The first encounter between the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the German army occurred at the battle of Mons. The subsequent retreat of the BEF to the Marne (21 August – 5 September 1914) involved the infantry in almost 200 miles of marching. Their problems included an absence of maps of the area and lack of knowledge of river crossings. This was an interesting contrast to the German First Army of von Kluck who had to march for three weeks to reach the battle of the Marne!
The BEF had improved out of recognition since the Boer War – improvements included a sophisticated medical service, new rifles, better artillery and the RFC.
In 1910, the arrival of General Henry Wilson at the War Office had re-organised the potential deployment of the BEF in France in the event of war with Germany. He organised the costings and logistics of sending the BEF to northern France so that Britain would not be caught out. As a result, the mobilisation of the BEF in August 1914 proceeded smoothly. The BEF (four infantry divisions and one cavalry division) was to deploy on the left flank of Lanrezac’s Fifth Army to the north of Maubeuge. General French was instructed by Lord Kitchener that the BEF was to work with the French Army but not under them. He trusted French would not put the BEF into an extreme adversity.
"A" Company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) on 22 August, 1914, resting in the square at Mons, Belgium, the day before the Battle of Mons. Minutes after this photo was taken the company moved into position at Nimy on the bank of the Mons-Condé Canal.
French’s first problem was the death of General Grierson, commander of II Corps, on his way to the front. His replacement, General Smith-Dorrien, was not French’s choice.
On 22 August, French ordered his divisions to establish defensive positions along the Mons-Conde Canal. Lanrezac had decided to retreat, an action which left the BEF with open flanks on both sides. When von Kluck’s First Army attacked on the morning of 23 August, the BEF were outnumbered 70,000 to 160,000 and 300 guns against 600 German. The rapid accurate fire of the BEF infantry soon had the Germans preparing defensive positions – they assumed they were facing machine guns. Soon the casualties rose and, in the early afternoon, the order to retreat was given. During the early days of the retreat, cavalry actions like the encounter at Elouges on 24 August aided the withdrawal of the infantry. At Elouges, 5th Division was aided in their withdrawal by a cavalry charge by the Irish Dragoon Guards and the Lancers against German guns.
When the BEF reached the forest of Mormal, the decision was taken for I Corps to march on the east side of the forest and II Corps to march on the west. This lead to II Corps fighting at Le Cateau on 26 August without the support of I Corps. Smith-Dorrien decided to stand and fight as his men were not in a fit state to continue retreating. In doing so, he assumed he would be joined in the battle by Haig’s I Corps but, as I Corps was held up at Landrecies by an encounter with German advance guards, II Corps had to fight alone.
He held his divisions in a reverse ‘L’ and resisted von Kluck’s attempt to outflank him (in the classic Cannae mode). Despite suffering artillery fire as well as machine gun fire for six hours, II Corps held up the German advance before the order to retreat was given in the early afternoon. Timely intervention by a French cavalry Corps aided the withdrawal of 4th Division. II Corps suffered 7,812 casualties during this action. Poor intelligence on the part of von Kluck meant he had no idea of the size of his opponents, and he failed to follow II Corps for 24 hours while he assessed his own casualties.
British dead at Le Cateau
During the retreat, soldiers from the 1 Battalion, Royal Warwicks and from 2 Batallion, Royal Dublin Fusiliers (both part of 4th Division) collapsed exhausted in the streets of St Quentin. These men would have surrendered to the Germans if Major Tom Bridges with various dragoons and lancers from the cavalry had not rallied them with a toy drum and a tin whistle playing ‘The British Grenadiers’. Both COs were court-martialed when Bridges reached HQ.
There were three further rearguard actions involving the BEF and the approaching German army: Etreux (27 August) where the 2 Munster Fusiliers were overwhelmed by nine German battalions; Nery (1 September) where ‘L’ battery of the Royal Horse Artillery held off a German bombardment heavily outnumbered before a cavalry charge dispersed the enemy, and Villers-Cotterets (also 1 September) where the 4th Guards Brigade fought a running battle through the Forest de Retz from 10 am to 6pm while they covered the retreat of the 2nd Division.
Meanwhile Sir John French planned to withdraw the BEF from the line altogether. He had already forbad Haig’s I Corps from supporting Lanrezac’s Fifth French army in the battle of Guise. The swift arrival of Lord Kitchener to interview French and to pass on his orders: he was to stay in line and support the French army which was preparing for the Battle of the Marne. During the preparation for the battle, Lanrezac was replaced by Franchet d’Esperey (known to the BEF as desperate Frankie!) as GOC the French Fifth Army. The BEF was effectively retreating between two French armies – the Sixth to the west and the Fifth to the east.
As the Battle of the Marne opened (5 September), von Kluck’s First Army was marching into a ‘sack’: when the French armies attacked on both flanks, von Kluck retreated. The BEF advanced in the retreating footsteps of the German army until they reached the river Aisne on 12 September. Here the Germans had dug themselves in on the high ground (Chemin des Dames) and trench warfare on the Western Front had begun.
This was the end of the Long March - the BEF was now moved to Ypres, once again to be on the left flank of the French Army facing the Germans.
This article was inspired by a talk given by John Aspinall to the Yorkshire branch of the WFA.
Contributor: Peter J Palmer.
Images and Maps from Wikimedia