Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland

Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland


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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland

Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne, Jerry Murland

The period between the BEF's first battle in France in 1914 at Mons and the end of the Allied retreat was one of the most important phases of the First World War. This was the period when the German advance looked to be going largely as planned, as the British army and the much larger French armies stumbled back in retreat in the face of the unexpectedly powerful German right wing. This was the period of the 'Old Contemptible', and the sources of many stories and myths about the performance of the small but professional British army. This book focuses on the ten days from the first clashes at Mons to the last steps of the retreat (ending with the first step of the advance to the Marne).

After a brief introduction we begin with look at the Battle of Mons. Murland has used both British and German records to examine this battle, and in the process demolishes one or two myths of long standing - the idea that the Germans thought the British were all armed with machine guns appears to come from a comment in the official British history, and the high casualty figures believed to have been inflicted. German losses were still quite heavy, but not quite as devastating as sometimes believed. On the other hand an aft-dismissed story about cavalry being stopped by normal farmer's barbed wire during a disastrous charge is supported by evidence from one of the participants.

After Mons the rest of the book covers the week-long retreat that lasted until the start of September. Many accounts of this period of the war focus on the exhausted infantry and the rearguard battles, but Murland also looks at the role played by the British cavalry, which provided constant cover for the retreating infantry, and the engineers who were often at the very rear of the army, left behind to blow bridges after the last troops had crossed. The infantry are given their due place, but it is nice to see other parts of the army get their due credit.

The conflicts within the British high command and between the British and some of their French allies are both well covered. One also gets a feel for the odd variety of this period of the war - while most men were struggling along on foot, some still had access to cars on open roads or even the French rail network. Senior officers could motor from the brutal slog of the retreat to a meeting at the BEF's HQ and back again with comparative ease.

The author makes good use of British and German sources, and in particular the official German histories, to produce a valuable, detailed, but still readable account of this crucial ten-day long campaign.

Chapters
1 - Prelude
2 - 23 August - A Very Short Fortnight
3 - 23 August - A Slow Burning Fuse
4 - 24 August - A Very Trying Day
5 - 25 August - Audregnies
6 - 25 August - I Corps Joins the Fight
7 - 26 August - Accidental Rearguard
8 - 26 August - Le Grand Fayt
9 - 27 August - St Quentin and Etreux
10 - 28 August - Cavalry Capers
11 - 29-31 August - Blowing Bridges in Our Sleep
12 - 1 September - Néry, the Chance Encounter
13 - 1 September - Still a Force to be Reckoned With
14 - Left Behind
15 - Aftermath

Appendix 1: BEF Order of Battle August 1914
Appendix 2: The Cemetery Trail

Author: Jerry Murland
Edition: Hardcover
Pages: 224
Publisher: Pen & Sword Military
Year: 2011



Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF's Actions from Mons to the Marne

The British action at Mons on 23 August 1914 was the catalyst for what became a full blown retreat over 200 blood drenched miles. In this fascinating book the Author examines eighteen of the ensuing desperate rearguard actions that occurred over the twelve days of this near rout. While those at Le Cateau and Nery are well chronicled, others such as cavalry engagements at Morsain and Taillefontaine, the Connaught Rangers' action at Le Grand Fayt and 13 Brigade's fight at Crepy-en-Valois are virtually unknown. We learn how, in the chaos and confusion that reigned, units of Gunners and other supporting arms found themselves in the front line.The work of the Royal Engineers responsible for blowing bridges over rivers and canals behind the retreating troops comes in for particular attention and praise: likewise the sterling efforts of the RAMC. The fact that no less than 16 VCs were won during this historic Retreat shows that, even in these darkest hours, individuals and units performed with gallantry, resourcefulness and great forbearance. Extensive use of primary source material, including first-hand accounts, letters, diaries and official unit records, brings alive this delightful and informative account of an historic, if not victorious, chapter in our Nation's military history. It would make an excellent companion on a battlefield visit.

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Retreat and Rearguard 1914: The BEF’s actions from Mons to the Marne by Jerry Murland

I have always felt that perhaps the military history of the First World War has focussed far too much on the events of 1916 and 1917 – primarily, Verdun, the Somme and Passchendaele. Sure, all three were epic battles with a profound social and military impact, but viewing them without looking at what became before and after is to only see half of the picture. The British Expeditionary Force landed in France in August 1914, and marched up to the Belgian frontier. In defence of Belgian neutrality, the BEF marched into Belgium itself to meet the German Army’s advance.

