On 12th August 1914, eight days after Britain declared war on Germany, the first British troops arrived in France. Under the command of Sir John French, the 75,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) lined up alongside the French and Belgian Armies as they attempted to halt the right wing of the Germany Army which had penetrated deep into Belgium.
Unable to contain the numerically superior Germans at the Battle of Mons on 23rd August, the BEF fell back southwards towards the small town of Le Cateau in northern France. Closely pursued by the German First and Second Armies, the BEF split in two with 1st Corps under Sir Douglas Haig heading to Landrecies and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps making for Le Cateau. On 25th August Haig retreated after being attacked at Landrecies, leaving Smith-Dorrien effectively isolated.
Early on 26th August, General French ordered both Corps to continue to withdraw southwards. However, aware that his men were exhausted and that to retreat would be to invite disaster, General Smith-Dorrien decided to stand and fight in the hope of checking the enemy and allowing his troops to disengage on their own terms. The ensuing battle saw II Corps give battle to six divisions of Germany’s First Army between Esne, through Le Cateau to Caudry in the west.
Unlike Mons where the rifle expertise of the British infantry had inflicted heavy casualties on the advancing Germans, Le Cateau was primarily an artillery battle. Throughout the morning, the British – and in particular the artillery – held the Germans at bay, with many guns being fired at point blank range over open sights. However, the British guns were also exposed in being placed close to infantry positions and suffered heavy punishment from the German artillery.
In mid-afternoon, after capturing Le Cateau, the Germans breached the British right flank, forcing Smith-Dorrien to retreat southwards with support from French cavalry. The withdrawal continued over the following week until the BEF reached the safety of the River Marne from where the French Army under General Joseph Joffre launched a decisive counter-offensive.
Opinions are divided as to the success of Le Cateau. While General French spoke in glowing terms of Smith-Dorrien’s stand (while acknowledging that British losses affected its performance at the Battle of the Marne and the first operations on River Aisne), the German First Army commander General Alexander Von Kluck considered it a ‘heavy defeat’ for the BEF. The battle cost the British Army 7,812 men killed, wounded and captured, but inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans and further delayed their Schlieffen timetable. More importantly, it gave the other British and French forces the time they needed to execute their retreat.
1st Hampshire at Le Cateau, 26th August 1914
The outbreak of war on 4 August 1914 saw 1st Hampshire stationed in Colchester, having recently been transferred from 2nd Division to 11th Brigade of 4th Division. The division assembled at Harrow on 18th August 1914 and three days later departed for Southampton to embark for France. At Le Havre 4th Division entrained for Le Cateau from where, on 25th August, it marched to Solesmes to cover the retirement of II Corps after the Battle of Mons. The ensuing Battle of Le Cateau was the first engagement fought by the Hampshire Regiment in the First World War.
Having arrived at Solesmes amid chaotic scenes of retreating British soldiers and long lines of civilian refugees, 4th Division fell back through the villages of Briastre and Le Coquelet before coming under the command of II Corps just as General Smith-Dorrien decided to make his stand in the rolling country around Le Caudry, to the west of Le Cateau. The 4th Division took up positions on the left of II Corps’ line, with 1st Hampshire placed astride a light railway about one mile north of the village of Ligny. The 3rd Division was in the centre of the line with 5th Division on the right.
The 1st Hampshire and 11th Brigade spent most of 26th August desperately holding the position in front of Ligny while coming under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. One feature of the fighting was the greater respect shown by the Germans for British rifle prowess than at Mons where they had suffered heavy casualties. However, one advanced detachment of the 1st Hampshire B Company did wipe out a platoon of ‘Jager’ troops who attempted to pursue them as they pulled back from the outskirts of the village of Fontaine au Pire.
Meanwhile, D Company, which was bearing the brunt of enemy shell fire, came under attack by a large mass of German troops from the direction of Cattenieres. Holding fire until the enemy were close, the Hampshire then opened rapid fire with devastating effect, forcing the surviving Germans to seek cover behind a ridge.
Around mid-afternoon 11th Brigade was ordered was ordered to retire to Ligny, due to a strong attack on 10th Brigade to their right. The plan was for the Hampshire and East Lancashire to move first, covered by the Rifle Brigade and the Somerset Light Infantry. As the Hampshire started to withdraw it seemed, as Lieutenant Eric Dolphin noted, ‘as if every gun and rifle in the German Army had opened fire’. Despite the hail of fire the Hampshire successfully completed the withdrawal to Ligny where they turned and inflicted further casualties on the pursuing enemy.
One unfortunate consequence of 4th Division’s rapid deployment to France was that it lacked a Signal Company (as well as cavalry, cyclists and Royal Engineers) to provide its commander and his brigadiers with the information necessary to control their units. By the time 11th Brigade reached Ligny, companies and platoons had become hopelessly mixed up, and without the Signal Company commanders had no knowledge of the disposition of troops. Thus, at around 5pm when the Brigade began to withdraw from Ligny, the orders had failed to reach several of these disconnected detachments. About 300 Hampshires under Major Frederick Hicks, for example, were still holding on in the village at 6pm, unaware of the withdrawal and only retired when the Adjutant made his way back to inform them of the situation. These scattered detachments of 1st Hampshire made their way southwards across country, halting to rest at Serain around midnight at the end of a day which had cost the battalion nearly 200 casualties, including two officers and 46 other ranks killed.
The retreat resumed at 2am on the 27th August and continued through the day with the Hampshire involved in further clashes with the advancing Germans at Nauroy. It was near here that the battalion’s Commanding Officer, Colonel Sydney Jackson, was wounded and subsequently captured. Over the following week the Hampshire retreated south with the remainder of the BEF, occasionally skirmishing with German cavalry, until it crossed the River Marne on 4 September. The next day the General Joffre launched his decisive counter-attack which effectively ended the Germans’ hope of a swift victory on the Western Front.