Obvious printer's errors have been corrected. All other inconsistencies are as in the original. The author's spelling has been preserved.
The missing word "in" has been added in the sentence: However, I detached the Dorsets to move along the canal bank from Gorre and get in touch with the French.
Weatherby, who had cantered off to get in touch with them,...
THE DOINGS OF THE FIFTEENTH INFANTRY BRIGADE AUGUST 1914 TO MARCH 1915
THE DOINGS OF THE FIFTEENTH INFANTRY BRIGADE AUGUST 1914 TO MARCH 1915
Brigadier-General COUNT GLEICHEN, (now Major-General Lord Edward Gleichen), K.C.V.O., C.B., C.M.G., D.S.O.
William Blackwood & Sons Edinburgh and London 1917
The following pages—not in the first instance intended for publication—contain an expanded version of the very scrappy Diary which I kept in France from day to day.
The version was intended for private home consumption only, and has necessarily had to be pruned of certain personal matters before being allowed to make its bow to the public. I have purposely refrained from adding to it in the light of subsequent events.
I trust that the reader will consequently bear in mind the essentially individual and impressionist aspects of this little work, and will not expect to find either rigidly historical, professional, or critical matter therein.
G. 14th August 1917.
Pages Up to the Eve of Mons................................ 1-21
The Battle of Mons.................................. 22-38
Mons to Le Cateau................................... 39-43
Le Cateau........................................... 44-56
The Retreat......................................... 57-86
The Advance......................................... 87-93
The Marne.......................................... 94-102
To the Aisne...................................... 103-111
The Aisne......................................... 112-140
Westward Ho!...................................... 141-149
Abbeville to Bethune.............................. 150-157
Givenchy and Festubert............................ 158-198
To Bailleul....................................... 199-205
To Ypres.......................................... 206-208
The First Battle of Ypres......................... 209-248
Back to Locre..................................... 249-251
Trench Life Opposite Messines..................... 252-280
Giving Up Command................................. 281-283
Page Boussu-Wasmes.......................................... 28
The Footbridge over the Canal......................... 175
Beukenhorst (near Ypres).............................. 211
The Messines Front.................................... 255
Some of Brigade Headquarters Frontispiece
The Doings of the Fifteenth Infantry Brigade.
August 1914 to March 1915.
In accordance with the order received at Belfast at 5.30 P.M. on the 4th, the 15th Brigade started mobilizing on the 5th August 1914, and by the 10th was complete in all respects. We were practically ready by the 9th, but a machine-gun or two and some harness were a bit late arriving from Dublin—not our fault. Everything had already been rehearsed at mobilization inspections, held as usual in the early summer, and all went like clock-work. On the 8th we got our final orders to embark on the 14th, and on the 11th the embarkation orders arrived in detail.
Brigade Headquarters consisted of myself, Captain Weatherby (Oxford L.I.) as Brigade Major, Captain Moulton-Barrett (Dorsets), Staff Captain, Captain Roe (Dorsets), Brigade Machine-Gun Officer, Lieutenant Cadell, R.E., Signalling Officer, and Lieutenant Beilby, Brigade Veterinary Officer. Military Police, A.S.C. drivers, postmen, and all sorts of odds and ends arrived from apparently nowhere in particular, and fitted together with extraordinary little effort. The battalions grew to unheard-of sizes, and by the time that all was complete the Brigade numbered 127 officers, 3958 men, 258 horses, and 74 vehicles.
The Cheshires and Bedfords arrived by train in the early morning of the 14th from 'Derry and Mullingar and went straight on board their ships—Brigade Headquarters, Dorsets, and half the Norfolks being in one, Cheshires and the other half of the Norfolks in another, and the Bedfords in a third.
[Footnote 1: 1st Batt. (Lieut.-Col. D. C. Boger).]
[Footnote 2: 1st Batt. (Lieut.-Col. C. R. Griffith, D.S.O.).]
[Footnote 3: 1st Batt. (Lieut.-Col. L. J. Bols, D.S.O.).]
[Footnote 4: 1st Batt. (Lieut.-Col. C. R. Ballard).]
Great waving of handkerchiefs and cheering as we warped slowly out of Belfast docks at 3 P.M. and moved slowly down the channel.
The weather was beautifully fine on the passage, and on the 16th we all arrived at our destination.
The Bedfords had arrived on the previous tide to ourselves, and were already fast alongside the quay. Orders were received from the Disembarking Officer, and we disembarked and formed up independently and marched off to Rest Camp No. 8, six miles off on the hills above Havre.
It had been pouring heavily on shore for two days, though it was quite fine when we landed; so the ground where we were to encamp was mostly sopping. It was not easy to find in the dark, especially as the sketch-maps with which we were provided most distinctly acted up to their names. Added to these difficulties, a motor-lorry had stuck on the way up and blocked our transport for the night. I rode ahead alone, but had immense difficulty in finding the Brigade Headquarters Camp, which was quite a long way from the other battalion camps. These were dotted on the open fields at some distance from each other, and pitched in no particular order, so that by the time I had got my bearings and brought in the battalions, it was about 11 P.M. There was of course no baggage, nor anything to sleep on except the bare ground under the tents, with our saddles for pillows; and as a pleasant excitement nearly all our horses stampeded about 2 A.M., tore up their picketing-pegs from the soft ground, and disappeared into the darkness in different directions.
Daylight, however, brought relief, and a certain amount of our transport; and all the horses were discovered in course of time and brought back. Most of the morning was spent, unsuccessfully, in trying to bring up the remaining transport up a steep and narrow road which was the only alternative to the blocked one. But some of the horses jibbed, and we had eventually to give it up and bring up supplies by hand.
The battalions were comfortably settled down under the expectation of another night there; but at 2.15 P.M. we got orders to move off by train at night. This we did from three different stations, at times varying from 12 midnight to 5.45 A.M., having arrived according to order at the stations four hours previously. This is the French system, allowing four hours for the entraining of a unit. Although a lot of manhandling had to be done, and the trucks were not what we had been accustomed to, we all entrained in about forty minutes, so had any amount of time to spare.
Silver (my first charger) was very bobbery as usual, and it took a good half-hour to persuade him to enter his truck. Once in, he slept like a lamb.
We were comfortable enough, though packed like sardines, and with three-quarters of an hour's rest at Rouen for coffee, and another rest at Amiens—where we heard that poor General Grierson, our Corps Commander, was dead—broke a blood-vessel in the train—we arrived at Busigny at 2.15 P.M. Here we found Captain Hyslop (Dorsets), who had been sent ahead from Belfast, and who gave us orders to detrain at Le Cateau, a few miles farther on. I must say that all these disembarking and training arrangements were extraordinarily well done, and reflected great credit on the Allied staffs combined. No hitch, no fuss, no worry, everybody got their orders in time, and all necessary arrangements had been carefully thought out beforehand.
[Footnote 5: Hyslop was very severely wounded six days afterwards and taken prisoner, but exchanged later on.]
We arrived at Le Cateau at 3.10 P.M., and detrained in half an hour, baggage and all. The battalions marched off to their billets,—Dorsets and Headquarters to Ors, the other three battalions to Pommereuil: nice clean little villages both of them.
When about halfway out to Ors—I was riding on ahead of the Brigade with only Weatherby—we were met by a motor bikist with a cypher telegram for me. This stumped us completely, as, not yet having reported to the Division, we had not yet received the local field cypher-word; so, seeing a car approaching with some "brass hats" in it, I rode across the road and stopped it, with a view to getting the key. To my horror, Sir John French and Sir A. Murray descended from the car and demanded to know why I had stopped them. I explained and apologised, and they were very pleasant about it; but on looking at the wire they said that I could disregard it, as they knew what it was about, and it was of no particular importance by this time; so we pursued our way in peace.
The billeting had already been done for us by our (5th) Divisional Staff, and we found no difficulty in shaking down.
I was billeted on a small elderly lady of the name of Madame W——, who was kindness itself, and placed herself and her house at our disposal; but I regret to say that when our men, in search of firewood, picked up some old bits of plank lying about in the garden, she at first made a shocking fuss, tried to make out that it was a whole timber stack of new wood, and demanded fifty francs compensation. She eventually took two francs and was quite content.
Here it was that Saint Andre joined us, having been cast off by the 5th Divisional Staff at Landrecies as a superfluous interpreter. Looking like an ordinary French subaltern with a pince-nez, he was in fact a Protestant pastor from Tours, son of the Vicomte de Saint Andre, very intelligent and "cultured," with a great sense of humour and extremely keen. I really cannot speak too highly of him, for he was a most useful addition to the Staff. In billeting and requisitioning, and in all matters requiring tact in connection with the inhabitants or the French Army, he was invaluable. I used him later as A.D.C. in action, and as Officier de liaison with the French troops. I don't know what his knowledge of divinity may have been, but if it was anything like equal to his military knowledge it must have been considerable. He had studied theology at Edinburgh, and his English was very fluent, luckily untouched by a Scottish accent. He was always bubbling over with vitality and go, and plunged into English with the recklessness of his race; when he couldn't express himself clearly he invented words which were the joy of the Mess,—"pilliate," "whizzle," "contemporative," and dozens of others that I can't remember; and what used to charm us particularly was that he so often went out of his way to put the accent on the wrong syllable, such as in bilyetting, brigade, attack, ambassador, &c. He was, indeed, a great acquisition to the Brigade.