I have studied something of the retreat from Mons, during my research into the 1st Hampshires and their battle at Le Cateau. But given that I am hoping to write a book or two on the First World War, I was very pleased to see this land on my doormat. I have always been mystified by the portrayal of Mons as a defeat. True, I think it would be hard to paint Mons itself as a victory, but Smith-Dorrien‘s decision to stand at Le Cateau was a masterpiece. Much like Quatre Bras almost a hundred years before, success there gave the rest of the Army time to slip away orderly. And although it is never inspiring for an army to retreat, a General should not be afraid to do so if the strategic situation demands it. French and the BEF had little option but to fall in line with Joffre’s overal strategy, particularly with an unreliable Lanzerac on the BEF’s right flank. The Duke of Wellington retreated many times, but almost always in an orderly fashion, with a plan up his sleeve. True, French might not exactly have had a Waterloo planned, but the retreat forced the German Army to over extend itself and to falter on the Marne. I think history would probably hold out that this was a far wiser strategy than to stand at Mons and be destroyed.

I feel a special mention is in order for the fighting at Etreux on 27 August 1914, where the 2nd Bn Royal Munster Fusiliers were attacked by the Germans at 7am near Chapeau Rouge, before a fighting withdrawal throughout the day, before a dramatic last stand at the Orchard in Etreux. The Battalion was decimated, and four of those killed were from Portsmouth – Lieutenant Challoner Chute (19), Lance Corporal Edward Carroll (29, Milton), and the two brothers Corporal Charles Roberts (23) and Corporal George Roberts (21), of Meyrick Road in Stamshaw. I am very grateful to Jerry Murland for adding to me knowledge of how these Portsmouth men died.

Murland has made a fantatic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

A retreat in contact with the enemy is perhaps the most challenging military maneouvre to pull off – if it works, you have barely survived if it fails, you have a rout. Not only was it a success for the BEF get itself back to the Marne in the state that it did, but it is also very commendable that Murland has looked at every last little aspect of the campaign in such a forensic yet fulsome manner. As good as John Terraine’s book on Mons is, I found Jerry Murland’s much more insightful.


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Contents

Battle of the Frontiers, 7 August – 13 September Edit

The Battle of the Frontiers is a general name for all of the operations of the French armies until the Battle of the Marne. [1] A series of encounter battles began between the German, French and Belgian armies, on the German-French frontier and in southern Belgium on 4 August 1914. The Battle of Mulhouse (Battle of Alsace 7–10 August ) was the first French offensive of World War I against Germany. The French captured Mulhouse until forced out by a German counter-attack on 11 August and fell back toward Belfort. The main French offensive, the Battle of Lorraine (14–25 August) , began with the Battles of Morhange and Sarrebourg ( 14–20 August ) advances by the First Army on Sarrebourg and the Second Army towards Morhange. Château Salins near Morhange was captured on 17 August and Sarrebourg the next day. The German 6th and 7th armies counter-attacked on 20 August, the Second Army was forced back from Morhange and the First Army was repulsed at Sarrebourg. The German armies crossed the border and advanced on Nancy but were stopped to the east of the city. [2]

To the south the French retook Mulhouse on 19 August and then withdrew. On 24 August at the Battle of the Mortagne (14–25 August), a limited German offensive in the Vosges, the Germans managed a small advance, before a French counter-attack retook the ground. By 20 August a German counter-offensive in Lorraine had begun and the German 4th and 5th Armies advanced through the Ardennes on 19 August towards Neufchâteau. An offensive by French Third and Fourth armies through the Ardennes began on 20 August, in support of the French invasion of Lorraine. The opposing armies met in thick fog and the French mistook the German troops for screening forces. On 22 August the Battle of the Ardennes (21–28 August) began with French attacks, which were costly to both sides and forced the French into a disorderly retreat late on 23 August. The Third Army recoiled towards Verdun, pursued by the 5th Army and the Fourth Army retreated to Sedan and Stenay. Mulhouse was recaptured again by German forces and the Battle of the Meuse 26–28 August), caused a temporary halt of the German advance. [3]

Liège was occupied by the Germans on 7 August, the first units of the BEF landed in France and French troops crossed the German frontier. On 12 August, the Battle of Haelen was fought by German and Belgian cavalry and infantry and was a Belgian defensive success. The BEF completed its move of four divisions and a cavalry division to France on 16 August, as the last Belgian fort of the Position fortifiée de Liège surrendered. The Belgian government withdrew from Brussels on 18 August and the German army attacked the Belgian field army at the Battle of the Gete. Next day the Belgian army began to retire towards Antwerp, which left the route to Namur open Longwy and Namur were besieged on 20 August. Further west, the Fifth Army had concentrated on the Sambre by 20 August, facing north either side of Charleroi and east towards the Belgian fortress of Namur. On the left, the Cavalry Corps (General André Sordet) linked with the BEF at Mons. [2]

