Nobody calls me Cecil


24th August – The Battle of Mons

By daybreak troops from the 3rd Division were trickling back through the Dorsets’ lines. The Battalion HQ had received orders at 2am that they were to fall back south to Pâturages once they were relieved by a 13th Brigade unit. This started with the Duke of Wellington’s who relived D Company at 6am, followed by some of C Company.

The rest, Company B and remnants of A and C stayed put and fought. My guess is that in the confusion it was impossible to know who was passing through them and that their duty, as rearguard, remained to stand and fight. By 11:30am Captain Williams wrote to HQ that “I am being gradually driven in, and my ammunition is almost exhausted”.

But HQ had already left the railway bridge at Wasmes for Pâturages, along with transport and the machine gun section at 8am. They sent Company A to reinforce the Bedfords. The Dorsets were now fighting a rearguard action.

At 10:30am the battalion’s transport ran into a mass of German soldiers who had worked their way round to the rear of the 15th Brigade. Lieutenant Cecil Francis Mowbray Margetts, transport officer and all round hard man, saved the situation from certain disaster by riding into the enemy firing his revolver. Gleichen sees Margetts riding past “streaming with blood from the shoulder.” He was left in the house of a local doctor and later taken prisoner. He was awarded the D.S.O. on the 5th December, the first of the Dorsets to do so, and survived the war, dying at the grand old age of 92 in 1976.

By 2pm the situation had become untenable for the rest of the Dorsets and, having exhausted ammunition and, with the Germans pressing their left and right flanks, they “ran for their lives”. Their bravery, and refusal to withdraw throughout the morning, had meant that the rest of the brigade in reserve had got away in fairly good order. They retired to Blaugies pretty much unbothered by the enemy, who had been dealt a very hard blow by the BEF.

Just as they were cooking up some food, exhausted from the fighting and extreme heat, the Dorsets received orders to march across the border to St. Waast in France, where the remnants of the 5th Division were reforming. They arrived there along with the remnants of the 15th Brigade – the Cheshires and Norfolks had had a particularly rough time defending the left hand flank of the 5th Division. The 1st Bn Cheshires was pretty much decimated after a desperate cavalry charge failed to drive off the German attack.

The Dorsets, themselves, had suffered their first casualties: 12 killed, 49 wounded and 69 men missing. Although it’s interesting to note that running a query on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website lists 20 men from the Dorsetshire Regiment having died on the 23rd August 1914. 12 of those are commemorated at La Ferte-Sous-Jouarre. 6 at Hautrage Military Cemetery, 1 at Houdain-Les-Bavay Communal Cemetery and 1 at Troisvilles Communal Cemetery.

Four officers were missing including Lieutenant Margetts and Captain Hyslop whom we met yesterday. He was “severely wounded” at 10:30am. I dug around and, happily, he survived the war (his full name was Robert George Bingham Maxwell-Hyslop). He became an official historian of The Great War and co-wrote Volume V: 26 September – 11 November: The Advance to Victory in 1947. If you’re feeling rich and going on a 3 month cruise, or serving at Her Majesty’s pleasure, then you can buy the Official History of The Great War (France and Belgium) on a DVD.

The other officer who was injured was Lieutenant Walter Algenon Leishman. Like Margetts, he must have been taken prisoner and, sadly, only survived the war by 3 months, dying on 19 Feb 1919. You can tell he was a POW as he has Exonerated Officers List written on his medal card.

The day’s fighting is really hard to visualise. I’ve tried my best to show the Dorsets’ progress throughout the 24th August but it is, at best, an approximation. The day’s action is best summed up by Lt-Col Ransome. “Confused fighting, complicated by uncertainty as regards the flanks, lack of training in street fighting, and embarrassment over the crowds of civilians thronging through the streets.” The 5th Division had done exactly what had been asked of it. It had fought over an overextended line in impossible terrain but it had held the Germans off for long enough to prevent them completely encircling the BEF and the French Fifth Army.

No longer playing games


23rd August 1914 – The Battle of Mons

The Battle of Mons marked the first engagement between the British and German Armies in World War One. I’m not going to describe the battle of Mons here. There are many explanations on the internet that are far more eloquent than I could ever hope to be. A great place to start with learning about World War One is The Long Tail.

The 15th Brigade was positioned as reserve to the 5th Division. They faced two main problems. Firstly the environment was not suited to warfare as it was dotted with “narrow streets, gardens, slag heaps, factories and railway works”, according to the regimental history. Secondly the line they were covering was very wide, which meant that there were gaps between units. Gleichen remarks that the regulation distance between units was 1000 yards but the 15th Brigade was strung out over 3 miles (5280 yards). When that happens there is usually confusion, both through lack of communication and the fact the the enemy penetrate those gaps and attack from the flanks.

Image showing wargame of the Battle of Mons
No longer just a game.

On the morning of the 23rd, the 15th Brigade was split in two. Half the companies (C and D) were sent to Wasmes. The other half remained in reserve in billets in Dour. They tried to maintain routine;  a parade and service was planned for 10am and even plans for billeting were drawn up by Battalion Headquarters during the day. But these were abandoned by 12pm and, eventually, the rest of the Dorsets were instructed to get their kit ready.

By 12:40pm the German guns could be heard. Gleichen remarks, not for the first time, that they had no idea of the scale of forces against which they were arrayed. He reports that “there was perhaps a corps in front of us, but as a matter of fact there were three, if not four corps.” The British were outnumbered by about 3 to 1 .

The Dorsets were dug into shallow trenches in amongst the Bedfords. By 4:10pm things were not going well for the 3rd Division ahead of them. Although they had acquitted themselves admirably and had cause considerable damage to the Germans, they were simply overwhelmed, were running out of ammunition and severely depleted in strength. The Dorsets received the news that the 3rd Division was retiring to the south of Mons and that the 15th Brigade was to block the Mariette-Paturages Road.

At 5pm the Dorsets entered combat for the first time. Enemy shells began to land beyond their trenches. At 5:30pm D Company reported that enemy troops were 1000 yards north of their trenches. A little later S.A.A. (small arms ammunition) carts were requested. At 7:30 C Company sighted enemy scouts. Things were hotting up.

Meanwhile companies A and B had arrived in Wasmes and were initially  hidden under a railway arch near the station, before being moved into fields and entrenching. Wasmes station is no longer there and, judging by the map in the History 1st Bn. The Dorsetshire Regiment 1914-1919, part of the railway line isn’t there anymore either. However, I think you can see remnants of the line in the satellite photography, and I’ve marked this in red on the map.

Later the evening the Dorsets had the added trouble of dealing with civilians trying to cross the lines. They arrested several, including “a hunchback, and he was terrified when we searched him—we found a clip of five German cartridges in his pocket.”

Digging in, assisted by the local miners, and distributing the ammunition became their priority towards the end of the day. It was clear that the Germans would attack at any moment in force. They even started putting in parapets to the rear of their trenches.

The Germans were working their way around the 15th Brigade and at some time in the evening had managed to position a machine gun on a slag heap to the Dorset’s rear. This was to cause them a certain amount of bother the following morning.