[Footnote 6: He was subsequently awarded the D.S.O. and Croix de Guerre (aux Palmes) for excellent and gallant work achieved under fire.]
Next morning I rode across to have a look at the other battalions. The transport horses of the Cheshires were perhaps not all they might have been, but it was the particular stamp of Derry horse that was at fault, and not the battalion arrangements. Otherwise we were ready for the fray.
We had arrived on the Tuesday (18th), and on the Thursday Sir C. Fergusson (commanding 5th Division) paraded the Brigade by battalions and made them a short speech, telling us we were to move on the morrow, and giving us a few technical tips about the Germans and how to meet their various wiles, largely about machine-guns and their methods of attack in large numbers. The Bedfords were the most interested audience, and interrupted him every now and then with "'Ear, 'ear," and a little handclapping at important points. I think the General was a little nonplussed at this attention: I know I was. Whether it was due or not to the audience being accustomed to attending political meetings at home, or to the air of Bedfordshire being extremely vitalising I don't know, but once or twice afterwards when the battalion was addressed by General Smith Dorrien, and even by Sir J. French, they showed their approbation in the manner above set forth—somewhat to my confusion.
[Footnote 7: Commanding of course the 2nd Corps (composed of the 3rd and 5th Divisions).]
Next day we moved off early. I already found myself overburdened with kit—although I had not even as much as the regulation 150 lb.—and I left a camp-bed and a thick waistcoat and various odds and ends behind in Madame W——'s cupboard, under the firm belief that I might at some future period send for it if I wanted it. Alas! the Germans have now been at Ors for close on three years.
A hot march of about fifteen miles brought us to Gommignies. Stragglers, I regret to say, were already many—all of them reservists, who had not carried a pack for years. They had every intention of keeping up, of course, but simply could not. I talked to several of them and urged them along, but the answer was always the same—"Oh, I'll get along all right, sir, after a bit of rest; but I ain't accustomed to carrying a big weight like this on a hot day," and their scarlet streaming faces certainly bore out their views. To do them justice, they practically all did turn up. I was afraid that, in spite of great care and the numerous orders I had issued about the fitting and greasing of new boots, it was the boots which were at fault; but it was not so, except in a very few cases.
Our billeting parties had, of course, been sent ahead and started on their work. It was naturally quite new work to them, and it took a lot of time at first—two and three hours—before the men were settled. Nowadays it takes half an hour, or at most an hour, as everybody knows his job, and also takes what is given him at once, squash or no squash. After a little campaigning men very quickly find out that it is better to shake down at once, even in uncomfortable billets, than to hang about and try to get better ones. Here we got first touch, though very indirectly, with the enemy, in the shape of a French patrol of Chasseurs a Cheval (in extraordinarily voyant light-blue tunics and shakos), who had come in from somewhere north after having seen some "Uhlans" and hunted them off. I sent the news, such as it was, on to the Division.
And here I must lay stress on the fact that throughout the campaign we did not know in the least what was happening elsewhere. Beyond the fact that the 3rd Division was somewhere on our right, and that the French cavalry was believed to be covering our left front, we did not know at this period what the movement was about or where the Germans were supposed to be. We trusted to our superiors to do what was necessary, and plunged blindly into the "fog of war."
The usual proceedings on the ordinary line of march were that, on receiving "Divisional Orders," which arrived at any time in the afternoon, or often at night, we compiled "Brigade Orders" on them. Divisional Orders give one first of all any information about the enemy which it is advisable to impart, then the intention of the Divisional General—whether he means to fight on the morrow, or march, or stay where he is, &c., &c.; and if he means to march he gives the direction in which the Division is to proceed, the order of march, by brigades, artillery, divisional troops such as R.E., heavy batteries, divisional cavalry, &c., &c., and generally says where and how the transport is to march, whether with its own troops or some way behind, and if so, where; and gives directions as to the supplies, where the refilling-point, rendezvous for supply carts, and railhead are, and many other odds and ends, especially as to which brigade is to provide the advanced- or rear-guard, who is to command it, at what time the head of the column and the heads of all the formations are to pass a given point, and so on. On receiving these orders we have to make out and issue similarly composed Brigade Orders in detail, giving the order of march of the battalions and Brigade Headquarters, how much rations are to be carried on the men and in the cook-waggons, what is to happen to the supply and baggage waggons, whether B transport (vehicles not absolutely necessary in the fighting line) are to be with the A transport in rear of their respective battalions, or to be bunched up by themselves behind the Brigade, with similar detailed orders about the advanced-guard or rear-guard, and the time to a minute as to when each detail is to pass a given point, the position of the Brigadier in the column, the point to which reports are to be sent, &c., &c. These orders might be written in anything from fifteen to fifty minutes according to the movement required, and then had to be quadruplicated and sent out to the battalions by their respective orderlies, or by wire. By the time the battalions had written out and transmitted their own orders to their companies it was sometimes very late indeed; but as the campaign went on, orders got more and more simplified somehow, and things got done quicker than at the beginning of the premier pas.
The country through which we were passing was that technically described by novelists as "smiling." That is to say, it was pretty, in a mild sort of way, clean, green, with tidy farmhouses and cottages, and fields about ripe for the harvest. Plenty of orchards there were too, with lots of fruit-trees alongside the roads, and the people were most kind in offering us fruit and milk and water and coffee and even wine as we went along. But this could not be allowed on the march, as it would have led to men falling out without permission, and also to drinking more than was good for them whilst marching. Except, therefore, occasionally, and then only during the ten minutes' halt that we had in each hour, I did not allow these luxuries to be accepted.
Gommignies was a nice shady little town, and the Notaire gave me an excellent bedroom in his big house; whilst I remember that I made acquaintance there with the excellent penny cigar of the country.
Off at cock-crow next day, the country got uglier, blacker, more industrial, and more thickly populated as we pushed on through the heat, and by the time we crossed the Belgian frontier we felt indeed that we were in another land.
The beastly paved road with cobbles, just broad enough for one vehicle and extremely painful to the feet, whilst the remainder of the road on both sides was deep in dust or caked mud, was a most offensive feature; the people staring and crowding round the troops were quite a different type from the courteous French peasants; and whilst in France not a single able-bodied civilian had been visible—all having joined the Army—in Belgium the streets were crowded with men who, we felt most strongly, ought to have been fighting in the ranks.
There was a great block in Dour, which we reached after a fourteen-mile march, and in spite of all attempts at keeping the streets clear it was some time before we could get through. Part of the Division was halting there for the night, and the municipal authorities were extremely slow in allotting billets and keeping their civilian waggons in order.
From Dour onwards it was a big straggling sort of suburban town—tramways down the side, dirty little houses lining the street, great chimneys belching (I believe that is the correct term) volumes of black smoke, huge mountains of slag in all directions, rusty brickfields littered with empty tins, old paper, and bits of iron, and other similarly unlovely views. The only thing to be said in favour of this industrial scrap-heap was that the smoke was not quite so sooty as it looked, and things one touched did not "come off" quite so black as might have been expected. Otherwise there was no attraction.
Half a mile on or more was Bois de Boussu, and here we were halted to allow of a cavalry brigade moving down the street. We waited some time, and eventually it arrived, not coming down the street but across it from east to west. I am ashamed to say that I have forgotten which it was, but the 4th Dragoon Guards, I think, were in it. They crossed at a trot, men and horses both looking very fit and workmanlike, and disappeared westwards through the haze of the factories; any more impossible country for cavalry—except perhaps the London Docks—I have never seen.
We shortly afterwards got orders to billet in Bois de Boussu and Dour, the real Boussu being another half mile on. But where the whole countryside was one vast straggling town, it was impossible to say where one town ended and the other began. Even the inhabitants didn't know.
Moulton-Barrett and Saint Andre had already got to work on the billeting, and the Norfolks and Cheshires were shortly accommodated in some factories up the road, whilst the Bedfords and Dorsets were moved back nearly into Dour, into a brewery and some mine-offices respectively, if I remember rightly. Brigade Headquarters was installed in an ultra-modern Belgian house and garden belonging to one M. Durez, a very civil little man, head of some local mining concern. There was a Madame Durez too, plump and good-natured, and a girl and a boy, and they were profuse in their hospitality. The only drawback about the meals, excellent as they were, was the appalling length of time occupied in their preparation and consumption; it was almost impossible to get away from them, even though there was so much to do.
So much was there to be done that I feel now as though we had been there a week, or at least three days; but on looking at my diary I find we arrived there at midday on Saturday the 22nd, and left at midnight on Sunday the 23rd.
On the Saturday afternoon there were rumours of the Germans being on the other side of the Mons-Conde Canal, not far off. The 13th and 14th Brigades were in front of us, strung out and holding the Canal line, ourselves being in Divisional Reserve. Where the exact left of the 5th Division was I cannot remember at this moment, but I am sure that it was not farther west than Pommeroeul bridge, with, I believe, French or English cavalry on its left.
Saturday afternoon was spent in studying the ground in our front and looking to the approaches and the arrangements for the Brigade. Our front was of course well covered, but there were numerous little matters to be seen to and a certain amount of confabulation with the Divisional Staff, which lived in the midst of a perpetual va-et-vient at the railway station at Dour. Our horses were picketed out in M. Durez's garden and the grubby little fields close by, and the Signal section and all the vehicles were stowed away there as best could be arranged; but all was enclosed, cramped, and unhandy, and the difficulty was to get a clear space anywhere. I walked with M. Durez in the evening to a tiny mound in his garden, from which he assured me a good view could be got; but although the sunset and colouring through the haze was rather picturesque, one couldn't see much. Durez was very apprehensive about his family and himself, and was most urgent in his inquiries as to what was going to happen. I could not tell him much beyond the rumour that the German force in front was reported not to be very big, and I advised him to stick it out as long as he could; but he was restless, with good reason as it turned out, and settled next day to take himself and his family away whilst there was yet time.