Battle of Charleroi, 21 August Edit

By 20 August, the Fifth Army had begun to concentrate on a 40 km (25 mi) front along the Sambre, centred on Charleroi and extending east to the Belgian fortress of Namur. On the left flank, the Sordet Cavalry Corps linked the Fifth Army to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at Mons. General Joseph Joffre ordered Lanrezac to attack across the Sambre but this attack was forestalled by the German 2nd Army on the morning of 21 August, which crossed the Sambre, establishing two bridgeheads which the French, lacking artillery, were unable to reduce. [4] Bülow attacked again on 22 August with three corps against the entire Fifth Army front. Fighting continued on 23 August, when the French centre around Charleroi began to fall back. The German 3rd Army crossed the Meuse and launched an attack against the French right flank, held by I Corps (General Louis Franchet d'Esperey). The French stopped the German advance and delivered a counter-attack. [5] The Fifth Army was confronted by the German 3rd and 2nd armies from the east and the north. Before the Fifth Army could attack over the Sambre the 2nd Army attacked at the Battle of Charleroi and at Namur on 21 August. The 3rd Army crossed the Meuse and attacked the French right flank and on 23 August, the Fifth Army began a retirement southwards to avoid encirclement. [3]

Battle of Mons, 23 August Edit

The Battle of Mons was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, the BEF attempted to hold the line of the Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army. During 23 August the Germans concentrated on the British at the salient formed by a loop in the canal. At 9:00 a.m., the Germans attempted to cross four bridges over the canal at the salient. [6] By the afternoon the British position in the salient had become untenable to the east, units of the German IX Corps had begun to cross the canal, threatening the British right flank. At 3:00 p.m. the 3rd Division was ordered to retire from the salient, to positions a short distance to the south of Mons. A retreat was ordered towards evening by the 5th Division to conform and by nightfall II Corps had established a new defensive line, running through the villages of Montrœul, Boussu, Wasmes, Paturages and Frameries. The Germans had built pontoon bridges over the canal and were approaching the British positions in great strength. [7] By nightfall on 24 August, the British had retreated to defensive lines on the Valenciennes–Maubeuge road. Outnumbered by the 1st Army and with the French Fifth Army also falling back, the BEF continue to retire. The I Corps retreated to Landrecies and II Corps to Le Cateau. [8] The British suffered 1,642 casualties, the Germans 2,000. [9]

Battle of Le Cateau Edit

On the evening of 25 August, British II Corps commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien, ordered his corps to stand and fight to deliver a stopping blow to the Germans. The Allies set up defensive positions near the town as I Corps had not arrived, Smith-Dorrien's right flank was unprotected. On the morning of the 26 August, the Germans attacked with two infantry and three cavalry divisions against a British force comprising three infantry divisions, an infantry brigade and a cavalry division. Of the 40,000 Entente troops fighting at Le Cateau, 5,212 men were killed or wounded and c. 2,600 troops were captured and thirty-eight British guns were lost. The Germans lost 2,900 men killed, wounded or missing. [10] The Germans achieved an important victory, effectively routing II Corps and inflicting nearly three times as many casualties as they themselves suffered. As the British retreat continued south towards Paris, there were a number of small but vigorous holding actions by various units of the British rearguard. [11]

Rearguard Affair of Le Grand Fayt Edit

The German 2nd Army commander General Karl von Bülow had ordered a rapid pursuit after the battles of 21–24 August against the French Fifth Army and the BEF. The 1st and 2nd armies were sent to the south-west to gain the left flank of the Allied line. The X Reserve Corps encountered "especially obstinate" resistance at Marbaix and Le Grand-Fayt. [12] On the morning of 26 August 1914, the 2nd Connaught Rangers (2nd Division) under Lieutenant-Colonel A.W. Abercrombie were covering the retreat of the British 5th Infantry Brigade from Petit Landrecies. Unknown to Abercrombie, by late morning the retreat had already taken place but the orders had not received by the Connaught Rangers. [13]

