The New Contemptibles: 1940 BEF to 1914.
This was one of my early stories (February 2014!!!) which can be read here.
Sergeant Banks passed on the word to stand down, and the platoon wearily made their way back to the billet, still trying to understand what had happened last night. The whole battalion had been woken by what sounded like a barrage, but in fact was the worst electrical storm anyone had ever seen.
The “Stand to” order had been given and everyone had rushed to their prepared positions wondering if the Nazi boot was about to drop on them. The flashes of lightening, especially the last one, had wiped out most men’s night vision and when it had come back, along with the first signs of dawn, they found themselves noticing the view of the river to their front and flanks was subtly different. It looked like it was going to be a hot day, even for the nice spring they were experiencing. Though Private Edwards, a country boy, was sure the sun rose in the wrong place for May, everyone was too tired to argue with him.
There was no sign of the Nazi horde, a patrol had been sent out from headquarters company, and so the Jocks of Tenth Platoon, “C” Company, 1st Battalion The King's Own Scottish Borderers. Part of 9th Brigade, Third Division, II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force went to get themselves sorted out and get come breakfast, like the rest of the BEF ready to face another day.
The Jocks’ General Officer Commanding Third Division, Bernard Montgomery, stretched his back as he listened to the reports of his subordinates as they passed on the night’s reports. They focussed especially the breakdown in radio communications caused by the storm and the fact that communications seemed to have cleared up but that every part of the command was aware that something wasn’t right. There were too many reports of buildings that suddenly appeared or disappeared, trees that were in the wrong place, odd sightings of civilians and even of a French cavalry unit, with lances, no less, being chased away on 2nd Division’s front!
“Well, somebody better get a handle on the whole thing, otherwise we’ll waste another day sitting around.” The Major-General stretched other way, and turned to look again at the map. He snapped out orders that he wanted standing patrols all along his sector, that every unit was to have a proper weapons training session, and would someone please arrange a car to take him to Corps headquarters so see what the Corps Commander Alan Brooke wanted to make of this whole sorry mess.
Brooke himself had just returned from a quick tour of the immediate area to try to clear his mind and get a picture for himself, when Montgomery’s car drew up and a very angry Major-General stepped out and saluted his superior. “That took a full hour to get here,” Montgomery raged, “a normal journey of 20 minutes took three times as long because ‘nothing’s quite where it should be’”, attempting an impersonation of the driver.
Brooke took Montgomery by the elbow and drew him over to the side of the road. “Nothing is quite as it should be!” he said. He began to fill Montgomery in on some of the most disturbing aspects the night’s events. “And so, I’d like you to come with me to see the Field Marshall, and hopefully make contact with the French, to see if the storm woke any of them up.” Brooke took Montgomery’s nod as assent and called for his car.
Late that afternoon, with most of the senior staff assembled in HQ in Arras, Field Marshall Gort thought he was having a heart attack. Pain seemed to grip his entire body, as his mind suddenly flashed back to all the horrors of the Great War, a war into which he had once more been swept.
Despite the ludicrous notion that an entire British army could be swept up in time and space, here he was, once more on the border of Belgium, with an Imperial German Army sweeping down from the north, in August 1914. This time he was not a newly commissioned Captain, but a Field Marshall with the awful responsibility of the lives of so many in his hands.
As he controlled his breathing and began to relax, Gort looked around the assembled officers and saw that his reaction was not unique in light of the news delivered by the senior Intelligence Corps Colonel. The vast majority of the men present had been forged in that conflict, the medals ribbons they wore, from Gort’s VC to Montgomery’s DSO, and their old war wounds that many of them seemed to involuntary touch. This was the war once fought, that would be fought again.
The Intelligence Colonel looked around him and nodded. “I know, it is unbelievable. But while we are geographically where we were yesterday, this is the 20th of August in 1914, the Germans have just captured Brussels and in two days the BEF should confront the German forces at Mons!” He nodded to Field Marshall Gort and took his seat. Gort stood before the map and asked, “Well Gentlemen, what do we do now?”
The room burst into noise as the assembled officers began to confer and ask questions. Gort noticed that Brooke was sitting pensively, so he addressed him directly, “Lieutenant-General Brooke, perhaps you might want to contribute something?”
Brooke nodded and stepped up to the map board, he considered it a few moments longer, as the room began to quiet. Then taking the pointer, he gave a brief, clear analysis of the “current situation” and then looking round the room, at the leadership of the BEF, he spoke from the heart.
“Gentlemen,” he began, “Whatever or Whoever has done this thing, is food for greater minds than mine.” He then began to speak of the possibilities that had been put in their way. He noted that they are no longer dealing with Gamelin, but Joffre. That the French 5th Army of 1914 under General Lanrezac was a very different proposition to the less than exemplary 1st and 7th Armies that were on either flank at Lille in 1940. Though, he pointed out, Lanrezac’s flank is very much in the air with the original BEF absent.
He then considered the enemy and the fact that the Schlieffen plan was well known to all of them. The Imperial Army they faced was not the Wehrmacht that that conquered Poland, but an army of horses and boots, good artillery, but unbloodied in war since 1870. While huge, their numerical advantage was offset in many ways by the mechanisation of the BEF. He smiled as he paused and looked around, “and Gentlemen, they have no idea about tanks and the Bren gun!” The faces of many around HQ lit up as they considered the difference that only 26 years had made in elements of equipment and training.
“Three things”, Brooke continued, “We could do. First, get the whole army on its feet and heading for the German right flank. Second get the RAF to attrite the Hun as much as possible before the aviation fuel runs out. Third defeat them so comprehensively that the war really will be over by Christmas this time.”
Some muted “hear, hears” were heard around the room, and when Gort stood again in front of the map, he simply had to say, “You heard the General, now get with your staffs and be ready to give me a full briefing for General Brooke’s three-point plan when I come back from meeting Joffre.”
“Bloody Huns!” Private Cartwright exclaimed. “Easy now Cartwright, be good enough to let the officer finish.” Sergeant Bank’s calm voice masked the fury that the platoon knew was going to fall on the poor unfortunate private as soon as the Battalion CO had dismissed them. It was all very well to be told to gather in and listen, but God help anyone whose discipline fell short of the sergeant’s expectation. Lt-Colonel Marshall had been filling the men in on the upcoming move and forthcoming battle.
The Jocks of the KOSB, were on three hours’ notice to move eastwards and begin the left hook that the BEF intended to give to the Imperial German right wing. A Major from the brigade intelligence unit had begun the briefing giving an updated situation report and a guide to the German order of battle. A few predatory grins had been noted among the men, especially those in the carrier platoon, about the short comings of a 1914 enemy. There was also plenty of relief among them all that the stukas and panzers that had crushed Poland weren’t going to be an issue. But the major had brought the attention of the Jocks to the reality of the “ghastly” executions of Belgian civilians that had marked their progress through that unfortunate country, hence Private Cartwright’s unfortunate outburst.
Similar briefings were being conducted all through the BEF and Quarter Masters were running ragged trying to get all that was necessary in the right place for the right people, at the right time. The decision had been made that rationing of petrol to essential transport was going to have to start at some point, but the army was too unwieldy to implement it until was absolutely necessary. It was decided that there could be seven days of all out movement and expenditure of war stocks before limits would have to be placed.
Lord Gort and Major-General H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester had flown back to London to brief the Government and the King on the situation, and to pledge their loyalty. Of the 1914 BEF there was no sign in France, though when the 1940’s men arrived at Calais they met a very perturbed group from the General Staff who had just arrived to figure out why the whole British army had suddenly found itself back in their barracks at home.
The RAF’s Advanced Air Striking Force strategic photo- reconnaissance Blenheim’s of 212 Squadron were in constant use tracking the German army’s course, especially tracing it back to the railheads from which it was being constantly reinforced and resupplied. The Army cooperation Lysanders from Abbeville followed the progress of the Germans south of Brussels and their radio contact with GHQ allowed the final aspects of Brooke’s plan to be finely-honed.
General Cordet’s French cavalry force, consisting of three divisions would continue to screen the left flank of the BEF. III Corps would move towards Mons, south of Tournai, keeping the Canal Nimy Blaton-Peronnes as their right flank. II Corps would move directly east aiming for Ath then Soignies. While I Corps, along with all the main armoured elements would first swing north-east towards Gerrardsbergen, via Ronse and then swing round into the tail of the First German army as it cleared to the south of Brussels, aiming for Waterloo. The initial move for each Corps was between 25 and 30 miles.
The RAF’s first major raid of the war on 22 August 1914 was targeted on Aachen, or Aix-La-Chappelle. The reconnaissance Blenheims had identified the railhead here as the main logistic hub for both Von Kluck’s First Army and Von Bulow’s Second Army. While there was some familiarity with “flying machines” and their usefulness for reconnaissance, the size and speed of the RAF’s Battles were a shock to the Imperial German forces.
The full weight of 75 and 76 Wings of the Advanced Striking Force, six squadrons totalling 90 available aircraft, with an escort of 12 Hurricanes from 1 Squadron flew in formation at 3000ft over Liege, following the railway line towards Aachen. 88 and 103 squadrons were tasked with destroying a depot beside the town of Limbourg, which was the furthest forward that Groener’s Field Railway service had been able to clear. The Belgians had crashed seventeen locomotives into the tunnel at Nasproué, otherwise the link between Aachen and Liege was complete. 28 Battles descended to bomb the depot, but their accuracy was less than stellar and only moderate damage was done. One Battle limped home having been raked by rifle fire as it dove lower to aim at an artillery column.
The rest of the light bombers flew on and managed to inflict substantial damage on the railhead at Aachen. One ammunition dump was also spectacularly destroyed, though one Battle was lost to flying debris, and another four aircraft failed to return to base, two due to ground fire and two which had collided. However perhaps it was the escorting Hurricanes strafing of the roads leading out of Aachen that caused the greatest consternation among the Germans. Many of the reprisals against civilians that had been perpetrated by the Germans was in response to the belief that they had been fired upon, and so the German battle cry had become, “Man hat geschossen!”
The eight machine guns in the Hurricanes meant that they really had been fired upon, and the horse drawn columns suffered severely. With a general lack of German aircraft, the Hurricanes were freed to become the scourge of German columns. The Fokker Mark 5s that made up the Feldflieger Abteilung of the First and Second Armies had been hunted down as quickly as possible by the bomber/reconnaissance Blenheims of 70 Wing, as the British wanted to blind Von Kluck as much as possible.
Major-General Sir Richard Howard-Vyse had been the British liaison to Gamelin’s GQG, in Montry, Seine-et-Marne. Finding himself out of time and place, he had finally been able to contact Gort’s HQ by radio and had been ordered to take himself to Vitry-le-François where he would be joined by Field Marshall Gort and a team to begin to liaise with the French. So, Howard-Vyse found himself now working with the supreme French commander in 1914, Marshall Joffre. Gort’s first meeting with Joffre went very well, a joy ride in a Lysander went a long way to persuading Joffre that the British were offering something valuable, even though the confusion of how and why the BEF was so different remained. The important thing was that Joffre was convinced that the information regarding the advance of German forces through Belgium was the primary threat.
A British team was sent immediately to Lanzerac’s 5th Army HQ along with Joffre’s orders not to attack, but to hold the line at Charleroi, which would be reinforced as quickly as possible so that it would be the anvil onto which Brooke’s hammer would fall. The RAF were asked to interdict Von Bulow’s 2nd Army as much as possible to take as much pressure off the French. After the success of the raid on Aachen, as much of the Air Striking Force as possible were tasked with tactical raids between Brussels and Charleroi. However, the air component of the BEF, 14 Group, was tasked with the immediate support of the British advance.
“Enemy to the front, ten rounds rapid, FIRE!” Sgt Bank’s voice was drowned out as second platoon, and then the rest of the company engaged the Uhlans to their front. The Jocks of the KOSB were the first British infantry to cross swords with the Germans in the Great War of 1914. In the German’s case, General Marwitz’s cavalry really were carrying swords. The Jocks however, as well as the SMLE rifles had one Bren gun per section and the routing remnants of the 9th (2nd Pomeranian) Uhlans were chased off the field as the company’s 2inch mortars found the range.
Private Edwards was crying for the horses that were strewn across the field, especially as single shots rang out to put down the wounded ones. His mates knew his love of horses, he’d been the stable boy for a large estate before joining up. They gave him some space, he’d fired off his ten rounds as quickly and as accurately as the next man. A good few of them were a bit sick about their first action as the adrenaline wore off. Sgt Banks had a quick word with 2nd Lieutenant Woods, then called the platoon to be ready to move in five minutes.
General Montgomery received the reports of action along the front of the division and it seemed they had run into Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps which seemed to be covering Von Kluck’s right flank. So far, the advance had proceeded as planned, and while a few causalities had been taken among the Suffolks when they ran into a machine gun ambush, progress was good. Montgomery ordered his chief of staff to get the information out to each brigade about what they were facing and to reiterate the necessity of pushing forward as quickly as possible. The Royal Signals detachment were doing a marvellous job of keeping communications going within the division and Montgomery was also able to pass his intelligence up to Lieutenant-General Brooke at Corps HQ.
Brooke received Montgomery’s reports as he was meeting with Lieutenant-General H. R. Pownall, the BEF Chief of Staff. Pownall had assumed temporary command while Gort was in London meeting the Government. The plan was moving forward satisfactorily. III Corps were almost at their jumping off point, with the southernmost unit, 2nd Battalion the Buffs, already linking with the French territorials at Condé. Brooke’s own II Corps were meeting the German cavalry, but that wasn’t slowing their progress to Ath. These two Corps were acting as the handle of the hammer that would soon swing down on the German First and Second armies facing the French on the Sambre.
The hammer itself, I Corps with the BEF’s tank and reconnaissance brigades, were starting to get reports of a German Corps at Gerrardsbergen (or Grammont). The 12th Royal Lancers in their Morris CS9 armoured cars had contact with elements of Alexander von Linsingen’s II Corps. The Lancer’s had captured a captain of the Füsilier-Regiment Königin Viktoria von Schweden (1. Pommersches) Nr. 34.