Next morning I got orders to go with Lieut.-Col. Tulloch, the Divisional Commanding Royal Engineer, to select a defensive position and entrench it. We got into a car, and went buzzing about in front of Boussu and round to the right as far as Wasmes; but I never saw such a hopeless place. There was no field of fire anywhere except to the left, just where the railway crossed the Boussu road, where, strange to say, the country opened out on to a "glacis-like" slope of stubble. Going was bad, up broken little roads over ground composed of a bewildering variety of slag-heaps 40 to 150 feet high, intersected with railway lines, mine heads, chimneys, industrial buildings, furnaces, and usines of all sorts, and thickening into suburbs consisting of narrow winding little streets and grubby little workmen's houses. Here and there were open spaces and even green fields, but nowhere could a continuous field of fire be obtained. The only thing was to select various points d'appui with some sort of command, and try and connect them up by patches of entrenchments; but even this was very difficult, as the line was so long and broken that no unity of command was possible, and the different patches were so separated and so uneven, some having to be in front of the general line and some in rear, that they often could not flank or even see each other.
At about midday several cyclists came riding back in a great hurry from the Canal, saying they had been attacked by a big force of cavalry and been badly cut up; that they had lost all their officers and 20 or 30 men killed, and the rest taken prisoners. This was hardly a good beginning, but it eventually turned out that the grand total losses were 1 officer (Corah of the Bedfords) slightly wounded, 2 men killed, and 3 missing.
Shortly after this the first German gun was heard—at 12.40 P.M. I timed it—and for the rest of the afternoon there was intermittent bombardment and numerous shell-bursts in the direction of the Canal, some of it our own Horse Artillery, but mostly German.
When we had roughly settled on our line, I shouted to a crowd of curious natives who had come out to watch us, and did not seem particularly friendly—as they were not at all sure that we were not Germans—to get all their friends together with pickaxes and shovels and start digging entrenchments where we showed them. It was Sunday afternoon, and all the miners were loafing about with nothing to do. The idea rapidly caught on, and soon they were hurrying off home for their tools, whilst we got hold of the best-dressed and most authoritative-looking men and showed them what we wanted done. It was scratch work, in more senses than one, as we had no time to lose and could not superintend, but had to tear from one point to another, raising men and showing them where the lines were to go, how deep the trenches were to be made, which way the earth was to be thrown, and all the rest of it.
On our way round we came also upon some batteries of field artillery, disconsolately wending their way through the narrow streets, and with their reconnoitring officers out in all directions looking for positions; but they found none, and the Artillery did but little in the way of shooting that night. With their present experience I expect they would have done a good deal more.
Then we tore back, and I got the battalions out, or rather two companies of each battalion, set them to work, and sent out their other two companies to support them. The Norfolks were on the left, at the station, and eastwards down the line. Then came the Cheshires, a bit thrown back, in beastly enclosed country for the most part. One of the big slag-heaps had seemed to offer a good command, but to our disgust it was so hot that we could hardly stand on it, so that had to be given up. Other heaps again seemed to give a good position, and they were fairly cool; but when we scrambled up there was always something wrong—either there were more slag-heaps in front which blocked the view, or the heap ran to a point and there was not room for more than two men, or the slag-ridge faced the wrong way—it was a nightmare of a place.
Beyond the Cheshires came the Dorsets and Bedfords, pretty well together, and occupying some trenches on a high railway embankment, &c., but the position was not really satisfactory, and if attacked in force at night it would be very difficult to see or guard against the approach of the enemy. Nor, as I heard afterwards, had the inhabitants dug the trenches anything like deep enough, so that they formed but poor protection against the rain of shells that began to pour on them at nightfall.
All pointed to an attack by the enemy during the night or next day, but even then we had not the smallest idea of the enormous forces arrayed against us. We were told at first that there was perhaps a corps in front of us, but as a matter of fact there were three, if not four corps.
Having distributed the battalions as ordered—I had no Brigade Reserve in hand, having to cover such a broad front (nearly three miles, when my normal front, according to the text-books, should have been about 1000 yards)—myself and Brigade Headquarters were left rather "by our lone." M. and Madame Durez were packing up hard all, and disappeared with their friends and family before dinner in a big motor-car, making in the direction of Bavai St Waast, to the south, where they had friends; as, however, we retired through there next day I don't expect they stayed long, but continued their journey into France. I don't know what became of them. They had been most hospitable, and placed the house and everything in it, even a final dinner, at our disposal; but the poor people were, of course, in a great state of perturbation, and there was not much except the house itself that we could make use of.
As we were finishing dinner further orders arrived from the Division. Weatherby and I cantered down to the Divisional Staff to learn details, and we got them shortly, to the effect that the Cheshires and Norfolks were to be left under direct command of the Divisional Commander, whilst Brigade Headquarters was to be at Paturages by sunrise on the morrow, and to hold that with our other two battalions on the right.
We "fell in" the Brigade Headquarters about midnight and, after some trouble in securing guides, moved off through a labyrinth of streets in the warm dark. Our guides were local men, and we did not take long to get to Warquignies, in the main street of which we met the Headquarters of the 13th Brigade, minus their Brigadier. Here also were the K.O.S.B.'s in bivouac, acting as Brigade Reserve to their (13th) Brigade. The night was peaceful, and we pushed on after a short rest, getting at dawn to a steep hill which led down into Paturages.
The latter was a fine big town with paved streets and prosperous-looking houses, very different from the grubby streets of Boussu; but I was troubled about the hill street, as it was very steep and bad and narrow. How we should get the transport up it again in a hurry if it had to retire I did not know, and two eminently respectable inhabitants assured me that there was no other way back unless I went right up to Wasmes—from which direction firing was already beginning—and returned via the north. That didn't look healthy for the transport, so I left most of the Brigade transport at the top of the hill and only brought down the Signal section.
At the entrance into Paturages we found Currie, Cuthbert's (13th Brigade) Brigade Major, but Cuthbert was not there, so it was a little difficult to combine any action. However, we learnt that the other three battalions of the 13th Brigade were distributed in front of us on the north, and I received a message that the Dorsets and Bedfords had been obliged to fall back during the night and were holding the railway station at Wasmes and a bit east of that. The 13th Brigade had been along the line of the Canal the previous day and had been driven back by superior numbers, but had blown up some of the bridges. I heard afterwards that young Pottinger, a subaltern of the 17th Co. R.E., had been entrusted with blowing up one bridge, and that the charge had failed to explode. Whereupon he advanced under heavy fire close to the charge and had gallantly fired his revolver at it, which of course, as he knew, would have blown him sky-high with the bridge had he hit it. But either he missed the shot altogether or he hit the wrong part, and the thing didn't explode. And then he found himself cut off by Germans who had crossed elsewhere, and he had to leg it. So, unfortunately, that bridge was left intact.
I trotted ahead alone to try and find the Dorsets or the Bedfords, leaving Weatherby with other instructions. It was a long way to the station (Paturages by name, but really in Wasmes), but I eventually found Griffith (O.C. Bedfords) and most of his men thereabouts. The Germans had apparently got round to the east, but we were holding them. The Dorsets were a bit further to the south-east, and I found them after a good many wrong turnings; and then there was little to do but pick up connection with whoever I could. By this time my staff had come up, and Weatherby and I cantered off to find General Haking, who, I understood, had brought up his 5th Brigade from the 2nd Division (1st Corps), and was somewhere towards Frameries. Him we found after some trouble, with only one battalion in action in fairly open country. It appeared that a message had been sent the night before from the 3rd Division that the Germans were threatening Paturages and going to attack in force, and help was most urgently required; so General Haig had despatched Haking in a great hurry. The 5th Brigade made a forced march and arrived at Paturages at 2 A.M., perspiring profusely. Not a sound. Fearing an ambush, they walked delicately, with scouts well out in front and to both flanks. Not a sign either of the British or the Germans,—empty streets, no one about, all quiet as death. So they bivouacked in the streets and were now thinking of falling back on their own corps, as there were only a few Germans in front of them and these wouldn't advance.
Where the 3rd Division exactly were I could not at first find out, though I tried; but I knew that they were holding the country in the direction of Mons. Anyway, except for a good many shells flying about, there was very little of the enemy to see or hear, and Paturages was safe at all events for the present.
The Dorsets and Bedfords, however, had had a pretty bad time on the previous evening, and had lost a number of men, though they had given the Germans a good deal more than they got. The German shelling had been fairly accurate, and their infantry had pushed on between the slag-heaps and got their machine-guns to work under cover in a horribly efficient manner. Eventually our battalions had to evacuate their trenches as their right flank was being turned, and they fell back on Wasmes and Paturages, leaving most of their packs behind them in the trenches. They had taken them off to dig, and, being hot, had fought without them, and then this sudden outflanking movement had necessitated a rapid falling back, so their packs and most of their shovels had been left behind. This was awkward, more especially hereafter, as, although the loss of the greatcoat did not matter much in this hot weather, and certainly added to their marching power, still, the loss of the pack meant loss of spare socks and spare shirt—besides other things.
