opened up with shrapnel. Not all those British guns were the lighter 18 pounders; there were also some howitzers and four 60 pounders able to punish the German artillery on the Bavay road, and which, later in the day when the Suffolks had been over-run, were able to shell the Germans occupying that position with devastating effect.
The artillery action at Le Cateau was described by survivors as 'it must have been like Balaclava', or 'watching a re-enactment of Waterloo'. Smith-Dorrien's centre held fast, but the left flank was being pushed back, and his right in danger of being surrounded. Infantry and gunners alike were astounded to be hit by German bullets coming from the rear, a position they believed still to be held by the Ist Corps (which was still obeying Sir John's order to retreat.) It was obvious to the 5th Division's commander, Sir Charles Fergusson at noon, that it was only a matter of time before the line broke. The battlefield was now littered with dead and wounded men and horses: guns were upended; limbers smashed beyond recognition, and in the rear, small groups of men trying to move up in support turned back in the face of the fire-storm.
Soon after one o'clock in the afternoon Fergusson sent a message asking Smith-Dorrien's permission to pull out his division. The Corps commander asked him to delay to give the other divisions time to make preparations, but by twenty minutes to two Fergusson was able to order a general retirement. To issue the order was straightforward. To get the message to the troops was far less easy, as by now they were closely engaged, and the ground between the main road and the sunken track was being raked with shell and machine gun fire. Runner after runner was sent with the message. It took more than an hour for some infantry to receive it: some never received it at all, and fought to the last. The order 'save the guns' went out, and horses and limbers dashed through the inferno, to save what they could. Three Victoria Crosses were won as one howitzer was moved, and the sight of it being pulled back at the gallop was so stirring that men of the Royal West Kent stood and cheered. Men of the Argylls and the Suffolks were finally over-run at about a quarter to three. The losses of the three divisions engaged in that one day's fighting were more than 7,800 men and 38 guns.
The road leading from the battlefield towards the south was soon packed with men, equipment and vehicles. Many of the infantry spread out into the fields on either side and slogged on until overcome by exhaustion. Smith-Dorrien and his staff had left their move from Bertry almost until too late, and as they approached Maretz they heard heavy gunfire to the west, coming from where the 4th Division was starting its retreat. If it was German gunfire, the 4th Division had little chance of escaping. Smith-Dorrien, an old campaigner, recognised the rapid pace of the firing - it could only be Sordet's '75s', and that meant the cavalry would be there as well holding back the Germans. The 1st battalion of the Rifle Brigade were the official rearguard, but enough troops of the Royal Scots, the Gordon Highlanders and the Royal Irish were still behind them, not having received the order to leave. Neish, the Gordons' Commanding Officer, was determined to wait , but after arguments with Gordon, his subordinate, they started to retreat, only to run into Germans occupying Clary village where they were surrounded. Some fought their way out of the trap, ending up at Boulogne, or even at Antwerp. The Army Service Corps, themselves forced into retreat, could only leave rations at the side of the road in the hope that the troops behind would have time to pick them up.
Fifteen miles down the road from Le Cateau to St. Quentin, some attempt was made to reform the columns. Staff officers shouted instructions to 3rd Division infantry to turn right, and for men of the 5th Division to gather on the left. Mounted troops and transport were to move straight ahead. Everything was done under pressure, for it was felt the Germans could not be far behind. In fact von Kluck was not able to follow closely. Reports from several places of skirmishes taking place made him unsure of where, and how many British troops were forming the rearguard - for all he knew it could have been a good proportion of the BEF, so it was after eight in the evening before the Germans were told to 'continue pursuing the beaten enemy' and precise routes were given. The German stall, however, imagining themselves in the British position, were convinced the retreat would take the most direct way to the coast, and steps were taken to intercept and destroy them before they reached the ports of Calais and Boulogne.
It never occurred to the logical minds of the German staff that the British would retire keeping touch with the French, and so von Kluck's troops spent 27th August moving south west while the British hobbled sore and lame southwards towards St. Quentin. By early afternoon hundreds had reached its main square and collapsed, exhausted, on its cobbles.
