On the morning of 26 August, the Germans arrived and heavily attacked II Corps (General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien). Unlike the Battle of Mons, where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was an artilleryman’s battle, demonstrating the devastating results which modern quick-firing artillery using shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open. The British deployed their artillery in the open, about 50–200 metres (55–219 yd) behind their infantry, while the German artillery used indirect fire from concealed positions. With the guns so close to their infantry, the British had unintentionally increased the effectiveness of the German artillery-fire, because shells aimed at the British infantry could just as easily hit the British artillery.
After the thundershowers that covered II Corps’ retreat, Lieutenant General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien took the calculated risk to stand and fight on 26 August 1914 instead of continuing to withdraw. With four German corps plus cavalry marching forward, a gap opening on the right flank between II Corps and Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps, and only a weak French covering force on the left flank, II Corps faced a stiff fight as dawn broke. The encounter would go down in history as the battle of Le Cateau.
II Corps had three infantry divisions in the line, deployed along a ridge, and they would fight two different types of battle. The 5th Division, on the right, had an open flank, and Smith-Dorrien’s orders to stand and fight arrived late, so the troops had less time to select good positions and dig in. The 3rd Division (centre) and the 4th Division (left) had more time to pick their positions carefully and dug themselves in a bit with the rudimentary ‘grubbers’ the men carried. With mist covering the ridge during the night, the men of the 5th Division ended up selecting positions that were on the forward slope – when daylight came, they were able to see the enemy but their positions were visible to the enemy. This left the 5th Division in a weak position. The division’s artillery commander, Brigadier General John Headlam, compounded the problem. Following standard pre-war British practice, he decentralised his forces and attached a brigade of field guns (each brigade comprising three six-gun batteries) to each of the infantry brigades. Ordinarily, Headlam would still have the field howitzers (another three batteries) and the single heavy battery of 60-pounder long-range guns under his command, but he also split up the howitzer brigade, sending one battery to the 3rd Division and one battery forward, keeping only one battery, plus the heavy battery, as a reserve. Not only did the 5th Division’s artillery get split up, but it deployed far too far forward, in many cases amid the infantry.
In contrast, the 3rd and 4th Divisions deployed the bulk of their guns well behind the infantry and out of sight of the Germans. They would have to rely on signals (wig-wag flags, couriers or telephone messages) to know where and when to fire and they would have a harder time adjusting their fire or switching targets, but they were under cover and harder for the German artillery to hit. The trade-off was somewhat less firepower in exchange for better odds of survival, and surviving one day meant being able to provide firepower tomorrow. A few guns were deployed forward, up with the infantry, but staying silent until the advancing Germans were close enough to blast with shrapnel; some of these forward guns were disguised with corn stalks, since the crops had been cut but not gathered.
The forward guns were sited there for various reasons. Beyond the inevitable communications problems, most guns had only a modest range. Battles were expected to be fought at fairly short ranges, and the British 18-pounder field guns had been optimised accordingly: the guns were built for high-velocity but low-trajectory firing and could not elevate more than 16 degrees, which restricted their range to about 3.7 miles. That expectation and design encompassed another assumption: that shrapnel would be the key munition. (The actual weapon of artillery is the shell: guns, howitzers, mortars and rockets are simply delivery mechanisms.) Shrapnel lost effectiveness as the shell’s velocity dropped, and since the Royal Artillery believed so heavily in shrapnel the lack of long range hardly bothered them. Indeed, so strongly did they believe in shrapnel over high explosive (HE) that the 4.5-inch field howitzer had its HE shells designed to match the ballistic performance of shrapnel, although that reduced their bursting charge and thus effectiveness. II Corps had no heavy artillery (6 inches and over) at Le Cateau because the British Army was divided in its thinking about the employment of artillery in modern warfare: there were sieges and field battles, and the two did not mix. Heavy artillery was only for sieges, and the Siege Train (four batteries of 6-inch howitzers and two batteries of 9.45-inch howitzers) was still mobilising in Britain. A final expectation was that artillery should fight right up in the front line; the honorable thing was for the gunners to risk their lives alongside the infantry (and cavalry), and that was the only way to attain the recognition and glory of being in combat. This idea harked back to the Napoleonic wars, and while it had been beaten out of the Royal Artillery in the Boer War, it had crept back into the thinking.