The man had bravely stood in the middle of the road and emptied his pistol at one of the armoured cars. When he ran out of ammunition, he meekly handed over his sword to the captain of A squadron whose armoured car had been fired upon. It seemed that von Linsingen’s II Corps had been ordered by Von Kluck to prevent any British flank attack and so they were moving from Ninove through Grammont. The fact that Von Kluck was not clear on where the British were, or that they were stronger than he suspected, was a relief to the British Generals.
The 1st Tank Brigade, with its Matilda I and IIs had made fairly slow progress, as the cambered and cobbled roads played havoc with the Matilda Mk I's flimsy gear linkage failure and the Mk II’s brittle track pins. The order to clear out Grammont was given to the 1st Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade commanded by Brigadier C. W. Norman. Made up of the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry and the 1st East Riding Yeomanry (both made up of 28 light tanks and 44 carriers). These were to be assisted by the Brigade of Guards. An army coordination Lysander with an artillery observer board gave the coordinates for the main concentration of the Germans were, and at 10am on the 23rd August, the GHQ and I Corps artillery opened up on the German line of march.
As the artillery fire lifted, the Vickers tanks enveloped the town of Grammond and the men of the 2nd Battalion the Coldstream Guards advanced into the town with fixed bayonets following the Bren gun carriers.
The initial bombardment had shaken the German troops and the sight of the mobile machine gun tanks and carriers that their bullets just bounced off was further disheartening. Von Linsingen’s II Corps II consisted of 2 Divisions with 24 infantry battalions, with only 48 machine guns between them. These battalions were strung out in marching order when the bombardment had begun, and had almost no time to organise themselves into a defensive posture when the BEF fell on them. To the north of the town the German 3 Division’s 5th Infantry Brigade made a good stand behind the canal but were outflanked when A Squadron of the 1st Fife and Forfar Yeomanry seized the crossing at the lock at Idegem. Followed up by 3rd Battalion Grenadier Guards, the tanks turned the German flank and those that did not surrender withdrew in confusion in a generally eastward path.
To the south of the town the German Fourth division was caught with their back to the canal, and after a poor showing they laid down their weapons, as 2nd Battalion of the Hampshire Regiment blocked their path south at Deux-Acren. General Harold Alexander’s fear was the 24 field artillery batteries (144 guns) and 4 heavy artillery batteries (16 guns) of the Imperial German forces. Thanks to the artillery spotter in the Lysander British counter battery fire was quick and accurate, but it was a flight of four Hurricanes which strafed the heavy artillery batteries before they could get into action that changed the outcome of the battle. Nonetheless the German artillery proved effective and most casualties among the British was from shrapnel.
Of the fifty-six light tanks that started the battle two were lost through enemy action, one to a gun battery firing over open sights as the tanks closed in, another to a Maxim gun which got lucky. A further seven were victims of mechanical failure, though these were subsequently repaired. The carriers however suffered greater losses, six were destroyed or their crews killed by air-bursting shells. The lack of overhead protection for the crews was noted.
By 13:00hrs the town of Grammond and its crossings over the canal were in British hands. 2nd and 3rd Infantry Brigades passed through the Guards and were planning to continue the advance in the direction of Enghein. Lt-General Michael Barker (I Corps commander) worried that the IV Reserve Corps of the German Army, now south of Brussels, at Halle, would be a threat to his left flank if the advance continued. Therefore, he halted the Corps’ advance so that 48th Division could move through and take up defensive postures between Zandbergen and Nieuwenhove.
Major-General Lloyd’s 2nd Division, and the other mechanised forces were ordered to halt and await the reconnaissance reports before Barker would allow them to continue. This dithering wasted most of the afternoon of 23 August. It also allowed Von Kluck to halt his all-out advance towards Mons and to begin to deploy to meet the counterattack. From the retreating Cavalry Divisions he now had a clearer picture of the BEF’s ability and size, though it was difficult to believe.
Von Kluck ordered Sixt von Armin’s IV Corps to dig in around Ath. The Seventh Division took up positions along the railway line south of the Mons Road and Eighth Division to the north of the Road. Von Lochow’s III Corps were to swing west to protect Sixt von Armin’s southern flank. Von Quast’s IX Corps were to continue south to Mons. Von Kluck sent messages to Von Bulow 2nd Army HQ that a British counterattack was hitting his right flank and that he was swinging round to face it.
So far, the German army was coping relatively well with the changed situation except in one respect. In 1914 powered flight was still very much in its infancy and while the usefulness of aircraft for reconnaissance was well established, the RAF’s bombing and strafing was causing real problems for the already overstretched logistics. Horses were particularly spooked by low flying aircraft. Low flying Battles, Blenheims and particularly Hurricanes were taking a steady toll on the German forward momentum.
Even Lysanders were being used in both a spotting and a light bomber role. German soldiers were travelling with at least one eye on the sky and the cry of “Flugzeug” was enough to send men running for the nearest cover. Some enterprising units put together a mount that allowed their maxim guns to elevate high enough to engage the aircraft, and as the days wore on the RAF casualties mounted. A number of these casualties were the victims of target fixation as some pilots flew themselves into the ground.
2nd Lieutenant Woods was dead. Sergeant Banks, now acting as platoon leader, was crouching behind privates Cartwright and Michaels. Michaels was acting as loader, and Cartwright was handling the Bren gun. “Remember, Cartwright, short, controlled bursts. Watch your arc markers, don’t swing too far over to your right or you’ll brass up A Company as they advance. Keep your head, remember your training and you’ll be fine. Right?” “Yes, Sarge,” they chorused.
As Banks went along the platoon front, he repeated his calming mantra. They were good lads, these Jocks. But Banks gave a silent thanks he was with regulars and not the territorials. Yesterday the Jocks had watched as the 6th Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry from 50th Division had put in an attack against a Jäger Battalion. There was no doubt about territorial’s bravery, but they took far more casualties than they should have because of poor training and haphazard leadership.
General Montgomery was thinking similar thoughts as he looked at the map of his Division’s position. “So, Brigadier, I’d like your Guards to advance here between Leuze-en Hainout and Ath, while Robb’s Ninth Brigade are on your left and attacking between Ath to Ghislenghein. I’ll keep Woolner’s Eighth in reserve and then they can exploit through towards Lens. The RAF tell us that there are German infantry digging in behind this railway line here.” Montgomery continued to use his pointer to trace the various aspects of the plan of attack on the map.
Turning to the senior Royal Artillery officer, Montgomery asked if the fire plan was clear and that he had spotters in the air. When this was affirmed, he turned back to his senior officers. “When the artillery stops, give it 3 minutes then have all your mortars coordinate on the area you’ve chosen for concentration. We don’t have many tanks left with the division, just B Squadron of the Hussars. Rather than parcel them out, I’ve decided to concentrate them with the Guards who’ve trained with them. As the mortar barrage lifts, your carrier platoons with the tanks will race through and mess up their rears. The rest of Brigade moves up and exploits the breach. Hopefully this taste of war will give Von Kluck something to think about. Now…” Montgomery continued the briefing sketching the positions on each flank of the Division and of II Corps.
At II Corps HQ General Alan Brooke was reading the dispatches that he had just been handed by his Chief-of-Staff. “Good, Montgomery is off the mark and 4th Division is moving up to its jump off point.” Noticing the Chief-of-staff’s raised eyebrow, Brooke continued, “Dudley’s VC at the Sambre in 1918 is one thing, but running a Division is quite another! If needs be, get ready to appoint Evelyn Barker to 4th Division, he might have a bit more grit for what we have to be doing.” The Chief-of-staff nodded and went about his business.
Brooke put down the sheaf of papers and looked again at the map. Pondering it for a few moments, he turned and called for his orderly. “I want to get around and see what’s going on, will you get my driver please.” A few minutes later Brooke was in the staff car when he spotted a Lysander idling in a field. He ordered his driver to take him to it. The pilot met the General as he left his car and asked if he could help.
Brooke commandeered the plane and asked the pilot to take him on an aerial tour of the front. From this vantage point Brooke was able to see the advance of 3rd Division and he noticed that there was a gap in the German line where Von Lochow’s III Corps were still advancing to secure the German southern flank. Brooke ordered the pilot to land at III Corps HQ.
Consulting with Lieutenant-General Adams, Brooke got 127th Brigade under Brigadier J. G. Smyth and from his own II Corps, 13th Brigade under Brigadier M. C. Dempsey to push up into the gap. They were to aim at Beloeil and if they could get around Von Armin’s flank, then the whole front could be rolled up.
This plan was “off the cuff” but later that afternoon the Cameronians of Dempsey’s Brigade and the HLI of Smyth’s were well placed on the Blaton canal to interdict the 6th Brandenburger Division as they streamed forward, advancing at first in close column, "parade ground formation", the Germans made easy targets for the British riflemen. Despite great bravery under fire, and adapting tactics to the changing situation, the Brandenburgers withdrew leaving behind many dead and wounded.
Meanwhile Dempsey’s other two battalions the Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Wiltshires were able to link up with troops from the 7th Guards Brigade who had broken through at Ath, just as Montgomery had planned. Surrounded on all sides most of the German 7th Division surrendered. The 6th division were putting up a much better fight north of Ath in front of Robb’s Ninth Brigade. However, with their southern flank compromised, they began a fighting withdrawal towards Soignes. A strafing run by a flight of Battles which caught the commanding General and his staff in the open however was their fatal undoing, and like their sister Division, units began to lay down their weapons and lift white flags.
By early evening of the 23rd August the head of the BEF hammer was moving again and the first tanks and men of the 2nd Division rolled into Enghein as darkness was falling. Some scattered German pockets of resistance had caused a few problems but many of the German 2nd Echelon troops had given up pretty easily, especially when faced with mechanised forces.
By the end of the first day of the British Expeditionary Force’s counter attack, Brooke’s plan had led to the destruction of Marwitz’s II Cavalry Corps and Sixt von Armin’s IV Corps at Ath. In addition, Von Linsingen’s II Corps had been destroyed at Grammond. Von Lochow’s III Corps had received a bloody nose and were withdrawing to Soignes. Only Von Quast’s IX Corps, now digging in at Mons, was complete. In addition, the logistics tail for First Army was in tatters. Von Kluck hurried to Von Bulow’s HQ to confer and together inform Von Moltke that things were not going well.
General Fortune walked out of the Radio truck and rejoined his senior officers. “I’ve spoken to Lord Gort and it seems the whole BEF has somehow woken up in 20 August 1914. Before you ask no-one there has any idea how it happened any more than we do. Lord Gort has asked the chief Padre if it is proof that God is indeed an Englishman!” There was a chuckle from the senior officers of the 51st Highland Division. Fortune continued, “So we find ourselves behind enemy lines, indeed in Germany itself at this point in time, cut off from reinforcement and resupply. Our Quarter Master tells us that we have enough war stocks for a few days all out fighting. I personally have no intention of sitting out the rest of the war as a prisoner, and I don’t want our new kit to fall into the hands of the Kaiser. So, this is what we are going to do…”
General Fortune laid out the current situation. The French were advancing as part of their Ardennes Offensive, and the Germans were letting them come on, inflicting serious casualties in the process. Crown Prince Wilheim’s Fifth Army is advancing on Longwy and Longuyon. As the Germans marched away from their concentrations around Thionville, there was a chance for Saar Force to fight their way to French lines at Etain.
The whole of Fortune’s Saar force was to concentrate by 21 August on Kedange. Carrying as much with them as possible, and destroying the rest, the force would march on the Moselle river crossings at Hagondange. If they could successfully cross the river, they would next aim for Rombas, then Briey. Gort had promised as much air cover as he could spare.
August 21st 1914. Saar Force.
A few skirmishes had taken place as British troops made their way to Divisional HQ at Kedange, but by noon the whole of Saar force was ready to march westwards. The reconnaissance tanks of Lothian and Borders Yeomanry led the way with 1st battalion, the Black Watch taking point. This battalion had been reinforced by the carrier platoons from the rest of the brigade, and so most of the men rode in carriers. The other two battalions of 154 Brigade followed on directly with orders to surge forward at any point of contact to break through as quickly as possible, reinforced with the other carrier platoons of the rest of the Division.
General Fortune then placed most of the logistical support units and Divisional Artillery in the centre of the line of march. 152 Brigade acted as rear guard and 153 Brigade as flank guards. The chatter of machine guns was fairly constant as the Vickers light tanks blazed their way through astonished Germans towards the Moselle.
As promised the RAF provided air-reconnaissance Lysanders and at 18:00hrs, twelve Battles and four Hurricanes bombed and strafed German positions around the bridges at Hagondange. The Divisional artillery then bombarded the approaches and the Black Watch raced forward to seize the bridges. A Company, with A Squadron of the Lothian and Borders Yeomanry, was tasked to travel south to Ay-sur-Moselle and take first the bridge over the river and then over the canal. They had the furthest to go and it was twilight before they were in the town itself. B Company, with B Squadron were to seize the Bridge at Uckange, north of Bousee. C Company and C Squadron’s objectives were the two bridges over the Moselle at Bousee and then the one bridge over the canal into the town of Hagondange. Some casualties were taken in all three companies, but by nightfall the main Division’s logistics were able to set up across the river in town.
Panicked reports of demons and all sorts were arriving in German HQs all over the area. The sound of bagpipes, with fast moving tracked vehicles, and the horrors of aerial bombing were fraying the nerves of the reservists and rear echelon troops. It took some time for an accurate picture of events to be relayed to Crown Prince Wilheim. By the time he was able to put together a strong enough cavalry force to have a reconnaissance in force, the Saar Force were past Rombas and heading towards Briey.
22nd August 1914. Saar Force.
Having got the Division safely across the Moselle, General Fortune put 153 Brigade in the vanguard retaining the tracked vehicles. With 152 Brigade continuing a flank guards Fortune put 151 Brigade, including the exhausted Black Watch, as rear guard. Progress to Rombas was quick, by noon the main force was passing through the town. But the road now towards Briey was poor and the area was heavily forested.