Since early that morning units of the British cavalry had been guarding the roads into the town, and keeping a sharp eye out for Germans. By afternoon as the trickle of stragglers had more or less dried, they were able to move through St. Quentin to their next rendezvous south of the town. Their commander, Tom Bridges, was amazed to find the town still full of stragglers - asleep in houses, in shops, on the streets, and he set his men to drive them all into the main square. They were mutinous, in the last stages of exhaustion, and most unable to march further. The mayor of St. Quentin was insistent that if the troops could not move, they must surrender. He waved a document signed by Lieutenant Colonel Ellerington of the Royal Warwickshires and Lieutenant Mainwaring of the Royal Dublin Fusiliers authorising surrender of all British forces in St. Quentin. Bridges grabbed it, put it in his pocket and demanded the mayor to produce every car, carriage and wagon in town to carry off the exhausted men. When they were on their way, the remaining five hundred or so men were eventually brought to their feet by Bridges and a trumpeter producing a drum and a penny whistle from a toyshop and marching round the square playing 'The British Grenadiers'. Bridges marched at the head of the column all night before handing over the men and the damning evidence of the intended surrender at a collecting point.
Sir John French, after a hasty departure by train from St. Quentin, had set up his new headquarters at Noyon. To keep in line with the French, the British were to continue their retreat. The march south was to continue.
The march south did continue. It continued, leaving behind it a trail of broken wagons. It continued, leaving tattered, abandoned equipment and rations and piles of supplies dumped by the roadside. Anything else that could ease the marchers' burden apart from their arms and ammunition, was left behind. German Command Headquarters were convinced from reports that the British Army was no longer to be reckoned as a fighting force. It was lucky for Smith-Dorrien's IInd Corps that von Kluck's swing west left them more or less untroubled. Every time they stopped, the process of sorting out men and reuniting with their units went on. The Ist Corps, some ten miles to the east, and fortunately in a better state than their battle-weary comrades, continued the march, fighting off von Bulow's cavalry as they went. To the east of the weary BEF as it came down to the River Oise, Lanrezac's French Fifth Army was getting ready to counter-attack von Bulow. The following day (29th August) pressured by Joffre, the French C in C, it attacked in what became known as the Battle of Guise. The weary British Army was given a day to eat hot food, rest its blistered and aching feet, to wash, shave, and, above all, to sleep for a whole night and the best part of a day. By now some units had marched 59 miles in the past 64 hours.
Joffre knew very well that the IInd British Corps had not yet recovered enough to turn and fight, but the battle of Guise might have stopped the Germans in their tracks if Haig's Ist Corps (willing enough to do so) had been allowed to fight alongside Lanrezac's Fifth Army. That it had not fought was due solely to Sir John French. In spite of all Joffre's urgings and pointing to the support that could and would be given by Lanrezac's Fifth, and Manoury's rapidly arriving Sixth Army, Sir John was adamant that he had no choice but to retire south of Paris where had would need ten days to rest, refit and rebuild his force. By now Sir John was suspicious of the French in general and of General Lanrezac in particular. He was determined not to be left isolated, as at Mons, by another French retreat, but when his intentions to make a retreat due south, passing Paris on the east or west, reached London, it was decided on 31st August that it was time for Lord Kitchener, Britain's senior Field Marshal. to meet Sir John in Paris and clarify the situation. Sir John was angry, not only that his policy was called into question, but that Kitchener, complete with medals and in full field marshal's uniform, was giving the impression that he, Sir John French, could be over-ruled.
The next day Royal Flying Corps' aircraft left their base at Senlis, hunting for the German Army. They found, north of Compiege, that von Kluck's long columns had changed direction and instead of moving west, were now tramping south-east towards Margny, Noyon and through the woods to Soissons. The Headquarters staff at Dammartin were informed. Had von Kluck, they agonised, abandoned his plan of encircling the B.E.F.?
Von Kluck, as it turned out, had not only decided in the last twenty four hours that the British were no longer to be reckoned with, but had also ignored the threat of Manoury's rapidly-growing army and was hurrying south-east to help von Bulow's attack against the Fifth Army of Lanrezac. Their joint blow would demolish Lanzrezac's retreating left wing, and a planned attack near Nancy next day would do the same for the right wing of the French force. No doubt the pathetic remnants of the British and French would then take shelter in Paris, and as for Paris, Paris could be dealt with at leisure. It would be like a re-run of the Prussian victory over France more than forty years back.
