At the start of August 1914 my grandfather, Ernest John Conway, was an average working bloke, living in Derby with his wife, Emma, and his two children – my Uncle Albert and my dad, Ernest.
By the end of the month he was marching south through northern France, with the German Army pursuing him and his comrades of the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment.
Grandad’s War Service in August 1914 can, therefore, be broken down into:
When War was declared on 4th August 1914 Grandad had long since been out-of-uniform, having been transferred to the ‘Reserve List – Section B‘ on or about 10th July 1907. However, being on the Reserve for 9 more years, he still had almost another two years before his full commitment to the Regiment was complete.
N.B. Section B Reserve
‘The most common form of army reserve service. For men who had completed their service in the regular army and were serving their normal period (typically of five years) on reserve. Section B reservists could only be called upon in the event of general mobilisation. Pay was 3 shillings and 6 pence a week.’
In August 1914 Grandad was living at Dexter Cottages, Liversage Street, Derby (similar to those on the photo on the right) with his wife, Emma, his oldest son, Albert, aged 4, and my dad, Ernest, aged 15 months.
Grandad was employed as a crane driver by the Midland Railway, just a few yards away, off Siddalls Road.
On the 7th August the local press carried a “Call to Reservists” whereby the Secretary to the War Office ordered a general mobilisation of all regular reservists and members of territorial battalions to report immediately to the “places of joining“.
Along with all Reservists, Grandad would have carried with him a railway warrant and cash, supplied specifically for this purpose, together with the general instructions of where to go.
No doubt at his regular twelve training days per year the necessary procedure would have been explained to him. As Reserve training usually took place in June/July each year, it is conceivable that he had only recently returned.
Maybe the Cheshires were even quicker off the mark, as the War Diary tells us that by the time the announcement was published in the ‘Derby Mercury’ over 600 Reservists had already joined the 1st Battalion and by the 10th August Mobilisation was complete.
For grandma, my dad and my uncle, at home in Dexter Cottages, the upheaval is unimaginable – one day husband and dad is at work down the road, the next he has gone off to War – it was as sudden as that, and, of course, for many thousands, husband and dad was never seen again.
It doesn’t take much imagination to envisage the turmoil that would have greeted the announcement in the Conway household that night, but evidence shows that just 9 days later my grandfather boarded ship in Belfast with the rest of his Battalion, en route to Le Havre in France.
Indeed the War Diary shows that most of the Reservists were back with their Units between the 5th and 8th August. In my grandfather’s case this would have meant an immediate departure, train journey to Liverpool and ferry to Belfast followed by another train to Derry where the Battalion was stationed – all in 3 or 4 days.
As a footnote, it is interesting that Grandfather did NOT in fact re-join his own Battalion. The 2nd Cheshires were still in India, so he joined the 1st Cheshires on their way to the Western Front.
The Journey to The Front:
At 4.00 a.m. on the morning of 14th August 1914 the Battalion, led by a band, marched out of their barracks in Derry and boarded two trains at Great Northen Street Station. The first train left at 5.10 a.m. and the second about half an hour later.
They arrived in Belfast about 10.00 a.m. and marched to the docks and boarded the troopship S.S. Massilia. This was a pleasant surprise to the Battalion – being a different ship to the one originally intended. The Massilia was an Anchor Line ship and had been prepared and provisioned for a voyage to India.
One Officer is reported to have said: “We fed like fighting cocks, and the regiment who were to have gone aboard this ship had to fend for themselves.” (“The First Battalion at Mons” – Frank Simpson)
At 3.30 p.m. the Battalion put to sea under “sealed orders” on route to France.
They were Brigaded as 15 Brigade, 5th Division, with 1st Norfolks, 1st Bedfords and 1st Dorsets Battalions.
At 11.00 p.m. the following day they marched back to Le Havre and travelled by train to Le Cateau, not arriving until 8.30 p.m. on the 18th, moving to camp at Pommereuil.
By the 22nd 1 Officer and 25 ‘other ranks’ had already become casualties, succumbing to illnesses and being left in hospitals along the way.
The next 3 days were a ‘rest‘ period at Pommereuil whilst the concentration of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) was taking place. In these 3 days there were many Company marches, mainly to harden up the reservists like Grandad.