Hearing the sound of rifle fire coming from near-by Marbaix, Abercrombie set off with two platoons of infantry towards the gunfire only to come under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. Abercrombie then ordered his force to retire on Le Grand Fayt, which locals had told him was clear of Germans, only to discover that Le Grand Fayt had been abandoned. Abercrombie and his men then came under heavy fire from Germans concealed in the village and the order was given to retreat through the surrounding fields. Despite the heavy German fire and the difficulty of communication in the close terrain, the retreat was carried out in an orderly fashion, although six officers and 280 men were reported as still missing on 29 August, including Abercrombie. [14] By the evening the X Reserve Corps was still near Marbaix and Avesnes. The pursuit by the 2nd Army was ordered to continue on 27 August through Landrecies and Trélon, with the X Reserve Corps advancing towards Wassigny. [15]

Rearguard Affair of Étreux Edit

Bülow had ordered the X Reserve Corps to continue its advance to the south-west, after the encounter at Le Grand-Fayt. [12] The 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, had been ordered to hold its ground at all costs, in their first action in France. Less than a battalion strength, just three companies of the 2nd Battalion of the Munsters supported by a couple of field guns engaged the German attackers. [16] The Munsters fell back to an orchard near Étreux and as night fell on the evening of 27 August, found themselves surrounded having exhausted their ammunition, they surrendered. [16] In the action at Ètreux, only four officers and 240 other ranks of the 2nd Munsters survived but the Battalion prevented German pursuit of the BEF I Corps, gaining valuable time for the BEF to escape. [17] They were outnumbered at odds of over 6:1 and when finally defeated, the survivors were congratulated by the Germans. The X Reserve Corps had continued its advance towards Wassigny and Étreux on 27 August, where the 19th Reserve Division reported that it had "scattered a British battalion". [18]

Affair of Cerizy Edit

During the morning the 5th Cavalry Brigade moved to the west bank of the Oise about 2 mi (3.2 km) east of Cerizy (Moÿ-de-l'Aisne). Around noon German cavalry appeared on the road from St. Quentin and were engaged by a party of cavalry with a machine-gun 0.5 mi (0.80 km) east of Cerizy supported by a section of Royal Horse Artillery. The party of cavalry was forced back but German attempts to enter La Guinguette Farm were repulsed. In the afternoon, two German cavalry squadrons advanced the Germans dismounted and then their horses bolted, followed by the riders. The British immediately pursued around the eastern flank and met mounted cavalry near Moy the 12th Royal Lancers forced the Germans to dismount with rifle fire and stampeded their horses. A squadron of mounted lancers got within 50 yd (46 m), charged and inflicted 70–80 casualties with swords and lances for a loss of five killed. The British gathered c. 30 wounded and estimated that the total German loss was 300 casualties. The Germans had expected to meet a weak infantry detachment and attacked with three dismounted squadrons, intending to charge with three more. The Germans eventually managed to disengage and withdraw behind a hill north of the woods during the evening the British retired to the south. [19]

Affair of Néry Edit

In a dense fog on 1 September, the British 1st Cavalry Brigade prepared to leave their bivouac and were surprised and attacked by the 4th Cavalry Division shortly after dawn. Both sides fought dismounted the British artillery was mostly put out of action in the first few minutes but a gun of L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery kept up a steady fire for 2 + 1 ⁄ 2 hours, against a battery of twelve German field guns. British reinforcements arrived at around 8:00 a.m., when the German cavalry had nearly overrun some of the British artillery. Three British cavalry regiments assembled at the east end of Néry and stopped the German attack with machine-gun fire, after dismounted German cavalry had got within 500 yd (460 m) and at 6:00 a.m. two squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards charged the German right flank. The 4th Cavalry Brigade arrived with an infantry battalion and began to envelop the northern flank of the 4th Cavalry Division, which was caught out when a delivery of ammunition was delayed just as it ran short. The Germans tried to remove the twelve field guns but lost many men to machine-gun fire and left eight guns behind. The 11th Hussars pursued the Germans for 1 mi (1.6 km) and took 78 prisoners. [20] At 9:00 a.m., General Otto von Garnier heard reports that Crépy and Béthisy were occupied and broke off the engagement, to rally east of Néry the 4th Cavalry Division then moved south via Rocquemont to Rozières. [21]

