Memoirs & Diaries - The Retreat from Mons and the Battle of Loos

The Retreat from Mons The Retreat from Mons

Regular battalions of all the English, Irish and Scotch regiments were included in the expeditionary forces which left for France at the outbreak of the war in the early days of August 1914.  For its size, it was the finest Army that ever left the British shores.  It was commanded by Field Marshal Sir John French.

On the morning of Sunday, August the 23rd, two of the three Army corps, which compose the forces, were extended along a front of about 25 miles east and west of Mons, a Belgian town.  The first Army corps was under Sir Douglas Haig and the second under Sir Horace Smith Dorrien.

The fourth Inniskillen Dragoons were out in front doing outpost duty.  A trooper of that regiment had the distinction of opening the great war between England and Germany by firing the first shot, which brought down a Uhlan officer on the early hours of Saturday, August the 22nd.

The following day, the battle of Mons started about 12.30, not a German was then in sight, but an enemy aeroplane circled overhead like a hawk hurling down for prey.

Shortly afterwards, there was a burst of shrapnel over our lines followed by the booming of distant artillery.  It was a beautiful day and many of the men of my regiment, which was the Royal Irish Rifles, were billeted just outside Mons.

Many of us were bare but for our trousers availing ourselves to the warm sunshine to wash and dry our shirts and socks after our long tramp through France and Belgium, our bugles got orders to sound the stand to arms.

Scots Guards leaving SouthamptonThe Germans were then advancing in overwhelming numbers, soon the sharp crackle of musketry was added to the cannonading of the guns and the saber and lance of the Germans gleamed in the sun.

We were one of the first regiments to exchange shots with the Germans with us were the Grenadiers Coldstreams and Irish Guards, and to the right of us were the 18th Royal Irish Middlesex and Gordons.

The Germans kept pressing very hard all afternoon, but we held our ground just before dusk the Uhlans made a charge on our lines as they were coming towards us, we opened a rapid fire on them.  Many of them fell, but what was left of them kept on coming.  As they were closing on us we got the order to charge; every man that was able got on his feet and was off towards them yelling like madmen.

When the Uhlans seen the mass of steel coming towards them, they turned their horses around and were off and we helped them along with rifle fire and the boys got no more excited than if they had been witnessing the finish of the Grand National.

We got back to our position again and soon afterwards came wave after wave of their infantry, but we managed to keep them in check until midnight, although we had many casualties.  At midnight, the orders came from Sir John French to retire.  By that time, he had found out that he was vastly outnumbered by men and guns.  Then the retreat started and lasted about 12 days.

Scottish territorials being examined in a dressing station during Battle of Menin Road, Belgium, 1914The British fought a brilliant rearguard action all along the whole line and backwards for a distance of about 80 miles which was covered by forced marches at night as well as by day, hardly for an hour were we permitted any rest.  The Germans were continually at our heels, but the British fought a brilliant rear guard action all along the line against the overwhelming masses of Germans.

The Germans tried to turn that retreat into a route, in that the Germans completely failed.  The retirement was a splendid military achievement, our rearguard gave battle to them, holding them in check, or sending them staggering back until our main body was safe.

On Wednesday, August the 26th, we made our first real stand against them at a place called Le-Cotue and Landrecies.  Here it was that we gave the Germans another unpleasant taste of the fighting quality of the contemptible little army.  We were extended out in front of Le-Cotue and Landrecies, where the Germans were fighting desperately.

The word was passed along the line that we were to charge.  When our buglers sounded the charge, everyone went charging forward yelling like madmen.  We charged through and through them, stabbing and hacking at each other until the Germans broke and ran like frightened hares in terror of hounds.  That same day was the day that the third army corps was brought into action.  One division was brought hurriedly up to Le-Catuea by train.

They took up position on our flanks where the Germans were trying desperately to get around, but we managed to hold him long enough to let our main body get away, although we lost heavily to them at Le-Catuea.  What was left of us continued on with the retreat, our rearguards holding them in check.

