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Battle of Le Cateau

Three days after the Battle of Mons the retreating British Army found itself split in two and with the German First Army in close pursuit.  50km south of Mons II Corps turned to deliver a ‘stopping blow’ to their pursuers.  General Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps had taken the brunt of the fighting at Mons and was again forced to stand and fight a much larger force.

To the BEF’s right the French Fifth Army was in full retreat having been in contact with the German Second Army since the 20th August.  This left the BEF’s right flank vulnerable, however Smith-Dorrien believed that a sharp action to bloody Von Kluck’s First Army and buy the retreating BEF time was his only course of action.   Isolated by communication issues, II Corps was unsupported by Douglas Haig’s I Corps which was withdrawing south on their right flank.   On the evening of the 25th the two divisions of II Corps along with the newly arrived 4th Division, the 19th Independent Brigade and the Cavalry Division took up defensive positions along a 10 mile long front running from Esnes in the west to Le Cateau in the east (see image #2).  

The German attack at Le Cateau was much like the one at Mons with throwing forward men in massed infantry attacks, canon fodder for the BEF’s rifles, machine guns and, unlike at Mons, the Royal Field Artillery’s quick-firing 18 pounder guns.  Von Kluck committed four corps against II Corps making separate and unsupported attacks along the British line.  It was not until mid-morning that the Germans began to make proper use of their guns catching the British battalions in their hastily dug scrape trenches or field ditches.   

Even once the German artillery began to tell II Corps repulsed numerous attacks with small arms and artillery fire from the RFA’s guns which had been brought right up to the line.  However, this exposed position saw the British guns targeted with counter battery fire by the Germans.  By the afternoon all of 11th Battery’s guns except one were out of action with the other batteries taking heavy casualties.  By midday Von Kluck was pushing around Le Cateau itself into the exposed British right flank threatening to turn the British line (see image #3).  

Le Cateau was a battle between two exhausted armies, the British troops had fought hard at Mons and not slept or had a hot meal since. The Germans too had marched and fought their way through the length of Belgium.  But by early afternoon superior German numbers and artillery were beginning to tell.  The 5th Division on the right was in danger of being enveloped and began to withdraw.  This was the signal for the rest of II Corps to break contact and fall back.  

1st East Lancashire Regiment manning shallow scrape trenches at the edge of a field, many similar positions were held at Le Cateau. (source)

Smith-Dorrien ordered his line to begin to disengage - running from right to left the British infantry broke contact with the enemy and began falling back by platoons.  As one section fell back they would halt and then cover the next platoon as they retired.  In this leapfrogging movement the British retired.  At the same time the RFA began to extricate its guns as best it could and while many were saved, their close support positions in the line now made them vulnerable and 25 field guns and a howitzer had to be abandoned after being rendered useless by the removal of their breech blocks and sights. 

Arguably Le Cateau was the stopping blow the Smith-Dorrien had hoped for.  Following the battle Von Kluck made no attempt to follow up the British retreat and German guns were still firing on the now empty British positions in the early evening.  Never again would the pursuing German armies be as close to the BEF as they had been after Mons.   The British suffered 7,800 casualties at Le Cateau.  German casualty estimates are unknown although it is believed that between 5,000 - 10,000 casualties were inflicted.  Perhaps more importantly the German advance was again stalled.  The BEF would continue their retreat for another eleven days, marching 150 miles further south before the allied counter attack at the Battle of the Marne.


Image One Source

Image Two Source

Image Three Source

The Old Contemptibles: The British Expeditionary Force, 1914, R. Neillands, (2004)

1914: Fight the Good Fight, A. Mallinson, (2013)

Battle of Le Cateau, (source)

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