But by now the marching Germans were tired and their horses in need of new shoes. Supplies along their ever lengthening lines of communication were taking time to arrive. The British, too, weary, dirty and unshaven but miraculously refreshed by their day of rest, were far from downhearted. They were, they believed, merely leading the Germans on until the time came to turn again and make the Huns regret they had ever started the war The supply of rations had improved, blisters had healed, and the news spread that only the previous day British cavalry had put the Germans to flight near Cerisy.
Indeed the cavalry were being worked the hardest of all the BEF. They were the only force available to cover the gap between Smith-Dorrien's and Haig's Corps, brushing with von Marwitz's riders covering a similar gap between von Kluck's and von Bulow's armies as they did so. As the last day of August ended, the British First Cavalry Brigade settled down to spend the night at Nery village, quite unaware that , only half a mile away, equally unaware, German cavalrymen were making their way onto the high ground that lay to the east.
Thick fog the next morning filled the ravine between them, and covered the high ground itself. The 11th Hussars sent out a patrol eastwards in the most unlikely event that German troops were in the area - and there they were - hundreds of them. The crack of a rifle sent the Germans scurrying to their saddles and the Hussars full pelt back to Nery to warn the Brigade. The Germans did not follow in force, but sent out a reconnaissance patrol which came back with the news that the British were in Nery, apparently unprepared and apparently with no support within miles. Von Garnier had some four thousand men and twelve field guns. At once he brought up his artillery and machine guns to the ridge overlooking the village, and as they deployed, the fog began to lift.
The Royal Horse Artillery guns of 'L' Battery were limbered up ready to be towed away, and as the Germans opened fire, half of the men who were at the guns were killed or wounded, but everyone still on his feet rushed to manhandle the guns so they could reply.
Soon only one gun of the six-gun battery was left, with only four men alive to serve it. They destroyed several German guns, but soon a shellburst brought their numbers down to three. It was the men of the 11th Hussars, a Maxim gun, the remaining gun of 'L' Battery and the ravine itself that saved the situation. Every German attempt to cross the ravine was driven back by cavalrymen either on horse or on foot, and then they crossed the ravine themselves, and fell on the German flank.
Dispatch riders found the 4th Cavalry and 'I' Battery about four kilometres away at St Vaast. At Verbie the Dublins and Warwicks set off at the double. The Middlesex at Saintines only two kilometres away arrived immediately behind the cavalry. By now it was eight in the morning and the sun was lighting up the German positions. 'I' Battery had a perfect target. Pulling off the road, they unlimbered the guns, and as the last shell was fed into the breech of the last gun of 'L' Battery, they fired their first shot. The German guns were silenced, and as the enemy pulled back leaving their dead and wounded, eight of those twelve guns were captured. The battlefield was a terrible sight, littered with corpses of horses and men and destroyed guns and equipment. It had been a victory won at dreadful cost, but the men of the BEF had taken on a force five times their size and beaten it.
The meeting in Paris on 1 September had reached a satisfactory conclusion by late afternoon. Kitchener had dealt tactfully with Sir John French's worries; Joffre had set out his plan to use Manoury's Army, the Paris garrison and the BEF to strike von Kluck on his exposed right flank as he hurried to join von Bulow. When the Germans reached the Marne they would effectively be in a sack with the British at its bottom and the French on either side. The time would then be ripe to strike. Meanwhile von Kluck, determined to stamp on this beaten Franco-British rabble that was causing him so much trouble, was changing direction to the south and entering Joffre's trap.