Wreckage of Zeppelin L-44 and the body of its commanderBy August the 29th we had retreated back as far as Soissons.  Before the German masses, the retreat was further complicated by the flight of almost the entire population of Northern France,  the majority of them women and children.  On September the 1st, we had to make another stand against them at Uillers-Cotters for another of their fierce onslaughts, which they delivered against us whenever we tried to stop their pursuit.

We had little rest since the commencement of the retreat, with the Germans always at our heels.  Only the day before we had the longest and most trying forced march with very little food, as our transport had to keep far in advance of our column to avoid capture.  At Uiller-Cotters, our commanding officer was congratulating us for our grit and vitality when a runner came along and handed him a message.  The message read that the Germans were approaching under cover of the woods.

Our Colonel rode up and down the line shouting, "Form Up!".  We formed up and fired our bayonets and entered the woods and almost immediately caught sight of the Germans.  We blazed away at them and they blazed at us through the trees and undergrowth, and also hand-to-hand fighting.  We inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans, but we also had many casualties.  It was not the Germans' fault that any of us got away alive, as they were fighting desperately to surround us, but they failed.

By September the 3rd the whole British Army had crossed the Marne, and the retreat was brought to an end without any grave disasters.  General French had out-generalled and out marched Von-Kluck, but the Germans were also over the river by the 5th.  The contemptible little Army retreated through Northern France before a mighty and irresistible wind of steel and lead, but it did not overtake and disperse us.  At the end of it all, we were weary for want of sleep, but not badly shaken.

Captured German sniper's suit and armoured observation postSo, marvelously quick did the contemptible little army recover that on September the 7th we had great joy in joining with the French and turning the Germans from the gales of Paris back over the Marne and the Aisne.

Between the Marne and the Aisne we were getting some of our own back.  Our line of advance on that day was on a hill where the Germans were strongly posted with several machine guns pouring forth a stream of bullets.

We got orders to storm the hill which we did, led by Captain Charlie of my regiment.

He was out in front blasting away with his revolver when he got close enough to them, he yelled something to them in their own language, which we did not understand, but he told us after what he said to them, "Get back from those guns or I will have every one of you slaughtered!".  They did not need telling twice.

We lined them up and disarmed them.  We left to take them back, and we were after the others for miles over a country covered with dead Germans and horses, and burning homesteads.  Then we came to a halt and that was where we first started trench digging.  Our advance was swift between the Marne and the Aisne, but many a stalwart brother found his grave between the rivers.  Then there was a general role call of my battalion.  Our strength at Mons was 1200.  280 men were present at role call.

In the early days of October 1914, my battalion with many others was withdrawn from that part of France and sent to Flanders.  We were again made up to full strength from the home battalions.  Our first engagement after arriving in Flanders was at a village called New-Chappelle, about five miles from La-Bassie, on the road between Bethune and Armentiers.  With us were the Lincolns, Gordons, and Connaughts.

About the 23rd of October we relieved four other battalions at New-Chappele.  The following day, the Germans started to shell our position.  After 24 hours of continuous shelling, they advanced into view, through the rain and mist.  Although they were twice our strength, we held our ground until the necessary dispositions could be made in other parts of the field to withstand their onslaught.

Anti-tank rifleAs they advanced towards us, we peppered them with rifle fire.  They came right to our trenches and then it was parry stab and back with us in the trenches and the Germans above, and at the end it was to protect us.  Only the ones we dig ourselves with our entrenching tools.  They saved us from the bullets, but it was impossible to get out of shellfire.

You would hardly credit it, but every time we lay down to take cover, out came the pipes and cigarettes.  You would have thought we were on a maneuver parade at Laffins planes, instead of in one of the fiercest battles.  But that was the spirit that brought our battalion to New-Chappelle.  After four days of hard fighting, we marched into the ruins of what was once a beautiful village.  At that time we only had 106 of the originals who started at Mons, which I happened to be one of them.  Again, we were made up to full strength from the home battalions.

The next tough one my battalion was in was at Fustuburg in May 1915.  We attacked the German lines one morning but it was complete failure.  The ground between ours and the German trenches were strewn with our dead.  A second attack was ordered that same night which took the Germans completely by surprise as they did not expect a second attack so quick.

