During September 1914 the 1st Battalion, Cheshire Regiment, saw action in two Battles, plus a major withdrawal from the Battles around Mons. As a result this page is in four sections. These are:
“Turning the Tide”
Grandad’s Company left Le Cateau with the remainder of the Battalion at 5.00 p.m. on 26th August when the ‘retirement’ was ordered and marched to Eaucourt, via St Quentin, a total of nearly 35 miles.
Crookenden (page 20) has tabulated the mileage covered by the Battalion since leaving the train at Le Cateau on the 18th August, see Table (left), and the distances covered are prodigious, particularly bearing in mind the lack of conditioning experienced by the Reserves in the Companies.
One of the greatest handicaps, suffered by all the infantry during the retreat, was the presence of reservists who in spite of their great heart, had had no training to get them fit for the long and difficult marches and no time in which to really get to know their officers and NCOs. (“Ever Glorious” – Rigby)
It was an utterly exhausting business. There was no certainty of a meal or a night’s sleep. The remnants of the 1st Battalion plodded steadily on.
At least they had regained some stamina after having been in reserve at Troisville. But they were part of a long line of khaki moving down the roads.
Tired, unshaven, dirty, their uniforms in tatters, caps and puttees lost or discarded, it was impossible to recognise them as the 1st Battalion the 22nd (Cheshire) Regiment which only a fortnight before had enjoyed the reputation of being one of the smartest Battalions in the Army. (“Ever Glorious” – Bernard Rigby)
[In 1915 ‘Sphere & Tatler’ magazine published this picture of British wounded resting in a church between Le Cateau and Landrecies, when they were shelled by German Artillery.]
Captain J L Shore, still in charge of the Battalion, had little time during the last days of August to record anything but the bare facts in the War Diary.
On 28th August they left Eaucourt at 6.00 a.m. and had a “very hot march” of 12 hours and 17½ miles (28 kms) to Pontoise.
The next day on again to Crontcy, via Charlepont, arriving at 10.00 a.m. on the 30th.
At 7.30 a.m. on the 31st they marched to Crépy, arriving at 6.00 p.m. In those four days alone they had marched nearly 45 miles (72 kms.)
The Map on the right shows the route followed up to 28th August.
The next day, 1st September, Grandad was in action again – albeit briefly. At 6.00 a.m. The Battalion moved off in the direction of Duvy to support of the Bedfordshire Regiment but were retired to Crépy at 7.30 a.m.
Half an hour later they marched to Duvy as advanced to the Brigade which was left Flank Guard to the 5th Division. For a short time they held Duvy and sent strong reconnoitring patrols to North-west & South.
At 10.00 a.m. they were ordered to hold the ravine between Sery and Duvy (see map on left) to protect the left flank of the Division at Crépy whilst the rest of the Brigade attacked towards Sery to help the 6th Division.
This movement was quickly counter-manded as the Brigade about Crépy was reported hard pressed and a retirement ordered in the direction of Ormoy.
Grandad’s Battalion was then ordered to retire as rear guard to the Brigade.
It appears that the Battalion was scattered all around the ravine and a mounted Officer had to gallop from Duvy to the West side of the ravine opposite Sery to bring in ‘D’ Company – in which Grandad was presumably still serving. However, two messengers and a mounted Officer failed to find ‘A’ Company on the East side of the ravine at Sery, and as all troops were withdrawing under shell fire ‘A’ Company were supposed to be with them.
At 11.00 a.m. they retired to Ormoy and took up a position facing West along the railway as left flank guard to the Division. Later in the day they retired as far as Nanteuil, where hey bivouacked, but it was not until 9.00 p.m. that ‘A’ Company finally arrived.
2nd Lieutenant Newson had been slightly wounded but had refused to retire without the C.O.’s orders even when troops on his right and left had retired. When he found all had gone and in an unknown direction he went on a civilian cycle in search of information and was shot by the Ulhans.
Nevertheless, 2nd Lieutenant Newson (photo courtesy I.W.M.) got his men away safely in spite of his wound and led them the 12 miles to relative safety at Nanteuil. (Although the initials vary – in the War Diary he is referred to as Lewson – this Officer is undoubtedly Lieutenant Norman Alexander Newson, of the 3rd Reserve Battalion, who had been with attached to Captain Shore’s ‘B’ Company since embarkation) Lieutenant Newson was killed in action on 18th February 1915 and is commemorated on the Menin Gate Memorial.
