An excellent penny cigar


21st August 1914

At 4am The Dorsets left Ors as the 15th Brigade’s advanced guard. They marched 15 miles north to Gommegnies in “fine and hot” weather. Companies A, B and C were put on post duty until relieved by the 14th Brigade.

The countryside was pretty, the road lined with orchards and the fields ripe for harvest. People at the roadside offered gifts of fruit and drinks of water, milk, coffee and even wine. These were expressly forbidden except for a ten minutes halt every hour throughout the march. The troops must have felt like Tantalus.

The reservists, especially, were having a torrid time in the blazing sun. Gleichen makes fun of them in his memoir. “Oh, I’ll get along all right, sir, after a bit of rest; but I ain’t accustomed to carrying a big weight like this on a hot day”.

Gleichen refers to Gommegnies as a “nice shady town”. Once settled in “an excellent bedroom” at the local notaire’s house, he ”made acquaintance with an excellent penny cigar of the country”. It was to be his last indulgence for some time.

The 15th Brigade didn’t know the whereabouts of the enemy and even the French. They knew that the 3rd Division was somewhere to their right. Both Gleichen and Ransome refer to the “fog of war” in their accounts on this day. They assumed that their superiors knew more and trusted their leadership. This wasn’t as certain as they thought it was.

The BEF was advancing towards Mons in southern Belgium. To their left somewhere was the French Fifth Army. More ominously, the Germans had entered Brussels the previous day, and were now besieging the forts at Namur. It was slowly dawning on the Allies that there were a lot more German troops moving through Belgium than they had previously estimated.

The Commander-in-Chief of the French Army, Mashall Joseph Joffre, had been convinced that the main German thrust of attack would be westwards, across the Germany-France frontier. He had embarked on his grand plan of attack (Plan XVII) to drive through the centre of the German armies. But he was listening to intelligence reports. His Instruction Particulière No. 10 on the 15th August had allowed General Charles Lanrezac, commander of the French Fifth Army, to move north, a distance of some 75 miles, to cover the German troops moving through Belgium.

Lanrezac was convinced that the main thrust of the German was coming through Belgium. Joffre wasn’t so sure, but he was wavering. The evidence was starting to weigh against him.

Ready to march but where?

20th August 1914, Ors, France

The Dorsets remained in Ors for another day. At 1pm the battalion received verbal orders from Brigadier-General Gleichen that they would be marching tomorrow. This was seen as a chance to get the reservists, those who had been recalled to the ranks since war was declared, up to speed. Brigadier-General Hussey, in his book “The Fifth Division in the Great War ” (1921), counts themselves lucky that they got to practice a “peace march”. It was the first time the 5th Division had moved together as a unit.

Earlier in the morning, the battalion had been paraded and spoken to by the commander of the 5th Division, Sir Charles Fergusson. He, according to Gleichen, spoke about the Germans, their “machine guns and their method of attack in large numbers”. But the truth was that no one really knew where they were in the grand scheme of things. They knew that the British I Corps was to the east, but as to the whereabouts of the Germans, or even the French, nothing was known.

House of Fraser

19th August 1914

The Commander of A Company, Captain W.A.C. Fraser, remarked that Ors was a “very pretty village” and the officers were billeted in a “nice little pub”. He also mentions that they were leaving the drums in a local church. I wonder if they actually marched to the beat of these old drums. Whatever these were, and I cannot find any other mention of them at the moment, they were apparently collected during the subsequent retreat.

The Dorsets remained in Ors for the rest of the day.

The quotes from Captain Fraser are not accredited in the History 1st Bn. The Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919. I wonder if there is a personal diary knocking about somewhere? We’ll come back to Captain Fraser in a few days.


D’Ors set

18th August 1914, Ors, France

The Dorsets continued to guard the approaches to Ors and Pommereuil. The war diary details the various relief patterns throughout the day.

One thing I haven’t been able to find out is which company Frank was in. I’ve contacted the Keep Military Museum in Dorchester but they haven’t got any information down to company level. At this time the battalion is at full strength but as casualties mounted the companies became amalgamated, reformed and reinforced. I think, for Frank at least, it’s going to be very hard to identify his exact company.

The 15th Brigade’s stay around Pommereuil allowed time for the rest of the 5th Division to assemble along with the 3rd Division. These two divisions formed the Second Army Corps.

II Corps had suffered a shock setback the previous day. Sir James Grierson, he of Bluelands Army fame, had died of a heart attack on a train on his way to Le Cateau. Lord Kitchener chose Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien as his replacement. Smith-Dorrien was not a popular choice with Field Marshall Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief of the BEF.

Smith-Dorrien was, however, popular with the troops and had strong views on how to conduct warfare, including a lesser role for cavalry, greater use of machine guns and development fire and removal actions. All of these elements of modern warfare were to be brought into sharp focus over the next six months.

Gare to Guerre

17th August 1914, Le Havre, France

The 15th Battalion received new orders at 2:30pm that they were to entrain at three different stations at 8pm.

The Dorsets’ war diary isn’t very clear at this point. By comparing the 1st Bn Bedfords’ war diary with Lord Edward Gleichen’s memoirs, it appears that the battalion detrained at Le Cateau at 10pm and then marched to their billets in Pommereuil and Ors.

The Dorsets, billeted in Ors, received their first combat orders which was to guard the eastern approach to Pommereuil and the railway crossing in nearby Ors from possible hostile cavalry.