Straightening the line

21st October 1914

At 5:30am the Dorsets became aware of heavy firing from the vicinity of Violaines. A Company moved forward to the rear of the Bedfords in fields to the east of the Rue D’Ouvert and prepared more trenches.

The attack went on all day and at 4:30pm the news came through that the Cheshires were retiring from Violaines. Half an hour later, this proved to be false; only one trench had capitulated. At 6:45pm A Company was ordered to dig more trenches in an area directed by officers of the Royal Engineers, although it’s not clear exactly where this is.

The Cheshires were under tremendous pressure as they jutted out into the front line, but Gleichen was keen that they held onto Violaines and he claims he managed to change the mind of General Morland, his CO, who wanted Violaines given up to straighten the front line. However, communications between the 15th Brigade and 5th Division HQs show that Morland was keen to hold onto Violaines. Morland was only concerned that the 14th Brigade, who held the area to the north of the Cheshires, had withdrawn slightly to straighten their line with the 7th Brigade to its left. The Cheshires were facing towards the south east and threw out their left flank to stay in line with the 14th Brigade, meaning that they ran a defensive trench facing eastwards to prevent any flanking manoeuvres by the enemy. Any further withdrawal by the line to their left would have left them totally isolated.


Cuthbert, seedy

17th October 1914

The Dorsets remained in and around Festubert all day in billets.

I wonder if I detect some of resentment towards Cuthbert and the 13th Brigade in Gleichen’s memoirs? Comments such as “but Cuthbert was not there, so it was a little difficult to combine any action”, “we met the Headquarters of the 13th Brigade, minus their Brigadier” and “Cuthbert eventually turned up from somewhere” don’t exactly sing his praises.

Perhaps I am looking too hard. But certainly Cuthbert, CO of the 13th Brigade did not seem to be a popular man. A martinet with old fashioned views, his leadership of the 13th Brigade came to an abrupt end on the 1st October due to “illness”. Gleichen puts it succinctly. “Cuthbert, seedy”. This illness was pure fabrication. Cuthbert was fired. The 13th Brigade war diary states “Cuthbert ordered to England” and “Cuthbert left by motor for Paris”.

His replacement was Dublin-born General William Bernard Hickie. He was popular but he was also very unexperienced. His leadership of the 13th Brigade lasted just 11 days. He was carted off in an ambulance in the afternoon of the 13th October. Another “illness”. Smith-Dorrien, commander of II Corps, says in his diary that Hickie “had to go sick”. Hickie had refused to push his men forward along the south side of the canal. This refusal made it into the 5th Division’s war diary: “General Hickie considered open ground so unfavourable between his right and enemy’s position that he declined to co-operate without orders from superior authority.” This decision not to move forward had a huge impact on the failure of the French and the Dorsets’ attacks. But I don’t think we can blame the 13th Brigade.

Nikolaus Gadner, in his book Trial by Fire: Command and the British Expeditionary Force in 1914, follows the same line of enquiry. Although some of his assessment of the day is a little unfair (he claims the Dorsets retired in disarray due to lack of officers) he argues that a lack of experienced officers was really starting to tell in the 5th Division, leading to the replacement of senior officers, and ultimately Fergusson, commanding the 5th Division, on 18th October. Sacking experienced commanders was incredibly damaging to the BEF. There were few replacements available.

Gadner goes on to argue that all these sackings stemmed from Sir John French’s own insecurity as Commander-in-Chief of the BEF. He despised Smith-Dorrien of II Corps so it was easy for him to pass criticism from London his way. Smith-Dorrien did what managers do all over the world. He passed the blame down the line. And down it went. All the way to 13th Brigade. Ultimately, this power struggle led to the Dorsets dying in droves on the 13th October 1914.

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 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.

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.