Unfortunately for the Highland Division, the 53 Landwehr Brigade of the German Fifth Army were stopped in Briey on their way from Metz to support XVI Corps. Warned by a cavalry patrol, the two regiments of Wurttembergers deployed to defend the town, their integrated artillery quickly positioning itself to face east. 153 Brigade, with the 1st battalion Gordon Highlanders at the point, were strung out along the road. When they ran into the well prepared and concealed German positions casualties mounted and progress halted. A well ranged barrage by the German guns on the road damaged a couple of light tanks which then blocked the road.
The two other battalions (4th Black Watch & 5th Gordons) were mostly reservists or territorials. It took almost an hour to get them organised and pushing up through the forest to try to flank the Germans. In the meantime, the 52nd Division’s artillery were trying to get themselves into firing positions to support the stalled advance. Problems with the radios were plaguing command and control, and contact with the RAF was lost for a crucial three hours.
Because of the terrain, the flank guard of the 2nd & 4th Seaforth Highlanders of 152 Brigade were well to the north approaching Avril when they heard the sound of the guns and immediately changed their line of advance towards the sound of the guns. 4th Battalion of the Queens Own Cameron Highlanders on the southern flank were at Homécourt. Likewise, they started off towards the guns but ran into a German cavalry unit that were themselves trying to flank the approaching British.
The Seaforth’s attack from the north turned the German flank and as the dismounted Black Watch and Gordons pushed forward, now with some artillery support, the Landswehr began to retire from their positions. As they withdrew to the West they were able to send messengers to VI Reserve Corps under Konrad von Goßler at Audun-Le-Roman. Von Goßler got his four divisions ready to move south to intercept the Saar Force before they could reach French lines at Etain.
As the weary force made its way into Briey they discovered that casualties had been significant among 153 Brigade’s infantry. Three of the light tanks were unrepairable without proper facilities and were blown up to prevent anything useful falling into German hands. A small number of carriers were also beyond repair and these met a similar fate. General Fortune, finally back in radio contact with the rest of the BEF reported that he would need to pause for 12 hours to reorganise his command. He put an all-round defense on Briey and his men took the time to eat, clean their equipment and grab some sleep before they were due to depart westwards the next day.
23 August 1914. Saar Force.
General Fortune made his way into the classroom where the senior officers of Saar Force were gathered for the final briefing before the final push to French lines was undertaken. “As you were. Gentlemen, we have about 12 miles to go. The Landwehrs we took on yesterday will no doubt have alerted every German in 20 miles that we’re here and we’re going there.” The General pointed to the map.
“Things have been pretty foggy this morning, but the RAF, God bless their little hearts, have warned us that ‘a large number’ of Germans are heading our way from both north and east. So, either we make a stand here, inflict as much damage on the enemy as we can. Or we smash through to the French. Now, we managed last night to get a Lysander to carry a man and a radio to the HQ of General Maunoury of the French army of Lorraine. Joffre has ordered him to support us, and so at noon today the French are going to attack from Etain towards Gondrecourt-Aix. If they push through to there, and we get going we should be able to link up with them by late afternoon. However, the Germans are going to be here soon, so we’re going to have to leave a rearguard in a sticky position. We’ve been promised more air support, but the rest of the BEF is making their main assault on the German right flank today, so we’ll be lucky if we see much of anything.”
Lieutenant Colonel M G Ansell, commander of the Lothian and Borders Yeomanry, spoke up. “Sir, we’ve lost a few tanks along the road, but most of the tanks and carriers are still up for a fight. We’ll be happy to stay on for a while to cover the rear, while the rest of you move off, then we can use our speed to catch you up.” Lt-Colonel MacPherson of the 4th Black Watch volunteered his battalion to stay with the tanks and hold up the Germans. A couple of other Colonels and Majors offered their units too as rear guard.
General Fortune brought the discussion to a close. “Thank you all, gentlemen. I’ll keep one squadron of your tanks at the front, if you don’t mind, but by all means, use the other two. Also I’d like the machine gunners of the Princess Louise’s, the 4th Black Watch, And the Royal Horse Artillery’s 25 pounders. Remember though, nothing “modern” falls into enemy hands. You’ll have enough transport to get you out as fast as you can. We’ll pause and deploy artillery at Fleville to cover your withdrawal. Right? Right. I’ll hand you over now to the chief of staff to finalise our marching orders.”
At 11.30am the French artillery could be heard to the west, and with information from an army cooperation Lysander, all the divisional artillery fired off a barrage in the direction of the approaching Germans. Then the breakout began. Only a third of the divisional motor transport had got moving before the leading elements of the German 11th reserve division were being engaged north of Briey. General von Goßler had sent the 11th against Briey and the 12th reserve division towards Fleville to try to cut the British off, or at least hit their exposed flank. The consequence was a series of contacts and running skirmishes between the two forces, with all elements of the Saar Force having to pick up their rifles and bren guns to fight their way through.
The German artillery concentrated on the road, and more and more vehicles were being pushed off to the side of the road as the men took to their feet to march and engage the enemy. As Fortune had feared there was very little air support, and it was very difficult to manage counter-battery fire and to keep moving. The various artillery batteries tried to leapfrog each other so that there was some British artillery fire to cover the withdrawal. The pressure on the rear guard at Briey grew as more and more of the Silesians tried to force the engagement. Artillery rounds fell upon the transport waiting to join the traffic jam along the road to Etain.
Just after 15:00hrs General Fortune was killed in action as the headquarters group were assaulted at Luby. A squadron of dismounted Hussars had crept along the overgrown banks of Le Rawé and ambushed his part of the column. He was leading a bayonet charge around their flank when he was shot dead. As news spread along the column there was a great anger kindled and the Germans Reservists were appalled at the savagery of the Scots' counter attacks. However, the discipline of the Germans meant that although they were often pushed back, in some cases as far as a kilometre, there were never broken. All this achieved, therefore, was more casualties among the 51st’s men. This wasn’t helped when a small number of TA support troops at the end of the column started to panic. This allowed a German formation to break into the line of march and sealed the fate of most of the rear guard.
The French troops had indeed advanced as far Gondrecourt-Aix and at 4pm the front of the British column linked with them. By nightfall all who were going to make it French lines had done so, and the French fell back to their prepared positions at Etain. The butcher’s bill was awful. A quarter of the men of Saar force were killed, missing or captured, with the infantry battalions taking the lion’s share of these loses. The vast majority of motor transport was destroyed either by enemy action or to prevent it falling into the hands of the enemy. Only 5 of the 28 light tanks that the Yeomanry started out with reached the French line. Twenty carriers survived. The surviving men of Saar Force were entrained as quickly as possible to move them back to Paris. As the trains pulled out a band of the French army played “Scots Wha Hae.”
5 May 1940/August 20 1914. Brussels.
When Major-General Henry Needham woke up in a strange room, he didn’t panic. He had been through too much in his life to worry overly much about wallpaper and curtains. The sound of artillery however was enough to get him focussed and moving. His aide-de-camp knocked and entered immediately. Together they gathered their team and were able after an hour to figure where they were (still in Brussels) and when they were (20 August 1914 as their bemused hotel manager was able to confirm). The senior Signals officer was able make contact with Field Marshall Gort’s GHQ and Needham’s Mission was ordered to continue their liaison to the Belgians, albeit with very different parameters.
Since Brussels was declared an open city, Needham and his team joined the refugees and Belgian soldiers and headed towards Antwerp. On 21 August General Needham was granted an audience with King Albert I, and Needham’s team was able to give a summary of what had happened in their history and the King’s possible future. The focus was on making sure that Namur would hold out longer than the 23rd.
Needham promised that the RAF would make the siege artillery at Namur a priority. Conscious of the “race to the sea” that happened later in 1914, discussions were undertaken to see how the British could aid the Belgians after the BEF’s attack on the flank of the German juggernaut. In the short term, and conscious of its limitations, the 12th (Eastern Division), which was on labour and training duties, would be moved by rail to Antwerp as soon as possible. If it achieved nothing else it would add its heavy and light machine guns to the Belgian defence in the unlikely event of the Germans advancing against Antwerp before September.
Lord Gort, accompanied by an enthusiastic Winston Churchill and a bemused Lord Kitchener arrived in Antwerp by Dragon Rapide from 81 Squadron on August 23rd as the main attack was going on. Churchill had spent the flight asking the RAF pilot about the abilities of the RAF bombers and whether they could bomb the Kaiser in Berlin. “That’d stop this whole thing in a flash!” he chuckled.
Another Rapide brought Field Marshall Joffre to take part in the meeting. Much discussion ensued between the Belgian King, and the chiefs of the British and French armies. They sought a strategic plan to bring the war to a successful conclusion. Joffre had taken the advice of the British to hold Lanzerac at Charleroi, and to withdraw two Corps from the Italian border to reinforce his Fifth army.
Thanks to the excellent French railroad and internal lines of communication these two corps were detraining on the 23rd at the fortress at Maubeuge. However, the loses taken on the 22 August by the French third and fourth armies at the battle of the Frontiers had been catastrophic, and despite the confusion caused by the Saar Force’s return to French lines, the German fourth and fifth armies were advancing quickly towards Verdun and Sedan.
If Brooke’s plan worked fully, and Molke had to order the Northern army to halt their advance, then it might be possible to take back the initiative. With Namur’s position under less threat from the siege artillery thanks to the RAF, and the anvil of Charleroi ready to receive the hammer blow of the mechanised BEF, it might be possible put the Germans on the defensive along the line of the Meuse. Since there was the original BEF back in in the UK work was progressing to bring them forward to Amiens where, reinforced from South Africa and India a proper field army of 250000 men could be assembled to be used in an offensive in due course. But that was in the future, and the current advance was a more immediate issue. King Albert agreed to sortie a force of four divisions from Antwerp to confront Von Beseler’s III Reserve Corps, to threaten Brussels and prevent the German reserve divisions from threatening the British flank.
Chapter 7. 24 August 1914
Sergeant Banks raised his whistle to his lips. The artillery had quit a few minutes ago and now every mortar in the division was hitting the German positions. A few of the Jocks of the KOSB were looking at him, watching the whistle. Others had their eyes closed in silent prayer. More were checking their equipment, adjusting straps, settling pouches more comfortably. They were all veterans now. They knew that the German soldiers were good, well-disciplined and ready for the fight. The Jocks had some advantages coming from 26 years in the future, but not that many, save the Bren gun and the mortars. Maybe the carrier platoon, but they were off somewhere else. As they waited for the whistle to blow, just like their fathers and uncles had, they were going “over the top”, armed with a rifle and bayonet. As the mortar barrage lifted, Sergeant Banks blew the whistle, and half of C Company rose up and started running towards the German positions.
The maxim gun had been well placed and concealed. As it opened up, a section of Tenth platoon were cut down. Those who were providing covering fire began to zero in on the clump of tangled branches where it was sited. Another section worked their way forward and were able to get within hand grenade range. A few crumps later and there was no more fire from the maxim. Eleventh platoon reached the first German positions, but here the mortars and artillery had done their job. Taking advantage of the shell holes, Bank’s men set up a fire base so that Ninth platoon could move up through them and on towards Soignies.
General Bernard Montgomery was pleased with how his advance was going. The Germans had reinforced during the night and resistance was stiffening all along his front. His men had got some rest, stopping in Lens, having broken through yesterday at Ath. His job, according to Brooke was “straight up the middle.” Aiming for Nimy, and the canal, he hoped to link with III Corps as they progressed along the canal with Nimy and then Mons as the objective. To Montgomery’s left, the rest of II Corps were aiming for Soignies where they should meet the infantry element of I Corps advancing south from Enghein. Brooke had been a little vague about the Tank Brigade in his briefing. Montgomery however had enough on his plate, and he began to marshal his thoughts about using his 9th Brigade to make sure Casteau was secure on his flank.
Brooke had had little sleep. Along with Major General Pownall, he’d had a very uncomfortable meeting with I Corp’s commander, General Barker. There was some disquiet about the slowness of the advance that had been made yesterday and that the armour wasn’t being used effectively. Vyvyan Pope, Brooke former Chief of Staff and now Gort’s advisor on Armoured Fighting Vehicles was given command of what became known as Pope Force. He was given all the reconnaissance and light tanks of the Royal Armoured Corps and 2nd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, supported by 1st Guards Infantry Brigade, mounted in as many lorries and carriers as could they could lay their hands on.
Barker’s Corps was to continue from Enghein towards Soignies. He was to keep the 7th Royal Tank Regiment’s infantry tanks, so hopefully it would mean that all his force would keep together. He was also given 17th Infantry brigade from II Corp’s 5th Division to beef up the infantry element of his force.
Pope meanwhile would carry on east toward Tubize, cross the Brussels-Charleroi Canal there and then swing south to Nivelles to prevent the Germans anchoring themselves on the canal. Pope had been Brigade Major to the Royal Tank Corps Centre, Bovington, where he was at the centre of emerging ideas about the use of armour in battle. He wanted the continued use of two particular Lysander pilots from 4 squadron RAF who had the previous day alerted the East Riding Yeomanry of a German ambush. He had one in contact with his Brigade HQ to liaise with the artillery and other ground forces. The second was to marshal the Hurricanes and Blenheims from 79 and 18 Squadrons, who were allocated as his air cover, so that any German concentrations would be attacked from the air as quickly as possible.
As Pope Force went forward to Tubize, the 48th Division were brought forward to maintain the left flank, digging in across the canal and facing the German IV Reserve Corps, who were themselves dug in to prevent a British advance to retake Brussels.
Just as with Generals Brooke and Pownall, the German Generals Von Molke, Von Kluck and Von Bulow had also had met late into the night. A number of captured British, including a pilot and navigator from a crashed Blenheim were brought before them, along with various bits of kit and weapons, including a broken Bren gun. The “fact” that they had come from 1940 and that they would lose this war in 1918 and the Kaiser would be deposed was all too unbelievable. It left them more than a little disconcerted and unsure of themselves.
