Now all roads lead to France and heavy is the tread
Of the living; but the dead returning lightly dance.
Edward Thomas, Roads

Monday, April 27, 2020

What Happened at Le Cateau?

British Artillery on the Retreat from Mons

The first major battle between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the German Imperial Army on the Western Front took place at Mons on 23 August 1914. By 25 August, the German First Army was close on the heels of the II Corps of the BEF, and there was a danger that the retreating British troops, now exhausted and in some disarray, would be overrun and defeated if the withdrawal continued. By nightfall, General Smith-Dorrien had decided that II Corps, along with a detachment of French cavalry under General Sordet, would stand and face the advancing German forces the following day at Le Cateau. 

Shortly after dawn broke on 26 August, German artillery batteries located about three miles to the northeast began firing on British troops who were still taking up their positions to the west of the town. As the first shells landed, German cavalry appeared from the direction of Cambrai and began advancing toward the British lines of defense. Almost simultaneously, German infantry units launched a surprise attack on the men of the East Surrey and Duke of Cornwall regiments who had stationed themselves in the eastern outskirts of the town. 

For the next six hours, French and British troops laid down withering rifle and artillery fire and, despite suffering heavy casualties, managed to hold a greatly superior German force at bay. A threatened envelopment was prevented by the arrival of General Sordet’s French Cavalry Corps on the British left. By midday, more German units were entering the battlefield, enemy artillery fire was becoming more intense, and it was clear that the Allied forces, numbering about 40,000 men, would have to begin to retreat or prepare to surrender. Soon after 1:00 p.m., British artillery units, some of which had been stationed alongside the infantry in the front line, began to slowly withdraw from the battlefield. 

Fierce fighting continued for the rest of the day, and several British units were almost completely wiped out, but by sunset most Allied soldiers had successfully withdrawn. The British suffered more casualties at Le Cateau than at any battle since Waterloo. In total, over 7,000 British and French soldiers were killed, wounded, or taken prisoner and 38 British artillery pieces were captured at Le Cateau, while the German forces suffered approximately 5,000 casualties. The battle had been a costly one, but the stand taken by II Corps temporarily stemmed the German advance and bought the Allied forces in the northern sector valuable time as they retreated toward the Marne. 

The heavy losses at Le Cateau and at Mons seriously demoralized Field Marshal Sir John French. For most of the period between Le Cateau and the first battle of the Marne he was convinced that the BEF would need to be withdrawn from the line to recover. The man who chose to fight at Mons, Command of II Corps, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, a rival of Sir John French, would find he had displeased his commander by independently making the decision to stand at Le Cateau and would be eventually be relieved and sent home after the First Battle of Ypres. ARTICLE

Sources: History of War and Commonwealth War Graves Websites

No comments:

Post a Comment