Kitchener and his Commander in Chief conferred, and agreed their Expeditionary Force would play a full part in Joffre's plan. Joffre, for his part, was determined that the French and British must act as a joint force, and to remove the rancour of all previous (and probable future) inter-Allied relations, it was obvious his old friend Lanrezac would have to be replaced . The Fifth Army was crossing the Aisne - parts of it in wild disorder, with Lanrezac loudly expressing the opinion 'Nous sommes foutus!', but by 4 September, under the strict command of Franchet d'Esperey it would be ready and eager to join in Joffre's planned counter=attack. Once back at British Headquarters Sir John French heard with relief that his two Corps had now regained contact, expressed his satisfaction at the outcome of the stuggle at Nery, and heard that further east, the Coldstream and the Grenadier Guards had held back the cream of von Kluck's troops in the forests above Villers-Cotterets in spite of German efforts to infiltrate their positions. The woods had been so thick that the Grenadiers had to drive back the enemy in a bayonet charge. The Ist Corps' retreat continued. By afternoon the Coldstreams had marched another twelve miles after the action ended. By half-past ten at night the Grenadiers had reached Thury, still unfed, but through the efforts of their officers that was remedied. At two in the morning on 2 September they were on the march again with twenty and more miles to go, but by nightfall many units of the BEF were at last approaching the River Marne.
The previous day General von Garnier had reported that his enormous losses at Nery now made it impossible for him to carry out his orders to reconnoitre the ground on von Kluck's extreme right. His guns were lost: his cavalry in disarray. Now there was no-one to quarter the very ground where Manoury was gathering the last units of his one- hundred-thousand strong army and moving them into a position to strike the Germans on the flank.
Men of the British 4th Division knew very well the Germans were close behind them: indeed they had barely time to scrape shallow trenches at the side of the road in the village of Penchard. As they fired at their pursuers before making their own way down to the Marne they could hear explosions as the Royal Engineers destroyed the bridges. The little hamlet of Huiry on its hill about four miles southwest of Meaux gave a grandstand view of the battlefield, and it was at the bottom of that hill that the German advance came to an end.
With von Kluck's main force still north of the Marne and the Allies able to use the Paris railway network to bring up much needed ammunition and fresh troops, a regular supply of rations had at last caught up with the British. 'Wullie' Robertson, their Quartermaster General, had done his very best to leave supply dumps all along the route of the retreat, and now on 5 September his task was a great deal simpler. Joffre's plan of attack was also easier to operate as well. The Germans were exactly where he wanted them, and 5 September would see the first skirmishes taking place in the Marne valley below Huiry. Unfortunately, Joffre's orders only reached British Headquarters in the small hours, and the sixty or so battalions of British had already been told to start an easy day's march before dawn to save them from the midday heat and give time for a decent rest at the day's end. Also, if the British had turned and retraced their steps there would have been utter confusion as they crossed the path of Manoury's advance. They were therefore told to move north eastwards the following day, give their Allies room to manoeuvre and make a single line with them to outflank, and hopefully to defeat von Kluck.
Late that afternoon Joffre, worried that the British were not fully behind his plan of attack, arrived at BEF Headquarters to urge his ally on the absolute necessity of giving the utmost support. 'Monsieur le Marechal', Sir John's staff later quoted Joffre as saying, 'c'est la France qui vous supplie!'.Sir John - no speaker of the French language in spite of his surname - was visibly moved. Unable to find the words, he turned to one of his staff. 'Damn it!' he said, 'I can't explain! Tell him all that men can do, our fellows will do!'
But the British, marching back again, would not be able to attack until the following morning. With that, Joffre had to be content.
Manoury's army, starting its move during the evening of 4 September, was already well on its way to launch the attack on von Kluck's flank. German spotter 'planes had already alerted von Kluck to the peril he was facing, and in spite of the shock both to him and to German Supreme Headquarters that the Allies were far from being defeated, he immediately turned his troops to meet the threat, placing them across the valley above Meaux and his artillery between the villages of Menthyon and Penchard. As the French Army came into sight, the German guns fired the opening shots of the Battle of the Marne.
For twenty four hours victory hung in the balance. Hoping that the BEF would continue its retreat, von Kluck turned round his Ist and IInd Corps and brought them up to defeat Manoury, leaving the British to be pursued only by a thin cavalry screen. The move almost succeeded, but the situation was saved by the French. In particular, because of General Gallieni's taxicab-packed reinforcements bringing aid to Manoury, the Germans were not only stopped, but forced back, and as von Kluck's force moved away from von Bulow's, the BEF, still tired and under equipped, moved into the gap. They moved cautiously, and, because of that extra day's march, moved just a little too late to make the greatest possible impact, but it was enough to drive the Germans back across the Marne, and, harried all the way, to take up new defensive positions on the River Aisne.