The situation they faced looked like this: 1st Army was now a shadow of its former self and Von Kluck was particularly nervous. He had Von Lochow’s III Corps dug in at Soignies. He had been reinforced by VII Corps (General Karl von Einem) from Second Army. They had been force-marched to Casteau to strengthen the now wobbly German right flank, connecting Von Quast’s IX Corps at Mons to III Corps at Soignies. Third Army’s Cavalry Corps, Von Richthofen’s I Cavalry Corps was racing to Nivelles from Gembloux to try to block any British movement south, into the rear of 2nd Army.
2nd Army itself was facing the French 5th Army over the river Sambre around Charleroi, and they knew the French were being reinforced. Which put Von Bulow in a quandary. If he turned his Corps to face the British, the French could attack over the Sambre at Charleroi, and if they linked again with the Belgians in Namur they could lift that siege. If he attacked the French his whole rear and right flank was too vulnerable. Namur was still in Belgian hands, and Von Hausen’s Third Army was still on the wrong side of the Meuse, blocked by Lanzerac’s strengthening 5th Army.
The German 4th and 5th armies were advancing well though the Ardennes and would soon be on the Meuse, but Sedan and Verdun were formidable positions. 6th and 7th armies were too far away to make any difference and had troubles of their own. However, looming over all this was a telegram from the Kaiser with a demand to be personally briefed on the failure of the plan so far.
General Adam’s III Corps, now reinforced with Dempsey’s 13th Brigade, made good progress toward Nimy. A few German units, either survivors from the previous day, or forward reconnaissance from Von Quast’s IX Corps put up some resistance. The constant presence of army cooperation Lysanders, and the combination of the Corp’s Royal Artillery and mortars were too much for the Germans. The West Kents of 132 Brigade were in the vanguard, with 5th Battalion on the south bank of the canal, and 1st and 4th Battalions on the north bank. Unlike most of I and II Corps, III Corps had been able to keep most of their carriers and two squadrons of Vickers light tanks. Lieutenant-General Adam’s had given the West Kent’s regular battalion the lion’s share of the carriers to increase their punch.
The ground over which they advanced was pretty broken with lots of small woods and industrial slag. The leading platoon commander, a young 2nd Lieutenant named Chitty, ordered the platoon to stop as his carrier came in sight of Tertre. James Chitty was a keen historian and had made his Regiment’s history his special study. His father had also served in the West Kent’s in 1914, and in 1937, as James was about to leave university to join the regiment, his father took him on a bicycling holiday to France, following his regiment’s path in the Great War. The West Kents were once again on the ground that his father had fought on.
The ground was familiar, hence his platoon taking point. As his sergeant ran up to his carrier to see why they had stopped, Chitty leaned over and gave his instructions. “If it was me, I’d gave dug in among those fir trees. There isn’t a lot of space between there and the canal. Nice place for an ambush.” His words were cut off when a ranging shot from a German battery exploded 30 yards to his right. “Let’s close with them, before they can get us in the open” he yelled. Slapping Private Smith’s helmet, he pointed to the tree line, and shouted to the driver to get them there as quickly as possible. At that moment a few cracks told him the Germans had opened up, and as Smith floored the accelerator, Chitty was thrown back onto the shoulder of another of the men in the carrier. The Bren gunner opened up, and soon the other carriers joined in. There was no way for the carriers to enter the fir plantation, so the men of 3 platoon, A company of the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kents, just like their fathers, engaged the Germans at Tertre.
In the original 1914, the 1st Battalion KOSB were in the same Brigade as the West Kents at Mons. In this 1914, it was 2nd Battalion KOSB who were approaching Casteau. Unlike the West Kents, the Jocks didn’t have their carrier platoon. As the German artillery rained down on them, they couldn’t rush to close with the enemy, so they tried to imitate moles. They heard their own divisional artillery responding, and soon the German barrage weakened, then petered out. Sergeant Banks picked himself out of his shell scrape and called for his platoon to follow him. No sooner had he turned to face the German positions than he collapsed, shot in the chest. The platoon opened up on the suspected German positions with all they had. Lance-Corporal Cartwright sent one of his section back to the mortar company to request a fire mission on the German positions, finishing with smoke. As the smoke rounds fell, the remnant of Tenth platoon, C Company charged the Westphalians dug in at La Poudrière.
Fourth Division was now led by Acting Major-General Evelyn Barker. His Division was the northern flank on II Corps, the southern being Montgomery’s 3rd Division and the 50th (Northumbrian) between them. Advancing from Silly they had reached the line from Noir-Jambon to Thoricourt without any contact with the enemy. As 12th Brigade advanced down the main road towards Masi they were bracketed by German artillery. The RAF was nowhere in sight, and so the counter-battery of the Royal Artillery was slow in replying. 6th Battalion Black Watch was particularly hard hit, in fact they had to be withdrawn back to rear areas. It took an hour for 11th Brigade, who were the reserve brigade, to move through 12th Brigade.
As 4th Division’s advance stalled, it fell to Major-General G. le Q. Martel, or Q as he commonly known, of 50th Division to make the running. Ordering Ramsden’s 25 Brigade to take Neufvilles, no matter the cost, Martel gave them the single squadron of light tanks his Division still had, and persuaded Barker to send his Division’s squadron to Neufvilles to create an attacking force. By noon, 2nd Battalion the Essex regiment, with eight Vickers light tanks had crossed the railway line south of Soignies. The tanks went forward, supported by two carrier platoons, turning northeast to flank the Germans dug in and around the town. Acting independently this small force ran amok for an hour before a shortage of ammunition caused them to retreat back to British lines.
The advance of I Corps from Enghein towards Soignies and Braine-le-Comte proceeded at a stately pace, the infantry tanks leading the way. The occasional breakdown or thrown track had reduced the total number of available tanks to thirty. Nothing the Germans could throw at them seemed to bother the behemoths. Von Luchow ordered his Divisional commanders to begin a fighting retreat towards the canal. He sent messages to VII and IX Corps to let them know his intentions, and by mid-afternoon the British found less resistance as the Germans fell back in good order.
At four-thirty in the afternoon, “just in time for tea” as Lord Gort put it, elements of all three British Corps were linked in a line that ran from Nimy to Casteau to Soignies to Tubize. Third Corps’ progress had increased dramatically as Von Quast’s IX Corps had been probed from Binche in the south by elements of the French 4th GDR commanded by General Mardochée Valabrègue. With the British advancing from the east and the French from the south, Von Quast was relieved to receive Von Lochow’s message that he was retreating behind the canal. Between these two Corps, Von Einem’s VII Corps had defended well but with both his flanks under threat, he ordered his divisions to follow suit.
The remnants of Von Kluck’s First Army had been withdrawing behind the canal in good order until Pope Force fell on their right flank from the north. A battalion of the Brandenburger’s Infantry Regiment 48 had been decimated by a Matilda I infantry tank at Braine-le-Comte, a full company having surrendered as they had no reply to the tank’s machine gun. As the survivors of the Regiment took up positions on the right bank of the canal near Ronqueries, the squeaking of tracks was heard once again. Three Vickers light tanks, with four carriers carrying men of the Grenadier Guards crashed into the German positions from the north as the British attempted to seize the bridge over the canal. For many of the Brandenburgers, this was the final straw. Throwing down their weapons they ran eastwards as fast as their exhausted legs could carry them. Others didn’t even attempt to run, they simply threw down their rifles and waited for captivity.
This collapse had serious consequences for the rest of the German 5th Division and the rest of Von Lochow’s III Corps. Not yet fully disengaged and strung out along the road from Soignies and Braine-le-Comte, the fact that their way was now blocked over the canal, many of the Brandenburgers lost their discipline. At Henripont the battalion of the Grenadier Regiment 12 that had been designated as the rear-guard, broke into the tavern and looted its stock. The people of the hamlet were herded into their church of St Nicholas, and a number of people were shot on suspicion of being francs-tireurs. By time the BEF’s 1st battalion Loyal Regiment arrived, what should have been a good defensive position for the Germans was in fact a demoralised mob of soldiers who threw up their arms in surrender.
The 5th Royal Inniskilling Dragoon Guards were enjoying their war so far. They had said goodbye to their horses only in 1938, when they were equipped with Mark VIB light tanks and universal carriers. On 23rd August they had ranged around picking up a number of German supply convoys heading south from Brussels. A Jaeger battalion had given them a bit more of fight, but the drivers poured on the power and the Vickers machine guns had broken the Germans.
Now General Pope had tasked them with the kind of job that their forebears had done in the heavy brigade at Waterloo. The RAF reconnaissance aircraft had noted the advance of Von Richthofen’s I Cavalry Corps towards Nivelles. Pope had given the Inniskilling’s the left flank, their carriers reinforced by men from the 2nd Hampshires of the Guard’s brigade. Pope wanted them to slam into the advancing Germans and “knock them for six.” The men had heard stories from the Nazi invasion of Poland that Polish cavalry had charged German tanks, now their tanks were going to charge the German cavalry and they were looking forward to the opportunity. It was best not to have a fair fight.
Colonel John Anstice the CO of the Inniskillings, ordered his troops to aim for Genappe. They had twenty Vickers tanks available, split into three squadrons, with fifty carriers. Setting off they raced forward, a Lysander providing forward reconnaissance. At Pope’s insistence a flight of four Battles were on standby to give them air cover as they would be travelling beyond artillery support.
At Lillois-Witterzee they bumped into the 10th (Posen) Uhlans. The Uhlans didn’t stand a chance. Then the Inniskillings overran the 4th Dragoons who’d dismounted to confront them. As news of the British armoured vehicles passed back through Von Richthofen’s Corps, they halted their headlong advance and began to dig in along the Dyle.
Meanwhile the 15th/19th The King's Royal Hussars aimed at Fonteny between Genappe and Nivelles. Like the Inniskillings, they hadn’t had a great deal to do the previous day. When the found themselves among the German artillery train they enjoyed the chance to wreak some havoc. Unfortunately, they hadn’t learned the lesson of the day before, and a couple of tanks were lost to direct fire from German gunners whose bravery was remarkable. More casualties were inflicted among the Guardsmen in the carriers. Brigadier Clifton, commanding the 2nd Light Armoured Reconnaissance Brigade, dithered. The Inniskillings had done well, but the Hussars had halted as they took loses and found a regiment of Westphalians, supported by guns, who were holding fast. With the German Cavalry digging in and the VII Corps carrying on their excellent defensive work, Clifton called a halt.
For Von Kluck this was the first piece of luck that he’d had. Having withdrawn behind the Brussels-Charleroi Canal he had managed to link with Von Bulow’s Second Army. But now that the British tanks were on the east bank, he wasn’t able to solidify his position. With his artillery now threatened, he ordered his men to swing round Second Army, heading east towards Gembloux. Von Bulow would attempt to cover their withdrawal, pulling out his Corps out in sequence, X Reserve, then X, and finally the Guards Corps. With Namur still holding, though barely, the plan was to swing Second Army like a door with its hinge at Namur, back on a line to Gembloux. Linking with the Cavalry Corps which was now digging in along the Dyle.
38 Reserve Infantry Brigade, made up of Hanoverians had been sitting to the right of Charleroi waiting for Namur to fall and to advance against the French. More and more stories of the British counter-attack had been reaching them. When orders came for the Corps to withdraw back the way they had come, the men were disheartened. As they were preparing to move their artillery began a duel with the French. Valabrègue’s advance near Binoche had brought them into contact with the Germans to the west of Charleroi. The French reservists, as they came in range, started blowing their bugles and banging their drums and advancing with fixed bayonets under their flags towards the German positions. Very quickly their casualties mounted as the Hanoverians brought their artillery and machine guns to bear. The French advance quickly petered out, then became a general retreat, an Uhlan cavalry charge made it a rout.
Max von Bahrfeldt, commander of 19 Reserve Division wanted permission to advance and continue to knock back the French. Von Kirchbach, commanding the XR Corps, refused permission as the threat of being encircled by the British counter attack was too dangerous. After the encounter with the French, the German XR Corps began to move north east, crossing back over the canal at Pont-a-Celles and taking up defensive positions along the canal bank, elements of Von Kluck’s army streaming through them to the east. Meanwhile, according to Von Bulow’s orders, X Corps (Otto von Emmich) were to swing up to Gembloux. Supported by whatever forces arrived there, there were to dig in to receive the British thrust, Von Plettenberg’s Guards Corps were to link with the Guards Reserve Corps at Namur forming the south end of the line stretching from Namur through Gembloux to the river Dyle at Warve. Von Bulow wanted his Guards to be ready to try to flank the British advance if the opportunity arose.
General Gort surveyed the map which had just been updated with the latest intelligence and air reconnaissance. His chief intelligence officer Major-General F. N. Mason MacFarlane, and General Brooke were leafing through the reports that had been collecting in GHQ. Gort asked them for summary of the results of the advance so far.
Mason Mac gave the figures. “As of today, we have 10 Divisions in combat. 51st Highland and Saar force are back in French lines, but have taken heavy casualties: Of just over 16000 men, 450 are confirmed KIA, including General Fortune. There are 823 wounded, and 2650 missing. We think, or should I say hope, most of these will be prisoners. I Corps, including Pope Force, are posting 212 KIA, just over 650 wounded, and a further 150 posted as missing. II Corps’ figures are a bit higher, they have an extra division, and they report 321 KIA, 875 wounded and 280 missing. III Corps have come off best, 123 KIA, 490 wounded and 179 missing. The RAF report they’ve lost 32 aircraft of all types, some to ground fire, but more to crashes and accidents. They have another day before the maintenance schedule means they’ll be unable to provide the level of support we’ve had so far.