We snatched a little breakfast and coffee at an inn where the patronne was still in possession, and then things began to get more lively. Shells began to knock corners off the houses close by, and reports kept coming in that the enemy appeared to be advancing, though the bulk of his infantry was still some way off to the east. The Dorsets were rearranging their line so as not to be cut off, and I was standing with Bols (commanding Dorsets) and a few of his officers by the estaminet when a shrapnel burst with a tremendous crack close over our heads, bringing down branches and leaves in showers. Yet not a man or a horse was hit. The shrapnel bullets whizzed along the pavement in all directions, right among our feet, like hail it seemed; yet the only result was a lot of bad language from Saunders, who had got a nasty jar on the heel from one of the bullets: but it did not even cut the leather.
It now became time to get the Dorset transport away, as things were getting rather hot, and the crackling of rifles was getting distinctly nearer. I thought of that horrible hill and I looked at my map. Yes—there certainly was a way round back by the south-east, via the road along which Weatherby and I had just come back from interviewing Haking. So I directed the transport to move that way—there was a road branching off to the right only 400 yards on and quite safe, as I thought, for the firing was up north and north-east, and this road lay south-southeast.
Roe covered the withdrawal with his company and was very anxious to lay an ambush for the enemy. But they did not seem inclined to oblige him, but kept heading off in a more southerly direction. There was no sign from the 3rd Division who, I knew, were on our right; so, as my scouts could not find them, I could only come to the conclusion that the enemy had got in between us, and if we didn't clear out soon we should be in a bad way.
Suddenly there was a crackle of rifles down the road along which the Dorset transport had gone, and then nearly the whole of the transport came galloping back, a dead horse being dragged along in the shafts of one of the waggons. Margetts, the transport officer, rode past, revolver in hand, and streaming with blood from the shoulder, and one or two of the men and horses had obviously been hit. What had happened was that a few Germans had penetrated on to the road where Weatherby and I had passed in perfect safety only a short time before and ambushed the transport.
Margetts had very gallantly ridden direct at the ambush with his revolver, shot down one or two and bewildered the rest, and thus given time for the transport to turn round on the (luckily) broad road and gallop back. The Pioneer Sergeant of the Dorsets was killed, and so was a Brigade Policeman who happened to be with the transport. Otherwise almost the only loss was an ammunition-cart with two horses killed, and some damage was done to a pole and wheel or two of the other vehicles. Poor Nicholson (my servant), who should, strictly speaking, have remained with the Brigade transport and not come up at all, had attached himself to the Dorset transport without orders—wishing, I suppose, to be handy in case he was required—and had been shot down with the two or three others. I believe he was killed; anyway, I never saw him again, poor fellow. Margetts was nearly falling off his horse with pain, so he dismounted and was bandaged by the Medical Officer. But by that time the transport vehicles had disappeared, and as he was fainting and was not in a fit state to be carried, he had to be left in the house of a Belgian doctor and was taken prisoner shortly afterwards. We heard of him later, and I am glad to say his gallant action gained him a D.S.O.
Bols strung out half a company to defend the place where we thought the Germans would appear, but after waiting for ten minutes we found we were practically "in the air," as large forces of the enemy were reported coming round our right flank, and the firing on our left front got more and more to the left, thus proving that the Bedfords had been pushed back and were retiring via Wasmes—as they had been told to do if overwhelmed. Weatherby, who had cantered off to get in touch with them, confirmed this; and as it was getting extremely "hot" (shells) where we were, I gave the order to withdraw—only just in time as it turned out.
The Dorsets formed a proper rear-guard and held off the enemy, who were by this time trickling in large numbers into the town; but by good luck the Germans seemed to funk coming on in formation, and by the time we had got back to the foot of the steep hill they didn't bother us any more except by occasional shells. To my extreme annoyance (in one way) we found another track leading round the hill, towards Warquignies, not marked on the map; so those two wretched inhabitants had told us quite wrong, and we could have retired the transport this way after all. Of course we took advantage of it, and fell back slowly via Warquignies on Blangies, where we arrived, with very few casualties, about two.
Here we got orders at first to bivouac for the night, but hardly had the men had time to cook a meal and eat it than we were ordered to continue the retirement on Bavai St Waast, via Athis. As we got on to the main road here we found a large column of our own troops moving down it, and there were German mounted patrols at a respectful distance on both sides. We fired at them occasionally, and they disappeared and then turned up again in twos and threes on the skyline, evidently keeping touch with us.
Just beyond Athis we found the Norfolks, who had been fighting at Elouges all the morning, and then we came across the sad little remainder of the Cheshires—only about 200 left out of 891 who had gone into action that morning near Elouges. It was horrible to hear of this appalling loss. Shore was the only captain left, and he was in command, with two or three subalterns only. His story was that his company had been in reserve to the other three and had gone to occupy a farmhouse as told, that he had seen the three companies extending to his right, and then lost touch with them as they advanced rapidly over the brow of the low rolling ground. There was very heavy firing all along the line, and eventually a staff officer told him to fall back to his right rear and rejoin his battalion. This he tried to do, but he only came across a few wounded and stragglers of his regiment, who told him that the three companies had lost very heavily, including Boger (commanding) and all their officers, and that there was practically nobody left. Shore did his best to find out and help, but a general retirement took place, and he and his men were swept back with the rest. Tahourdin, Stapylton, Dyer, Dugmore, and lots of others were reported killed, and poor Shore was in a terrible state of mind. (It turned out afterwards that all these officers were alive and prisoners, with a great number of their men, but at the time I could not find out exactly how it happened that the battalion got so cut up and lost such a desperate number.)
The Norfolks had lost poor Cresswell, their Adjutant—such a good fellow—and one or two other officers. But although their losses had been serious they were nothing like so bad as the Cheshires. It appears that our left about Elouges and to the west rear of Dour was heavily attacked by the enemy; that we were on the defensive with the 14th Brigade (Rolt), and these two battalions of the 15th, and the 2nd Cavalry Brigade (De Lisle); and that Sir C. F. called on the Cavalry to assist at a certain moment. De Lisle thereupon very gallantly charged the German guns, but he started from some distance off, and not only were the horses blown before they got there, but there was a lot of wire between them and the Germans which they couldn't get through. So, after losing heavily, they wheeled to the right to get out of the way. What happened in detail to the 14th Brigade I frankly don't know, but I fear the guns of the 5th Division lost pretty heavily at this period.
Two companies of the Bedfords had joined us by this time, but I was rather nervous about the rest, including Griffith, for I had had no word of him since Paturages. However, as we passed through Houdain he turned up from a side road with the rest of his battalion, having had a pretty rough time in getting out of Wasmes.
By dusk we had got on to the open country near St Waast, and here we found that the Division was bivouacking. Although it was nearly dark, and the Brigade had been scattered, with its transport, over a lot of country during the day, it all came together again, including its empty supply waggons, in a marvellous way, and managed to find its way through all the other troops in the dark to its rightful bivouac space—some fields covered with standing crops. Water was of course the difficulty, but some was discovered in the shape of a small stream half a mile off, over hedges and ditches; and after the Norfolks had been put out on outpost to cover our rear, and we had had some food, we slept the sleep of the dog-tired.
I remember Cadell came out as cook that evening, for he fried a lugubrious mess of biscuits, jam, and sardines together in a mess-tin, and insisted on all of us having some. Up to this point our messing had not been entirely happy, for an old soldier whom I had taken on in Belfast, on his own statement that he had been second cook in his officers' mess, turned out an absolute fraud. He could hardly even poach an egg, and hadn't the smallest idea of cooking. I am sure he had never been inside an officers' mess either, for when he was deposed from the office of cook to that of mess waiter, he knew nothing about that either, and could not even wash up. Private Brown, who was supposed at first only to cook for the men of the Brigade Headquarters, was therefore elevated to the proud status of Officers' cook, and made a thundering good one (till he was wounded at Ypres); and the Belfast man was given the sack at the earliest opportunity and sent home,—only to appear later in the field as a corporal of the Irish Rifles!
Next morning the Brigade was on the move before daylight, and was told off as part of the main body of the Division, the 14th Brigade forming the rear-guard. We had not had much to eat the night before, or in fact the whole day, and as the rations had not come up during the night, the men had devilish little breakfast—nor we either.
We were told to requisition what we could from the country, but though St Andre and myself did our best, and rode on ahead of the Brigade, routing out the dwellers of the farmhouses and buying chickens and cheese and oats wherever possible, there was very little to be had.
There were already a great many inhabitants on the road fleeing south-westwards, pitiful crowds of women and old men and children, carrying bundles on their backs, or wheeling babies and more bundles in wheelbarrows, or perambulators, or broken-down carts. Some of the peasant women were wearing their best Sunday gowns of black bombazine and looked very hot and uncomfortable; children with their dolls or pet dogs, old women and men hobbling along, already very tired though the sun had not been up more than an hour or two, and sturdy young mothers carrying an extraordinary quantity of household stuff, trooped along, all of them anxiously asking how far off the Germans were, and whether we could hold them off, or whether they would all be killed by them,—it was a piteous sight. We warned all the people who were still in their cottages to stay there and not to run away, as their houses would only be pillaged if they were not there, but I fear that few took our advice.
