1914 by Lord French


At 5 a.m. on the 22nd I awoke, as I had lain down to sleep, in high hopes. No evil foreboding of coming events had visited me in dreams; but it was not many hours later that the disillusionment began. I started by motor in the very early hours of a beautiful August morning to visit General Lanrezac at his Headquarters in the neighbourhood of Philippeville.

Soon after entering the area of the 5th French Army, I found my motor stopped at successive cross roads by columns of infantry and artillery moving south. After several such delays on my journey, and before I had gone half the distance, I suddenly came up with Captain Spiers of the 11th Hussars, who was the liaison officer at General Lanrezac’s Headquarters.

There is an atmosphere engendered by troops retiring, when they expect to be advancing, which is unmistakable to anyone who has had much experience of war. It matters not whether such a movement is the result of a lost battle, an unsuccessful engagement, or is in the nature of a “strategic manœuvre to the rear.” The fact that, whatever the reason may be, it means giving up ground to the enemy, affects the spirits of the troops and manifests itself in the discontented, apprehensive expression which is seen on the faces of the men, and the tired, slovenly, unwilling gait which invariably characterises troops subjected to this ordeal.

This atmosphere surrounded me for some time before I met Spiers and before he had spoken a word. My optimistic visions of the night before had vanished, and what he told me did not tend to bring them back. He reported that the Guard and 7th German Corps had since daybreak
advanced on the Sambre in the neighbourhood of Franière, and had attacked the 10th French Corps which was holding the river. The advanced troops had driven the Germans back; but he added that “offensive action was contrary to General Lanrezac’s plans,” and that this had “annoyed him.”

The 10th Corps had had to fall back with some loss, and were taking up ground known as the “Fosse Position,” on the south side of the Sambre. Spiers thought that the 10th Corps had been knocked about a good deal. He gave me various items of information gleaned from the Chief of Intelligence of the French 5th Army. These reports went to show that the German turning movement in Belgium was extending far towards the west, the right being kept well forward as though a powerful envelopment was designed. It was evident that the enemy was making some progress in his attempts to bridge and cross the Sambre all along the front of the 5th Army. There appeared to be some difficulty in finding General Lanrezac, and therefore I decided to return at once to my Headquarters at Le Cateau.

I found there that our own Intelligence had received information which confirmed a good deal of what I had heard in the morning. They thought that at least three German Corps were advancing upon us, the most westerly having reached as far as Ath.

The hopes and anticipations with which I concluded the last chapter underwent considerable modification from these experiences and events; but the climax of the day’s disappointment and disillusionment was not reached till 11 p.m., when the Head of the French Military Mission at
my Headquarters, Colonel Huguet, brought a French Staff Officer to me who had come direct from General Lanrezac. This officer reported the fighting of which Spiers had already informed me, and said that the French 10th Corps had suffered very heavily. When thinking of our estimates of losses in those days, it must be remembered that a dearly bought experience had not yet opened our minds to the terrible toll which modern war exacts.

The position of the 5th French Army extended from Dinant on the Meuse (just north of Fosse—Charleroi—Thuin back to Trélon) about five Corps in all. Sordet’s Cavalry Corps had reported that probably three German Corps were advancing on Brussels.

The German line facing the Anglo-French Army was thought to be “roughly” Soignies—Nivelles—Gembloux, and thence circling to the north of the Sambre, round Namur. A strong column of German infantry was advancing on Charleroi from Fleurus about 3 p.m. on the 21st. There had been heavy fighting at Tamines, on the Sambre, in which French troops had been worsted. General Lanrezac was anxious to know if I would attack the flank of the German columns which were pressing him back from the river.

In view of the most probable situation of the German Army, as it was known to both of us, and the palpable intention of its Commander to effect a great turning movement round my left flank, and having regard to the actual numbers of which I was able to dispose, it is very difficult to realise what was in Lanrezac’s mind when he made such a request to me.

As the left of the French 5th Army (Reserve Division of 18th Corps) was drawn back as far as Trélon, and the centre and right of that Army were in process of retiring, the forward position I now held on the Condé Canal might quickly become very precarious.

I, therefore, informed Lanrezac in reply that such an operation as he suggested was quite impracticable for me. I agreed to retain my present position for 24 hours; but after that time I told him it would be necessary for me to consider whether the weight against my front and outer flank, combined with the retreat of the French 5th Army, would not compel me to go back to the Maubeuge position.

I should mention that earlier in the day, on my return to Headquarters after my talk with Spiers, I had despatched the following message to General Lanrezac:—

“I am waiting for the dispositions arranged for to be carried out, especially the posting of French Cavalry Corps on my left. I am prepared to fulfil the rôle allotted to me when the 5th Army advances to the attack.

“In the meantime, I hold an advanced defensive position extending from Condé on the left, through Mons to Erquelinnes, where I connect with two Reserve Divisions south of the Sambre. I am now much in advance of the line held by the 5th Army and feel my position to be as forward as circumstances will allow, particularly in view of the fact that I am not properly prepared for offensive action till to-morrow morning, as I have previously informed you.

“I do not understand from your wire that the 18th Corps has yet been engaged, and they stand on my inner flank.”

I left my Headquarters at 5 a.m. on Sunday the 23rd and went to Sars-la-Bruyère (Headquarters of the 2nd Corps), and there I met Haig, Smith-Dorrien, and Allenby.

The cavalry had, during the 22nd, drawn off towards my left flank after heavy pressure by the enemy’s advancing columns, leaving detachments in front of my right to the east of Mons, which was not so severely threatened. These detachments extended in a south-easterly direction south of Bray and Binche, the latter place having been occupied by the enemy. They were in touch with the 5th French Army. Patrols and advanced squadrons had engaged similar bodies of the enemy and had held their own well.