We’ve blown through about five days of war stocks in two and half days. General Lindsall, the Quarter-Master General, reports that we’re coping well and getting ammo where it needs to be. He does say that the advance has been difficult to keep up with for some of the RASC units, and if it continues at this pace, we are in danger of out-running our ability to re-supply. But then, he would say that wouldn’t he.” He grinned at his commander in chief as he finished.
Brooke took up the story. “At least we are not in Von Molke’s position. From Von Kluck’s First army we’ve come up against II Cavalry Corps, II, III, IV and IX corps. Of these 140000 men, we reckon that about 10000 are killed or wounded and so far, we have just over 25000 prisoners. All the survivors have been streaming eastward. They may be put together again as fighting units, but I think they’re not too keen on the idea at the moment. All that Kluck has left are IV Reserve, dug in south of Brussels and III reserve who are currently being attacked by the Belgians at Antwerp. We’ve also faced VII Corps from Second Army and I Cavalry Corps from Third Army. As far as we can tell the whole of Second army are swinging away from Charleroi and trying to form a line probably from here at Namur, through Gembloux to the Dyle at Warve.
“I had hoped Pope would have kept up the pressure so that we could have got most of the Germans in the bag, but the light tanks and carriers aren’t best designed for this type of play. If First Armoured were with us perhaps we’d have done better. If we keep up the pressure tomorrow, especially getting those infantry tanks moving from Soignies, I think we can upset their plans and keep them off balance. In the meantime, let’s get the GHQ artillery moved up and resupplied. Call a halt for tonight and let them men get some food and sleep, then at dawn we can continue the advance. If Lanzerac can get his left wing moving through Charleroi tomorrow and the Belgians do well north of Brussels, I wouldn’t like to be Von Molke at all.”
On 23rd August, as promised, the lead elements of 12th (Eastern) Division arrived in Antwerp, though only partially trained and without much heavy equipment they were a welcome boost to the Belgians. Of greater use however were troops that Lord Gort contributed from GHQ force. Along with some Signalers and Engineers, these consisted of: 1st/8th Battalion the Middlesex Regiment, a machine gun battalion with 48 Vickers belt-fed machine guns; 2nd Royal Horse Artillery, 139th Army Field Regiment and 69th Medium Regiment Royal Artillery. Orders were drawn up for them at Gort’s meeting with the Belgian king on the 23rd, and they had travelled as quickly as possible to take their positions to support the Belgians.
A Captain on Mason MacFarlane’s intelligence staff had studied the siege of Antwerp, including both main sorties. With the extra artillery support and the promised air cover by Blenheims from the Air Striking Force, the Belgians were very interested in the plans for their second sortie where they would attempt to outflank the Germans in front and make an attempt to re-capture Louvain.
The RAF were active around Antwerp on 23 August doing as much aerial reconnaissance as possible. On 24 August 114 Squadron, with Blenheims, were tasked with softening up the German reservists dug in facing the Belgians. The aircrew flew four sorties each that day, losing two aircraft which collided. A flight of Lysanders were tasked with artillery cooperation, managing to find some Belgians who would fly with them and act as translators and liaisons. With improved spotting the artillery, reinforced by the Royal Artillery, the Belgians were able to cause significant disruptions and casualties among the Germans.
Behind strong artillery fire from the Belgian fortresses, cavalry reconnaissance forces from the four infantry divisions began to probe the German positions. They found that the German IIIR Corps had dug in well, but were thinly spread. From the future British they also knew that IXR Corps were moving up by rail and would arrive from Leige on the 24th, taking part in the sack of Louvain on the 25th.
In an attempt to prevent this, it was decided that Belgian 1st and 5th Divisions would advance from Malines, following their cavalry screen. The attack found strongly organised defensive dispositions on the part of the enemy. The 1st Division gained possession of Hofstade and of the Schiplaeken woods, while 5th Division took Sempst, Weerde and Eppeghem. 6th Division by noon, thanks to air support, were able to pass through Boortmeerbeek and take the crossings over the canal. 18th Mixed Brigade, part of 6th Division took Haecht with some difficulty. Their flank compromised, the Germans withdrew towards Louvain. 2nd Division advanced towards Aarschot, which their 7th Brigade managed to take, though at the cost of significant losses. The Belgian Cavalry Division, with the advantage of aerial reconnaissance, moved forward towards through Aarschot aiming for Linden.
The Germans were now in a terrible position. Their whole army was reeling from the BEF counter attack, and other than IXR Corps beginning to arrive in Louvain, there were few reserves anywhere. A number of Landwehr units were rushed towards Louvain to link with the troops detraining in the town. The remaining Blenheims of 114 Squadron made their last sortie of the day an attack on the railway line running from Liege to Louvain, concentrating on the line as it came into Louvain itself. A number of trains were attacked and German casualties mounted. As the tempo of action was trailing off in the evening, the Belgians, feeling very confident, made plans to continue the advance the next morning. In consultation with British GHQ they were assured of continued RAF support and it was hoped that between the Belgian movement towards Louvain, and the BEF’s thrust below Brussels that the German IVR Corps covering the capital city would have to join the German retreat back towards Namur and Liege.
Chapter 9. 25 August 1914.
The dawn chorus was suddenly overpowered by the roar of artillery. The surviving Jocks of tenth platoon, “C” company of the 1st Battalion, The King's Own Scottish Borderers had been in combat now for two days, a third was about to dawn. The platoon was now just two squads and the company barely stronger than a reinforced platoon. Despite the losses the men were in good heart. They had bested Uhlans, Jaegers and line infantry. They had advanced over thirty miles in three days. Captain Wilson had briefed the men on the general situation the previous night as they were catching up on some rations and resupply. Their objective today was to push the Germans back towards Namur. 8th Brigade would be the lead unit today, the 7th Guards and the Jocks’ 9th Brigade had been at the forefront, and they would be in reserve at least initially. The captain was glad to tell the men that two squadrons of infantry tanks would be with the Suffolks in the vanguard.
Ahead of them the Jocks heard the artillery slacken and the sound of small arms rising. After 30 minutes they got word to move off. Picking up their gear, they headed towards the sound of the guns.
Bernard Montgomery was satisfied with his Division’s progress. The whole Corps had acquitted itself well. He had successfully argued that the 4th Royal Tank Regiment’s Matildas should be transferred to II Corps, and to send the 7th RTR to III Corps. I Corps would have the use of the light tanks of Pope Force. He had then managed to snag fifteen Matilda 1s for his Division and they would be leading the way today from Soignies towards Seneffe.
Lt Col FA Milnes of the 1st Suffolks was up for the fight, he’d believed that his boys had been held back while the other Brigades had had the lions’ share of the action. The men hadn’t had much training with tanks, but it seemed to the officers that the idea was simple enough. As the artillery barrage lifted the first tanks moved off, with troops from A and C Companies following. Most German forces had been withdrawing all night and so the Suffolks met a weak rearguard force that quickly dispersed before the tank attack.
Brooke was again with Gort in GHQ which had moved forward to Ath. The reports were coming in thick and fast as the day progressed. The map began to resemble a small child’s graffiti with lines and arrows marking the advance of all the Entente forces. The Belgians in the north were being held up at Linden as more and more of the German IXR Corps were rushed from the railhead to block the advance. Two squadrons of Battles and a flight of Hurricanes were being tasked with giving them air support. The good news was that First Lord of the Admiralty Churchill had persuaded the government to put the original BEF’s I Corps into Belgium and the first few transports were unloading the 1st Guards brigade at Ostende with orders to move forward to support the Belgian advance.
The whole of I Corps was now across the Brussel-Charleroi Canal and had linked up with Pope Force. 1st Division would continue to advance towards the river Dyle hoping to unseat Von Richthoven's Cavalry Corps from their positions. 2nd Division would press south from Nivelles hoping that they could flank any resistance along the canal bank. 48th Division reported that the IVR Corps in their front was holding firm and the few probes they had made against the Germans had been strongly resisted.
III Corps were now hitting serious resistance as they approached the canal behind La Louviere. The French were beginning to move forward, but they were sometimes a liability in attack, and so Lt General Adams was trying to use them to protect his flank, and to sweep up as many prisoners as possible. They seemed to be running into mostly German Second Army forces, and were finding that the German artillery was particularly effective. A request for more support from the RAF was made. The French contribution of artillery was appreciated but there were problems of communications which needed to be resolved before there were blue on blue fatalities.
II Corps, with 3rd Division as its spearhead, was making good progress, but the resistance was expected to firm up between Feluy and Seneffe. Once they crossed the canal and linked again with I Corps they would continue east towards Buzet.
The RAF was at full stretch and warning that accidents and losses would mount as pilots and ground-crew tired. Field Marshall Gort hoped that today’s advance would be enough to break the German’s lines and cause the kind of great retreat that he had experienced after Mons.
39 Reserve Infantry Brigade of XR Corps had swung through 90 degrees and were now dug in along the canal bank waiting for the Englanders. So far, they had had great success against both the Belgians and the French, and despite what retreating First Army men had said, they were confident in their own abilities. Max von Bahrfeldt, commander of 19 Reserve Division had placed his stronger Brigade in front and the 37th Brigade in depth behind them. 74 regiment were at Culots facing Godarville, they had one bridge on their front and then the more difficult tunnel section to defend. While 92 regiment were holding the curve in the canal opposite Gouy-Lez-Pieton. The engineers had orders to blow the bridges over the canal, as soon as the last of the rearguard were across the canal.
The artillery bombardment they had experienced that morning was worse than their worst nightmare. The British seemed to have unnatural powers of accuracy, and the majority of the German Divisional artillery was wiped out. Then they were visited by a flight of Battles. Concentrating on the areas behind bridges they each dropped four bombs and then returned time and again to scour the area with their machine gun. Command and control began to break down, and when British mortars started falling on their positions the men were cowering lower and lower in their trenches, wishing they had dug them deeper. The clanking of tracks was a sound they were unfamiliar with, and because of the barrage, very few lifted their heads to see what was making the sound.
The 2nd abttalion of the Royal Sussex Regiment were hugging the rear of the Matildas as they approached the canal. They were tasked with taking possession of the part of the canal that ran through the tunnel of Godarville, but seeing that the bridge near the entrance to the tunnel was not yet blown, 2nd Lieutenant Lionel Ernest Queripel raced forward and charged over the bridge. Bayoneting the German engineer who was trying to blow the bridge, the bravery of their officer encouraged more men of his platoon to support him. The rest of the company were able to follow up as the machine guns of the tanks covered them. Within a few moments a lodgment was made, and the first few tanks safely crossed the canal. Lt Queripel was killed in action, and was awarded a posthumous VC for his actions that day. The rest of the Sussex Brigade fanned out widening the breach and the demoralised Germans who didn’t run off in panic, surrendered in droves.
The 1st Suffolks’ progress had continued apace. They had covered the 9 miles to Feluy meeting only sporadic resistance. Erich von Flakenstein’s 7th Jager Battalion had been covering the retreat of 13th Division. The had dug in around the Chateau of Feluy. They were willing to hold fast to let the rest of their colleagues get as far over the canal as they could. The Suffolk’s scouts had bumped into a Jager patrol, and the alert had been passed back. A Lysander was requested to overfly the position, and did so, but had to withdraw after it had wandered too close to a hidden machine-gun position. The Suffolks were well prepared for the defences, and the artillery that preceded their attack was accurate. The Jagers did put up a stout resistance, but it was ultimately in vain. The tanks ran straight through the village. They made for the locks at Arquennes, cutting off the retreat of the Jagers. After two hours, and substantial losses, the survivors surrendered.
All along the front similar battles were taking place. The Germans never seemed to be able to find a defensible position, they were sacrificing units in desperate rearguard actions. One of the major problems was that there werereal difficulties of communications. Von Kluck was with Von Bulow at his headquarters. But whenever they tried to exercised control over their forces the situation was so fluid that they became little more than frustrated spectators.
Closer to the front Von Kirchbach, commanding XR Corps tried to get his men, and all the other retreating troops he could lay his hands on, to dig in along the railway line between Charleroi and Nivelles. Too many troops were simply defeated and were making their way eastwards, not as organised units but in dribs and drabs. There were also many exceptions to this, and as the day wore on more and more troops were digging in. Between men from VII Corps and XR the line solidified. As much artillery as possible found themselves looking for cover, they had been learning the danger of the presence of aircraft and the accuracy of British counter-battery fire. The objective was to delay the British long enough for the Guards and X Corp to prepare a defence in depth at Gembloux.
General Lanzerac was aware that the Germans were withdrawing from the Sambre, so he began preparations to move north. The 3rd and 10th Corps moved from the heights behind the Sambre and aimed to retake the bridges which the Germans had captured on the 21 August. While the majority of the German forces had withdrawn, they had left rear guards to cover their withdrawal. General Bonnier of 19th Division ordered the infantry of 71st Regiment to fix bayonets. With their flags flying and the bugles sounding the charge, the line began to move forward, then German machine-gun fire swept the slope. Many of the infantry fell. They began to advance by successive bounds, and the momentum carried them forward. They reached Auvelais and its colliery. However, the German forces blew the bridges at both Auvelais and Tamines.
The 39th infantry regiment of Fifth Division of 3rd Corps advanced towards Pont-de-Loup. Covered by their own machine gun company they managed to advance without too many casualties, but again they found the bridge blown. This was generally the case for both Corps, they found themselves against a river awaiting their engineers to bring forward pontoons to make bridges.
General D’Esperey’s First Army Corps, made up of France’s first and second divisions was to the west of Charleroi and found the going easier as the Germans pulled away from the British attack. Knowing that they would have to cross both the Sambre and the canal, they made sure their engineers had the bridging equipment near the front of their advance. They made the first crossings at Landelies and the Abbey D’Aulne. First Division advanced towards the locks at Dampremy, while Second Division went towards the locks at Courcelles. Here elements of the French 8th Infantry regiment linked with the Lancashire Fusiliers of III Corps.