The Gordons, the Lincolns, and the Connaughts were with us.  In spite of the pitch blackness of the night, those of us who survived the morning attack thought we would meet with the same fate our comrades had met a few hours previous.  At 10pm we crept over the parapet one by one, and crawled on our stomachs towards the German lines.  Slowly and painfully, we crawled through a sea of mud, from dead man to dead man, lying quite still whenever a star shell lit up that stretch between ours and the German trenches.

By this method, platoon after platoon spread itself over the corps, strewn field, until the leading files were within a few yards of the German trenches.

Recruiting in LondonThen came the hardest task of all, to be shoulder to shoulder with our dead comrades until we got the flare signal to go, we held on with steady nerves through all the alarms of the night.  Occasionally bullets whistled across.  The flare signal to go blazed up at a few minutes after midnight, and the leading platoon was in the German trenches before they had time to lift a rifle.  Many of them were sleeping.

They woke up just in time to find the British bayonets at their throats.  But that did not finish the fighting there.  The next morning, the Germans fought desperately to recapture it back from us, but they failed.  The next night, we were relieved and on my way out, I got my first wound, but it was not a blighty one, just a flesh wound in the left forearm.

The Battle of Loos

At the end of September 1915, it was on a Friday night that we received our orders and marched off to take up our allotted position.  What a night!  Almost pitch darkness, as lights near the firing line must not be.  Just a few glimmers here and there to mark crossroads, and those are lanterns on the ground in charge of one or more soldiers according to the importance of the post whose job it is to direct the traffic.

Now and again more illumination comes from the star shells.  That was used between the trenches.  Searchlights swept across the sky.  Artillery cannoning was added to the crackle and rattle of the traffic on the roads.  We reached our trenches and had a dreary time getting there as rain was falling in torrents.

Verdun: underground hospital ward and mascotThat same night, we waited in our trenches of slush and mud for six hours for the order which meant death to many.

Yet how cheerful everyone seemed to be.  At six in the morning, the order came.  A sharp blast of a whistle and the familiar cry up and over.

Gas had been turned on some little time beforehand to help in clearing the ground for the advance, and as the wind was favourable, it drifted a mass of dark vapour towards the German trenches.  But as there was a danger that the cloud might be overtaken if the charge was successful and rapid.  Most of the men put on their gas helmets.  Over we went by platoons with half a minute intervals between each line.

Four lines of the British went over one after the other.  The first two lines reached the German trenches, the barbed wire had been blown to pieces by the terrific bombardment of our artillery poured on it for many days before the first line of German trenches were easily taken by the first two lines of the British and the other two lines scrambled across the trenches over the bodies of dead and wounded Germans, and as they did so they caught sight of the survivors making but a feeble resistance surrendering without striking a blow.

The advance to the second line was not easy here was a mess of tangled wire wreckage torn with shrapnel through which we could advance, but slowly the major who led us on the charge fell on his way with a bullet before reaching the first line of trenches and many officers and men.

We went steadily on to the second line of German trenches.  Then there was desperate hand-to-hand fighting and bomb-firing parties were at it, clearing out all dugouts, and corners.  This attack was carried along a four mile stretch of trenches and the whole line advanced.

British "Whippets", 3rd Battalion, Tank Corps, Mar 1918But the real battle now began.  The Germans on the following morning made a desperate counter attack.  Our hardest task then was to hold on to the trenches until relief came.

Again and again, they struck at us.  Morning came, and still no relief.  It was a question whether at any moment we would be blown to atoms and our trenches surrounded with the enemy.

We could hardly stand it from fatigue, having been in action four days without a let up.  "Fight on, boys" said one of our officers, which we did, and not a German came within a dozen yards of our trenches.  Then we got word that we were to be relieved the next morning.

The announcement sent a thrill of joy along the line.  Then we knew we had won.  When we were relieved, our brigade commander congratulated us on our battle.  These are the words he said to us:  "Not only am I proud of you, but the whole British empire will be proud of you."

Prevalent dysentery among Allied soldiers in Gallipoli came to be referred to as "the Gallipoli gallop".

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