Rearguard Action of Crépy-en-Valois Edit

Air reconnaissance on the fronts of the VII Corps and X Reserve Corps on 31 August reported that the British were retreating south of the Aisne towards Crépy-en-Valois. [22] The five Jägerbattalions of the II Cavalry Corps were sent towards Crépy on 1 September and encountered the 13th Brigade of the 5th Division, which began to retire at 10:00 a.m. A German attack began from Béthancourt, about 4 mi (6.4 km) from Crépy and mainly met the West Kent on the left flank. The 119th Battery of the XXVII Brigade RFA was about 100 yd (91 m) from the British line and fired 150 shells in five minutes, when the Germans had approached within 1,400 yd (1,300 m). By noon the British had fallen back and German cavalry patrols probed forward without infantry. On the right flank, the 2nd Duke of Wellingtons at a crossroads near Raperie, were able to withdraw, under cover of the other two batteries of the XXVII Brigade. [23] The 1st Army had attempted to trap British rearguards at Crépy and Villers-Cotterêts (Villers) but they had slipped away. Air reconnaissance revealed that British columns were moving south from the area south-west of Villers, south of Crépy and from Creil. [24]

Rearguard Actions of Villers-Cotterêts Edit

On 31 August, German air reconnaissance saw British columns marching towards Villers and the 1st Army headquarters assumed that troops in the Oise valley were British and those retreating towards Soissons were French. Kluck concluded that it would be impossible to trap the British but a pursuit towards Soissons might catch up with the French. The II Cavalry Corps was ordered to advance southwards, as it was assumed that the British had reached Villers. During the afternoon another air reconnaissance reported that many troops were seen at the village and that some might be captured. Kluck ordered the 1st Army to advance southwards with unlimited objectives. [25] The 6th Division of the III Corps, crossed the Aisne at Vic on 1 September and engaged the 3rd Cavalry Brigade at Taillefontaine, about 5 mi (8.0 km) north-west of Villers and drove it slowly back towards the village. [26]

At 10:00 a.m. the 4th Guards Brigade was attacked by a mixed force of cavalry, infantry and artillery, which was repulsed until another attack at 10:45 a.m. and got round the western flank and advanced on an open area from Rond de la Reine to Croix de Belle Vue and filtered through gaps in the line of the 3rd Coldstream Guards, who fell back slowly, with the 2nd Grenadier Guards on the right. By 2:00 p.m. the British had retreated to the northern fringe of the village during hand-to-hand fighting. The British retreat began again at 6:00 p.m. and Villers was captured late in the night, after the British had retired to the south and south-west. By the end of the day the 1st Army headquarters had abandoned hope of cornering large British forces south of Verberie, Crépy-en-Valois and Villers. [27]

Battle of St. Quentin Edit

Joffre ordered a counter-attack by the Fifth Army on 29 August, at St. Quentin but a copy of the orders fell into German hands, which gave Bülow time to prepare. The attacks against the town by the XVIII Corps were a costly failure but the X and III corps on the right flank got forward and forced the Germans near Guise to fall back. The French attacked again during the morning of 30 August but the attacks were uncoordinated and repulsed the Germans counter-attacked before noon. German infantry made slow progress through the Oise marshes amidst extensive artillery bombardments by both sides. By early afternoon, aircraft reconnaissance reports showed that the French had begun to withdraw and Bülow ordered a pursuit by small infantry parties with field artillery, while the main force paused to rest, due to exhaustion and to concern that the fortress of La Fère obstructed a general advance and should be masked, while the 1st Army enveloped the French from the west and then attacked on 1 September. The 2nd Army pursuit took only four guns, 16 machine-guns and c. 1,700 prisoners. [28] On 31 August the Fifth Army continued the retreat to the Marne. [29]

Advance to the Aisne, 6 September – 1 October Edit

Battle of the Marne Edit

Joffre used the railways which had transported French troops to the German frontier, to move troops back from Lorraine and Alsace, forming a new Sixth Army under General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, with nine divisions and two cavalry divisions. By 10 September, twenty divisions and three cavalry divisions had been moved west from the German border to the French centre and left and the balance of force between the German 1st–3rd armies and the Third, Fourth, Ninth, Fifth armies, the BEF and Sixth Army had changed to 44:56 divisions. Late on 4 September Joffre ordered the Sixth Army to attack eastwards over the Ourcq towards Château Thierry as the BEF advanced towards Montmirail and the Fifth Army attacked northwards, with its right flank protected by the Ninth Army along the St. Gond marshes. The French First–Fourth armies to the east were to resist the attacks of the German 5th–7th armies between Verdun and Toul and repulse an enveloping attack on the defences south of Nancy from the north. The 6th and 7th armies were reinforced by heavy artillery from Metz and attacked again on 4 September along the Moselle. [30]