Von Kirchbach’s XR Corps defensive line along the railway line was now threatened on both flanks. The BEF’s 3rd Brigade of 1st Division took a southwards path to Bois De Nivelles. Accompanied by a squadron of 15/19th Hussars, back in their normal role of reconnaissance tanks, the 1st Battalion Duke of Wellington Regiment started to roll up the flank of the 25th Mixed Landswehr Brigade. As 10th Brigade’s 2nd Duke of Cornwall Light Battalion advanced the 3 miles from Renissart towards Hameau Des Bois, occasionally bracketed by artillery, they found elements of German VII corps trying to hold a disintegrating position. The 22nd Field Regiment RA was the Brigade’s gunners and they were able to place a well-timed barrage on the Germans, who broke and ran as the battalion’s mortars softened them up before the attack went in. This was happening all along the railway, but the British soldiers had marched far on a hot summer’s day and were unable to exploit the gains they had won.
The day had generally gone well, The Entente forces were making good progress, but the Germans were still on the field, falling back and still prepared to put up a fight. The problem was that the British had been on the move for four straight days, and were tiring fast. Advances were being reduced to about 15 miles a day. The logistics were becoming more and more strained. The turn around for RAF sorties were beginning to lengthen. As the day drew to a close the British were in a curved line from north to south: East of Genappe, then along the railway line south of Nivelles to Gosellies.
Chapter 10 Strategic Interlude
August 20 1914.
It was late in the day before the reality of the time shift had really sunk in for all the senior BEF staff. As well as planning the counter attack along General Brooke’s lines, another planning session was taking place as to who and what should travel to London to inform the Government. Lord Gort and Major-General H.R.H. the Duke of Gloucester would fly back to London to brief the Government and the King on the situation, and to pledge their loyalty. However, it was important that the future knowledge should be used to lessen the horrors of this Great War and prevent the BEF’s own war from ever happening. If that was at all possible.
A general order was distributed to all officers to discover who had any special knowledge or area of study that was of strategic value. They were also to discover from the soldiers under them what special skills they have. Air Marshall A.S. Barratt was particularly concerned to make sure that the advances in aircraft were communicated. He was also concerned to find people in his command who understood how to make fuel for his aircraft once their stockpile was exhausted.
A platoon of the Welsh Guards was designated to take their whole kit and training knowledge back. Examples of most vehicles and weapons along with specialists from every aspect of the army were tasked with travelling back to Britain to share their expertise. On the 22nd August over one thousand men travelled to Calais to ship over to Dover. The ships were ordered to make a night crossing so that their disembarkation would have a degree of secrecy. They were met off the ships by senior intelligence, political and military figures.
The 1940s men were led by Brigadier Sir Colin Jardine, Gort’s military secretary. He had been gathering the lists of skills and knowledge. He was particularly keen to meet with George Mansfield Smith-Cumming, head of the secret service bureau. Jardine had a list of information that was time sensitive, especially concerning the advance of the Russians in East Prussia. It was crucial that the intelligence was acted on as swiftly as possible, if it was going to be of any use.
To test the veracity of the information the spy master had brought along a confused young artillery officer named Colin Jardine, who had woken up a couple of days earlier not in France but in his own barrack room in Aldershot. A few minutes spent together by the younger and older man were enough to prove to Smith-Cumming that whatever had happened it had been a godsend. “C” was astute enough to see the value of the treasure that had landed in his lap. Messages were immediately sent to the Russian commanders, about what to expect. The British suggested that they had a source in the German General Staff to explain how they had come by the intelligence.
Many of the men, particularly in the ranks, found the experience frustrating. Among many of the 1914 officers there was a scepticism which seemed based more on a feeling of superiority than of anything else. For the officers, especially those of the same class, the experience was less difficult. They hadn’t had time to reflect on the existential implications of their time travel, and often the 1914 officers were more interested in those philosophical questions than the practical consequences.
One area that the 1914ers were fixated on was the consequences to British aristocratic society because of the losses to the officer corps during the Great War. They were appalled at the rise of Bolshevism in Russia and the death of the Czar and his family. But the changes they could see among the men of 1940 was far more frightening. Britain in 1940 was more democratic. The position of groups such as women and, in particular, the working class had been transformed, becoming more powerful during the war. There was a growth of less deferential attitudes, partly because of the cross-class experiences of the trenches and partly because of the disproportionately high percentage of casualties among the landed classes. The strict class hierarchy of Edwardian Britain that these officers knew would disappear for good in the immediate post-war years.
The knowledge of problems like the shell shortage, incurring of debts equivalent to 136% of its gross national product, the political gutting of the Liberal Party, all these were examined in detail. The current military situation in Belgium and the BEF’s plan for counter-attack was examined. Plans were made to deploy the original BEF via Ostende to support the Belgians, who had been fighting almost alone for most of the month.
The Royal Horse Artillery and the Royal Field Artillery were fascinated with the advances in their profession and drooled over the 25 pounder that had been brought over from France. Most branches of the army had similar feelings, for example, the Royal Army Medical Corps were interested in 'M+B', produced by the firm May and Baker - the first effective sulphonamides that could be used for a variety of infections. The other items the doctors wanted the tetanus immunisation programme, and although penicillin wasn’t yet available, there was enough knowledge about it to begin the process of research. One Royal Flying Corps officer fainted at the sight of a Hurricane coming in to land.
Both Generals Samsonov’s Second army and Rennenkampf’s First army, by direct order of the Czar, had halted in position on the morning of 25th August. They were both visited that day by senior figures hurriedly arrived from St Petersburg with information relating to their radio communications and the changes in the German positions in front of them. Samsonov’s supply issues were given as the reason for his order to halt. But the change in German dispositions which had been found, he was told, through a spy in the German High Command made it important for him to prepare to meet a German attack rather than continue his own headlong advance. He was unhappy with the interference, but the written order signed by Czar Nicholas silenced his objections. Samsonov then sent out dispatches to this Corps Commanders to realign themselves on the First Corps positions, making sure the railway lines were firmly held. Knowing that German I Corps were likely to attack from the direction of Seeben he ordered his artillery be ready for them.
Reenenkampf, advised that the Germans had moved their I Corps south and warned that there was a dangerous gap between the two Russian armies, was ordered to send his two southern most Corps (II and IV) southwest to close the gap with Samsonov’s VI Corps and 4th cavalry division. But in addition, he was ordered to advance to threaten Konigsburg which was now relatively unprotected on its southern side. He tasked III Corps with attacking at Allenburg and XX Corps to attack Tapiau.
On Samsonov’s front, on the 26th of August, the expected attack didn’t materialize from General Francoise’s First Corps. He had postponed his attack awaiting the rest of his Corp’s artillery train to get into position. With the Russian lack of movement the previous day Ludendroff was persuaded to allow this delay. XVII German Corps advanced near Seeburg and Bischofstein, confronting VI Corps at Bartelsdorf. There were many casualties on both sides and they each withdrew from one another to lick their wounds. XIII Corps of the Russian army had taken up positions at the railway at Hohenstein, and were in a good position to support XV Corps who were facing the German XX Corps at Tannenburg. At Frankenau XXIII Corps, which in fact was only 2nd Infantry Division (other units had been detached for secondary tasks), was linked to I Corps at Usdou. Most of the day passed with skirmishes and artillery duels.
The 27th August found Francois’ I Corps advancing against a prepared position, with XX Corps attacking at Tannenburg simultaneously. At Usdou the German artillery proved decisive and Samonov’s army began to bend backwards under the onslaught. The General gave the order for I Corps to retreat down the railway corridor to Soldau and XXIII Corps to fall back to Niendenburg. I Corps’ 22nd Infantry Division acquitted itself well, falling back in good order. The 24th Division was very hard hit, and in attempting to disengage with the enemy they lost cohesion and discipline. The commanding General of 2nd Infantry Division seeing what had happened on his flank brought his troops forward to cover the fleeing soldiers and so he brought his division to join the 22nd Division at Soldau.
At Tannenburg the German XX Corps made some progress against XV Corps, but the Russian XIII Corps at Hohenstein was a serious threat to his flank and Von Scholtz held his men back, allowing both Russian Corps to fall back to the railway at Neindenburg. VI Corps had fallen back to Ortelsburg, and were then ordered back to Willenburg so that the whole army were linked along that railway line. By the end of the 27th Samsonov’s Second Army were bruised and battered, but maintained cohesion. They were also falling back along their supply route from the railhead at Malva. On the other hand, Ludendorff and Hindenburg had been unable to fix and destroy the Russians. They were also faced with the threat of Reenenkampf’s advance.
The II Corps of Reenenkampf’s First Army were advancing on the 26th primarily against the German First Cavalry Division, who put up an excellent delaying fight, so that by nightfall the Russians had only advanced 10 miles, not quite at Rastenburg. IV Corps of the First Army had made better progress but bumped into XVII German Corps. This German Corps had withdrawn after their earlier fight with Second Army’s VI Corps, the very Corps that IV Corps were hoping to link up with. Neither Corps did well in this encounter battle, but the casualties among the German troops was beginning to become a problem.
First Cavalry Division of the German army was doing well, but they were being asked to do too much. The Russian III Corps were able to punch through at Allenburg and were advancing on Friedland. The 1st and 2nd Guards cavalry divisions were responsible for maintaining the link in First army between the two divergent moves. XX Corps attack on Tapiau was eventually successful, though a high price was paid. Their commander wanted to regroup before he continued the advance along the railway to Konigsburg.
On the 27th as Samsonov was retreating, Reenenkampf’s First Army were continuing their advance. Rastenburg was captured in the morning and the rest of German XVII Corps were caught between II and IV Corps at the railway junction at Korshen. After a brief and bloody battle, the Russians held the field. When this became known, Ludendorff ordered I.R Corps to Hellsberg. III and XX Corps moved west all day aiming for Konigsburg but their advance was slowed by desperate holding actions by various Landswehr troops.
As the 28th August dawned Ludendorff and Hindenburg were in a dilemma. They hadn’t been able to defeat Samsonov’s Second Army, but had managed to halt his advance, and in fact push him back. But their gamble was now looking as if it wasn’t going to pay off. If they rushed troops back to Konigsburg to defend it against Reenenkamph they might not succeed, but only throw away their smaller army. Ludendorff was on the verge of a breakdown. Von Hindenburg had a disheartening conversation with Von Molke, who would be unable to send any reinforcements from the west. So, he had to take the distasteful decision to implement his predecessor’s (Prittwitz) plan to withdraw to the Vistula, where a solid defensive position could be constructed. The defenders of Konigsburg held out until the 30th of August, by which time the surviving German Corps were ensconced behind a heavily fortified river defence. Samsonov and Reenenkampf pushed their armies forward to Marienwerder and Marienburg respectively. The stalemate began in this section of the Eastern Front.
Chapter 13. 25/26 August.
With the Battle of the Frontiers in Lorraine and the Ardennes having been so disastrous for the French over the previous few days, only at the very south of the line had the French First Army been effective. It had recaptured Mulhouse on the 18th, but Joffre, looking at the bigger picture ordered the army back to a more defensible position based on Alkirch. He also withdrew the VII Corps from First Army as well as a cavalry division as he looked to creating a new army for Belgium. VII Corps would join the forces withdrawn from the Italian border which were already at Mauberge.
The French Second Army was still reeling after its earlier advance had been repulsed. Castelnau was attempting to keep contact with the First Army to his south as Crown Prince Rupprect of Bravaria’s combined 6th and 7th Armies were counter attacking. However, they were moving quite slowly and although the French weren’t able to halt along them along the river Meurthe between Nancy and St Die, they did stop them at the Mortagne. Castelnau was confident that with First Army support they could regain their earlier start positions.
The Army of Lorraine was in a good position and were ordered to maintain the link between Verdun and Nancy. Third and Fourth Armies were to withdraw to the Meuse holding that line from Verdun to Sedan. Joffre believed that if his southern flank was stable then Sedan on the Meuse would be the hinge on which the BEF and his Fifth army (and Sixth when formed) would be able to knock the Germans back out of Belgium, at least between Liege and Namur.
25 August. Belgium army front.
The Belgian King had been conferring with his senior staff reviewing the day’s action on the evening of the 24th August. They were delighted with the progress, but conscious that the Germans were fighting well and that Belgian casualties were mounting. The news that more British forces were disembarking at Ostend came as good news, and so they decided to take a chance that would leave them dependent on the British if things were to go badly. While the 1940 British 12th Division was underequipped and undertrained, the 1914 Guards Brigade where very well trained.
After consultation with Henry Needham, the Guards would reinforce their countrymen from the future, this reinforced Division would then take the place of the Belgian 3rd Division as strategic reserve, allowing the 3rd to be brought forward into the battle for Louvain. General Michel was given orders to move his Division forward as quickly as possible, and with 6th Division support take the village of Weisetter. With the night giving him time to prepare their line of advance Michel’s division left their positions at Lier before dawn. A forced march took them by noon to 6th Division’s rear.
The Landwehr troops had held the canal crossing against a strong push by 6th Division all the previous day. But that afternoon they were overpowered and a gaping hole appeared in the German centre. All along the line the Belgians found the German resistance weakening, and in a great surge give way. On the left 5th Division took Vilvorde. 1st Division captured Elewyt and then entered Campenhout. 3rd Division continued along both sides of the canal to Tildonck. 18th Mixed Brigade, part of 6th Division moving from Haecht, with their flank tied into 3rd Division took Wijgmaal. 2nd Division advanced behind the Cavalry Division from Aarschot to Linden.
German troops were being thrown piecemeal into the front straight off their trains which were now having to stop at Boutersem. Damaged rolling stock from RAF raids was blocking the line and now the Belgian artillery were now able to shell the railway line into Louvain. As fresh troops were being rushed up the road, they were being met by soldiers fleeing in disorder. There was no way to bring order out of the chaos, so General Von Beseler of III.R Corps and General Von Boehn of IX.R Corps ordered a general retreat towards Liege. This left Von Gronau, whose IV.R Corps was defending Brussels, out on a limb. He decided that discretion was the better part of valour, and so he moved his Corps along the road to Warve, joining and reinforcing Von Richthoven’s cavalry corps.