By 10 September the area that the Germans had occupied was returning to normal, but the thousands killed in the battles of the 5th, 6th and 7th still lay where they had fallen. The task of burying them would have to be done by the civil authorities, for the Germans were in full flight, and the following Allies were not finding the advance entirely unapposed. Von Kluck had sent back two divisions to help a fighting retreat; the countryside had many defensive positions, and there were large rivers and deep streams to cross, with the German defence of any undamaged bridges being unusually fierce. But the victory was won. On the first day of their advance, the BEF covered more than ten miles: the next day they crossed the Grand Morin and gained another eight. On the third day, they were another eight miles forward and had crossed the Petit Morin. On the fourth , they fought their way across the River Marne itself.
On the right, the advance progressed more slowly. Haig's Corps, faced with several large forests, could manage to gain only five miles that day and it was Smith Dorrien's force that, having borne the brunt of the fighting and suffered the worst losses during the Allied retreat to the Marne that now found itself leading the way in the counter-attack.
The First Battle of the Marne lasted for four days, and never in that time showed the traditional signs of victory with the Germans fleeing, utterly routed. Maunoury's Sixth Army attack which should have struck the Germans a devastating blow on the flank, ground to a halt on the second day, and it was due only to Foch's determination that his attack on the other flank succeeded in pushing back the Germans and widened the gap between the two Armies, and it was the advance of the Fifth Army and the B.E.F, into that gap that forced the Germans back to the River Aisne.
As they retreated, they left supplies by the tonne, the roads being littered with rations, abandoned equipment, carts and broken down vehicles just as they had been during the Allies' retreat, and like the Allies, the Germans were forced to fight rearguard actions to hold back their pursuers. In some of these the Germans lost heavily. An entire regiment of Uhlans, turning to attack the Lincolns of the 3rd Divison, lost hundreds of men. On 10 September the situation was reversed when the 1st Division's Royal Sussex suffered heavily in front of the village of Priez under accurate German artillery fire.
By now the weather had broken. It was miserable, wet and cold, and as the Allies reached the Aisne on 12 September there was a storm of Wagnerian proportions that hurled aircraft of the Royal Flying Corps parked for the night across the grass into each other, leaving a tangled mass of wood and canvas. The British Army was deprived of its 'eyes' just when it needed information about the enemy positions on the far side of the river. The 4th Division, crossing by means of a damaged bridge, was able to gain a foothold on the Aisne's north bank, but most of the BEF were still on the south bank: any undamaged bridges were strongly held by German infantry, and the Germans were staring to dig in on the heights above the Aisne.
The Aisne runs through deep valleys with steep sides now reduced to slippery mud. The nearest gun positions for the BEF to be able to support crossings were almost two miles back, and the Germans' heavy guns had the range of the river and its approaches to a nicety. The Coldstream Guards crossed on 14 September, pulling themselves up the far slopes by hanging on to the branches of trees. The Dragoon Guards forced their crossing of the river at Bourg in a dashing cavalry charge along the towpath of the Canal de l'Oise aqueduct that runs above the Aisne itself. The Royal Fusiliers, by now dog-tired after what had seemed an endless pursuit, crossed during the night at Vailly by the sort of bridge their engineers had made when ravines barred the way in India - a primitive arrangement of suspended boxes, without so much as a handrail. Several men were drowned, and the others found themselves on the spur leading up to the high ground of the Chemin des Dames.
It was there that the German retreat came to an end: Indeed, the battle lines in the area changed very little until the final year of the war. At that point it was decided that the British should again take up their position on the left wing of the Allied force, and what became known as 'the race to the sea' eventually saw them embattled at Ypres fighting over ground that was to be the scene of the British Calvary for almost four dreadful years,
The final casualty list for the Mons campaign was just over 15,000 officers and men killed. wounded and missing and a loss of 41 guns. Most of the casualties were sustained by Smith Dorrien's II Corps which was given recognition for having made one of the finest sustained efforts in British Army history.