The Battalion began to move northwards on the 21st August, which was a very hot day. Gommignies was reached about mid-day after a march of about 15 miles, and here they billeted for the night.
‘It had been a hard day for the reservists‘ wrote Crookenden (p. 3) ‘who were unaccustomed to carrying a heavy pack, and there were a few stragglers. They were willing to a man and all arrived in billets later, but the heat, together with the weight they were called upon to carry, was too much for their physical capabilities after the comparative ease of civilian life‘.
Next morning, the 22nd, there was a further march of 15 miles to Boussu, crossing the Franco-Belgian frontier on the way. The road was hard going, made up of uneven pavé. Several Reservists dropped out, but all but 4 rejoined in billets later.
The Mons-Conde Canal was reached, and amid rumours that the Germans were in strength beyond it. The 5th Division was deployed with 13th and 14th Brigades. on the canal line and 15th Brigade in reserve in the billeting area.
On the 23rd, just after 12 noon, the first German gun was heard from the direction of the canal. Von Kluck’s German 1st army was completing its wheel to the south. What Grandad heard was the first engagement of the opposing Armies.
Into Action – “The Rearguard Action at Elouges“:
On the morning of 23rd August, the British Expeditionary Force met and engaged the enemy at Mons and the following day was undertaking a fighting retreat against a force of four German regiments.
The Cheshire’s War Diary shows they had initially been placed in a defensive position with ‘A’ & ‘B’ Companies entrenched in position 1½ miles East of Bois de Boussu facing North & North West under Lt Col Boger.
Grandad’s ‘D’ Company along with ‘C’ moved to Hornu under Major Chetwynd-Stapylton and also entrenched facing North East astride the Mons Road. (Map on right shows approximate positions)
The 15th Brigade, consisting of 1st Norfolk, 1st Bedford, 1st Cheshire, and 1st Dorset, were ordered to prepare a position in rear and in reserve around Dour.
But on the morning of the 24th the order came to send them into action to hold up the enemy advance whilst the remainder of 5th Division withdrew.
Grandad’s Battalion was digging trenches in preparation for the “two thousand” German troops expected to be coming their way. Just after sunrise on the 24th the Brigade Major, Major Wetherall, arrived to tell Colonel D.C. Boger to withdraw his troops to Dour. Initially the Battalion was disappointed at being withdrawn but what was not known to the men, or Officers, at the time, was that the French had already withdrawn and left the BEF in an untenable position to stand and fight.
On arrival at Dour Colonel Boger, along with Colonel Ballard of the 1st Norfolks, were called to meet General Fergusson (left). Being the more senior of the two Colonels, Ballard was placed in command of his own Battalion, plus 1st Cheshires and the 119th Field Battery, Royal Artillery. Colonel Boger was sent back to his Battalion so was not present when the orders were given out.
Both Battalions, 1/Norfolk and 1/Cheshire, marched from Dour to Audregnies and at about 11.00 a.m.
Colonel Ballard began to place his Battalion along a line from 800 yds. (500 m) North of Élouges along a track parallel to the main road between Élouges and Audregnies.
Colonel Boger deployed his Cheshire companies to extend the Norfolk lines westwards for about a mile to the outskirts of Audregnies.
The enemy was by now moving along the Mons-Valenciennes road in considerable force. About 5000 German infantry were advancing from the direction of Quiévrain, to the west, with a further 2000 moving south from Thulin. As the Cheshires were deploying the German forces were less than 2 miles away. One mile further back were 9 batteries of artillery, close behind them were 15 Battalions of infantry moving up in support.
Facing them was Grandad’s Battalion, the 1st Norfolks and 119 Field Battery, under Major Alexander. To the left of the Cheshire positions the 4th Dragoon Guards, 9th Lancers and 18th Hussars (i.e. General de Beauvoir de Lisle’s 2nd Cavalry Brigade) in position on the west side of Audregnies village.
There now followed a confusion of orders. When General Fergusson had briefed Colonel Ballard he (Fergusson) made it clear that Ballard’s detached force was to act as “flank guard” to allow a general retirement to the south-west. Colonel Boger was not at that briefing … Crookenden (p. 6) describes it as follows:
“Had Colonel Ballard mentioned the words “flank guard” to Colonel Boger, the situation would have been plain, but he understood that a copy of the divisional orders for the withdrawal, which as already noted, explained the role of the two Battalions, had been given to Colonel Boger at the same time as he himself had received his own. The position was, therefore, that Colonel Ballard was under the impression that Colonel Boger had all information available when, in actual fact, the latter still believed that the original orders, to hold on at all costs, held good.”