When informed of this by the RAF, a Brigade of 5th Infantry Division was immediately detached from Vilvorde and at 20:00hrs they were mobbed by cheering citizens as Brussels was liberated. At roughly the same time a few squadrons of Belgian cavalry cautiously made their way through the streets of Louvain. When their Bugler sounded “recall” curious citizens poked their heads out windows and saw that they too were liberated.
When Von Bulow received the news that Brussels and Louvain had been retaken by the Belgians it compounded what he felt was already a poor situation. Von Plettenberg, commander of the Guards Corps had been on to him complaining that his left flank was in the air, if the French crossed the Sambre in force his Corps was in danger. He had debriefed various First Army officers about the British attack, especially the armoured vehicles, which his men were calling “panzers” because of their armour that their bullets just bounced off. He was worried that the entrenchments his men had dug would be as ineffective as Von Kluck’s had been.
The men were already jittery because of the RAF and the defeated retreating men passing through their positions. Von Emmich of X Corps expressed similar feelings. The remnants of VII Corps and other units which had retreated overnight were passing through the lines, and until they could rest and reconstitute, they weren’t much use. All stragglers were being sent across the Meuse to Huy. There they were being gathered together and reformed into disciplined units.
Von Bulow spoke at length on the phone with Von Molke in Koblenz. The supreme commander was livid. The Eastern Front was in danger, Belgium had regained its capital. What had started as a great advance was mostly halted and even pushed back. Obviously, their hopes to implement the modified Schliffen plan was no longer viable. While the loss of the majority of First Army was disastrous, the German armies were still very strong. Von Bulow was arguing that all his forces should consolidate behind the Meuse between Namur and Liege. After the Battles of the Frontiers, he was confident that his men could hold off a French attack, and the water obstacle would be difficult for the British to cross. It would take some time, but there was scope to bring up reinforcements from the other German armies who were also stuck.
To Von Molke, this was the counsel of despair. He seriously considered replacing Von Bulow, as he had replaced Prittwitz in East Prussia. He was tempted to bring Crown Prince Rupprect up from Sixth Army, but he was aware that the Kaiser was losing patience at the setbacks, and he was in danger of being replaced himself. Simply changing the leadership wouldn’t necessarily solve the problem. He went again to the map and studied the dispositions carefully. Von Bulow’s concerns were legitimate about the French crossing the Sambre and flanking the defence line.
Looking at the map Von Molke was able to see why Von Bulow was concerned, but what drew his eye was Hausen’s Third Army which had been more or less static since their first failed attempt to cross the Meuse at Dinant. Of all of the German armies Third had seen the least action. Their Cavalry Corps was now under Von Bulow’s command, XI Corps were besieging Namur’s eastern flank, and Hausen had regularly been asked by Von Bulow to support his Second Army. The Saxons should be better used, Von Molke decided.
When General Hausen received the order from his supreme commander he called together his staff and his Corps and Divisional commanders. Due to the loss of the siege artillery through air attack by the RAF the siege of Namur was stalemated. French forces had been able to reinforce the Belgian 4th Division, but The Guards Reserve Corps and XI Corps were very close to breaking through and taking the town. Hausen ordered XIX Corps to remain along the Meuse to prevent any attempt by the French to cross, which he suspected was highly unlikely. Meanwhile he would throw his other two Corps, XII and XII.R into the fight. If Namur was in German hands the French on the Sambre would then be in danger of having their own flank turned. It would also then mean that four more Corps would be available to stop the British and French counter attack.
General von Gallwitz, commander of the Guard Reserve Corps, who was tasked with leading the attack on Namur had been frustrated with the progress over the past few days. Ever since the British aircraft had been bombing his siege artillery, blowing up the ammunition trains, machine gunning the gunners, his plan to overwhelm the defenders of Namur had been thwarted. When informed that the Saxon XII and XII.R Corps were coming to his aid, he was both delighted and concerned. The ground that they would be coming from, the southeast and east of Namur was unsuitable for an attack, due to being full of steep ravines.
Over the last few nights he had withdrawn units from 38th Division and had them rehearse night attacks. These were pretty disastrous the first night, but the second night they managed to achieve their exercise objectives. So, with the coming of the two extra corps he would more than double the artillery available for his assault. He had also been informed that three siege guns, two 305mm and one 420mm were repaired and had enough ammunition to lend their aid. He had noticed a slackening of the air bombing, and he hoped that today he might be able to achieve some progress.
Von Gallwitz sent messages to Hausen with his plans, and the commander of Third Army was happy to fall in with the plan. He ordered his artillery commander to bring all guns to bear, focusing their fire on the south of Namur and the forts on the east bank of the Meuse. At 11 a.m. Gallwitz sent an envoy to the Namur garrison commander, to demand the surrender of the town and remaining forts by 13:00hrs or the town and citadel would be bombarded.
No reply was received by the deadline and at 13:30hrs, four Corps worth of artillery (just under 600 guns) opened up on the Belgian and French defenders. The three siege guns concentrated on Fort De Maizeret. Under the cover of this bombardment Germans from four divisions crept up as close as they dared to the fortifications. The shelling stopped at precisely 15:00hrs and the German troops raced forward. They were at first unopposed as the defenders were still under cover. Many of the defensive positions between the forts were overrun. The 22nd Division’s 32nd Infantry Regiment captured Fort De Maizeret which had endured the heaviest bombardment. The 82nd Infantry Regiment also captured Fort D’Andoy, leaving only Fort de Dave on the eastern bank of the Meuse.
On the western bank 38th Division broke through between Forts de Cognelee and de Marchovelette and headed for the Citadel. Here the 500 Belgian defenders were enduring appalling conditions and the air had become unbreathable. The Germans were able to winkle them out and the German flag was raised above the fortress. The 64th Reserve Infantry Regiment managed to break into Fort de Marchovelette from the rear, allowing their sister regiment the 93rd, to advance along the bank of the Meuse, though all the bridges were blown by the Belgians. Hausen had ordered most of his divisional pontoon trains to near the front, and when the opportunity arrived these moved forward and either repaired the blown bridges or placed pontoons over the river.
Further south at Profoundeville, Hausen’s 23rd Division, supported by the Corps artillery after 15:00hrs, with the remaining pontoon trains, were able to gain a foothold on the western bank of the Meuse, having used the Ile de Champinoit as a stepping stone. 32nd Division crossed the bridges during the night to expand the foothold. During the same night the 38th Division’s specially trained troops made a night assault on Fort de Malone and Fort de St Heribert. St Heribert fell, but Malone repulsed the attack with heavy casualties. At 05:00hrs on the 27 August the Corps artillery focused on the final forts, and by afternoon all had fallen.
The Belgian and French defenders had over the siege endured 15000 casualties included 3500 men captured. The Germans had lost 1800, of whom 600 were fatalities.
Chapter 16. 26 August 1914
During the night of the 25/26 August twenty replacements arrived to fill out 1st Battalion KOSB’s C Company ranks. Acting Sergeant Cartwright took his assignment of five men back to the platoon position. He split them up among the two sections so that they could pick up from the veterans some of the skills that would keep them alive. “And don’t forget, remember your training and you’ll do fine,” he told them. As he walked off he heard Corporal Edwards getting them settled in and starting to go through their equipment to make sure they weren’t carrying anything that wasn’t completely necessary.
Before first light, “stand to” was passed along and the Jocks got themselves ready for another day. After the fighting yesterday it was expected that most of today would be a general movement forward until contact was made with the main German force which was about 17 miles ahead of them. A hurried breakfast was taken and by 08:00hrs, in loose order, the Jocks marched east.
General Montgomery had spent much of the night tossing and turning, unable to sleep. His Division, and indeed the whole BEF had found the enemy, but had been unable to fix them in place to destroy them. Now they were marching once more to catch up with the Germans, and this time the defenders would have had a couple of days to fix their defences. His confidence was undimmed, but he was conscious that very soon his men would have to rest and refit. He knew that today the RAF would be providing only limited air cover as they were at the end of their tether. In the morning, over breakfast he was told of the Belgian victory in Brussels and Louvain. There was a buzz around the HQ and he was pleased to see that his subordinates were happy. One of the signallers came up with a message flimsy. As the sergeant saluted and smartly about faced, Montgomery saw that he was summoned to a conference at GHQ back at Ath. He finished his tea and called for his driver.
The conference took place at 11:00hrs. Lord Gort had been joined by General Lanzerac and the senior officers of all the Corps in the sector were present, as were most of the Divisional commanders. After a review of the situation, including the news of the movements of German Third Army towards Namur, Lord Gort got to his feet to address the gathering.
“General Lanzerac has informed me this morning that he is delighted with the progress that has been made, and is very grateful for everything we have been doing.” Montgomery noticed that Lanzerac’s face didn’t show this as an aide whispered a translation in his ear. Gort continued, “In the light of our advance and wishing to take up a greater part of the burden, he has requested that we allow General D’Esperey’s First Army Corps to lead the advance, gathering up the French 3rd and 10th Corps as they cross the Sambre.” (Montgomery saw the said general graciously bow his head at the sound of his name)”
These three French Corps will make the attack between Namur and Gembloux, which we all hope will be as effective as our Belgian allies showed last night.” Gort paused to take a measure of the British officers reactions, which were primarily negative. He continued, “We will of course support this great attack, by threatening the German right flank between Gembloux and Warve. I’ve detached 48th Division to link up with the Belgians in Brussels. I’m sure this great allied venture will give us the victory we all desire.” Gort sat back down. The room was quiet. “Bon” said General Lanzerac as he swept out of the room followed by all the other French officers.
General Alan Brooke went to the map and called for quiet. “Yes, well, there you are.” He began. “So, we want to focus our energies up here. The French are going to, we think, concentrate on Fleurus then hit the Germans all along his front, First Corp aimed at Gemblous, Third Corps at Beuzet and Tenth Corps aiming to link with the Belgian forts at Namur. I do hope they’ll do better than the rest of the French army has done so far. I’m told Joffre has urged them to use greater cooperation between artillery and infantry. We offered them some artillery chaps, but they didn’t seem very interested.”
“As for ourselves, the Dyle may give our tanks a bit of a problem. You may remember that were originally going to move to a line there if the Nazis invaded Belgium. We know the cavalry Corps has been reinforced with IV.R Corps from Brussels, so they’re pretty strong now. Our chaps have done magnificently, but they’re tired and needing a rest. Lord Gort and I have discussed this a length, in light of the French request. We’re going to hold in place at 14:00hrs this afternoon. The men are to take the afternoon and evening to get some rest. The logistics team will be hard at work getting as much food and ammo forward as possible. I’ve asked that a hot meal should be a priority this evening. We reckon it will take as long for the French to start their push, but if we’re fresh in the morning we can try turn their flank tomorrow.
The Belgians are doing much the same north of Brussels, they’ve been through a grinder and need to consolidate their gains. The other good news is the most of 1914 First Division is ashore and making use of some of the goodies we’ve sent them. The idea of tying them into our territorial divisions seems to be going well with the 12th Division, so we’re sending 46th Infantry Division to Ghent to mate up with Second Division when it arrives. These two formations will give the Belgians some real power in the next few weeks…Bernard, you have something to say?” Brooke gave the floor to his subordinate.
“Thank you sir, yes I have two questions. The first is this. By resting this afternoon aren’t we doing what the Germans want, giving them time to consolidate? The second is this. What if the French make a hash of their attack, as they were prone to do in the last lot, I mean, this lot?” Montgomery sat back down.
Lord Gort rose to his feet. “General Montgomery’s questions are fair. If the French don’t do well, we’ll be here to pick up the pieces. If they do break the Germans, then well and good. I’m not sure how long this war will last, but our advantages will eventually be negated. I don’t want us to have shot our bolt too early. So, we’ll rest up, reorganise and be ready to kick the Hun out of Belgium once and for all.” A few quiet “hear hears” were heard around the room.
As the conference broke up, General Brooke called Montgomery and General Q Martel of 50th Division to wait behind. After the preliminaries, Brooke began to sound out the two generals about the state of their divisions. “I think you’ve a point, Bernard, about us moving too slowly. We’ve generally been doing this by foot, but I think we need to consider using our advantages better. If we bring up some more lorries for your 3rd Division, and get 50th back with its motor transport then perhaps we could have a strong mobile force to use. We’ll concentrate a battalion of infantry tanks and a proper reconnaissance force. The Germans are limited by to the speed of their march, we don’t have to be. So, this is what I want you to do…”
When General Montgomery got back to his HQ the halt order had been passed down the chain of command. He called a meeting of all his senior officers to brief them on the Division’s new task. By sunset the RASC had worked wonders and the roads around Buzet were choked with vehicles of all descriptions. Officers and NCOs were designating which units were to travel in which vehicles. At 02:00hrs, a large convoy moved off towards Genappe full of sleeping soldiers.
General D‘Esperey gazed at the German defences through the binoculars that he’d been given by the Lord Gort. Sitting astride his horse he turned to his Divisional commanders, Gallet and Delingy. “So, here is the Boche. We have maybe four hours of daylight left. Let us make the most of it.” The two officers returned to their commands. As one of Second Division’s Brigades was marching past the General saw Colonel Petain and called out to him, “how do you like this advance, Mr Staff College Professor?”
Urging his horse forward General D‘Esperey approached General Bro, his artillery commander, who was standing beside a battery of 75s and a Royal Artillery liaison officer. “So, mon General, has our English friend given you any advice that is useful?” D’Esperey had said this in perfect English, unlike Lanzerac he understood that good relations with the BEF was essential, and quietly fumed at his commander’s high handed treatment of the British. The two officers began a long and detailed report on the artillery plan, which D’Esperey listened to politely for a few moments and then declared, “I see you have all in hand. Good work, and all being well, I hope it pays off.” He spurred his horse on to rally the rest of his Corps.