Reports note that the 5th Division gunners whistled while they deployed their guns alongside the infantry. They would be fighting alongside their comrades, just as their predecessors had done for centuries. One of the brigade commanders told his subordinates ‘fight it out here; there will be no retirement’, but they were facing new battlefield conditions. Indirect fire would replace direct fire as the leading cause of casualties in the Great War, and why that happened can be seen on the battlefield of Le Cateau.
As the gunners prepared themselves, the Germans were moving south and west. They had found the seam between II and I Corps, and III Korps was feeling its way forward. But the Germans also saw the 5th Division troops on the ridge. The 72nd Infanterie Regiment moved into Le Cateau, catching some British rearguard piquets. The British flank was obvious to the German commanders and two more regiments moved into action to turn the flank while three more pinned down the 5th Division from the front. More troops were ordered to move deeper into the British rear, but they moved slowly through the day and did not influence the battle. Meanwhile, as the flank attack unfolded, German artillery observers did their job from the hills north of Le Cateau. From about 6am there was ruth-lessly methodical German fire moving from target to target on the ridge, preparing the way for the infantry attack. The British guns fired back, aiming at the German muzzle-flashes about 5,000 yards away, and managed to silence some of the German guns – but only some of them and only for a time. More German artillery arrived (and deployed) and German counter-battery fire began to tell. High explosive and ‘universal’ shells (a German compromise between HE and shrapnel) were bursting over the British positions, hitting command posts, cutting telephone wires, killing and wounding; soon direct hits were knocking out some guns. Nevertheless, the remaining British guns opened fire when the German infantry started advancing, although all they could do was force the Germans to spread out. A few casualties and a little delay were about all that was inflicted on the Germans, and they may have been willing to pay the price to learn more about the British defences. By 9am the Germans were feeling their way around the British flank and preparing their frontal assault, and had perhaps 200 guns deployed in an arc around the men of the 5th Division.
From 9am to noon the battle raged fiercely. A British pilot noticed more and more German guns moving forward, but there was nothing he could do about it. The Germans were shelling the British batteries and, since the guns were up close to the infantry, the infantry collected some of the near-misses. But the British gunners stayed in action, blasting away at the German infantry; one German infantry officer paid tribute to their gallantry: ‘Regardless of loss, the English artillery came forward to protect their infantrymen and in full view of our guns kept up a devastating fire.’ The Germans tended to march into action in companies and then deploy into skirmish lines, and the advancing companies made easy and juicy targets, and for a time one British battery was blasting a German platoon with every round fired. On the receiving end, the Germans complained that ‘as we went forward only dead and wounded were to be seen in our firing line’. During lulls in the infantry attack, the gunners would switch back to bombarding the German gun positions. Some batteries fired off their ammunition, and wagonloads had to be brought forward from the ammunition columns. About noon the Germans paused to regroup, while their drumfire bombardment continued. The British infantry was learning to tell the ‘whizz-bang’ 77mm field guns apart from the booming 150mm howitzers, which burst with black smoke and earned the nickname ‘Jack Johnson’ after a heavyweight boxer.
If Headlam could have surveyed his position at about 1pm he would have found his right and centre savaged; over half the guns were out of action as German shells slammed in from front and flank. An observer described the ‘throb of noise from our left flank. We all looked instinctively in the direction of Le Cateau where the Montay spur was overhung by a bank of white and yellow smoke, punctuated by angry flashes.’ The 5th Division’s left was better off, with most guns still in action and the two batteries in the rear busy firing at German artillery. On the right flank German machine guns were only 500 yards from the British infantry; a subaltern in 122 Battery, RFA described the ‘pop-pop-pop-pop of a machine gun and a perfect hail of bullets’. Another German assault might break the line. Smith-Dorrien was hastily consulted and the division was ordered to pull out; II Corps had given the Germans a bloody nose and bought time to continue the retreat. Now they had to solve the problem of getting the guns back from the forward positions under relentless German artillery and small-arms fire.
