Tuesday 26 August 2014

The Bedfordshire Yeomanry Training and the Battle of le Cateau

British dead at le Cateau

Wednesday 26th August 1914:  We have received this morning a letter from a member of the Bedfordshire yeomanry: "It might interest many who have their sons with us to know that all are well and very cheerful. Very few are unable to take their full share of hard work".

Another man writes: "We arrived here at Hatfield Peverel yesterday after having a pretty rough time of it from Winslow. We have had to sleep in barns every night except one when we slept in the Workhouse at Epping. We left Winslow on Wednesday morning and arrived in Edlesborough at night Thursday, at Kimpton Friday, at Hertford Saturday, at Epping Sunday, at South Weald Monday near Chelmsford. We have been treated extremely well by the people residing in the different villages through which we passed. These people stand by the side of the road and hand us fruit as we pass. In one village practically the whole of a troop had bunches of big black grapes given to them. When we were going into Hertford a lady gave us all two cigarettes each. As we were going through a town some men made a remark about three old soldiers who are in the Yeomanry, and have not yet received their uniform. They asked one of our fellows who they were, and he replied that they were three spare colonels. It is not known how long we shall stay here, and we don't know where we are going next".

No doubt the Yeomanry think themselves lucky when compared with the 1st Bedfords who, after a few days in continuous action have today fought a very important battle at le Cateau. It has become necessary for the British Expeditionary Force to retreat south-westwards owing to the overwhelming numbers the Germans have brought to bear on our army. To do this successfully General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, decided that a stand had to be made to administer a bloody enough nose to the enemy to prevent him following too closely on our army’s heels. That battle has been fought and, despite terrible casualties, has been brought to a successful conclusion.

The 1st Bedfords were mostly in good trenches, begun by French civilians and finished by our men the day before. When the enemy attacked the troops on the battalion’s right were eventually driven back leaving the right flank exposed. One of our sources in the battalion reported: “The advance was a most wonderful sight and we got up and, taking off our caps, watched it over the parapet. It was a splendid object lesson and we could point out all the mistakes made in Company training when advancing under fire. Their casualties were tremendous and our shooting wonderful as shrapnel simply swept them away”.

“We saw the guns of what must have been practically a German Army Corps appear on the high ground away to our left and slowly and quite calmly unlimber and get into position. There were simply hundreds of guns there and I started to open fire on them but the range was too far. We then knew that we were very properly in for it”.

“The Germans had also begun to advance on our front so we kept our heads low and opened fire at them. It was however very difficult shooting as the country in front of us was littered with corn stooks and we could see very little. Each corn stook concealed several Germans who made splendid use of them. A battery of enemy guns also opened fire on us from a wood to our front”.

“Their machine-guns opened on us then, mostly from the house on the road a few hundred yards to our right front, which must have been filled with them and the whole of our parapet so spattered with bullets that it was impossible to raise our heads except at very short intervals”.

“At about 4.30 pm we discovered that everybody on our right and left had retired – there was no chance of getting in touch – and we were apparently left all alone. I sent a runner to verify this and then made arrangements to retire too”.

A retirement in the face of a determined enemy is not easy. However, the battalion had remained in the front line long enough to cover the retirement of our artillery in the rear, which suffered considerably. The withdrawal from the trenches was very difficult because the country is flat and open. Fortunately, our source states, “the enemy's fire was rather wild”. Something of the harum-scarum nature of the withdrawal is evident from my source’s continuing account: “Sniping was going on at us from all sides and we could see nothing to fire at. We had some more casualties, one man being hit beside me and rolled over like a rabbit; one of my sergeants seized him and dragged him across the road to some haystacks under cover”. Our informant then set off with a colleague to try to find an officer who had been wounded but was unable to reach him.

“Bullets were getting a bit thick, about then a German Field Gun appeared at short distance away and started to open fire so we started back. We had to run most of the way and were peppered hard. I got a bullet through both my puttees. We were so tired that at times we could not run so had to walk and eventually fell into a trench. Here we found quantities of ammunition which we tried to bury and a very welcome bottle of brandy. This we drained and then ran back to the road and almost collapsed on it and were both as sick as cats! We remained on the road for a bit but the shelling got a bit too thick and we decided to clear out”.

“We beat a retreat and Lilley [an officer in the Dorset Regiment] and I had to marshal a small army of stragglers back which we picked up on the way. Some were very badly wounded and some had their legs almost blown off so we had to carry them in”.

“As the roads were being shelled hard we had to keep to the fields and had to climb walls and barbed wire fences by the score. I cursed the day I threw my wire cutters away but emptied nearly all the contents of my haversack including my Field Service Pocket Book”.

“We reached a farm house and found in it a cart and horse in the stable which we promptly tried to harness into it. The horse thought better and refused to go in so in a rage I kicked it on the backside and sent it off! We dragged the cart with us full of wounded men”.

“We had by then quite a large party and pushed on and much to our relief crossed the railway and then came across a lot of weeping Royal Scots[1] who told us that they had lost the whole of their Battalion”.

“We then pushed on into a village where we found a Field Ambulance. Here we deposited our wounded and warned the doctors that the Germans were close behind us, but they said that they must stay where they were as they had such bad cases”.

“We then marched on back and came across the rest of the Division with Sir Charles Ferguson (commanding) at a crossroads directing the stream of troops in the right direction himself. Most of the 15th Brigade got together and we marched on into Estrées arriving about 9 pm. The sides of the roads were a most strange sight, littered with material which we could not move and huge dumps of meat which had to be left behind to make room on the wagons for the wounded”.

The battalion has suffered one officer and about thirty other ranks as casualties. Altogether the corps has lost about 700 dead, 2,500 prisoners and about 4,500 wounded. The enemy must have lost around 5,000.

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7; Bedfordshire Times 28th August 1914

[1] 2nd Battalion, Royal Scots of 8th Brigade, 3rd Division.

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