On 5 September the Sixth Army advanced eastwards from Paris against the German IV Reserve Corps, which had moved into the area that morning. The French were stopped short of high ground north of Meaux. Overnight the IV Reserve Corps withdrew to a better position 10 km (6.2 mi) east and French air reconnaissance observed German forces moving north to face the Sixth Army. General Alexander von Kluck the 1st Army commander, ordered the II Corps to move back to the north bank of the Marne, which began a redeployment of all four 1st Army corps to the north bank by 8 September. The swift move to the north bank prevented the Sixth Army from crossing the Ourcq but created a gap between the 1st and 2nd Armies. The BEF advanced from 6–8 September, crossed the Petit Morin and captured bridges over the Marne and established a bridgehead 8 km (5.0 mi) deep. The Fifth Army also advanced into the gap and by 8 September crossed the Petit Morin, which forced Bülow to withdraw the right flank of the 2nd Army. Next day the Fifth Army re-crossed the Marne and the German 1st and 2nd armies began to retire as the French Ninth, Fourth and Third armies fought defensive battles against the 3rd Army which was forced to retreat with the 1st and 2nd armies on 9 September. [31]

BEF casualties, 1914 [32]
Month No.
August 14,409
September 15,189

Further east the Third Army was forced back to the west of Verdun as German attacks were made on the Meuse Heights to the south-east but managed to maintain contact with Verdun and the Fourth Army to the west. German attacks against the Second Army south of Verdun from 5 September almost forced the French to retreat but on 8 September the crisis eased. By 10 September the German armies west of Verdun were retreating towards the Aisne and the Franco-British were following-up, collecting stragglers and equipment. On 12 September, Joffre ordered an outflanking move to the west and an attack northwards by the Third Army to cut off the German retreat. The pursuit was too slow on 14 September the German armies had dug in north of the Aisne and the Allies met trench lines rather than rearguards. Frontal attacks by the Ninth, Fifth and Sixth armies were repulsed on 15–16 September, which led Joffre to begin the transfer of the Second Army west to the left flank of the Sixth Army, the first phase of the operations to outflank the German armies, which from 17 September to 17–19 October moved the opposing armies through Picardy and Flanders to the North Sea coast. [33]

First Battle of the Aisne Edit

On 10 September Joffre ordered the French armies and the BEF to exploit the victory of the Marne and for four days the armies on the left flank advanced against German rearguards. On 11 and 12 September, Joffre ordered outflanking manoeuvres by the armies on the left flank but the advance was too slow to catch the Germans, who ended their withdrawal on 14 September. The Germans had reached high ground on the north bank of the Aisne and begun to dig in, which limited the French advance from 15–16 September to a few local gains. French troops had begun to move westwards on 2 September, using the undamaged railways behind the French front, which were able to move a corps to the left flank in 5–6 days. On 17 September, the French Sixth Army attacked from Soissons to Noyon, at the westernmost point of the French flank, with the XIII and IV corps, supported by the 61st and 62nd divisions of the 6th Group of Reserve Divisions, after which the fighting moved north to Lassigny and the French dug in around Nampcel. [34]

The French Second Army completed a move from the east end of the French line and took over command of the left-hand corps of the Sixth Army, as indications appeared that German troops were also being moved from the eastern flank. [35] The German IX Reserve Corps had arrived from Belgium and on 16 September joined the 1st Army for an attack to the south-west with the IV Corps and the 4th and 7th Cavalry divisions, against the attempted French envelopment. The attack was cancelled and the corps was ordered to withdraw behind the right flank of the 1st Army. The 2nd and 9th Cavalry divisions were dispatched as reinforcements next day but before the retirement began, the French attack reached Carlepont and Noyon, before being contained on 18 September. The German armies attacked from Verdun westwards to Rheims and the Aisne on 20 September, cut the main railway from Verdun to Paris and created the St Mihiel salient, south of the Verdun fortress zone. The main German effort remained on the western flank, which was revealed to the French by intercepted wireless messages. [36] By 28 September, the Aisne front had stabilised the BEF began to withdraw on the night of 1/2 October, the first troops arriving in the Abbeville area on 8/9 October. The BEF prepared to begin operations in Flanders and to join with British forces which had been in Belgium since August. [37]


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The British action at Mons on 23 August 1914 was the catalyst for what became a full blown retreat over 200 blood drenched miles. In this fascinating book the Author examines eighteen of the ensuing desperate rearguard actions that occurred over the twelve days of this near rout. While those at Le Cateau and Nery are well chronicled, others such as cavalry engagements at Morsain and Taillefontaine, the Connaught Rangers' action at Le Grand Fayt and 13 Brigade's fight at Crepy-en-Valois are virtually unknown. We learn how, in the chaos and confusion that reigned, units of Gunners and other supporting arms found themselves in the front line.