It seemed a very long march that day, down the perfectly straight road skirting the Mormal forest and on to Le Cateau. It was, as a matter of fact, only a little over twenty miles, but the hot day, with very little food, was most trying for the men. We had one good rest at Englefontaine, where we bought a lot of food—bread and cheese, and apples and plums, and a little meat—but it was not much. The rest of the road was bare and hot, leading over down-like country past the town of Le Cateau, and on to the heights to the west of it. Many aeroplanes, British, French, and German, were skimming about, and numerous bodies of French cavalry could be seen moving about the downs and the roads in the rear.
We had received orders on the road to occupy part of an entrenched position to the west of Le Cateau, and Weatherby and I rode ahead to look at it and apportion it off as the battalions came up. The trenches, we considered, were quite well sited. They were about 3 feet deep, and had been dug by the inhabitants under, I think, French supervision; but, judging by our subsequent experience, they were nothing like deep enough and placed on much too exposed ground; and the artillery pits were far too close up—though correct according to the then text-books.
I put a few men into the trenches as an observing line, and sent the commanding officers round to study them in case we had to hold them in force on the morrow, and bivouacked the rest of the Brigade half a mile behind them. Although we seemed to have done a good day's work already, it was then only about 3 P.M., for we had started about 3.30 A.M. We got a good deal more food—bully beef and biscuits—here, besides a cart-load of very smelly cheeses and some hams and vegetables and fresh bread, and the men got their stomachs fairly full by sundown.
The 13th Brigade came in a bit later and formed up on our right, but the 14th Brigade, who had been doing rear-guard, did not get in till nightfall, and were much exhausted.
The enemy, however, bar cavalry, had not pressed on in any strength, and we were left fairly well alone during the night.
It began to rain heavily in the evening, and we had a wet dinner in the open. There were various disturbances in the night, especially when some men in the trenches began firing at some probably imaginary Germans; but otherwise all ranks got a fair amount of sleep.
The orders overnight were that we were to continue the retirement first thing in the morning; but when morning came the Germans were so close that it was decided that it would be impossible to do so, and fresh orders were issued to hold the position we were in.
Accordingly we took up our positions as we had settled overnight, and started all necessary preparations—deepening trenches, arranging telephone wires and communications, and putting the village of Troisvilles, on our left, in a state of defence.
The Dorsets were to hold this village and several hundred yards of trenches to the east of it. On their right came the Bedfords in trenches, with of course a proportion in support, and the Cheshires were put in a dip of the ground in rear of them. The 13th Brigade was on the right of the Bedfords, with the K.O.S.B.'s touching them. The Norfolks I put in a second line, in rear of the right of the Bedfords and the left of the K.O.S.B.'s, mostly along a sunken road where they dug themselves well into the banks. The 27th Brigade of Artillery, under Onslow, was put under my orders; two batteries of it were in our right rear, and the third was taken away by Sir C. F., to strengthen the right I believe. A battery of the 15th Artillery Brigade was also put in close behind the Bedfords, in the dip of ground afore-mentioned, whence they did excellent execution without being seen by the enemy. Divisional Headquarters were at Reumont, a mile behind us, with a wood in between; but we were, of course, connected up by telephone with them, as well as with our battalions and our artillery. We—i.e., the Brigade Headquarters—sat in the continuation of the hollow sandy road, in rear of the Bedfords and on the left of the Norfolks.
The morning was distinctly cool after the rain, and I remember that I wore my woolly till about 11 o'clock. Our horses were stowed away a few hundred yards to our left, in a hollow; and the extraordinary thing was that neither they nor ourselves got shelled as long as we were there, though some shrapnel burst occasionally only a hundred yards off or so in different directions.
We were in position by 7 o'clock, as far as I can remember; but unless one keeps a record the whole time one is very liable to err—and I won't swear that it was not 8 o'clock. Some shells began to arrive about then, but did no harm. On our left was the 9th Brigade (3rd Division), and the shelling began to develop pretty heavily in their direction. Our guns were of course in action by this time, and for the first two or three hours the air was full of shells and very little Infantry fire was heard. The 4th Division had arrived only that morning, I believe by train, and was guarding the left flank of the line, assisted by our Cavalry. Behind the town of Le Cateau, on the extreme right, was the 19th Brigade. Then came the 14th Brigade, then the 13th, then ourselves, and then the 3rd Division; so we were about the right centre.
The Dorsets were hard at work putting Troisvilles into a strong state of defence, and were helped by some of our Divisional Sappers, I believe the 59th Co. R.E. (but it might have been the 17th).
There was a local French ambulance—civilian I think—in Troisvilles, and several of our own R.A.M.C. personnel there; but the Divisional ambulances were farther to the rear, and as the wounded began to come in from the right front we sent them back towards Reumont. St Andre was very useful in galloping backwards and forwards between Troisvilles and Brigade Headquarters—I kept him for that, as I wanted my proper staff for other staff work; but all of them paid a visit or two there once or twice. The enemy's shells were now falling fast on our left about Inchy, but seemed to do extraordinarily little damage there; and during the first hours it was really more of a spectacular piece for us than a battle. However, we were of course kept busy sending and receiving wires from all parts, and every now and then a few wounded came in from our front. We were also bucked up by hearing that a French Cavalry Division was coming to help us from Cambrai; but I don't know whether it ever materialised.
As the day wore on, the Bedfords got engaged with infantry in their front, but neither they nor the Dorsets got anything very much to shoot at; and though a German machine-gun or two pushed pluckily forward and did a certain amount of damage from hidden folds in the ground, I think we accounted for them—anyway we stopped their shooting after a short time.
Meanwhile the 13th Brigade and the guns on our right were catching it very hot. There seemed an enormous number of guns against us (I believe, as a matter of fact, there were nearer 700 than 600), and our batteries were suffering very heavily. So were the 14th and 19th Brigades—the latter being a scratch one composed of units from the lines of communication under Laurence Drummond.
At one moment—it must have been about 12 o'clock or later—I saw to my horror the best part of a company of Bedfords leave their trenches in our front and retire slowly and in excellent order across the open. So I got on my horse and galloped out to see what they were doing and to send them back, as it seemed to me that some of the K.O.S.B.'s were falling back too, in sympathy. I'm afraid that my language was strong; but I made the Bedfords turn about again, although their officer explained that he was only withdrawing, by superior battalion orders, in order to take up an advanced position further on the right; and with some of the Cheshires, whom I picked up on the way, they advanced again in extended order.
They got back again to their trenches without any casualties to speak of, and I was much gratified by a message I received shortly afterwards from my right (I think Cuthbert or the gunners) thanking me warmly for my most valuable counter-attack, which had considerably relieved the pressure in their front!
On our immediate right the Norfolks were occupied for several hours in trying to cut down a very big tree, which was about the most conspicuous feature in the whole of our position, and formed an excellent object on which the enemy could range. It was all very well; but as soon as they had cut it half through, so as to fall to the south, the south wind, which was blowing pretty strongly, not only kept it upright but threatened to throw it over to the north. This would have been a real disaster, as it would have blocked completely the sunken road along which the ammunition carts, to say nothing of artillery and other waggons, would have had to come. So it had to be guyed up with ropes, with much difficulty; and even when teams hung on and hauled on the ropes, they could make little impression—the wind was so strong. Eventually they did manage to get it down, but even so it formed a fairly conspicuous mark. (It was so big that it was marked on the map.)
Inchy was now the centre of an appalling bombardment. A crowd of Germans had got into it, it appeared, and the village was being heavily shelled by both sides—British and German. Several houses and haystacks caught fire, and the poor devils inside must have had a terrible time. The 3rd Division was holding its own, but was being heavily attacked by the enemy's infantry. However, we eventually got the better of it, and the 9th and 10th Brigades drove the Germans away from their trenches and pursued them some distance, much assisted by the fire of the Dorsets and the advance of one or two of their companies.
Things went on hammer-and-tongs for another hour or two; more and more wounded began coming in from the 13th Brigade, including a lot of K.O.S.B.'s. We turned Beilby, our veterinary officer, on to "first aid" for many of them and sent them on; but some of the shrapnel wounds were appalling. One man I remember lying across a pony; I literally took him for a Frenchman, for his trousers were drenched red with blood, and not a patch of khaki showing. Another man had the whole of the back of his thigh torn away; yet, after being bandaged, he hobbled gaily off, smoking a pipe. What struck me as curious was the large number of men hit in the face or below the knee,—there seemed few body wounds in comparison; but that may of course have been because those badly hit in the body were killed or unmovable. But one would see men apparently at their last gasp, with gruesome wounds on them and no more stretchers available, and yet five minutes afterwards they had disappeared.
Time was getting on, and the thunder and rain of German shells seemed unceasing; they appeared to come now not only from all along the front and the right front, but from our right as well, and our guns were replying less and less. Reports began to come in from the right of batteries wiped out (the 28th R.F.A. Brigade lost nearly all their guns here, for nearly all the detachments and horses were killed), and of a crushing attack on the 19th Brigade and penetration of our line thereabouts. And soon afterwards the movement itself became visible, for the 14th Brigade, and then the 13th, began to give way, and one could see the trenches being evacuated on the right. The Norfolks stuck well to it on the right, and covered the retirement that was beginning; but they were taken out of my hands by Sir C. F., and told off to act as rear-guard for the brigades on their right.
