Under pressure from Kluck’s German First Army, British II Corps retired from the engagement at Mons along the western side of Bois de Mormal. Progress was slow due to the fleeing refugees and the heat of a French August. On 26 August, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien thought that his men were near exhaustion, but during a 02:00 conference with General Allenby at his headquarters in Bertry, the decision was that the enemy was too close and that II Corps would have to stand and fight, contrary to orders from General Headquarters (GHQ). British forces formed a 16 km-long, broken line along the le Cateau-Cambrai highway from le Cateau to Beauvois. 5th Division, augmented by 19th Brigade, was crowded on a hill southwest of le Cateau between the Selle River and Chaussée Brunehault. The open country around le Cateau was more conducive to the use of artillery than the built-up towns and slag heaps around Mons, and the Germans had a distinct advantage in artillery.
14 Battle of Le Cateau: 26 August 1914
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Summary: At 06:00 on 26 August, German guns began to roar out of the heavy mist along the entire British line, while German 14th Brigade infantry, entering the gap between Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps and Haig’s I Corps, passed through le Cateau and moved south down the valley of the Selle River. II Corps’ right flank was to have been covered by General Haig’s I Corps, but Haig was delayed due to fighting his own minor action at Landrecies on the previous day.
5th Division artillery had been pushed forward to only 200-400 meters behind the infantry and engaged German artillery east of Le Cateau. Outnumbered and outgunned, the British batteries slowly started to fade. The 11th Battery, Royal Field Artillery was a particularly hard hit target of German gunners. By 10:00, all of its officers were casualties and only one of its six guns remained operational.
By late morning, German infantry, sensing the opportunity, rushed to the attack. Hardest hit was 5thDivision’s 2nd Suffolk Regiment, which was at the point of the spur with 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) on their left above the Cambrai Road. In line to the west was 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borders (KOSB). Although later reinforced by 2nd Manchester and 2nd Argyll and Sutherland battalions, the men on the hill were outnumbered five to one by three German infantry regiments, who also had massed machine guns across the road. Enfiladed from east and west and subject to fire from multiple Germans batteries, the infantry nevertheless put down withering rifle fire, and the forty guns from the seven batteries brought down the enemy’s charges at close range over open sights. In a famous incident, 122ndBattery unlimbered its guns to face a German infantry platoon emerging from a depression. The battery’s guns fired one simultaneous round to destroy the entire platoon.
By afternoon, German forces had been strengthened by the arrival of their 5th Division, whose Grenadier Regiment Nr 8 moved toward II Corps’ rear via St-Benin and St-Souplet. One by one the British guns were put out of action by hits on their crews. The defenders held for an amazing six hours before the overwhelming pressure forced a withdrawal.
Smith-Dorrien’s retreat order came – to those units who received it – at approximately 14:00. The cannon-short BEF was concerned about saving its batteries, and amidst the German infantry fire the limbers were brought up and the horses attached to pull the guns back. When the order to retire was received, 37thBattery’s drivers rode forward despite German infantry fire and rescued four of their six howitzers. Asking for volunteers, their commander returned to rescue one more gun; he and two drivers earned Victoria Crosses for the action. Other batteries performed similar actions, with German machine-gun fire and shrapnel flying everywhere.
By 14:30, German Infantry Regiment Nr 26 was firing into 2nd Suffolk and Argyll’s rear while they retired. To their left, the 2nd KOYLI never received the withdrawal order and by 15:30 was surrounded and annihilated. When the nineteen survivors exhausted their ammunition, the last remaining company commander, Major Charles Yates VC, led them in a final charge. Their sacrifice played a great role in the division’s ability to disengage from the enemy. The same fate befell the 2nd KOSB to their left. The order also never reached a mixed group consisting mainly of 1st Gordons, the rearguard of 3rdDivision near Caudry. Though surrounded, they held off two German regiments for six hours, ensuring their division’s withdrawal. At 12:30, they finally attempted to retire but were intercepted by German infantry, and in a bitter fight in the dark, they were all but eliminated.
To the west, the newly arrived British 4th Division held the left flank. German units reeled under the effective British rifle fire, suffering enormous casualties. 4th Division had some difficulty disengaging when the order came, but the French Cavalry Corps held off further advance by German IV Reserve Corps and helped preserve the British flank.
The Germans fought heroically at le Cateau and suffered enormous casualties; therefore, they did not immediately pursue retiring units. The British losses were twice that of Mons, but Smith-Dorrien probably saved the entire BEF from envelopment. Over the next few days, isolated, small unit actions took place while the BEF continued to move south, eventually disappearing from German sight. It reappeared on 6 September, driving a wedge between Kluck’s First Army and Bülow’s Second Army during the turning point of the 1914 fighting at the First Battle of the Marne.
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