The work of the Royal Engineers responsible for blowing bridges over rivers and canals behind the retreating troops comes in for particular attention and praise: likewise the sterling efforts of the RAMC. The fact that no less than 16 VCs were won during this historic Retreat shows that, even in these darkest hours, individuals and units performed with gallantry, resourcefulness and great forbearance. Extensive use of primary source material, including first-hand accounts, letters, diaries and official unit records, brings alive this delightful and informative account of an historic, if not victorious, chapter in our Nation's military history. It would make an excellent companion on a battlefield visit.

As featured in Nuneaton News.

Jerry Murland's style of the writing is lucid and logical and the book is thus very readable. I wish all books on the Great War were written to this standard

Western Front Association, T. Adams

In this title, first published in 2011, the author looks at 18 of the ensuing rearguard actions that occurred over the 12 days of the retreat. While some of the actions, such as those at Le Cateau and Nery are well chronicled, others such as the cavalry engagements at Morsain and Taillefontaine, the Connaught Rangers’ fight at Le Grand Fayt and 13 Brigade’s struggle at Crepy-en-Valois are relatively unknown. The author explains how in the chaos and confusion, artillery units and supporting arms found themselves in the front line. The work of the Royal Engineers and the sterling efforts of the Royal Army Medical Corps are also highlighted. No less than 16 Victoria Crosses were won during this historic retreat, demonstrating the gallantry and resourcefulness of individuals in the most difficult of situations. In presenting his account, the author makes use of primary source material, including first hand accounts, letters, diaries and official records, presenting the reader with a complete picture of this historic military action. Ten maps, over 40 monochrome illustrations, text notes, a select bibliography and an index support the main text. There are also two appendices – the BEF order of battle August 1914, and the cemetery trail. The book would certainly serve as a useful companion on a battlefield visit.

Freelancer, Stuart Asquith

I've always been a fan of reading something which will challenge presumptions, and in 'Retreat and Rearguard 1914', Murland has done just that. All in all, it is definitely worth a read for anyone who wants to delve a little deeper in the British story of 1914.

Burton Mail

Jerry Murland is an ex soldier, mountaineering instructor and teacher. He is also the and author of the recent, and highly regarded Aristocrats Go To War. He brings the all rounder's approach to his analysis and history of wahat Basil Liddel Hart called "that thing apart", the regular British Army of 1914.

This is a period and a subject in which I have a particular interest Murland's book is one I opened with particular relish and closed without finding disappointment. Like the best of current military historians the author has the ability to knit his narrative of events with truly apposite personal stories and accounts. Drawn from published and unpublished papers and accounts, they both colour his work and inform the reader.

Absurdly, the Pen and Sword's publicity release for the book describes the account of the 12 day, 200 mile, retreat from Mons as a "near rout, "over blood drenched miles". Murland gives the lie to such half baked blurb. Certainly, there was poor, broken, communication, certainly there were losses. Certainly much was poorly accomplished by officers at all levels in the fog of this new kind of warfare. Yet itt was a retreat imposed on the British, not least by the withdrawal of French flanking forces. Few retreats by `new', small, and learning, army, have been better handled, They were led by commanders experienced only in `small wars', and a larger irrelevant one on the South African veldt, untypical of either previous or following wars.

Like authors before Jerry Murland has underlined that,despite inevitable losses, the retreat from Mons and the rearguard actions en route to the outskirt of Paris was an impressive feat of arms. Rearguard and Retreat may not be the last word on the subject, but it will most certainly do until that, if ever, comes along. This is an essential book on the early days of the Great warkey reading for anyone interested in the British Army of in 14, its abilities, its flaws, its officers , and the bloody minded men in its ranks.

Mr. D. J. Filsell

For their comparatively small size, the British Official History of military operations dedicates more space to the battles of 1914 than any other period. It dedicates as much attention to the actions of battalions as it does to entire Divisions in the final Allied offensive of 1918. Yet it also manages to miss, or give short shrift to, several localised and numerically small actions that proved to be of crucial importance in the British withdrawal from Mons and the long slog southward that ended with a crossing of the Marne in September 1914. There is a gap to be filled and Jerry Murland's "Retreat and rearguard" does it well: it comprises a series of vignettes that go a long way to explaining these actions and improving our understanding of the nature of early war experience of the "Old Contemptibles".