As a result Boger gave orders to all Company commanders to hold their ground at all costs. The dispositions were:-
- ‘D’ Company (with Grandad!) under Captain Ernest Rae-Jones on the right straddling the railway line, with ½ the Company deployed forward to the Quarry;
- ‘C’ Company under Captain W.E.L.R. Dugmore in the centre; and
- ‘A’ Company under Captain A.J.L. Dyer on the left, covering the Wiheries-Audregnies and Élouges-Audregnies. road junction.
- ‘B’ Company completed its task as flank guard and was then positioned to protect the left flank. In order to do this Captain J.L. Shore put two platoons under Captain Jolliffe on the left of ‘A’ Company’s and himself took the remaining two platoons to a position on the north-western outskirts of Audregnies. (see Map above right)
In addition, 3 Companies of 1st Norfolks were to the Cheshires’ right, and 2 Batteries of the Royal Field Artillery to the rear.
a more detailed extract from this Map showing the positions of the 1st Cheshires in the centre of the Battlefield
The Battle At Audregnies (“The Glorious Last Stand“):
By the side of the Audregnies to Élouges road there was one small farmhouse, which became the Battalion HQ. (The photo left shows the remains of the farmhouse  the main building still bears the scars of German bullets.)
There was no time for digging trenches and although the road was slightly sunken, accurate fields of fire could only be found from the open fields between the road and the advancing forces. Communications between Companies were very difficult due to the distance involved.
Like most Battalions the 1st Cheshires had two machine guns on establishment, under the command of Lieutenant Harry Randall. These were put into position near the Headquarters cottage. They created carnage in the ranks of two German columns which were advancing in close order from Quiévrain and the Bois de Deduit.
Low-flying German aircraft now pin-pointed the various Battalion positions along the road, directing shrapnel fire on to them. ‘L’ Battery RHA responded from the rear of ‘D’ Company and battle was now indeed joined.
Colonel Boger was not unduly worried, because he still thought that the division was holding the line in accordance with the last orders he had received.
C.S.M. Frank Meachin, ‘B’ Company, became probably the first casualty, wounded in the head, as he went into position by the farmhouse. He was later captured but escaped, along with the wounded Colonel Boger, and was ultimately aided by Nurse Edith Cavell.
He eventually escaped disguised as a “fish hawker“, and succeeded in reaching Flushing and then on to Folkestone, later rejoining his Battalion.
their escape and how Nurse Cavell helped them.
At this time the British Army was using the Lee-Enfield rifle and a soldier of average competence could fire ‘fifteen rounds rapid per minute‘, the more expert soldier could get up into the twenties.
Service Records show that a soldier could earn extra pay of 6d (2½p) a day by passing their musketry drills.
Each platoon in action with their training of accuracy up to 600 yards (c. 550 m), could and did create a high death-rate amongst the oncoming Germans who were inclined to advance shoulder to shoulder, en masse and firing from the hip. At first the Germans thought that the British infantry were armed with light automatic weapons and many more than their two machine guns, so accurate and intense was the fire.
Meantime the 2nd Cavalry Brigade commander, also seeing the enemy leaving from Quiévrain, put in a cavalry charge. This diversion enabled the Battalion to settle in a little more comfortably, if such an under-statement be permitted.
Charge of 9th Lancers and 4th Dragoon Guards:
At about 1.00 p.m. Brigadier-General de Lisle, seeing the serious situation facing the Cheshires on their left flank, ordered his cavalry forward.
There was to follow one of the bravest of cavalry charges and one of the epic moments of the war.
Two squadrons of 9/Lancers, led by Lieutenant-Colonel David Graham Muschet Campbell along with Captain Lucas Tooth and Captain F O Grenfell, charged up the right hand side of the Roman road in the direction of the sugar factory, jumping the deeply sunken road crossing it 100 yards (625 m.) ahead.
Meanwhile two troops of 4th Dragoon Guards attacked up the left hand side of the old pavé road, led by Lieutenant-Colonel Mullens and Major Tom Bridges. As they raced closer to the sugar factory the German infantry scattered before them but there was considerable loss of men and horses all the time from the batteries of artillery, firing point blank at them, and from machine-guns.