The 15th Brigade had really been very lucky, and had neither been shelled nor attacked very heavily, and consequently we were pretty fresh and undamaged. I forget if we got any definite message to retire, and if so, when, but it was fairly obvious that we couldn't stay where we were much longer. The Dorsets were quite happy in Troisvilles and thereabouts, but the 9th Brigade on their left had had a very bad time, and were already beginning to withdraw, though in good order.
This being so, I sent orders to the battery of the 15th R.F.A. Brigade in my front to retire before they got cut off; and they executed it grandly, bringing up the horses at a gallop, swinging round, hooking in, and starting off at a canter as if at an Aldershot field-day, though they were under heavy shell and rifle fire all the time.
Only two horses and about two men were hit altogether, and though all these were apparently killed, the men got up after a little and were brought safely off with the Bedfords.
The K.O.S.B.'s were now falling back on us from the right, and they were strung out along the Norfolks' late position, and almost at right angles to our line, for the Germans were pressing us there, and heavy rifle fire was breaking out there and nearly in our right rear. Then I ordered the Cheshires and after them the Bedfords to retire, which they did quite calmly and in good order; and lastly came the Dorsets, very well handled by Bols and forming a rear-guard to the rest of the troops hereabouts. His machine-guns under Lieut. Wodehouse had been doing excellent work, and the shooting of both Bedfords and Dorsets had had a great effect in keeping off the German attack hereabouts.
By this time units had become a bit mixed, and lines of troops belonging to different battalions and even different brigades were retiring slowly over the open ground and under a heavy fire of shrapnel—which by the same token seemed to do extraordinarily little damage. It was difficult to give a definite point for all these troops to move on, for we had been warned against retiring through villages, as they were naturally made a cockshy of by the enemy's guns. Reumont was being already heavily bombarded, and though we had instructions to fall back south-westwards along the road to Estrees, this road passed through Reumont. I did not know how to get comfortably on to it without going through some village, so gave a general direction off the road, between it and Bertry, and struck across country, together with a number of troops on foot in various formations, all moving quite steadily and remarkably slowly.
As the shrapnel were bursting in large numbers overhead, I got the men well extended, as best I could, but some of course were hit. Just as we left the road a man in charge of an ambulance-waggon full of wounded ran up and asked what he was to do, as some infernal civilian had unhitched and gone off with the horses whilst he was attending to the wounded. Stephenson, commanding K.O.S.B.'s, was lying wounded in the waggon, but this I did not hear till afterwards. Some of the K.O.S.B.'s thereupon very gallantly harnessed themselves to the waggon and towed it along the road.
It was hard work making our way mounted across country, because of the numerous wire fences we came across, not to mention ditches and hedges. We worked rather towards Bertry, avoiding woods and boggy bits, but the line wasn't easy to keep. The Germans had an unpleasant habit of plugging bursts of four to a dozen shrapnel at one range, then another lot fifty yards on, and so on, so it was no good hurrying on, as you only came in for the next lot. Then they very nearly got us just when we had got to a hopeless-looking place—the railway, with thick fence and ditch on each side of the track and a barbed-wire fence as well, with signal wires knee high just where you expected to be able to jump down on to the track. Luckily Catley, my groom, had some wire nippers; but just as he was cutting at the wire, and we of the Brigade Staff were all standing round close by, trying to get over or through, whack came four shrapnel, one close after the other, bursting just short of us and above us—a very good shot if intentional, but I don't think they could possibly have seen us. Horses of course flew all over the place; Cadell and his horse came down, and I thought he was hit, but he only lost his cap, and his horse only got a nasty flesh wound from a bit of shrapnel in his hindquarters. Again, why none of these shrapnel hit us was most extraordinary: there we were, seven or eight of us mounted and close together, and the shells bursting beautifully with terrific and damnable cracks—yet not one of the Brigade Staff touched. Beilby's horse, by the way, also got a bullet in the quarter.
These same shrapnel hit two or three infantry standing round us, and the next thing we saw was Dillon (of the Divisional Staff) dismounted and staggering along supporting two wounded privates and hoisting them over the obstacles on to the rail track, one man hanging heavily from his neck on either side. He was streaming with sweat, and said afterwards it was the hardest job he'd ever had. Others of course helped him and his men, and we wandered along over the grass, and skirting the little woods and coppices till we got to the main road again.
As we proceeded along the road we did our best to get the troops collected into their units, getting single men together into bunches and the bunches into groups and platoons, and so on. But many of them were wounded and dog-tired, and it was hard work. Ballard and his Norfolks joined us in bits, and we heard that they had had a hard time falling back through Reumont and done very well as rear-guard. There were stories at first of their having suffered terribly and lost a lot of men; but it was not in the least true,—they had had comparatively few casualties.
The country gradually grew more and more open till by dusk—somewhere about 7 o'clock—we were traversing a huge rolling plain with open fields and only occasional farmhouses visible. The troops on the road were terribly mixed, infantry and artillery and waggons and transport all jumbled up together, and belonging not only to different brigades but even to different divisions, the main ones being of course the 5th and 3rd Divisions.
Darkness came on, and the night grew cooler and cooler, yet still we pushed on. As it got blacker, terrible blocks occurred and perpetual unintentional halts. In one place, somewhere near the Serains-Premont road I think, we were halted for about three-quarters of an hour by a jam of waggons just ahead. I gave the Norfolks leave to worm their way through the press, but it was no use, for before they had got through the waggons moved on again and only divided the men more and more, so that they lost their formation again and were worse off than before.
Companies or bits of companies of my battalions were pretty close together, and at one time the Brigade was pretty well cohesive, but as the night wore on they got separated again and mixed up with the transport till it was quite impossible to sort them out. It was a regular nightmare, and all one could look forward to was the halt at Estrees.
The German guns had long ceased to fire, even before the sun went down, and there didn't seem to be any pursuit at all, as far as we could gather. Our men moved quite steadily and without the vestige of a sign of panic: in fact, they were much annoyed at having to fall back. But I expect the German infantry was even more tired than ours, for they had marched all through the previous night and certainly had frightfully heavy casualties during the day. Anyway they did not worry us, and we pursued our way in peace. But men and horses were desperately sleepy, and at these perpetual halts used to go to sleep and block up the road again when we moved on.
Luckily the road was as straight as a die, and one could not possibly lose it; but it was difficult to know where we were, and occasional twinkling lights in houses and cottages on the road only made our whereabouts still more deceptive.
At last we entered something that looked in the pitch darkness more like a town. It was Estrees right enough, but there were no signs of a halt, though it was 1 A.M. or so. We could not find any staff officers here, even at the solitary local inn, to give us any information, and the only rumour was that we were to march on as far as we could go. We had had no direct orders, and we did not know where the Divisional staff were, but as by this time we had pushed on and were, as far as we knew, ahead of most of the Brigade, Weatherby and I moved aside into a field full of corn stooks, unsaddled our horses, gave them a feed, and went fast asleep in the wet corn. We had meant to sleep only for half an hour, but were so dead tired that it must have been more like an hour and a half. And even then we were only awakened by a battalion (I think it was the Northumberland Fusiliers) irrupting into our field and pulling the stooks down for their own benefit. So we guiltily saddled up again, thinking that the whole Brigade must have passed us in the dark. But, as a matter of fact, it had not.
Daylight came at last through the damp grey mists, and we found ourselves still in open country, with the road thickly covered as before with troops of all arms and, in places by the roadside, the remains of bivouac fires and empty boxes and bully-beef tins, and hunks of raw meat; for the A.S.C. finding that it was impossible to supply the troops regularly, had wisely dumped down their stores at intervals alongside the road and let the men help themselves.
This was all very well for the men in front, but by the time we in rear had got to the stores there was nothing left, and we had to go hungry.
Somewhere about 4 A.M. I came on Sir C. F. standing at the cross-roads near Nauroy. I naturally asked him where we were to retire on; but he had not recently received any definite orders himself; so after talking it over we came to the conclusion that our best line would be on St Quentin, and we directed the men, as they came up—5th Division straight on, 4th Division to the right to Bellicourt, and 3rd to the left to Lehaucourt, for thus we should get the Divisions more or less in their right positions. Of course a vast quantity of troops had already preceded us, probably towards St Quentin, but that could not be helped.
It was a long way yet to St Quentin, about eight miles, and on the road and off it were men, waggons, and stragglers in every direction. The jumble of the night had disintegrated most of the formed bodies, and the whole thing had the appearance of a vast debacle. Men moving on singly but slowly, little bunches of three and four men together, sometimes of the same regiment, but oftener of odd ones; men lying exhausted or asleep by the roadside, or with their packs off and sitting on the grass, nibbling at a biscuit or looking hopelessly before them. It was a depressing sight, and I wondered how on earth the formations would ever come together again. Officers of course were doing their best to get their own men together, but the results were small. Whenever we passed men of the 15th Brigade we collected them as far as possible into bodies; but it was very difficult to know what units men belonged to without asking them, for very many of them had long ago, on arrival at Havre and elsewhere, given their cap-badges and shoulder-names as souvenirs to women and children, and they were most difficult to identify.
A mile or two before getting into St Quentin I passed Laurence Drummond, commanding the 19th Brigade, hobbling along on foot, and offered him of course my second horse. He had got damaged somehow—by a fall, I think—and said he had his horse all right, but it hurt him less to walk than to ride.
As we approached the town the entrance had got rather blocked with troops. This was rather a good thing, as it enabled the stragglers behind to close up and find other portions of their own regiments; and, extraordinary as it seemed, whole companies had now got together and in some cases had even coagulated into battalions. I found most of the Norfolks collected together in a field by the side of the road, and a stray Bedford company or two looking quite fresh and happy.