“The Affair at Néry”
On the same day just 7 kms to the NW what became known as “The Affair at Néry” was being fought out. On that morning the German 4th Cavalry Division attacked 1st Cavalry Brigade and ‘L’ Battery (Royal Horse Artillery), who had been camped in the village of Néry. In the action that followed, ‘L’ Battery, all but for one gun, was destroyed.
The gun manned by Captain Bradbury, WO2 Dorrell, Sergeant Nelson, and Gunners Osbourne and Darbyshire, managed to keep the single gun in action against the three German Batteries located a thousand yards away.
The Artillery fire put down by this gun allowed the 1st Cavalry Brigade to deliver a successful Counter attack. For this action Captain Edward Kinder Bradbury, WO2 George Thomas DORRELL, Sergeant David NELSON, were all awarded the Victoria Cross.
In Captain Bradbury’ s case it was a posthumous award, as, despite losing a leg, he continued to direct fire from his gun until he died.
Sergeant Nelson was wounded at Néry, captured, escaped and in 1917 returned to France. He was seriously wounded by shellfire on 7th April 1918 and died of his wounds at Lillers’ CCS the following day.
George Dorrell survived the War, served in the Home Guard in WW2 and died on 7th January 1971 at home in Cobham, Surrey.
Over the next three days, up to 4th September, Grandad marched 43½ miles to Gagny with his depleted Battalion, along the route shown on the map on the left (CLICK to enlarge). Yet, as they trudged along, no doubt feeling sorrow at the deaths of so many of their comrades and experiencing personal hardship previously unknown to them, they still did not consider themselves to have been beaten.
As far as the men’s attitude was concerned they were not retreating or retiring, but moving to a place or point where they might re-group and re-join the battle.
This attitude was by no means based upon wishful thinking or self-deceit. They knew from battle experience that they could beat the enemy. Their fire-power and weapon discipline were better than the Germans. Their Battalion officers and NCOs had been magnificent in courage and leadership.
Finally on Saturday evening, 5th September came the order:
“Pile arms and fall out, we remain here for a few hours.“
With these simple words, delivered in a small orchard on the outskirts of Tournant, a mere 18 kms (11.2 miles) from the centre of Paris, the ‘Retreat from Mons‘ was ended.
Crookenden, page 20, summarised it as follows: “A little band of dirty, bearded soldiers, mostly capless and without putees, had wheeled into the orchard, a captain in command.
Not even their best friends would have recognized this little band of tatterdemalions as the 1st Battalion 22nd Regiment, a short fortnight ago one of the smartest and best turned out Battalions in the whole Army. Since then, however, their lot had been such as had seldom been endured by soldiers before.”
The Battle of the Marne:
An eye-witness, quoted in Crookenden (p. 21) remembers the tail end of Lieutenant-General Charles Ferguson‘s Order of the Day for 6th September:
“… and at sunrise tomorrow, the 5th Division, in conjunction with the remainder of the British Army, will advance to victory, supported by strong French armies on both flanks.”
The same reporter, whilst glad to hear the news, also stated that the Battalion had still not been re-equipped with uniforms and kit, so one must presume they started back the following day in much the same unwashed, bedraggled state they had arrived!
One small comfort, according to the War Diary, was that the Battalion was reinforced by Lieutenant Hartford and 90 other ranks at 4.00 p.m. [Lieutenant Hugh Irving St. John Hartford, was killed in action at La Bassée on 22nd October 1914 and is commemorated on the Le Touret Memorial.]
The turn northwards did begin at 7.00 a.m. the following morning, although initially the Battalion marched eastwards to Villeneuve, arriving at 9.15 a.m. bivouacked for 4 hours; left at 1.15 p.m., arrived at Mortcerf at 5.00 p.m., left at 7.00 p.m., and arrived at Montlevon at 8.30 p.m.
The War Diary also states: “Received news this day of the German General retirement in disorder.”