Captain Francis Octavius Grenfell (photo right) has been credited with winning the first Victoria Cross of the War. After the initial charge and withdrawal he was rallying part of the regiment behind a railway embankment when he was twice hit and severely wounded. In spite of his injuries, however, when asked to help in saving the guns, by the commander of 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, he and some volunteers, under a hail of bullets, helped to manhandle and push the guns out of range of enemy fire.
An extract taken from the London Gazette dated 16th November, 1914 records the following:- “For gallantry in action against un-broken Infantry at Audregnies, Belgium, on 24th August, 1914, and for gallant conduct in assisting to save the guns of 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, near Doubon the same day.”
Grandad’s ‘D’ Company, on the right of the line, in the fields west of Élouges, was facing the spoil heaps of the colliery (see photo – right).
They were at right angles to the advance by three German infantry Battalions coming from the south-east, from the direction of Quarauble, about 3 miles (c. 5 kms.) south-west of Quiévrain
Crookenden (page 9) wrote: ‘This should have given warning of a wider turning movement, but Colonel Boger was still under the impression that there were British or French troops on that flank, and did not think the situation particularly dangerous.’
More German infantry were advancing to the east of 1st Norfolks and by 2.30 p.m. they were within a few hundred yards of that Battalion’s position.
At the same time yet more of the enemy were seen advancing upon Élouges and it was obvious that very soon they would get to the rear of Ballard’s ‘detached force‘.
I have often wondered what was going through Grandad’s mind as he watched the advancing troops of the 8th Division, 4 Corps, of the German Army. What is certain is that he and his mates stood their ground and according to Crookenden, again (page 10) their “.. rapid fire, causing havoc in the advancing German ranks. The fire control was what one would expect to find on the parade ground rather than the battlefield.”
By 12.30 p.m. the enemy had got the range for the road and was soaking it with high explosive and shrapnel. In addition because he was able to outflank the ‘detached force‘ he was able to bring machine-gun crossfire to bear on anything that moved on the British line.
At about 2.30 p.m. Colonel Ballard decided to retire and sent his adjutant to tell Colonel Boger to retire also but this officer was killed very soon after he set off.
Ballard also dispatched a cycle orderly at the same time as the adjutant with the same order. This man too was killed.
Having thought that he had ensured the orders would reach their destinations, Ballard began to organise the own withdrawal of his own Battalion – the 1st Norfolks.
As the 1st Norfolks withdrew towards the village of Wiheries Colonel Ballard came across several parties of stragglers, some of which were dismounted cavalrymen. They told him that the 2nd cavalry brigade was retiring southwards and that they thought that the 1st Cheshires were with them.
By about 3.45 p.m. Colonel Boger was beginning to see that things were becoming more difficult for his Battalion and activity in front and to his left did not coincide with his understanding of the orders. He sent four orderlies off at regular intervals to find out but not one of them returned.
Out on the left Captain J.L. Shore with his two platoons of ‘B’ Company was still firing away at the enemy advancing from the Bois de Deduit. As the 2nd Cavalry Brigade reformed behind the Bois d’Audregnies several attempts were made by cavalry officers to persuade Shore to retire under their cover. However, as he had not received an order to retire he refused to do so.
The painting above, by David Rowlands, was commissioned for the 1st Battalion. It shows probably ‘A’ Company in position east of the HQ building. If so the Officer is possibly Captain A.J.L. Dyer.
The War Diary for 24th August reads (in part)
“2.30 p.m. I am informed Col Ballard gave orders for all troops to retire in an Easterly direction – these orders never reached the 2 front platoons of ‘D’ Coy under command of Capt W S Rich, who held on to the position he had reached in front of the line till 4 p.m. by which hour all troops had retired.”
‘Shortly before ‘C’ Company started to move, Rich, with his two platoons near the colliery, had been forced to retire.
Pressed in front and outflanked, he withdrew his men yard by yard, disputing every inch of ground. This grim struggle left an indelible mark on the minds of those of C Company who witnessed it.’ (Ever Glorious – Bernard Rigby)
“Their escape” says Crookenden ‘was remarkable. They must have squeezed through between the van-guards of the German 66th and 93rd regiments converging on Wiheries from the north and west.”
