Horace Smith-Dorrien, Saviour of the BEP in 1914

Horace Smith-Dorrien

Horace Smith-Dorrien

The British Expeditionary Force was in retreat. On reaching Le Cateau in the early hours of 26 Aug 1914, Horace found that his men were totally exhausted after two days of fighting and having marched over twenty miles in the burning summer sun. As about sixty percent of them were reservists and not as fit as they should have been, they were in need of an extended rest. However the Germans were still hard on his heels so Horace decided that the men would stay at Le Cateau. Various detachments of men were still arriving all through that night, unable to find their designated positions most simply dropped where they could find a spare spot.

Officers from GHQ arrived to determine the situation and what Horace had in mind. They pointed out that unless he retired immediately the enemy were so close that he would be forced into a fight at daybreak. The Commander in Chief in France, Field Marshall Sir John French sent a message: “If you can hold your ground the situation appears likely to improve”, giving Smith-Dorrien a free hand as to the method, but “anxious for you to carry out the retirement, and you must make every endeavour to do so.”

By the time this instruction was received the action had already commenced in Le Cateau with the British defenders slowly evacuating the town under heavy German fire. For over six hours elements of 2nd Corps held their line, stubbornly contesting every inch of ground, holding off the fierce assaults of an entire German army. By the end of the day, although Horace’s command had losses of 5,212 men with a further 2,600 men taken prisoner, the command was still largely intact and their morale high. The gallant stand at Le Cateau had broken the German impetus and had given the BEF a vital breathing space allowing it to regroup and reorganise.

In his despatch to the War Office of 7 Sep, Sir John French, wrote:-

I cannot close this brief account of this glorious stand of the British troops, without putting on record my deep appreciation of the valuable services rendered by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command on the morning of the 26th August could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation.

Ken Wallis, Chronicle, v.XI, pp.26-33