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.

Speechless with thirst


31st August 1914

A trying ten and a half hour march covered just 10 miles. The day was tropical again. Delays were caused mainly by the habit of artillery units stopping and feeding every time they came across water.

While his troops struggled, Gleichen trotted ahead to recce Morienval. Here he enjoyed “an excellent potage aux choux and a succulent stew, with big juicy pears to follow, all washed down by remarkably good red vin de pays”. He’s a boy, is our Count Gleichen.

The 15th Brigade was marching to their original billets in Béthisy, on the southern tip of the Compigne Forest, when they were redirected to Crépy-en-Valois. The reason for their new destination was that German cavalry had entered Béthisy, chasing out the billeting parties. The Germans were later cleared out by British cavalry. But it appeared that the enemy was getting closer.

Retreat from Mons
Another of the excellent photos posted by zombikombi1959 on Flickr. On the retreat from Mons. Bivouacking at Bontrueil (?). About 31st August. Bn. HQ servants. My servant, Pte. Randall on left with cap.

If this photo is from the 31st August then they were bivouacking in Crépy-en-Valois. I cannot find a Bontreuil anywhere in France, nor a nearby Montreuil which would be the obvious alternative. Other nights around this time they were in billets. The only other date it could be was the 28th August when they bivouacked in an orchard at Pontiose-Lés_Noyon

Once at Crépy-en-Valois they bivouacked in fields in a south-west district called St Agathe. There’s a park in this vicinity with the same name so I’ve plonked Frank there for the night. Gleichen’s gastronomic tour of North East France comes to a disappointing end when he spots a couple of bottles of wine bottles and glasses. “Nearly speechless with thirst, we rushed at them. They were empty!”.


A wash and a shave


30th August 1914

At 2:20am the retirement continued “via Attichy to Croûtoy”. It was a tough march, for the most part on open downs with little shade. After struggling up a hill for 2 miles, they halted in a field half a mile south of Croûtoy and mention is made that no supplies had been delivered. It was 8am.

The weather was blistering hot again and Gleichen comments that the “heat was terrific” in the stubble fields. Eventually, at midday, the 15th Brigade were told they could head back to the relative cool of “shady little” Croûtoy.  Here Gleichen enjoys a “real big bath with taps and hot water” in the local château. I think the troops, who received nothing, would have been pleased to hear that he lost one of his horses, along with a load of kit, filched by a staff officer.

Captain Kevin Darling
Captain Kevin Darling, horse thief?

Contemporary accounts at this time constantly refer to the lack of rations. “Oh it was chronic. There were no rations”and “it was impossible for rations to reach us. We had to resort to looting” are just 2 quotes from Lyn Macdonald’s 1914 book.

The Dorsets still had no idea about why they were retreating but “the possibility of a wash and shave was uppermost in the minds of all ranks”. I don’t think they would have really cared at this point.

Luckily untouched by a Scottish accent


28th August 1914

As the Dorsets marched on the morning of the 28th August they passed the Commander of the BEF himself. Sir John French spoke to troops as they past. He roundly praised them, promising them “three days rest”. Of the British solider, he says in his memoirs, “it touched me to the quick to realise how, in the face of all the terrible demand made upon their courage, strength and endurance, these glorious British soldiers listened to the few words I was able to say to them with the spirit of heroes and the confidence of children”.

At lunch the Brigade stopped and had a longer rest, for the day was very hot again. Some joie-de-vivre must have started creeping back into the men as Gleichen narrates, “I remember that Moulton-Barrett went up to St André, who was lying fast asleep, and shouted out, “The Germans are on us!” Poor St André jumped to his feet with a yell and seized his revolver; it was a wicked joke.” Oh, that droll Moutlon-Barrett.

St André was the French interpreter to the 15th Brigade. He was a a Protestant pastor from Tours, son of the Vicomte de Saint André. Gleichen was very fond of him – “his English was very fluent, luckily untouched by a Scottish accent.” Charming.

St André can be seen here on the left, in a photograph of the 15th Brigade HQ staff. I’ve taken this from the online Project Gutenberg version of Gleichen’s book. I haven’t been able to find out anything else about him at this time.

Image of Some of Brigade Headquarters
L. de St A. J. T. W. G. A. L. M.-B. R. E. B.
photo by Lieut. H. M. Cadell, R.E.

The going was slow. French cavalry were heading in the opposite direction, which caused delays, and they were also blocked by a supply train in Noyon. But eventually they reached their destination, an orchard at Pontiose-Lés_Noyon, and, according to Gleichen, were told that they were going to rest there for several days. They’d marched 20 miles.

The fact that French troops were moving north is interesting in that there were obviously other things happening that the Dorsets knew nothing about. I’ve decided to keep quiet about these events so it doesn’t spoil the narrative of this particular story. I will explore them when the 15th Brigade becomes aware of what is happening.

St-Quentin, you’ve been living hell to me


27th August 1914

It’s hard to imagine the mess the BEF found itself in on the morning of the 27th August 1914. Division, battalions, brigades, companies; they were all mixed up in together in one long straggling procession. Roads became blocked with troops, walking wounded, horses, carts, wagons and artillery all streaming away from Le Cateau. Everyone was unsure of where they were going.

The Dorsets set out at 3am and headed towards St-Quentin, through Estrées and Bellenglise. They must have been behind the rest of the Division because, although food had been left along the roadside by the Army Service Corp (A.S.C.), by the time they passed the dumps there was nothing left but empty tins, hunks of raw meat and smouldering fires.

They reached the large town of St-Quentin at 1pm. Gleichen comments that there were” staff officers at different points, calling out “5th Division this way, 3rd that,” and so on.” After a short stay of just an hour the Dorsets set out to Eaucourt “in good march discipline” whereupon arriving about 5pm, they bivouacked in a farm with the rest of the 15th Brigade. The diary notes that the 3rd, 4th and 5th Divisions were concentrated around Ollezy. They were expecting trouble across one of the bridges over the Aisne, but none came and, apart from a distant rumble of shellfire and the occasional gunshot, they spent a peaceful night in amongst the livestock.

The Brigade had marched 23 miles, which I think is much more accurate that Gleichen’s claim that they had covered over 35 miles. He had bought some new maps in St-Quentin and probably didn’t convert his calculations from metric.

Some other things didn’t quite add up either. But the troops were too weary to think about things like that, as am I.