The shortage of ammunition, now acute, was causing the NCOs considerable anxiety and a further withdrawal seemed indicated. Just as the platoon was about to move off, some troops were seen to their right rear moving southwards.
Lt. Frost, an officer of the Special Reserve who was attached to the platoon, volunteered to go and identify them. He did not return. He was seen later by a wounded officer of the 4 Dragoon Guards “fighting like a demon, having refused to surrender“. Although wounded several times, he refused to give in and death alone overcame his indomitable spirit.”
At about 5 p.m. Major Chetwynd-Stapleton realised that ‘B’ Company was almost surrounded, and realising the importance of Audregnies for the security of the left flank, decided first to try to find Colonel Boger and set off up the road towards the right flank.
Before doing so he left orders with Lieutenant Charles Campbell to find out what had happened to Captain Shore. However, in trying to find out what had happened to Shore, Lieutenant Campbell was killed, it is believed near the bridge over the Audregnies – Dour railway line. [Lt. Charles Cambell is buried in Cement House Cemetery.]
At about the same time Grandad’s C.O., Captain Ernest Rae-Jones, ordered his men to retire. They left the road and moved along the railway line in the direction of the Bois d’Audregnies. To get to the railway they had to negotiate several hundred yards of rising under heavy-machine gun fire.
Only about half-a-dozen men made it. Sergeant 4277 A. Raynor (9th Platoon, ‘C’ Company – picture right) fixed his bayonet and took upon himself the duty of scout.
They passed a small group of trees, then along a track in a field, into a hedge-bordered lane, then to pasture-land south-west of Wiheries.
Crookenden described what happened next: “‘Here they ran into the Magdeburg Regiment which was going into bivouac. Of those who remained Capt. Jones and Pte. E. Hogan were killed. Cpl. Crookes, who had previously been wounded, collapsed and Pte. F. Garrad was mortally wounded.
Raynor and [Cpl] Blake were soon rounded up by the enemy after a gallant resistance. Sgt. Raynor, who had shown great courage and initiative, and who had fought on to the last, was later awarded the DCM.
His true character is best shown by his own words when Cpl. Crookes saw him later in the grip of 3 Germans; “If I had known you were living I – well wouldn’t have given in“. The door to safety was barred, but a gallant fragment of the 1st Battalion still fought on.”
After the War Cpl. 10066 W. Crookes (“C” Coy), who witnessed the burials of Captain Jones and Drummer Hogan, wrote an article detailing the events of 24th August. [Published in “The Oak Leaf“, pps 150 – 157.] a full copy of Corporal Crookes’ account (.pdf file)
Lance Corporal 8708 Nunnick Blake also witnessed the burials of Captain Jones and Drummer Hogan. was captured at Audregnies and interred in Soltau Prisoner of War Camp.
After the War he was discharged and in c. 1923 he emigrated to Canada, and he married Mary Ruth Sullivan in Fort Francis, Rainey River, Ontario. He worked for a logging company before becoming an officer with the Canadian Customs and Border (photo left). They had one child, Jean Katherine Ann.
By 6.00 p.m. the Battalion was all but surrounded.
Men and ammunition were both in short supply and by 6.30 p.m. every line of retreat had been closed. Major Chetwynd-Stapleton gave the order to cease fire.
Of the 25 officers and 952 other ranks of the 1st who had been present that morning only 7 officers and 200 other ranks remained and these two latter figures include those on duty elsewhere than Audregnies.
The 1st Norfolk and 1st Cheshire Battalions had carried out a remarkable action. They had forced the German IV Corps to halt and deploy, thus damaging the enemy time table. The 1st Battalion had kept these enemy forces fully occupied for at least four hours and had prevented them from pursuing 5 Division It took four German regiments, each of three Battalions,’ to encompass the 1st Battalion’s position‘.
But what of the C.O., Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley Boger. Shortly after giving his men the order to retire towards Bois d’Audregnies he was shot in the foot and in the side and lay for over two hours by the side of the Audregnies – Wiheries road. He crawled over to where Sergeant Dowling lay wounded, both legs smashed, where they were later found by a German Officer and carried to a nearby cottage and treated by a doctor.