At 16:00hrs a mixed group of Battles, Lysanders and three Hurricanes arrived as D’Esperey had pleaded for and they strafed the German gun line. As they expended their ammunition and withdrew southeast, the French artillery, with a regiment of British medium guns, opened up on the German positions just south of the town of Gembloux. The German 1st Guard Brigade had chosen their ground carefully, and conscious of British airpower had done an effective job of camouflaging their positions. The French 1re Division that approached their lines did so using the cover of their artillery, but most of the shells were falling behind the Germans. Allowing them to advance to within 100 yards, the concealed German machine guns and riflemen opened up and took a huge toll on the attacking troops. Officers and NCOs who had survived the initial fusillade tried to rally their men and press home the attack, but they were quickly cut down. The surviving Frenchmen took cover behind their wounded and dead comrades, and as the German fire slackened, they ran away as fast as they could. Seeing the actual German positions, the French artillery lowered their sights and began landing their shells accurately among the German Guardsmen, but the damage had been done and two Brigades of First Division were gutted.
The French Second Division did slightly better at Bossiere, their fire plan was a bit more accurate and the troops were able to get to grips with the 2nd Guards Brigade, but the Germans had a good defence in depth and the progress of the French attack stalled. Then began to waver, and eventually the survivors returned to their start line much reduced in number. Further south, where 3rd and 10th Corps commanders hadn’t used any British advice things had gone even worse.
3rd Corps hadn’t taken either the advice of Joffre or of the British regarding cooperation between artillery and infantry. The Corps commander Henri Sauret was a firm believer in “cran” and ordered his men to advance towards the Germans without bullets in their rifles, but to put them to the bayonet. Along the front the French soldiers prepared for battle as they would for a parade. Officers wearing white gloves, regimental bands playing, colours at the head of the column, all the mistakes that had been so costly in the Battle of the Frontiers, Sauret perpetrated on his men.
They were marching towards the 3rd and 4th Imperial Guards Brigades dug in around La Bruyere, who couldn’t believe their eyes. They had been expecting the British with their unstoppable panzers and their terrible artillery. Instead, like lambs to the slaughter, the French marched onto the German maxims and artillery. It was later calculated that just under 9000 were killed, of the 26000 who advanced, a further 11000 either returned to French lines wounded or were missing or captured. Five thousand effectives, not quite enough to form a Brigade answered roll call the next morning.
10th Corps had the added misfortune of running into the Guards Reserve Corps which had just captured the forts at Namur. Casualties among this Corps were lighter than the other two, but only because most of the regiments broke and ran when they saw they were attacking a stronger force.
Two days later in front of the remains of his Fifth Army Generals Lanzerac, Sauret (3rd) and Desforges(10th) were dismissed by General Joffre. D’Esperey was promoted to commander of the army, since only he had taken significant steps to use his men wisely.
Chapter 17. 26/27 August
Second and Eleventh Corps of the French Fifth Army were responsible for the flank on the river Meuse. Second Corps’ Third Division had been repulsed from Profondeville and General Gerard, commander of Second Corps, was incapable of halting the progress of the Saxons XII Corps. With the evening drawing on General Von Bulow ordered the German Guards and Guards Reserve Corps to hold their positions, as much as he wanted to exploit the victory at Gembloux, he was still worried about the British army. With XII Corps below the Sambre and on the west bank of the Meuse, he now had the chance, and the numbers, to hit the British hard.
During the night he ordered that the Guards and XI Corps to be ready in the morning to advance against the retreating French, and with XII Corps on their southern flank, to aim for Charleroi. IV.R Corps were to hold the line from Warve to Gembloux and allow the Cavalry Corps to resume its proper role protecting the right flank of the advance. The Guards Reserve Corps would take over the line of trenches from Gembloux to Namur. XII.R Corps would anchor themselves in Namur and be his reserve.
Gort having witnessed the slaughter of the French immediately gave orders that other than Brooke’s mobile force, all other BEF units were to dig in at their current position and be prepared to receive German attacks. Joffre, thanked his lucky stars that the British had brought radios to his HQ, though he hadn’t entirely given up his racing car chauffeur. He was able to bring up reinforcements from Maubeuge, which he had been preparing for a push, to throw in the path of the Saxons, and reinforce Givet and the other Meuse crossings.
Lt-Colonel Hector Heyland, commander of 7th Battalion Royal Tank Regiment had spent time with Generals Montgomery and Q Martel coordinating the planned attack. The last few days had taken a toll on his available Matilda I & IIs, but he was able to field 19 Matilda Is and 15 Matilda IIs, as well has his four remaining light tanks for reconnaissance.
General Martel had been very insistent that radio frequencies would be integrated, as he’d had a bad experience a few days before. The East Riding Yeomanry were providing the reconnaissance element and they had 15 Vickers light tanks as well as 31 carriers. Integrating communications took the best part of an hour, but just before sunrise Q Force was ready to go. It had been decided that Chastre on the railway line between Brussels and Namur would be the place to break through the German lines, and if all went well 3rd Division would carry on eastwards, while 50th Division would roll up the German flank to Gembloux.
The morning dawned fine, though there was a fair amount of mist until the sun burned it off. This provided some cover for Q Force, and the German outposts near Villers-La-Ville were easily brushed aside. Reaching Gentinnes the reconnaissance tanks warned that a large body of German cavalry was on the move from north to south behind the expected line of German resistance. At 09:00hrs three full squadrons of the RAF arrived on cue to support the advance. One squadron of Hurricanes laid into the cavalry force (Von Richthoven’s Corps redeploying to support the advance south of Gembloux). A squadron of Battles concentrated on the trench line, using their machine gun as well as their bombs. A squadron of Blenheims concentrated on the German artillery. As soon as the RAF had finished, a Corps worth of the Royal Artillery bracketed the German positions, and supported by the tanks, the infantry made good progress through the IV.R Corps defenders of Chastre. Once the tanks crossed the railway line, they found themselves among the gun line of the German artillery. The gunners weren’t able to do much to the tanks, though a few close misses made life uncomfortable for some tank crews, and some casualties were taken among carrier crews.
By 10:00hrs the tanks had had a resupply of ammunition and fuel, and the lorry-mounted infantry were ready to get back aboard their motor transport, Q Force was prepared to continue its advance.
The attack had thrown the German plan to attack the French south of Gembloux out of kilter. The Cavalry Corps were struggling to get themselves together after the strafing of 12 Hurricanes. Dead horses and men littered the fields and roads from Chastre to Gembloux. Another raid, this one larger consisting of five squadrons, took place just before 11:00hrs which concentrated on the forces moving westwards. Von Bulow’s hopes for a sharp jab into the British advance was falling apart rapidly.
His men advanced into a storm of artillery that was devastating and when they did get into range of the British formations they were met with a wall of machine gun fire. III Corps took the brunt of the German attack and made excellent use of their machine gun battalions. Very quickly the German divisional commanders realised they weren’t achieving anything and so began to fall back to their previous positions. The exception was XII Corps who were meeting only sporadic French resistance. However, they became aware that they were advancing without support on their right flank, and so began to fall back to Namur to keep the line straight.
Without any German assault to their front British I Corps moved up to exploit Q Force’s gains. Fifth Brigade of Second Division were the left flank and they pushed up to Mont-Saint-Guibert, and they were able to turn the flank of the 7th Reserve Division pushing them back to Ottiginies. Third Brigade of First Division, on the right flank did likewise to 22nd Reserve Division, who retreated into Gembloux. With a huge breach in the German line, the way was open for a complete encirclement. Montgomery’s 3rd Division aimed at Andenne on the Meuse, while 50th Division would push on towards Marcholvelette north of Namur.
The Germans had no answer to the swiftness of the British advance. It was slowed regularly as the reconnaissance tanks found German positions and radioed for groups of infantry to be brought forward, leave their motor transport and under the cover of artillery and mortars, often with a tank or two, over-run the position. But communications among the Germans was poor, often made difficult because new troops had taken over positions from those who were advancing. Sometimes the Germans hadn’t had time to properly establish lines of demarcation between units. The RAF, having had the day before to rest and refit, were back in force and any unit on the move was liable to be visited with bombs and guns. They were using two-thirds of their strength for the day.
The rest of II Corps were given orders to advance at their best possible speed to shepherd the retreating Germans into the bag. Led by Brigadier Dempsey’s 13th Brigade of 5th Division, the BEF advanced quickly crossing over the battlefield that had destroyed so many Frenchmen the day before, this time the Guards Reserve Corps only put up token resistance before joining the general retreat. In Namur more and more Germans queued up to cross the bridges. Von Bulow had lost control of his army as they streamed eastwards. Whenever a regiment or Brigade would attempt to turn to face the British they would be swamped by other troops who were just trying to get away.
The Jocks of the KOSB rolled down the road from Eghezee towards Forville. The convoy was escorted by four light tanks. Suddenly one of the tanks started firing both its machine guns. The lorries stopped quickly and the men jumped down dispersing out from the road looking to see where the threat lay. One of the other tanks roared off towards a tree line shooting as it went. Sergeant Cartwright organised his platoon to move by sections. A Bren gun opened up, four Jocks sprinted forward to cover, beginning to lay suppressive fire. Second fire team moved forward at the run, and so it progressed. In a short time they were able to throw hand grenades into the German positions and very quickly a white flag was flown. A group of soldiers in grey-green stood up with their hands over their heads. A few wounded men were given treatment and then the Germans were guided back towards Eghezee. The Jocks climbed back aboard their lorries and the advance continued.
Montgomery stood on top of the hill overlooking the Meuse. His men had travelled 34 miles in 12 hours. The whole of the German army were either in Namur, or across the river or captured. The bridges had been blown behind them and there wasn’t the strength to force a crossing. French losses would have to be made up. The original BEF would need to come across the channel, and supporting the Belgians either hold the Germans behind the Meuse or force a crossing. But for the moment, just as on the eastern front, Germans were digging in behind a river line. The great hopes of a quick victory were gone, instead they were on the defensive.
Alan Brooke walked with Lord Gort discussing Falkenhayn, who had replaced Von Molke as chief of the General Staff of the German Army. They were satisfied with the current situation, and the discussion took a philosophical turn. “So do you believe that God did this?” asked Gort. Brooke stopped and watched a redstart hopping along the wall beside them. “I just don’t know. I don’t know how we would have done against the Nazis, I imagine not anywhere as well. Had we not been here, well we know how that turned out. If the Kaiser has learned a lesson and we’ve managed to avoid the horrors of the Great War, then I’ll thank God, or the Devil, or whatever done it.”
Flights of Blenheims were sent with leaflets to Berlin, and many other major cities, to give the German people the news that they weren’t getting from their own government. The heady early days of August were now a time to contemplate the losses of whole armies. The leaflets called on the German people to implore their politicians to sue for peace.
In the next ten days things moved very swiftly. The defeats on both fronts had left the German people stunned and angry with the “Kaiser Krieg”. The tide of popular opinion moved to an openly hostile view of the military and there were protests against conscription in many towns and cities. Their army had been defeated, the much vaunted navy had done nothing. Too many young men had died for nothing. Now the army sat in dugouts waiting for Spring and the inevitable attacks that could bring foreign troops onto German soil. The people could only fear what form the French revenge for 1870 would take.
Bethmann-Hollweg the German chancellor resigned causing a constitutional crisis. The military wanted to run the country, but they were so unpopular that there was a real fear that the unification of German could be rolled back, with separate states declaring themselves independent, leading perhaps to civil war. The Kaiser however was not prepared to allow that. Bowing to democracy he addressed the Reichstag and promised constitutional change. Like his cousin in England, he would remain head of state, but that power remain in the hands of the elected officials of the Reichstag. He instituted a group to study the question of the parliaments of individual states, and how they related to the central authority, especially relating to taxation. He asked for a Government of National Unity to be formed and for the new Chancellor to take up a greater role than had previously been the case. Finally, he wrote to the Pope asking him to mediate a ceasefire, followed by a peace conference.
In France a similar animosity towards military leadership was growing. As the casualty lists of the Battle of the Frontiers were published, with the complete disregard for life shown by the Generals, caused widespread revulsion among the populace. If the British had not intervened there was no telling the cost of war with Germany might have been, perhaps another defeat like 1870. Rene Viviani, the French Prime Minister, was able to use this public reaction to gain greater control over the army. When the Pope called for a ceasefire leading to peace talks, the French were more than happy to sign up.
The Czar had won a victory in the West, but a slight victory at best. The Russian army was shown to be mediocre. While the newspapers painted the turning back of the German army as a wonderful victory, the Czar was more than happy to join the ceasefire. His cousin in London congratulated his on his success, but suggested that he look to his people’s advancement now that the threat of German attack was diminished.
Belgium had suffered greatly in both casualties and in the destruction of property. The vast majority of their country was free, though it would need a great deal of reconstruction. The Belgian people had taken the British army to its heart and wherever the uniform of the British Army was seen, its wearer was celebrated. The Belgian government was delighted with the ceasefire and looked forward to the peace conference. They were also in negotiations with the British government to have a closer alliance in the future, rather than looking to neutrality for its security.
In Great Britain there were three main consequences. Firstly, there was great rejoicing that victory had been won. The small peacetime army was complete and were learning all they could from their future selves. Secondly there was a new industrial renaissance as many of the advances in technology like motor engines and aircraft were explored. Thirdly there was a profound question examined about Britain’s relationship with the continent. While it was still very much Empire centred, the affairs across the channel were of a more pressing matter. Beginning with its association with Belgium, a greater European integration to prevent further wars was explored.
The ceasefire did indeed lead to a peace conference in Geneva. The question of how the assassination in Sarajevo had led to such a war was explored as Europe searched for a way to prevent such a tragedy from happening again. Knowing from the 1940ers that a second war had followed their first, a suitable structure was needed to make Europe a place of prosperity and peace rather than jealousy and conflict. Belgium offered to make space in its capital Brussels to begin the idea that perhaps some kind of common market for goods and services might be opened up, integrating European economies for the good of all.
The Pope added the idea that since most European countries had empires, then perhaps the common market could be extended to those countries throughout the world where many people lived in absolute poverty.