As it was necessary to get further orders, I left Weatherby to do some more collecting and pushed on by myself into the town, where I found Rolt and some of his Staff; but he knew nothing. There was a hopeless block at this moment, so I slipped off my horse for ten minutes and had a bit of chocolate and biscuit, which were quite refreshing. Rolt was somewhat depressed, for his Brigade had lost heavily, but they too were gradually coming together. At last, in the middle of the town, I managed to collect some instructions, and was told that the 5th Division was to form up in a field near the railway station the other side of the town. There were also Staff officers at different points, calling out "5th Division this way, 3rd that," and so on; and as the men, now more or less in columns of fours, passed them, they perked up and swung along quite happily.
We were now outside the region of our maps, so I asked my way to a stationer's, which luckily happened to be open, though it was barely 7.30 A.M., and bought all the local maps I could get hold of: they were only paper, not linen, but they proved extremely useful. And then I bought some big rings of bread and some apples, and made Catley carry them strung on the little brigade flag that S. had embroidered, and we filled up our haversacks with as much food as we could buy and carry—for the benefit of the men.
I found my way to the railway field all right, but none of the Brigade had yet arrived, so I went back to look for them. On the way I found that a number of the 13th Brigade had taken the wrong turning and were plodding right away from the town, so I had to canter after them a mile or more and turn them back. There was a lot of transport further on, on the move; and fearing that they might belong to us, whilst my horse was pretty tired, I begged a nice-looking Frenchman with a long beard—a doctor of sorts—in a motor-car, to lend me his car to catch them. This he willingly did, and drove me up to them, but they turned out to be field ambulances with orders of their own, so I came back to the railway field, leaving a man at the railway turning to turn the others and show them the way.
Gradually bits of the 15th Brigade arrived—a few Dorsets, half the Bedfords, and a few Cheshires; and to these I imparted the Staff instructions that we were to bivouac here for the night. The men had already done twenty-four miles during the night, and lay about, thankful to get a little rest. Supplies, we were told, would be issued shortly at the station, but before they came I got peremptory orders to march off at 2 o'clock, and withdraw further south to a place called Ollizy, nine miles on.
It was then 12.30 P.M., and the men had had no food since the previous morning; however, orders had to be obeyed. So I distributed my bread and apples, for which the men pressed round ravenously; and James, commanding the 2nd Manchesters, who had been in my Brigade two years previously, gave me a couple of most welcome big sandwiches and a drink. None of my staff had yet turned up; and though I was told that supplies were just going to arrive, none did arrive before we marched off. Five minutes before that time the Norfolks, who had had a rest the other side of the town, turned up; and as the rest of the Brigade marched off the rest of the Dorsets marched up—rather disappointed at having to go on at once without either rest or rations.
Weatherby and the rest of Brigade Headquarters had trickled in by this time, and we moved off in rear of the 13th Brigade. The day was fairly hot by this time—luckily it had been cool all the morning—and I expected to see whole heaps of the men fall out exhausted; but devil a bit, they moved on, well closed up, good march discipline, and even whistling and singing; and for the rest of the march I don't believe that more than half a dozen fell out.
We expected some more fighting near Ollizy, for a message had come through for the 13th to push on and collar a certain bridge before the Germans got it; but all was peaceful, and we got to Ollizy about five o'clock. There I had to tell off a battalion and some guns not belonging to me to take up a line of outposts to guard our rear (I quite forget what the troops were, or why they were put under me), and the Brigade pushed on over the bridge, and through the swampy, marshy country beyond.
No halt yet, and I began to wonder whether we were expected to do yet another night march. However, after another two miles I was told to put the Brigade in bivouac round a farm and little village called Eaucourt, covering our rear with another line of outposts.
There was some distant shelling during the evening; but we were too dog-tired to worry about it, though bursts of rifle fire did occur during the night, necessitating our jumping up once or twice to see what it was.
The farm was quite a good one of the usual form—i.e., the living-house forming one end of a big oblong courtyard, whilst barns and lofts and cowsheds filled up the other three sides. In the middle, of course, was a mass of dirty straw and manure, and pools of stinking water in which ducks and pigs and chickens disported themselves. The people were most friendly, and supplied us with eggs and straw and a kitchen fire; but it was rather a squash, as the headquarters of an artillery brigade were already feeding there, and we didn't get dinner till very late. The men lay about in the lofts and sheds among the farm implements and sheep, and I should have expected them after a march of over thirty-five miles, and no food or sleep in the twenty-four hours, to curl up and go to sleep at once, but they didn't; they were quite happy and lively now that at last they'd got their rations, and made the most of them. I had a bed to lie on, and actually enjoyed a wash in a real basin, but the little bedroom was not very sweet or clean, and I'd as soon have slept with the others on straw in the kitchen and living-room.
Next morning we were off before the sun rose, with orders to proceed towards Noyon. We were well up to time as regards our place in the column, but some of the rest of the Division were very late—probably some counter-order had been given; anyway, we had to wait a good extra half-hour by the roadside. I remember that I occupied the time in shaving myself; and as there was no water handy, I moistened the brush in the dew on the grass. It did fairly well—though removing two days' growth was rather painful, I allow.
We plodded on through the heat of the day, in rear of the 14th Brigade, and kept our march discipline without trouble, though the number of apple- and pear-trees on the road was a great temptation. What had happened or where we were going to was a complete mystery; all that we knew was that we had had to leg it at Le Cateau, but that we were distinctly not downhearted; nor did the Germans seem to be pursuing. So we thought that we should probably soon get the order to turn and either take up a defensive position or advance again against the enemy—though we also knew that we must have lost a number of guns and a good many men.
Soon after we started we were asked how many waggons we required to carry damaged and footsore men, and at a certain point there were some thirty or forty waggons drawn up for that purpose. I felt rather insulted, and said so, but eventually put my pride in my pocket and said I'd have one per battalion. The officer in charge at once offered ten, but I did not accept them, and I don't think we filled even one waggon all day.
Somewhere about ten o'clock the message was passed down from the front that Sir John French was on the roadside and wanted to see battalion commanders. I cantered on, and found him under a tree with a few of his staff. I saluted and asked for orders, but he said he only wanted to see the C.O.'s. Then he took me aside and said that he wanted to compliment and congratulate the men on their magnificent work; that we had saved the left flank of the French army, and that Joffre had begged him to tell the troops that they had saved France for the time being, and more to the same effect. I hastened, of course, to tell everybody; I think the men got their tails up well in consequence. But the British are an undemonstrative lot, and Thomas never lets his feelings show on the surface. Anyway, we were all pleased that our sacrifices hadn't been for nothing, and hoped we'd soon stop and turn round.
At Guiscard we turned into the main road to Noyon. It was very hot, and we had had no rest (except the regulation ten minutes per hour) since starting. So when we got to some nice shade on the left, and big spreading trees dotted over some fields, I turned the Brigade off the road, transport and all, and we halted for an hour and a half. We went to sleep after luncheon, of course, and when it was time to start I remember that Moulton-Barrett went up to St Andre, who was lying fast asleep, and shouted out, "The Germans are on us!" Poor St Andre jumped to his feet with a yell and seized his revolver; it was a wicked joke.
The main road into Noyon was much crowded, not only with a lot of French cavalry going north, but a very large number of waggons full of our own men—of other brigades, mind you, for I don't think there were any 15th Brigade men there at all; but then the others had had a harder time.
The French cavalry were a dragoon brigade—horses looking very fit and well, and wonderfully light equipment on them; they do not go in for carrying half so much on the saddle as we do—for one thing, apparently they don't consider it necessary to carry cleaning material on the horse.
There was again a considerable squash in Noyon, and here St Andre was delighted to meet some spick-and-span young friends of his whom he affected to treat with great contempt, as not yet having seen a shot fired. Having to cross the railway line also delayed us still more, as a long supply-train was shunting and reshunting and keeping the gates shut.
It was a lovely evening, and though progress was slow, we eventually reached Pontoise by about 7 P.M. The country was thickly wooded and very pretty, and the quarters into which we got after our sixteen-mile march were most acceptable. Here we were told we should probably be for several days—to rest and recuperate; but we were beginning to have doubts about these perpetually-promised rests which never came off.
The Brigade Headquarters put up at a blacksmith's shop, and the old couple here received us with hospitality; but though there were beds and mattresses for most of us, there was very little to be had in the way of vegetables or eggs or other luxuries such as milk or butter.
Next morning and afternoon were devoted to a little rest and cleaning up; but I had little leisure myself, for I had to preside over a court of inquiry for several hot and weary hours.
At 6 P.M. we suddenly received orders to move at once to Carlepont, only three miles back, and began to move by the shortest and most unblocked way. Just when we were moving off I received orders to move the other way, but with the sanction of the Divisional Staff I preferred going my own way, and went it.
The detail of the map, however, turned out to be incorrect, and I found myself at the far, instead of the near, end of the village, with a lot of transport in the narrow street between ourselves and our billets. This was hopeless, and after a prolonged jam in the dark I gave it up, put the battalions on to the pavement and down a side street, and told them to bivouac and feed where they were.
Meanwhile St Andre had got a kind Frenchman to give the staff some dinner, but I misunderstood the arrangement and could not find the place; so I insisted on digging out some food from our cook's waggon on the wet grass of a little park we found. And there we ate it about midnight and went to sleep in the sopping herbage. I fear my staff were not much pleased with the arrangement.