Later that same night Boger and C.S.M. Frank Meachin had been taken to a temporary hospital in a convent at Wiheries, Belgium. But when their guards’ backs were turned, the two men had staggered out into the village under cover of darkness and hid in a disused building.
“I had no intention of sacrificing the Cheshire – but I firmly believe now that the sacrifice saved the 5th Division.” ….. “It was due to the gallantry of these two Battalions (1st Cheshires & 1st Norfolks)that the Division was able to extricate itself.” – Lieut.-Colonel C. R. Ballard the Norfolk Regiment (O.C.).
The War Diary states that at the end of this day:
“At roll call in Bivouac at Les Bavay there were 6 Officers, a Warrant Officer and 199 men – The strength marching out at 7.30 a.m. on the morning of 24th inst was 27 Officers, 1 Warrant Officer and 933 men – A loss of 78% most of which was caused in the withdrawal.”
Of the total of 25 Officers, 3 were killed, 8 wounded and captured, 7 captured unwounded and 7 remained at duty.
“The Battalion behaved magnificently in the face of terrible odds and immense difficulties. One could not expect more of them; they did their duty, and did it thunderingly well, as I should always have expected from such a gallant Battalion, and I am only too grieved that they had such frightful losses.” Count Albert Edward Wilfred Gleichen, Officer Commanding, 15th Brigade.
On the 29th August 1914 Lieutenant-Colonel Boger wrote from the “Croix Rouge” (Red Cross) at Wiheries where he was severely wounded to Lieutenant G R Elliot, who read out the letter in the Officers’ Mess: (Crookenden, p. 17-18)
Captain William Suttor Rich was not killed (neither was Lieutenant W.L. Stewart who was severely wounded and captured). Captain Rich led his men out of the pincer movement and withdrew successfully. Two months later, at Violaines, he was wounded and died of his wounds on 9th November 1914. He is buried in Douai Communal Cemetery.
On the 24th August 2014, the 100th Anniversary, a new Memorial was dedicated on the outskirts of the village of Audregnies, overlooking the Battlefield.
As one of a small number of surviving relatives of one of the combatants, the Author was invited to lay a wreath (bottom left on photograph) and participate in the Ceremony.
The Miniature Colour:
In 1911 a miniature Colour, an exact replica of the Regimental Colour, but one-quarter of the size of the original, was made by the wives of the officers of the 1st Battalion, as an annual trophy to be held by the best shooting company.
It was presented for the first time to ‘F’ Company on Meeanee Day 1912. In 1914 it was won by ‘B’ Company and Captain Shore decided take it to France.
During the Battle of Mons, it was carried by Drummer 9461 Charles Baker (right), who, seeing capture inevitable, hid it in a roof space in a house in the village, under some straw.
Private 9865 Harold Riley, also of ‘B’ Company, was wounded during the action but was in on the secret and after he was captured, managed to explain to a Nun, Sister St. Leon, who was nursing him, the whereabouts of the Colour. As a result of which the Curé, M. Soudan, agreed to keep the little colour.
He, together with the village schoolmaster, M. Vallée, recovered it from the place where Baker had hurriedly hidden it, and took it to his presbytery, subsequently hiding it, for greater security, in his church behind the choir stalls.
However, it was still not in a safe place because, when the Germans later began systematic searches for anything that might be used as war material, the Curé became apprehensive, and asked the Communal Secretary, Monsieur Georges Dupont, what might best be done. Georges Dupont concealed the colour in a bricked-up attic at the village girls’ school, having first arranged for the colour to be furled and inserted into a length of piping. (Crookenden, p.17)
In October 1918, nearing the end of hostilities, the Battalion happened to be twelve miles from Audregnies, and on 13th November 1918 a search party was despatched to try to find it.
The Quartermaster (by this time Captain J.C. Sproule of the original 1st Battalion, having survived the war) along with a colleague visited Audregnies on 15th November and were
informed the colour was bricked up in a wall. It had remained in this place throughout the War, when, with due ceremony on the 17th November 1918, a colour party from the 1st Battalion went to Audregnies to recover it. (Source: “The Cheshire Regiment and its Miniature Colour at Mons“, Frank Simpson, 1929)
The Miniature Colour remained in the possession of the 1st Battalion until 1927. The Colour is now kept in the Cheshire Military Museum at the Castle, Chester and the 1st Battalion have a replica.