The following day, the 7th, brought a rather unfortunate “friendly fire” incident. the Battalion was marching the 9½ miles to Boissy-le-Chatel and Grandad’s ‘D’ Company, along with ‘C’, were detailed to drive a wood in an easterly direction to a point at Mouroux. Private Hall & Private Woods were both wounded by shells fired by our own Artillery into the wood whilst the men were being lined up to drive it. They Boissy-le-Chatel at 7.30 p.m. where the two wounded Privates were transferred to a Field Ambulance.
(This could have been either Pte. 7871 J Hall or Pte 7373 O Hall, both of Grandad’s ‘D’ Company. It is unclear which Pte. Woods is meant as all those listed in the Battalion were reported missing after Audregnies.)
The tone taken later in the day’s report is surprisingly personal. Captain Shore wrote:
“I was given orders direct from a Staff Officer of the 5th Div to execute this drive. The shells fired by our Artillery into this wood were fired by orders of Brig Gen [Edward Bousted] Cuthbertson – They were fired directly against the line of advance of the 15th Infantry Brigade Group – This wood had been searched by the Lancs. that morning. On our searching it again 6 dead men of that Regt were found and their pay books taken by Capt Rich.”
It is clear that Captain Shore is keen to apportion blame where it rightfully lay.
The following 5 men of the Prince of Wales Volunteers (South Lancs Regiment) – 2nd Battalion, would appear to be those who were killed in action on that day:
- Pt. 6822 Daniel Baines – aged 31, from St. Helen’s, Lancashire
- Sgt. 8167 John Britton, from Warrington, Lancashire
- Pt. 7876 Archibald Frank Percival Jones – aged 29, from Shepherd’s Bush, Middlesex
- Pt. 7229 Thomas Lovatt – aged 29, from Bootle, Lancashire, and
- Pt. 7457 Martin McGovern, from Birkenhead, Cheshire.
(There is no record of a sixth casualty):
The northward push across the River Marne involved three strongly disputed river crossings, at the Grand Morin, the Petit Morin and the Marne itself.
The 1st Battalion was not involved in any of the battles to cross these valleys and the Battalion actually crossed the Marne at Saâcy before marching on to Bézu-le-Guéry, where they were shelled and lost 3 men, 1 killed and 2 seriously wounded.
The march north continued at great pace with some early starts, but from Bézu to the River Aisne was another 50 miles (80 kms.) covered in just 4 days, from 10th – 13th September.
On the 10th, for example, they set off at 3.45 a.m. and did not arrive at camp at Louvry near St Quentin until 7.00 p.m. The the “Officers bivouacked in the deserted and burnt out kennels“. One wonders where the ‘men‘ slept!
The War Diary also reported: “The 2nd Army this day took 600 prisoners, 6 guns and several machine guns.”
An extension of Crookenden’s Table (left) shows that by September 13th the enemy had been forced back behind the Aisne, 50 miles north of the positions he had occupied on the 6th of the month.
Pursuing them Grandad had marched nearly 90 miles (143 kms) and nearly 300 miles (480 kms) in total from the time his Battalion withdrew from the Battlefield at Audregnies.
But the real point about the Marne is expressed by Arthur Crookenden (p. 22 -23) as:
“the change of morale and outlook of the Allies during these seven days was astounding. In place of being hunted we suddenly became the hunters. Paris was saved and the terrible and mighty German army was in full retreat. …..
Tactically, the battle was not fought to a finish, and the British casualties were small compared to later battles of the war, but strategically its results were so far-reaching that it might be regarded as one of the most decisive battles of the world“.
At 4.00 a.m. on September 13th the Battalion left Fé de l’Epitaphe for Mont de Soissons farm, leaving there at 6.30 a.m. They reached high ground at Serches at 8.00 a.m. where they found a large cave capable of containing the Battalion and its horses under cover from shell fire. They set off again at 8.00 p.m. to the River Aisne.
The Battle of the Aisne:
At 1.00 a.m. on the morning of the 14th September Grandad’s Battalion crossed the River Aisne at Min des Roche in rafts made from wagons wrapped in tarpaulin sheets. They immediately bivouacked in a field on the north bank until daylight.
They were still under the command of Captain J. L. Shore, an indication not only of the tenacity and courage of that officer but also of the lack of reinforcements. The crossing was made in heavy rain during a dark night, each raft carried 10 to 12 men and about 250 men in total had to be ferried across.
