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.