Headlam saw that the 5th Division’s position was now untenable and he ordered the horse teams forward to withdraw the guns. Men of the 1/Royal West Kents stood and cheered, waving their caps, as the horse teams trotted forward. Shells were still falling, and several teams were blown to bits on their way forward, men and horses scattered by shellfire, mangled and screaming. A few batteries had picked positions in folds in the ground and they typically escaped lightly, but several batteries were up forward in the open. As the horse teams swept over the crest of the ridge, the Germans redoubled their fire. In some cases infantry and machine guns were close enough that bullets punched through the gun-shields, and small-arms fire added to the rain of shells. Few guns could be extracted; some had taken direct hits, others had too few men left to hook them into the limbers, and sometimes – despite the most gallant efforts – the hail of fire was simply too much. Gunners fired off the last rounds from guns that could not be withdrawn, then smashed the sights and pulled the breechblocks to deny the Germans anything more than a trophy. As the German infantry finally started forward, some groups were silhouetted on the ridgeline offering the British reserve batteries easy pickings. One ‘mob’ eight deep was hit with a flurry of howitzer shells. British observers saw the group ‘disperse’ but what they would not have seen was individual soldiers being blown apart.
The net result was the loss of 27 guns, over one-third of the 5th Division’s total. At least 22 artillery officers and 180 other ranks were lost, along with 257 horses. The gunners (and of course the infantry) had fought with great gallantry, and the Germans never managed to organise an over-whelming attack. II Corps had fought to win time, to check the German advance so the retreat could resume, and they succeeded in creating a ‘stopping blow’ that forced the German 1st Army to slow its advance. The British withdrawal started at about 2pm, and the Germans resumed their advance the next morning, allowing the BEF enough of a head start that it would not be overwhelmed by superior numbers and firepower. The next morning the infantrymen showed their appreciation of the gallant gunners, and the battlefield effectiveness of the guns: ‘Exhausted as they were by the long night march, many men stepped from the ranks as they marched past to give a silent pat to the guns drawn up by the roadside.’1 But regardless of the 5th Division’s gallantry, need they have suffered such heavy losses? Was there a more effective way to fight than deploying the guns up with the infantry and literally fighting side by side?
Unlike the 5th Division, the guns of the 3rd Division, in the centre of the line, were deployed in depth, Brigadier General Frederick Wing making the best use of the terrain. Instead of pushing the guns forward, all except four were deployed behind the ridge; those four were used as direct support guns, and all four were written off. The gunners’ role was to wait silently until the British outpost in the village of Caudry had been pushed back and the first major German attack developed. Then they would open up and blast away. They were expendable, but they would defeat an attack and shatter the attacking battalions.
The early German shelling did little damage in the 3rd Division zone except for knocking out telephone lines, obliging the observation posts to send messages back by galloping messengers – not much different than communications a century earlier. But in return the British guns could not find the German batteries either and both sides fired fairly blindly; at one stage a German airplane flew over and apparently dropped a message back to the German gunners, because their accuracy improved for a time. Infantry targets were another matter, and the British guns could readily hit the advancing German infantry. Their movement was slowed, but never stopped; there were simply too many Germans and if they were willing to take risks they could filter forward in skirmish lines. Not even a month into the war, the infantry’s enthusiasm was undimmed, with casualties correspondingly high. As the morning wore on, German counter-battery shelling continued, not so much aimed fire as simply searching places where the British batteries might be. The German 5.9-inch (150mm) howitzers were an unpleasant surprise, especially for infantry in villages: in stout houses they were generally immune from field guns but these heavy howitzers could literally pulverise buildings. But this level of firepower was only useful if there was a target. The infantry, grouped together in the villages, could be hit, but the British guns were scattered behind the line and were thus tougher targets; German fire thus only ‘flecked the landscape’. This searching fire was expensive in ammunition and time, and the British guns remained in action, hitting German infantry at ranges as close as 2,000–3,000 yards, but the Germans nonetheless closed in on Caudry.
By 1pm the Germans had taken Caudry and were moving past Inchy. The 8th Infantry Brigade had only a thin line, but the artillery (including a British howitzer battery that simply fired on Inchy, needing no more specific target) held the Germans. In mid-afternoon, as the 5th Division was struggling to get its guns away, a German attack was massing around Inchy but the four forward guns (camouflaged until then) now opened up. They fired off several hundred rounds of ammunition, each shell showering the Germans with 375 shrapnel balls. The Germans were blown back, suffering terrible casualties, and were sufficiently disorganised to enable the British infantry (and the gunners from the forward sections) to withdraw with minimal loss.
The 3rd Division’s withdrawal was straightforward. Artillery leapfrogged from its scattered locations to cover the retreat, and almost no guns were lost except for the forward sections. For all the damage they did to the Germans, the 3rd Division’s artillery lost only three men.