Off again at 2:20 A.M., we pushed on over pretty country via Attichy to Croutoy, a matter of eleven miles. It developed into a roasting-hot day, and the last two miles, up a very steep hill, were most trying for the transport. We were at the head of the column, and longed to stop in the shady little village of Croutoy, but we had to move on beyond to some open stubble fields, where the heat was terrific. And there we bivouacked till about midday, when we were told we might go back to Croutoy, and did. It was a very pretty little village with a magnificent view northwards over the Aisne. We were very comfortably put up in General de France's chateau, and enjoyed there a real big bath with taps and hot water, the first genuine bath we had had since arriving at Havre. My only contretemps here was that, having when halfway to Croutoy dismounted Catley and lent his horse to a Staff officer, I never saw the horse or my kit on him again. The Staff officer had duly sent the horse back by a sergeant of gunners, but the latter never materialized, and, strangely enough, was never heard of afterwards. So I thus lost my bivouac tent, mackintosh, lantern, and several other things, besides Catley's complete possessions, all of which were on the animal. Luckily the horse was not my own, but a spare one, as my mare Squeaky had had a sore back, and Catley was not riding her.
Next day was awfully hot again. We were off by 7.30, and were by way of billeting at a place called Bethisy, on the south-west edge of the forest of Compiegne. We passed by the eastern edge, close by the extraordinary chateau of Pierrefonds, built by Viollet le Duc to the exact model of the old castle of the thirteenth century, a huge pile of turrets and battlements, like one of Gustave Dore's nightmares; and then struck across the open towards Morienval. We were a long time on the march, largely owing to the necessary habit that the Artillery have of stopping to "feed and water" when they come to water, irrespective of the hourly ten-minute halt. Then, having thus stopped the Infantry column in rear for twenty minutes, they trot on and catch up the rest of the column in front, leaving the Infantry toiling hopelessly after them, trying to fill the gap the guns leave behind them. It is bad, of course, but it is a choice of evils, for one way the Artillery suffers, the other the Infantry; but they both arrive together in the end.
I had trotted ahead to Morienval, to settle on the road, as there was a divergence of opinion on the subject, and there a kindly farmer asked me in to dinner with his family—an excellent potage aux choux and a succulent stew, with big juicy pears to follow, all washed down by remarkably good red vin du pays, I remember. There were perpetual halts on the road, which we did not understand, but soon after leaving Morienval we were abruptly ordered to turn sharp off to the left and make for Crepy. The fact was, a force of German cavalry had turned up at Bethisy, just as our billeting parties were entering it, and the latter had only just time to clear out.
Our own cavalry cleared the Germans out of Bethisy for the time being, but we continued on to Crepy-en-Valois, and arrived there, rather done, at six o'clock—nearly eleven hours to go fifteen miles, just the sort of thing to tire troops on a very hot day,—and with numerous apparently unnecessary halts. However, we had few if any stragglers, and we made our way to some fields on the south-west of Crepy, St Agathe being the name of the district. I selected the bivouac myself, as I did not get billeting orders in time, and I preferred open fields on a hot night for the troops instead of stuffy billets in the town.
The Brigade Staff, however, occupied a little house and grounds in the suburbs, and I shall never forget arriving there with St Andre after seeing to the bivouac of the Brigade. There were two wine-bottles and glasses on a table on the lawn, with comfortable chairs alongside. Nearly speechless with thirst, we rushed at them. They were empty!
The night was hot, and though I had an excellent bed I remember I could not get to sleep for ever so long. We were to have moved off early, but the sound of the guns not far to the north stopped us, and orders quickly arrived for the Brigade to go and occupy Duvy, a village a mile or so to the west, and give what help we could to General Pulteney's force of a Division and a brigade, who were being attacked on the north-west.
So we moved out rapidly and pushed out two battalions to assist. Cavalry was reported everywhere, but it was difficult to know which was English and which German. The latter's patrols were fairly bold, and single horsemen got close up to us. Broadwood, of the Norfolks, bowled over one of them at 700 yards—with a rifle, it was reported, but it was probably his machine-gun. Meanwhile our guns on the plateau north of Crepy supporting the 13th Brigade did good execution, three consecutive shells of theirs falling respectively into a squadron of Uhlans, killing a whole gun-team, and smashing up a gun by direct hit (27th Brigade R.F.A.)
The two battalions working up north-west from Duvy had just extended and were moving carefully across country, when I received word that a large force of the enemy's cavalry was moving on to my left rear. I did not like this, and pushed out another battalion (Norfolks) to guard my flank. But we need not have been worried, for shortly afterwards it appeared that the "hostile" cavalry was the North Irish Horse, turned up from goodness knows where.
About the same time we got a message from General Pulteney thanking us for the assistance rendered, and another one from Sir C. Fergusson telling us to continue our retirement towards Ormoy Villers as flank-guard to the rest of the Division. This we did, across country and partly on the railway—very bad going this for horses, especially as we might any moment have come across a bridge or culvert with nothing but rails across it. It is true that, if we had, we might have slipped down into the turnip fields on either side, but there were ditches and wire alongside which would have proved awkward.
We halted about Ormoy Villers station—in ruins almost, and with its big water-tank blown up,—and I put two battalions to guard the flank whilst the rest of us had a meal. Saint Andre had as usual managed to forage for us in the ruins, and produced a tin of sardines and some tomatoes and apples, which, with chocolate and biscuits and warm water—it was another roasting day—filled us well up. Then after a long and dusty walk through the woods we reached Nanteuil, where most of the Division had already arrived.
We had to find outposts (Dorsets and Norfolks) that night, covering a huge bit of country. I borrowed a car in order to settle how they should be put out, and ran out much too far, nearly into the enemy. It was not easy to place them, as connection through the woods was most awkward. However, we were not attacked, the German cavalry and advanced guards not having apparently come up.
I had sent Major Allason (of the Bedfords) out earlier in the day to scout northwards with a couple of mounted men, and he came back at eventide, having collared a German officer and his servant, but not brought them in. They had just been falling back at a walk with the information they had gathered, when they heard a clatter of hoofs behind them, and beheld a German cavalry officer and his man trying to gallop past them—not to attack them,—apparently bolting from some of our own cavalry. Allason, who was in front, stuck spurs into his horse and galloped after the officer and shot his horse, bringing the German down, the latter also being put out of action. Then they bound up the German's wound and took all his papers from him, which proved to be very useful, giving the location of the German cavalry and other troops. Meanwhile the officer's servant stood by, with his mouth open, doing nothing. As they couldn't carry the officer off, they left them both there and came on.
Amongst other stories, we heard here that a squadron of one of our cavalry brigades had stopped to water in a wood. A lot of German cavalry bungled on top of them, and then bolted as if the devil were after them. The row stampeded our horses, and they dashed off through the wood in all directions, leaving many of our men on foot. But their steeds were soon recovered.
Off again next morning at 4.15 A.M. We did rear-guard to the Division, but we had an easy time of it, the Dorsets being in rear. I had also the 27th Brigade R.F.A., the N.I. Horse under Massereene, and 70 cyclists to help, but the Germans never pursued us or fired a shot. It was awfully hot again, but we had not far to go—only eleven miles—into Montge. There we arrived at 10.45 A.M., and should have been there much sooner if it had not been for some of the Divisional Train halting to water on the way.
Montge is a nice little village on a hillside, almost within sight of Paris, which is only about twenty-five miles off; and on a clear day one can, I believe, see the Eiffel Tower and Montmartre. We could not make out why we were always thus retiring without fighting, and imagined it was some deep-laid plan of Joffre's that we perhaps were to garrison Paris whilst the French turned on the Germans. But no light was vouchsafed to us. Meanwhile the retirement was morally rather bad for our men, and the stragglers increased in numbers.
The Brigade Headquarters billeted in a tiny house marked by two big poplars on the main road. The proprietor, a stout peasant—I think he was the Maire—received us very civilly, but his questions as to our retirement were difficult to answer. However, we didn't trouble him long, and were off next morning by 5.30 acting as flank-guard again.
It was hotter than ever over those parched fields, and the march was complicated, for when we had reached Trilbardon down a narrow leafy path, past a bridge over the Marne which an R.E. officer was most anxious to blow up at once, we were told to act as rear-guard again. For this we had to wait till all the troops had passed through the little streets, and then we followed. We overtook a good many stragglers, and these we hustled along, insisting on their getting over the other side of the Marne before the main bridges were blown up. We were responsible for leaving no one behind, but I'm afraid that several were left, as they had fallen out and gone to sleep under hedges and were not seen; and one K.O.S.B. man was suffering so violently from pains in his tummy that he at first refused to stir, and said he didn't care if he was taken prisoner. There were a considerable number of these tummy cases on the way—hot sun and unripe apples had, I fancy, a good deal to do with them.
At Esbly we halted, gratefully, in the shade for an hour; it was a nice little town, but strangely empty, for nearly all the inhabitants had fled.
We put up for the night round Mont Pichet, a beastly little hamlet, with the Cheshires and one company Bedfords finding the outposts. The Brigade Headquarters billeted round a horrible little house, surrounded by hundreds of ducks and chickens, which ran in and out all over the place till it stank most horribly. There was only one room which wasn't absolutely foul, and that I took. The others slept in the open. I wish I had.