Drawing on a wide range of sources - many personal accounts having not hitherto been published - and illustrating them with some clear maps, Murland describes battalion-sized actions at, amongst others, Audregnies, Le Grand Fayt, Etreux and Nery, along with many other instances of small unit rearguards, and setting them in the context of the overall retreat. The description of fighting is down at tactical, individual level although set in context of bigger things. The book illustrates that while it was exhausting and at times perplexing, the retreat did not descend into chaos and at times the BEF gave the advancing Germans a sufficiently bloody nose to hold them off and buy precious time. This was achieved at no little cost, with several units suffering terrible casualties.

A good book, well worth buying especially if you have an interest in the war's early phases.

The Long, Long Trail - Chris Baker

…is to be congratulated on producing a book that combines excellent sketchmaps of specific actions and a broad selection of photographs with descriptions that bring the often chaotic 200-mile retreat to life.

Guards magazine, Spring 2012

This excellent work only narrowly missed being the Editor’s Choice this month and covers the eighteen desperate rearguard actions which occurred over the course of twelve days. Whilst some are well chronicled, others are little known and the author has done a first-class job in bringing them all together with extracts from first-hand accounts, letters and diaries.
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The Great War, March 2012

Murland has made a fantastic contribution to the history of the BEF on the Western Front. Impeccably researched, it is based on a wealth of primary and secondary material. In particular I was very impressed with the maps, which really helped to gain a feel for the battles of August 1914. He has dealt very well not only with giving a full and insightful narrative of the campaign, but has also shed light on often overlooked areas – the relations between French, Haig and Smith-Dorrien, and between French and Joffre and Lanzerac the myth that the BEF’s marksmanship was so rapid that the Germans thought that every man was armed with a machine gun and he has also given new prominence to the sterling work of the gunners and sappers during the retreat.

Dr. James H. Thomas

Jerry Murland has written four books for Pen and Sword, Aristocrats Go To War, Retreat and Rearguard 1914, Retreat and Rearguard Somme 1918 and Retreat and Rearguard Dunkirk 1940. He lives near Coventry.


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BATTLEGROUND EARLY BATTLES: RETREAT OF I CORPS 1914

A re-examination of one of the most controversial episodes in the BEF’s retreat from Mons to the Marne and in the career of Sir Douglas Haig. The book looks at Haig’s decision to speed his I Corps’ retirement while Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps fought the Battle of Le Cateau.

Description

On 23 August 1914 it was only the two divisions of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps that were directly engaged with the German First Army along the line of the Mons-Conde Canal in the first British battle of the Great War. As the British Expeditionary Force withdrew from Mons and bivouacked around Bavay on 25 August, the C. in C. Sir John French and his GHQ advisors – unsure of the condition of the routes through the Forest of Mormal – ordered the BEF to continue their retirement the next day avoiding the 35 square miles of forest roads.
Consequently II Corps used the roads to the west of the Forêt de Mormal and Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps those to the east – with the intention that the four divisions should meet again at Le Cateau. It was an ambition that was ambushed by circumstance as I Corps encountered units of the German 7th Division at Landrecies on 25/26 August. Unsure of the weight of the German attack at Landrecies, Haig hurriedly left for Grand Fayt, ordering his two divisions to immediately begin their retirement along a route that would take them west of Le Cateau.
It was this decision that kept the five divisions of the BEF apart until 1 September and is the subject of this book. I Corps now came under attack from the German Second Army and the resulting rearguard actions involving Haig’s men are covered in this instructive and interesting volume:
Landrecies 4 Guards Brigade
Grand Fayt 2 Connaught Rangers
Maroilles 1 Royal Berkshires
Etreux 2 Royal Munster Fusiliers
Cerizy 5 Cavalry Brigade
Villers-Cotterêts 4 Guards Brigade
The account concludes on the Marne.


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Jerry Murland has written twelve books for Pen and Sword and this is his third in the Retreat and Rearguard series. After following a successful career as a teacher he has devoted his time to researching and writing on the two world wars. His books include Retreat and Rearguard 1914, Battle on the Aisne 1914, Aristocrats Go to War, Retreat and Rearguard: Somme 1918 and Retreat and Rearguard: Dunkirk 1940.He has also co-authored the Battle Lines series of guidebooks with Jon Cooksey and is currently writing the Battleground Europe guide to Cassel and Hazebrouck.


Watch the video: 5. Prof. Dr. Reinhard Mußgnug Deutschland und Österreich am Ende des Ersten Weltkriegs