In the aftermath of Mons, and the larger “Battle of the Frontiers”, the Allied forces of Britain and France (and Belgium, technically) were in full retreat. Sir John French’s BEF had held the Germans up for the better part of two days at the canals, but now found themselves in deadly serious peril, backpedalling while the main thrust of Germany’s entire military strategy followed up behind. The peril was magnified in that the I and II Corps of the BEF were going in slightly different directions, and neither was able to adequately support the other. In the course of this “Great Retreat”, that would go on to within spitting distance of Paris, Irish regiments within the BEF took part in a number of crucial rear-guard actions, delaying the German advance and covering the retreat of the larger force. In this, commanders underneath French would be doing much of the work, the “C-in-C” suffering what may well be described as a panic-stricken collapse in his faculties, planning a withdrawal all the way to the sea, and blaming all around him for the BEF’s troubles.
A few days after the first fight, the II Corps of the BEF had united at the small village of Le Cateau, 30 or so miles south-west of Mons, the individual battalions coming in dribs and drabs. By then, many of them were completely exhausted, having been fighting or marching near continuously for days, and the recently arrived 4th Division of the army, that included units of the Royal Irish Fusiliers, Royal Dublin Fusiliers and Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was also wrecked after a lengthy march across north-eastern France. Despite this, another withdrawal was ordered, until the Corps commander, General Horace Smith-Dorrien, concerned at the state of his army and worried about its ability to remain cohesive, made the decision to direct a desperate rear-guard action against the oncoming Germans so that the majority of his force could escape unscathed.
On the 26th of August, a bitter clash erupted with the German First Army under von Kluck, that would last for 11 brutal hours. The fighting was especially categorized by the fierce artillery fire from both sides, with the British positioning their guns so close to their infantry that German shelling aimed at the British soldiery often landed in among the artillery. Individual battalions designated to the defence repelled numerous infantry advances from the Germans: they included the Royal Irish Rifles, rapidly losing men at the town of Caudry, and the Royal Irish Regiment, that was holding narrow trench lines at Audencourt, their soon wounded commander directing things from a stretcher.
The British, holding a ten-mile line, were located in largely unfavourable terrain, ceding high ground to the attacker, which made their position increasingly untenable. The Rifles avoided a near suicidal order from on high that they go on the offensive when the Germans closed in, the order countermanded in time, but were engaged in clearing a German advance into the town itself. Later, when another order came for an attack, an adamant Major insisted the men were not capable of doing so, and they were kept on the defensive instead.
The British couldn’t hold indefinitely and in a day of confused fighting, they were forced backwards on all parts of the line. Some units, dependent on horseback messengers, didn’t get the orders to retire in time, and found themselves flanked and forced to surrender. The BEF took a terrible amount of casualties – 700 killed, and many times that injured and captured – but the majority of II Corps was able to escape.
I Corps had its own issues, fighting an almost continuous series of small skirmishes as it fled south-west, it’s numerous rear-guards continually assaulted and thrown backwards. On the 26th of August, while covering the village of Le Grand-Fayt, the 2nd battalion of the Connaught Rangers defended a ridge to cover British and French troops retreating, as well as scores of civilian refugees. Cut off from command by the confused morose of the roads, their commander, Lieutenant Colonel A.W Abercrombie, choose to move into the village under the mistaken assumption that it was empty, when German infantry and cavalry were already there. A firefight erupted, and the outnumbered Rangers were forced to flee northwards through the countryside, victims of constant German small-arms fire throughout. They were eventually able to form up a day or two later at the town of Guise, but nearly 300 of them, including Abercrombie, did not make it. Abercrombie had been captured, and would die in a POW camp the next year.
The next day, it was the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ turn, newly arrived to the front and not yet at full strength, their battalion consisting of around three full companies and a few field guns. A few miles north of the village of Etreux, they held up piecemeal attacks from the German X Reserve Army Corps, that rapidly became a torrent of infantry assaults. Missing the order to withdraw while they still had the chance to, for 12 hours, outnumbered more than six to one, the Munsters held off the enemy, losing 500 men dead or wounded in the process. So terrible were the officer casualties that at one point, the regimental chaplain, technically a Captain, was obliged to temporarily command the regiment until a suitable replacement became clear.
Forced from their initial positions, the Munsters made a desperate attempt to breakout through Etreux itself, but found the village held against them. They retreated instead to make their last stand in a nearby orchard. In a subterfuge worthy of Irish wood-kernes, some of the last German assaults were masked with a herd of cattle and, cut off, surrounded and out of ammunition, the Munsters were forced to surrender. They had accomplished a minor miracle of warfare at the time, buying up to 12 crucial hours for the retreating sections of the BEF that they had been covering. Many of the Germans were astonished by the size of the force that had held them up, exhibiting varying degrees of anger and admiration in the aftermath. A small number of the Munsters were able to escape, but were later discovered hiding alongside members of the Connaught Rangers in the homes of nearby French citizens. The Germans, applying the letter of military law, executed them for operating outside of established military formations, after a cursory trial.
Over the next few days, the bedraggled and exhausted BEF continued to march. The retreat lasted for 200 bitter miles over the course of around a week and a half. By the end of it, the BEF had taken over 15’000 casualties. For all of the numerous engagements it had taken part in, it still remained a small part of a war that was primarily between France and Germany, where the casualties were much higher and the stakes much grander. Moving into September, Paris was directly threatened, and it seemed to many that France was about to suffer a defeat on par or greater than that suffered in 1870. Certainly, few expected much more of Sir John French and his BEF when it came to stemming the German tide.
But they would have their part to play in the last-gasp military operations to follow, and the “miracle” that they produced.
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