“… it is said by some that through the course of the entire war never were British troops as heavily outnumbered”
Despite the devastating events of August 24th, at 2.00 a.m. on the morning of the 25th the War Diary records that the remnants of the Battalion left Les Bavay where they had bivouacked for roll call and marched to Le Cateau then on to bivouac at La Sotière at 3.00 p.m., a total of 24 miles (38.6 km.). ‘A’ Company went immediately into the trenches until 3.30 a.m. on the 26th.
The word ‘retreat‘ was not used in the 1914 BEF, in fact not even ‘retirement‘ was ever considered. However, now under the command of Captain John Linton Shore the result of a ‘reorganisation‘ of the Battalion plus the still determined strong spirits of the men, the withdrawal was an orderly one as far as the Battalion was concerned, in comparison to that of many other Battalions.
N.B. Captain Shore was wounded and captured at Violaines on 22nd October 1914. He became a prisoner of war and was interned in Switzerland until his repatriation on 4th March 1919.
By nightfall of the 25th August 1914 the retreating II Corps was being closely pursued by von Kluck’s German 1st Army and it was clear that the disorganised and dog-tired units faced a calamity the next day if the withdrawal was forced to continue.
Corps Commander Horace Smith-Dorrien issued his now famous order: “Gentlemen, we will stand and fight“. The units of the Corps were arranged in the open downs to the west of the small town of Le Cateau.
General French had ordered the retreat to continue but Smith-Dorrien concluded that if he tried to withdraw as planned he would be caught in the open by superior forces. He decided to stand and administer ‘a stopping blow’ and then to continue the retreat.
Losses however were high on both sides, including 7,812 British casualties. Nevertheless the German forces suffered losses not only in manpower but, crucially, in further delaying their planned advance on Paris.
The Battalion was far too decimated to take part in Smith-Dorrien’s stand at Le Cateau, and the 200 or so men were put in reserve near Troisvilles. Along with the 1st Norfolks it occupied a position a quarter of a mile east of the village of Troisville and south of La Sotière – approximately in the area shown in the photograph on the right and the Map below.
From there Grandad and his comrades provided a second line of defence behind the right flank of 1st Dorset and left flank of 1st Bedford Battalions.
The War Diary states:
“6.00 a.m. Action commenced – Battalion used in reserve and covered the retirement of the remainder of the Brigade and the K.O.S.B.s (Kings Own Scottish Borderers) – Heavily shelled in the withdrawal in the direction of Marets – shooting of the German Artillery magnificent though few casualties.”
A Chester newspaper report of June 1915 describes what happened: “At Le Cateau the Battalion was put in reserve, but seeing the tight corner two Regiments were in, two detachments of the Cheshires went out, the one under the late Captain Rich, the other under Company Sergt-Major J.W.T. Francis.
The former held a trench on the left, and the latter a small ridge on the right., and thus held up some hundreds of the enemy, while the Bedfords and the K.O.S. Borderers retired safely between them.”
For this action R.S.M. J.W.T. Francis was Mentioned in Despatches, along with Captain W.S. Rich and Captain J.L. Shore, in Field Marshall French’s Despatch of 8th October 1914 (London Gazette, 19th October 1914).
At 5.00 p.m. the order came to retire. Only one man had been lost, Corporal 9993 James William Roberts, of Grandad’s ‘D’ Company, had been killed by shell fire. His body was ultimately lost and he is commemorated on the La Ferte sous Jouarre Memorial.
So 15 Brigade and the rest of the 1st Battalion set off from Le Cateau, bound for the Aisne. From the 21st August when they left Le Cateau to the 13th September they covered nearly 300 miles (480 kms).
On 29th April 2018 a Seminar was held in London which brought together 26 of the direct descendants of men who marched off to War with Grandad in August 1914. (Author extreme left)
That group has grown to 56 (April 2020) and another similar get-together is in the planning.
Sources: Most of the quotes in the above account are referenced to Arthur Crookenden’s book: “The History of the Cheshire Regiment in the Great War” [ASIN: B074V8DM97], and “Ever Glorious: The Story of the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment”: Bernard Rigby [ISBN-13: 978-0952473152] Also: “Cheshire Regiment the First Battalion at Mons and the Miniature Colour” – Frank Simpson. [Reprint 2015 ISBN-13: 978-1781519806]