The Battle of Le Cateau (26 August 1914)

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On 12 August 1914, just eight days after their country had declared war on Germany, the first British soldiers arrived in France. Under the command of General John French, the 75,000 men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) were to support the Belgian and French Armies in their efforts to contain the west wing of the German Army which had already deeply penetrated Belgium.

Unable to sustain an effective resistance against the numerical superiority of the German Army during the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914, the BEF fell back to the south with the Belgian and French troops. The British troops withdrew in a straight line towards Le Cateau-Cambrésis, the roads saturated with civilians fleeing before the German advance. Closely followed by Germany's 1st and 2nd Armies, the BEF split in two with the 1st Corps under General Horace Smith-Dorrien heading to Le Cateau and the 2nd Corps under Lieutenant General Douglas Haig advancing towards Landrecies. On 25 August Haig was attacked at Landrecies and subsequently retreated, leaving Smith-Dorrien to fend for himself.

Aware that his men were exhausted, General Smith-Dorrien decided to halt the retreat and confront the German advance. Despite orders to the contrary from General French, who wanted the retreat to continue southwards, on 26 August 1914 Smith-Dorrien gave battle to six divisions of Germany's 1st Army under the command of General Kluck along a line stretching from Esne through the town of Le Cateau to Caudry. The British guns were rapidly silenced and the Germans soon gained possession of Le Cateau after fierce street fighting. The breakthrough of the German 5th Infantry Division to the east of Le Cateau threatened the right flank of the British and this forced Smith-Dorrien to withdraw with support from French cavalry under the command of General Sordet. The 2nd Corps of the BEF lost 7,800 men but did succeed in slowing down the progress of the German advance and this gave the other British and French forces the time they needed to execute their retreat.

Opinions are divided as to the success of the first British operation in France. In his autobiography entitled There's a devil in the drum, the soldier John Lucy wrote, "it is said by some that through the course of the entire war never were British troops as heavily outnumbered". General Kluck also mentioned the event in his memoirs, "In short, Smith-Dorrien suffered a heavy defeat". Although initially opposed to General Smith-Dorrien's decision to turn and fight, General French later wrote, "In the report I drew up in September 1914, I spoke in glowing terms of the Battle of Le Cateau". For him the Battle of Le Cateau prevented the loss of three British divisions; however he also later admitted that "the consequences of our losses in the Battle of Le Cateau made themselves felt during the Battle of the Marne and the first operations on the Aisne."

Didier PARIS, Professor of History, and Edouard ROOSE