24 August 1914 – Allies In Retreat

After suffering 75,000 casualties in just three days, the French Army retreats from the Sambre and Meuse rivers. The British retreat from Mons, where they won a temporary victory yesterday against the ‘grey wave’ descending from Belgium on northern France. Meanwhile, units of the French territorials — reserve units which are seen as less combat-ready than the regulars who’ve spent the last several days dying by the score — move up to fill the gaps between these armies, acquitting themselves beyond expectations.

To make all of these movements even more complicated, the roads are clogged with Belgian and French refugees fleeing ahead of the German occupation of their towns and villages. Many civilians who cheered the troops when they were on their way to meet the Germans now spit and curse at them, angry at being forced to leave their homes. Despite the chaos, the rearguard of the British Expeditionary Force fights a famous holding action today at the little town of Audregnies.

A highly-fanciful painting of the action at Audregnies, where

A highly-fanciful vision of the action at Audregnies, where Captain Francis Grenfell earned a Victoria’s Cross leading the 9th Lancers in two different actions that have been combined into one painting

The Great War has brought an end to the era of glorious cavalry charges, and the experience of the 9th Lancers today is typical of that transition. The British riders discover that their lances are completely useless against German guns, especially when they find themselves blocked by a barbed wire fence. Later in the same day, they are called upon to rescue the 119th Field Battery’s guns, abandoned under shellfire.

None of it makes up for their failure to find the Imperial German Army in the previous week.

Their commander, Captain Francis Grenfell, is a friend of Winston Churchill and a veteran of the Boer Wars who graduated from the famous Eton school. But in a sign of the rapid technological shifts at work in this conflict, he is evacuated from the field in a staff car after being wounded and having two horses shot out from under him. Grenfell’s courage will earn him the highest decoration for bravery, yet his actions are not compared to the disastrously-gallant Charge of the Light Brigade because of their success, but because they are a useless waste of human and horse lives.

This action will nevertheless be gilded and ennobled in British national mythology. One myth that remains perniciously powerful even today is that these courageous sacrifices make a difference to the German steamroller; they do not. Quite simply, six German divisions are attacking four British divisions, an unequal fight that cannot end in any other way. Had the British not begun their retreat this morning, General von Kluck’s superior force would be enveloping them right now and we would today be discussing the destruction of an army.

Belgian refugees were soon followed by French evacuating before the German 'gray wave'

Belgian refugees were soon followed by French evacuating before the German ‘grey wave’

It is little wonder that Britain is outnumbered. In fact, Britain has still not deployed even its entire small standing army to the continent after three weeks of mobilization. Sir George Arthur documents a letter on this point from Lord Kitchener to Field Marshall French, who despaired that his losses in these days might have been lower if the extra troops had been present to reinforce his failure:

When the defence committee and the General Staff decided on sending a force abroad, it was laid down that the Sixth Division, though kept quite in readiness, should not leave England until the Territorial Force had had time to do some training. If this Sixth Division had gone, you know what Regularforces would have been left here; besides which there would only be immobile Reserve Battalions in Coast Defences, and the unfit and untrained Territorials…We are all determined to support you to the utmost, and to see that, as soon as possible, you shall be provided with an adequate force, which will increase as we go on…But pray you do not increase my troubles by the thought that if the Division had been with you, some of your men’s lives might have been saved. Do remember that we shall have to go through much more fighting before we are out of the war, and that by prematurely putting all our eggs in one basket we might incur far greater losses. Believe me, had I been consulted on military matters during the last three years, I would have done everything in my power to prevent the present state of affairs in which this country finds itself.

As the executive officer responsible for raising, equipping, training, and deploying the millions of British subjects who will serve in this war, Kitchener knows the logistical realities better than anyone. And it’s not clear how an additional division might have accomplished more than further jamming the narrow roads in northern France today.

At his new headquarters in Bar-sur-Aube, General Joseph Joffre will issue General Order No. 2 tomorrow: “Future operations will have as their object to reform on our left a mass capable of resuming the offensive.” This will result in the allies halting along a new line at the River Marne, where the German tide will crash against them in an epic battle, but Joffre has not been deterred by 75,000 casualties in four days. At last recognizing the true size of the German force in Belgium, his retreat is not an admission that the war is lost, or that attacks are impossible, but an assertion that France can afford to trade space for time after all.

Each day that the German divisions march twenty miles to pursue him, their lines of supply for food and ammunition grow that much longer. Joffre’s army is falling back on its stores; and whereas his reserve and territorial divisions are still mobilizing, and can be brought right to the battlefield, German divisions being mobilized now must come all the way to France.

German troops marching through Belgium

German troops marching through Belgium

Today, British soldiers retreat through other French towns whose names will recur many times in the narrative of this war: Cambrai, Arras, Neuve Chapel, Douai. This is the ground where the war has come to sit uneasily, twitching across the land in spams of blood, as soon as both sides reach exhaustion. This is where the lives of the best men in the British army will be wasted.

After being wounded twice and returning to the battlefield, Captain Grenfell dies with sixty percent of his men near Ypres next May in a dismounted defense against German troops who are breaking through British lines in the wake of the first chlorine gas attack on the Western front.