They marched to Saint Marguerite (see Map, above right) which was shelled, and about 12 noon advanced to Missy reaching it at about 2.00 p.m. At 4.00 p.m. about 6 Companies of Norfolks, Bedfords, East Surrey and D.C.L.I. were ordered to make an attack on Chivres Hill to start at 4.30 p.m. This attack failed although Colonel Longley remained in a position on the hills until was ordered to retire by G.O.C. 14th Brigade.
The Cheshires were in Reserve lining the Northern edge of Missy. The Battalion held the village that night with outposts thrown out in front. Supply wagons brought right up to Missy during the night, i.e. within 200 yards of the enemy’s position and got away safely.
At 6.00 a.m. the following morning the Norfolks and Bedfords reinforced the Battalion in Missy and an attack was ordered on Chivres Hill after the guns had shelled the lower slopes. Before this could take place Missy was shelled by the very heavy artillery brought up for the siege of Paris.
The Battalion held on to all the defences of Missy till 6.00 p.m. when the Norfolks took over the Western half. There was a continuous fire coming into the village from the woods on Chevres Hill all day and three men were killed.
[N.B. The casualties were: Pt. 7225 William McDean (‘B’ Coy.); Pt. 9991 William James Smith (‘B’ Coy.), and L/Cpl. 8097 John Whitlow (‘D’ Coy.). All are commemorated on the La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre Memorial.]
At 4.00 a.m. the following day, the 16th, the men withdrew over the pontoon bridge at Min des Roches and reached Le Mesnil Mill at 5.00 a.m.
The Battalion was reinforced by the following Officers, who arrived at the Mill at 10.45 a.m. – Captains F B Young; F L Lloyd; E R Harbord; 2nd Lieutenants J A Greenhalgh; J O Sidebotham; C W Leicester; J L Trevitt and W Thomas and “their servants“.
The Battalion spent one day at Mesnil Mill before retiring to billets in Le Mesnil where they remained until 26th September.
Far from resting, the War Diary records that the various Companies spent their time digging defensive trenches in Le Mesnil, Serches and Sermoise, all villages about 5 kms (3 miles) south of the river, no doubt in expectation of a counter-attack. The German Corps facing 4th Division on the other side of the river had force marched men to fill gaps ahead of the British and were mounting a stout resistance. The British were unable to get their artillery across the river and any casualties – of which there were many – had to be carried up to 3 miles back to the pontoon, under heavy fire.
On the 24th more Officers arrived, but with only 21 men, to replace those lost a month earlier. Captain Leonard Archibald Forster joined from the Reserve, plus Captain Stanley Butterworth, (3rd Cheshires); 2 Lieutenant H. S. Stalker, (Reserve of Officers) and 2 Lieutenant Lewis Victor John Pogson.
[N.B.Captain Lionel Archibald Forster was listed as a ‘wounded‘ in the War Diary on 22nd October following the action at Violaines and it seems he subsequently became a prisoner of war and died of wounds two weeks later at the Lycée Hospital, Douai, and was buried in the Communal Cemetery there.]
At 6.30 on the evening of September 25th the Companies in the trenches were relieved by the Suffolk Regiment and the Battalion marched out and again crossed the Aisne bivouacking on the North Bank as Battalion in reserve to 15th Infantry Brigade.
Captain Frederick Benjamin Young was appointed Temporary Major and assumed command of the Battalion and for the rest of the month they were engaged in digging and improving trenches around St. Marguerite.
Grandad’s ‘D’ Company (with ‘A’ Company) started work at 7.30 a.m. on the 27th to put 15th Brigade Headquarters in a ‘state of defence‘. Two days later he was back digging trenches east of their bivouac. On the 30th and again on the 1st October, the Companies paraded for their C.O. in preparation of moving on to their next engagement.
In the dark of the night of 1st October 1914 Grandad and the 1st Cheshires’ involvement in the Battle of the Aisne came to an end when they again crossed the Aisne and marched south to the village of Droizy, arriving late the following evening.
Considerable satisfaction followed when the order came to hand over to the French and move north. The 1st had had enough of trench warfare and looked forward to more open warfare which they considered more suitable to their abilities.
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]