Last hors d’oeuvres


5th September 1914

The Dorsets marched through the night, reaching Gagny at 8am. They had travelled 16 miles and it hadn’t been easy, due to lots of halts and checkpoints.

The Dorsets had heard by now the rumours that the 5th Division was going to garrison the forts around Paris and rest and refit. They billeted in the stables of the “Château de la Monture”, sleeping and resting throughout much of the day.

I’ve spent a couple of hours looking at the wrong Gagny, trying to find a bloody Château. I must remember to map everything out first. There is a tiny village south of Tournans-en-Brie, further out of Paris. Here there is a Château du Monceau. That’s pretty close to Gleichen’s “Monture”. So I’ve plonked the Dorsets here. Coincidentally the other Gagny, a suburb of Paris, will appear in tomorrow’s post.

At 3.30pm the first reinforcements arrived from England, led by Captain A.B. Priestley. 90 men in all: 87 privates, 1 corporal and 2 sergeants. Archibald Bertram Priestley was home on leave from Nigeria when war broke out and immediately reassigned to the Dorsetshire Regiment. He had been assigned as Office in Charge First Reinforcement at the beginning of August. He is listed in Wisden as a “well-known Army batsman”. He’s not the only decent cricketer in the Dorsets, as we’ll see later on.

The first casualty lists were now beginning to appear in the British newspapers. The Telegraph was publishing long lists of officers and, as from today, men from the ranks. These casualty lists would ensure a nervous start to the day for countless mothers, fathers, wives and girlfriends over the next four years.

Frank wouldn’t have been pleased to learn of other news from London. All pubs in London were to close at 11pm from Monday (7th September) until further notice. This law was to remain in place pretty intact until 2000. The Defence of the Realm Act had already passed on 8th August, giving powers to limit opening hours of public houses. Not only were they restricting the time people spent in pubs but the authorities were also keen to curtail the habit of “treating”. Civilians ordering reservists and volunteers endless rounds of drink. The rotters.

At 9pm the Dorsets received their orders for the next day. This was as far as they were retiring. Tomorrow the Dorsets were marching north. They were finally going to advance on the enemy.

The usual answer, “Eggs”


4th September 1914

The 5th Division held a Divisional Conference at 10am in Bouleurs. From here it was decided that the 15th Brigade was to act as rearguard. They were to be arrive at Gagny at 9am the following morning.

False alarms continued to keep everyone on tenterhooks. Gleichen reports that he responded to reports of enemy by pushing up the outposts of the Bedfords along with a couple of howitzers attached to his Brigade.

The Dorsets remained in bivouac for the whole day. It wasn’t until 11:45pm that they finally continued the retreat.

An image of the house at Huiry
Mildred Aldrich’s house on the hilltop overlooking the Marne

The Bedfords were pushed right up to the southern edge of the Marne. There’s an interesting narrative by Miss Mildred Aldrich, an American who was living in Huiry, high above the valley floor. She wrote a book about her experiences called “A Hilltop on the Marne“. She had spotted Uhlans, mounted German cavalry, down in the trees beside the Marne, and had reported it to Captain Edwards of the Bedfords who arrived on the 4th September. All the British (or English as she refers to the entire BEF throughout the book) seem to be interested in was food.

It was not much after nine when two English officers strolled down the road—Captain Edwards* and Major Ellison, of the Bedfordshire Light Infantry. They came into the garden, and the scene with Captain Simpson of the day before was practically repeated. They examined the plain, located the towns, looked long at it with their glasses; and that being over I put the usual question, “Can I do anything for you?” and got the usual answer, “Eggs.”

More evidence of the 15th Brigade’s lack of personal equipment is confirmed by her line “these Bedfordshire boys were not hungry, but they had retreated from their last battle leaving their kits in the trenches, and were without soap or towels, or combs or razors”.

Captain Edwin Edwards of the 1st Bn Bedfords
Captain Edwin Edwards of the 1st Bn Bedfords

The story is expanded upon in 1914 by Lyn Macdonald but Mildred Aldrich’s personal account is much better reading. She wrote several books about her experiences in Huiry during the First World War.

*Sadly Captain Edwards was injured in October and later died of his wounds in hospital at London Bridge on 31st December 1914. There’s an online memorial to him here. Interestingly he was born in Brixton. On the other side of the tracks to our Frank mind you.

A horrible little house


3rd September 1914

The 15th Brigade remained as flank and rearguard to the 5th Division. They set off at 5:30am, crossing the Marne at Trilbardou on their way to Esbly on the southern banks. The weather was fearfully hot. Many stragglers dropped out during the day complaining of bad stomachs. Hot sun and unripe fruit do not mix.

