Splendid work with machine guns


26th August 1914

The Dorsets were roused at 1am when some Bedfords fell back from their trenches. Gleichen recalls “some men in the trenches began firing at some probably imaginary Germans”. I imagine the Dorsets weren’t amused by this unnecessary exercise. Orders were at 4am received as expected to move out in the morning but almost immediately those were cancelled. 2 German Divisions were at Le Cateau, a couple of miles to the east of the 5th Division.

General Smith-Dorrien, Commander of II Corps, had decided to stand and fight. He took the chance of stopping the Germans, albeit for a short time, with a quick engagement. It was a chance to allow I Corps to slip away to fight another day. We’ll explore the ramifications for this decision in another post, but for now the 5th Division was prepared to stand and fight.

The Dorsets set about readying defences and deepening trenches. I’ve tried to indicate the positions they occupied on the map. This is pure conjecture, taken from descriptions in the war diary. I don’t yet have the maps they were working from (GSGS no: 2526 13), but I will get hold of them in the future. The war diary often describes positions by the type on the page e.g. On the LA of LA SOTIERE.

Unlike at Mons, where the landscape hampered guns, Le Cateau was perfect for artillery warfare. The naturally undulating landscape made it easy to conceal batteries. Gleichen estimates that there were nearly 700 enemy guns in action that day. Shells starting falling around 7am and increased in ferocity throughout the day.

The 13th and 14th Brigade were suffering particularly on the right. The 3rd Division was being attacked on the left. But the 15th was having a relatively easy time in the middle although later on shellfire, especially shrapnel, caused casualties to trickle through the Brigade’s lines.

The Dorsets were providing covering fire and keeping off attacks with rifle and machine gun fire. Lieutenant Woodhouse is mentioned as having done “splendid work” both in the war diary and by the Brigade Commander himself. He comments that “the shooting of the Bedfords and Dorsets had had a great effect in keeping off the German attack thereabouts”.

Finally, in the early afternoon, the British line began to fall back. The British artillery, in particular, had suffered greatly. At 4:20pm the order came to retire. The Dorsets slipping away through Troisville, covered by A Company as they went.


It seems the retirement was the hardest part of the day for the Dorsets. Marching through villages was considered too dangerous. The Germans are shelling roads and villages out of Le Cateau. So Gleichen ordered the Brigade off road. The Dorsets struck out across country and marched, slowly, footsore and perplexed that they had retired at all, to Ferme Genève, where they spent an “uncomfortable night with no supplies”.

Casualties: 14 wounded, 21 missing. The CWGC reports 3 fatalities in the Dorsets that day.

Quelle fromage


25th August 1914

This post tops off a mammoth few days for the Dorsets in 1914, as well as me – doing this amount of research every day has been very hard to maintain while newborns are in range and a new range was born. Well, more like a wood burner installed, but that doesn’t pun as well.

The 5th Division was now asked to march down the eastern edge of Mormal forest. 14th Brigade was acting as rearguard and all the Dorsets had to do was march. But walking nearly 20 miles in sweltering weather, after the travails of the previous few days, must have been very trying for the men. But march they did. “The march discipline of the Dorsets was, under the circumstances, very good, that of  ‘D’ Company particularly so, ” wrote Ransome in his memoirs. I do hope Frank was strolling along at the head of D Company.

Rations were a major concern. The Dorsets hadn’t drawn any since the 23rd August. Gleichen reports that he had permission to scavenge locally. What they did find at Englefontaine was distributed to the men of the 15th Brigade but the Dorsets’ war diary complains that “none reached the Dorsets”.

Once the 15th Brigade arrived at a crossroads to Le Cateau at 2pm they paused. Company A of the Dorsets was sent into partially prepared trenches at the roadside. The rest of the battalion bivouacked in amongst the corn stooks east of Troisvilles. Here they finally received food, although I am not sure the pièce de résistance of their scavenging, a cart of “very smelly cheeses”, would have been very appealing to the soldiers.

That evening a thunderstorm brought rain. Aeroplanes, both Allied and enemy, flitted above their heads. Masses of French cavalry could be seen crossing the downs. Civilians streamed down the roads pushing carts containing hastily gathered belongings. It must have felt fairly depressing for the BEF to feel like they were in retreat.

The Dorsets received orders to stand to at 3:30am and have wagons ready to move at 7am. They must have had confidence in their superiors that there was a plan in place. The reconnoitred and prepared trenches at the crossroads surely proved this: That the fighting retreat was being conducted in accordance with a strategy. We’ll see in time whether their confidence was shared by senior staff.