The 2nd Corps occupied the line of the Condé Canal, from that place round the salient which the canal makes to the north of Mons, and extended thence to the east of Obourg, whence that part of the line was drawn back towards Villers-St. Ghislain.

The 5th Division was holding the line from Condé to Mariette, whilst the 3rd Division continued the line thence round the salient to the right of the line occupied by the 2nd Corps.

The 1st Corps was echeloned on the right and in rear of the 2nd.

I told the commanders of the doubts which had arisen in my mind during the previous 24 hours, and impressed on them the necessity of being prepared for any kind of move, either in advance or in retreat. I discussed exhaustively the situation on our front.

Allenby’s bold and searching reconnaissance had not led me to believe that we were threatened by forces against which we could not make an effective stand. The 2nd Corps had not yet been seriously engaged, while the 1st was practically still in reserve.

Allenby’s orders to concentrate towards the left flank when pressed by the advance of the enemy’s main columns had been practically carried into effect. I entertained some anxiety as to the salient which the canal makes north of Mons, and enjoined on Smith-Dorrien particular
watchfulness and care with regard to it.

They all assured me that a quiet night had been passed and that their line was firmly taken up and held.

The air reconnaissance had started at daybreak, and I decided to await aircraft reports from Henderson before making any decided plan.

I instructed Sir Archibald Murray, my Chief of Staff, to remain for the present at General Smith-Dorrien’s Headquarters at Sars-la-Bruyère, and gave him full instructions as to arrangements which must be made if a retreat became necessary. I then went on to Valenciennes. General Drummond (Commanding the 19th Infantry Brigade) and the French Commandant at Valenciennes met me at the station.

I inspected a part of the entrenchments which were under construction, and the disposition of the Territorial troops (two divisions under General d’Amade) which were detailed to hold them and to guard our left flank. The 19th Brigade (2nd Batt. R. Welsh Fusiliers, 1st Batt. Scottish Rifles, 1st Batt. Middlesex Regt., and 2nd Batt. Argyle and Sutherland Highlanders) was just completing its detrainment, and I placed Drummond under the orders of General Allenby commanding the Cavalry Division.

During this day (August 23rd) reports continued to reach me of heavy pressure on our outposts all along the line, but chiefly between Condé and Mons.

Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, it will be remembered, was now in command of the 2nd Corps, having been sent out from England in succession to Sir James Grierson on the latter’s untimely death.

After my conference with the Corps Commanders on the morning of the 23rd, I left General Smith-Dorrien full of confidence in regard to his position, but when I returned to my Headquarters in the afternoon, reports came to hand that he was giving up the salient at Mons because the outpost line at Obourg had been penetrated by the enemy, and that he was also preparing to give up the whole of the line of the canal before nightfall. He said that he anticipated a gap occurring in his line between the 3rd and 5th Divisions in the neighbourhood of Mariette, and he went so far as to make a request for help to the 1st Corps.

Up to this time there was no decided threat in any strength on Condé, Sir Horace, therefore, need not have feared an imminent turning movement, and, as regards his front, he was nowhere threatened by anything more than cavalry supported by small bodies of infantry.

At that time no directions for retreat had been issued from Headquarters, although the Chief of the General Staff had been left at Sars-la-Bruyère on purpose to give orders for such a movement if it should become necessary.

The General’s anxiety seems to have lessened later in the afternoon, for at 5 p.m. a message from the 2nd Corps said that the commander was “well satisfied with the situation.”

The 3rd Division was now effecting a retirement south of the canal to a line running west through Nouvelles, and this movement had the inevitable result of bringing back the 5th Division and handing over the bridges of the canal to the German cavalry.

Every report I was now receiving at Headquarters pointed to the early necessity of a retirement of the British Forces in view of the general strategic situation, and I did not, therefore, deem it desirable to interfere with the 2nd Corps commander.

Reports of German activity on his front continued to be received from the G.O.C. 2nd Corps. At 7.15 p.m. he asked for permission to retire on Bavai; at 9.45 he was again reassured—a Divisional Headquarters which had retired was now “moving forward again”; and at 10.20 p.m. he reported, “casualties in no way excessive; all quiet now.”

The line which the 2nd Corps had taken up for the night showed an average retirement of three miles south of the canal. During the late afternoon the advanced troops of the 1st Corps were engaged, but not seriously threatened; they held their ground.

During the late afternoon and evening very disquieting reports had arrived as to the situation on my right. These were confirmed later in a telegram from French Headquarters, which arrived at half-past eleven at night. It clearly showed that our present position was strategically untenable; but this conclusion had been forced upon me much earlier in the evening when I received a full appreciation of the situation as it then appeared at French General Headquarters. General Joffre also told me that his information led him to expect that I might be attacked the next day by at least three German Corps and two Cavalry Divisions.

Appreciating the situation from the point of view which all reports now clearly established, my last hope of an offensive had to be abandoned, and it became necessary to consider an immediate retreat from our present forward position.

I selected the new line from Jerlain (south-east of Valenciennes) eastwards to Maubeuge. This line had already been reconnoitred. The Corps and Divisional Staff Officers who were called into Headquarters to receive orders, especially those of the 2nd Corps, thought our position
was much more seriously threatened than it really was and, in fact, one or two expressed doubts as to the possibility of effecting a retirement in the presence of the enemy in our immediate front. I did not share these views, and Colonel Vaughan (Chief of the Staff of the Cavalry Division) was more inclined to accept my estimate of the enemy’s forces on or near the canal than the others were. His opportunities of gauging the enemy’s strength and dispositions had been greatly enhanced by the fine reconnoitring work done on the previous two or three days by the Cavalry Division. However, I determined to effect the retreat, and orders were issued accordingly.”