Gleichen reports that they finally arrived for the night in the “beastly little” hamlet of Montpichet. This is 3 miles north west of Crécy. Yes, that Crécy. The British were here once again, a small ragtag force in a foreign land, with the odds stack against them.

Gleichen got his knickers in a twist because his “wretched” pony refused to cross a stream while on patrol. The Brigadier-General was forced to walk “four miles on foot”. What a hero. Not for the first time he takes the only decent room in the lodgings, “a horrible little house”, only to complain that he wished he’d slept outside with the rest. I don’t think you’d have wanted to cross his path that evening, when he returned to the Brigade HQ.

The Dorsets bivouacked in Montpichet for the night. The Brigade hadn’t received any orders so a “good night’s rest” was enjoyed by all. They’d marched 15 miles.

The crossing of the Marne was significant. It acted as a defensive barrier between the Allies and the approaching Germans. During their march the 15th Brigade had passed a Royal Engineer who was waiting for the troops to cross the river so that he could blow the bridge. They were blowing all the bridges across the Marne.

A stout peasant


2nd September 1914

It’s the shortest diary entry yet in the war diary. “Retirement continued to MONTGE where Bge billeted. Weather fine & hot. Distance marched.” The writer didn’t even finish the entry. The Dorsets had set off at 4:15am, acting as rearguard to the 5th Division. They arrived at Montgé-en-Goële at 10:45am, after a journey of about 10 miles.

Funnily enough, Gleichen mentions that today “retirement was morally rather bad for our men, and the stragglers increased in numbers”. The men were getting disheartened by the constant marching. Day after day they walked past disappointed or bewildered civilians. The local Maire of Montgé-en-Goële , “a stout peasant”, questions Gleichen on the retirement. Even he struggles to work out why they were still retiring and not standing and fighting. Gleichen suspects that Joffre had a “deep-laid plan”, guessing that the BEF was to garrison Paris.

The BEF was now within spitting distance of Paris. From Montgé-en-Goële you could sometimes apparently see Montmartre and the Eiffel Tower. Their backs were against the wall.

Can’t get any cold tea

French picture postcard of [place name deleted] Ancienne Abbaye de la Cour-à[aother name deleted]

Addressed to Mrs Webster, 29 Strethleven Rd, Acre Lane, Brixton, London, England. Date stamped APO 1 Sp 14 – passed by Censor No 137, and also stamped London Paid 14 Sp 14

Dear Aunt

Just a few hurried lines to thank you for your welcome letter which I was pleased to receive. I am getting on alright and still in the pink can’t get any cold tea now but when I come back I shall have plenty. The weather here is very hot have not had much rain. Now I must conclude hoping to hear from you soon. I hope you are all in the pink.


1st September 1914

I think this is the only censored piece of post in this collection. As I don’t have the actual postcard I can’t be sure but I imagine this to be a picture of the Abbaye Notre Dame de Morienval, through which the Dorsets had marched the previous day. I also think that this postcard was probably written the previous day too as today is a very busy one for Frank. Interestingly the Abbey currently the site of a rose exhibition dedicated to David Austin. This is a rare surviving postcard to his Aunt Carrie.

The language is full of cocksure optimism, typical of a lad in his early twenties. Frank complains that he can’t get any cold tea. He means beer, but I can’t find any contemporary accounts of the phrase in a quick search. I’ll come back to this as he uses it an awful lot. I imagine many of the troops were experiencing Ice Cold in Alex levels of thirst by this time.


The retreat was going to continue but the orders were cancelled and the 15th Brigade was rushed to Duvy, a mile or so to the west of Crépy-en-Valois. The 4th Division was being attacked to the north-west. The Dorsets and the Norfolks were then moved again up towards Rocquement. This order was cancelled before they reached their destination and they returned to Duvy.

German cavalry was pushing patrols into the vicinity. British artillery on the hills around Crépy-en-Valois started to duel with the German artillery ranged against them. The Dorset war diary reports shellfire at Duvy but it is friendly fire. The Brigade then dropped back to Ormoy Villers, where they halted until 2pm.

Gleichen eats a mixture of sardines, tomatoes and apples, washed down with chocolate, biscuits and warm water. He does love describing his food. It adds a lot of life to these rather dry military descriptions. The Brigade then fell back again, south to Nanteuil-le-<Haudouin, where the rest of the 5th Division had gathered. A, B and C Companies were put into outposts along the north-western approaches to the town. D and Battalion HQ remained 1/2 mile north of the town. It was a day of two forces testing each other out rather than actual engagement. But they’d heard the guns to their north west throughout the day, and they knew that someone was catching it. The Germans had caught them up.

The Dorsets had marched about 12 miles, including the operations.