24 August – 5 September 1914: the retreat from Mons, including the Battle of Le Cateau.
Falling back from Mons: Smith-Dorrien decides to make a stand
By nightfall of the 25 August 1914 the retreating British II Corps was being closely pursued by the German First Army. I Corps was some way away to the east, and although the newly-arrived 4th Division was moving up alongside II Corps it was clear that the disorganised and greatly fatigued units faced a calamity the next day if the withdrawal was forced to continue. Corps Commander Horace Smith-Dorrien ordered II Corps to stand and fight. The units of the Corps were arranged in the open downs to the west of the small town of Le Cateau.
The main action in this battle did not take place at Le Cateau itself, but in the rolling country around Caudry
…it is said by some that through the course of the entire war never were British troops as heavily outnumbered. John Lucy, 2nd Royal Irish Rifles, in his autobiographical work ‘There’s a devil in the drum’
Elements of the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Le Cateau
II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd and 5th Divisions
19th Infantry Brigade
For long hours during the morning of 26 August, the British force, notably the field artillery, held overwhelming numbers of the enemy at bay. British tactics were similar to those at Mons. The infantry produced intensive and accurate rifle fire, while the field artillery fired air-bursting shrapnel rounds on the unprotected advancing enemy infantry. Many field guns were fired at point-blank range over open sights. Butthe British artillery was also exposed and came in for heavy punishment from the German guns. Some were withdrawn just as the enemy infantry closed in. For the second time in three days, the British force engaged withdrew just in time. Miraculously, the exhausted II Corps disengaged and withdrew towards the south during the afternoon. Smith-Dorrien’s decision to turn II Corps around from retreat and to stand against the German advance at Le Cateau paid off handsomely. Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Germans and another delay imposed on their Schlieffen timetable. To the east, I Corps was able to move further away from the advance parties of the Germans. However, a rift grew between Sir John French (who had initially ordered a continuation of the retreat) and Smith-Dorrien as a result of this action. It was to have serious consequences in 1915.
This photograph shows the effects of battle in 1914. Wrecked field guns and limbers, with dead men and horses strewn across the field. It has not been possible to identify the exact location or unit involved, but it is believed that it is at or shortly after Le Cateau. Please note that this is a postcard that I own. It has been copied without permission and you will see it elsewhere on the internet with various descriptions.
The total British casualties at Le Cateau amounted to 7,812 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing.
38 field guns were lost.
|La Cateau today|
|The clash at Le Cateau was short and sharp, and there are not too many physical reminders of it. This impressive monument to the 2nd Suffolks is one of few .||The battleground is quiet, with excellent views over the rolling countryside and valley of the River Selle. It is good walking country and repays a visit|
Subsidiary actions which followed the main battle:
The Rearguard Affair of Le Grand Fayt, 26 August 1914
2nd Connaught Rangers (5th Brigade, 2nd Division)
The Rearguard Affair of Etreux, 27 August 1914
15th Hussars (1st Division)
2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers (1st (Guards) Brigade, 1st Division)
The Affair of Cerizy, 28 August 1914
5th Cavalry Brigade
The Affair of Nery, 1 September 1914
1st Cavalry Brigade
1st Middlesex Regiment (19th Brigade)
The Rearguard Action of Crepy en Valois, 1 September 1914
13th Brigade (5th Division)
The Rearguard Actions of Villers-Cotterets, 1 September 1914
3rd Cavalry Brigade
4th (Guards) and 6th Brigades (2nd Division)
The weary retreat continues
Over the course of the next week, the BEF continued the long slog of retreat, often fighting sharp rearguard ctions. Eventually the force was south of the Seine and effectively out of the battle line.
Senior officer losses
At Le Cateau
Lt-Col. Charles Brett, OC 2nd Suffolks
Lt-Col Alfred Dykes, OC 1st King’s Own and
Lt-Col Edward Panter-Downes, OC 2nd Royal Irish Regiment
were all killed in action at Le Cateau. None has a known grave and all are commemorated on the Memorial to the Missing at La Ferte sous Jouarre.
Col. Frank Boileau of Royal Engineers and on staff of 3rd Division died on 27 August 1914 of wounds received on the days before this battle and is buried at Terlincthun British Cemetery.
In the subsequent clashes as the retreat continued
Lt-Col George Ansell, OC 5th Dragoon Guards, was killed on 1 September 1914 at Verberie and is buried in the French National cemetery in that village.
Lt-Col the Hon. George Morris, OC 1st Irish Guards, also died on 1 September 1914 in the woods near Villers-Cotterets and is buried in the Guards Grave there.
Lt-Col Ian Hogg, OC 4th Hussars, died the next day and is buried in the communal cemetery at Haramont.