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Le Cateau


* Dates:  26 August 1914 

* Background:  After two and a half weeks of battling their way through Belgium -- past Liege, Brussels, and Mons -- Imperial Germany's badly bruised First Army crossed into northern France between Valenciennes and Maubeuge. The Germans were intent on chasing down the BEF's I. Corps under General Haig and II. Corps under Smith-Dorrien, both of whom had been forced to fight an almost continual rearguard action. In his relentless zeal to put a quick end to the BEF forces, First Army Commander Alexander von Kluck, ordered to encircle Paris to the west, had already allowed his troops to drift over 30 miles east of his intended route. Just north of Le Cateau, a small town about 20 miles south of the Belgian border, the two British corps came upon the dense Forest of Mormal and fatefully allowed themselves to become separated to either side of the four mile wide forest. On the night of 25 August, as the rain poured down on his exhausted infantrymen, Smith-Dorrien had an unpleasant decision forced upon him: try to slip away from Kluck before sunlight, continuing the rearguard action, or turn and fight, possibly buying the retreating Allied Forces some precious time.

* The Germans:   Kluck had some very able commanders fighting for him in generals Sixt von Armin (IV. Corps) and von Gronau (IV. Reserves), both units from Prussian Saxony. In action west of Le Cateau was von der Marwitz' three division strong 2nd Cav Corps, while von Lochow's III. Corps of Brandenburgers engaged Haig as he retreated south along the Sambre River.

First Army

  Generaloberst Alexander von Kluck
     (CoS: Generalmajor Hermann von Kuhl)
   III. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Ewald von Lochow
5th Division:  Genlt. Georg Wichura
     6th Division:  Genmaj. Herhudt von Rohden
   IV. Corps   Gen.d.Inf. Friedrich Sixt von Armin
7th Division:  Genlt. Johannes Riedel
     8th Division:  Genmaj. Georg K.A. Hildebrandt
   IV. Reserves   Gen.d.Inf. Hans von Gronau
7th Res.Division:  Genlt. Bogislav Graf von Schwerin
     8th Res.Division:  Genlt. Otto Riemann
   H.K.K. 2   Gen.d.Kav. Georg von der Marwitz
    2nd Cav Division:  Genmaj. Friedrich FH von Krane
               (4th & 7th Jaeger Bns)
     4th Cav Division:  Genlt. Otto
von Garnier
     9th Cav Division:  Genmaj. Eberhard Graf von Schmettow
               (3rd, 9th & 10th Jaeger Bns)

* The Battle:  As Smith-Dorrien's troops came stumbling into Le Cateau, BEF I. Corps had already met up with Lochow's Brandenburgers at Landrecies, just south of the Forest of Mormal. There was a fear that Kluck's forces would pierce through the gap between the two BEF corps, and Smith-Dorrien became convinced that it would be better for his forces, both psychologically and tactically, to turn and make a stand. Kluck had previously received air reconnaissance reports indicating that the BEF was retreating to the fortress town of Maubeuge, about 17 miles northeast of Le Cateau. From this, Kluck mistakenly believed he would be able to encircle the Brits at Maubeuge and then turn the French Sixth Army's left flank. Further air recon revealed, however, that the BEF was continuing its retreat southward. As First Army headquarters reissued orders to resume its chase, Belgian elements out of Antwerp began harassing strikes on German communications and supply lines located to the rear.

von Kluck


Most of Kluck's forces were involved in efforts to outflank the BEF to the west, an action which was ultimately unsuccessful as they met up with elements of the French Sixth Army under Maunory. Linsingen's II. Corps was also to outflank to the west but was halted by French forces under d'Amade, never reaching Le Cateau at all. So, fortunately for Smith-Dorrien, Kluck thus had only about three divisions worth of troops involved in the main engagement at Le Cateau. General von Kluck himself also remained far removed from the action.

The BEF was attempting to hold about a ten mile section of open ground stretching from Le Cateau and Cambrai. German artillery, emplaced on the higher ground to the north, began pounding the exposed British infantry and artillery batteries during the mist-filled early morning hours of the 26th. There was speculation that the accuracy of the German artillery was due to locational data being passed on from German spies, but it was in fact more likely a result of information coming from spotter aircraft. Only expert BEF marks- manship was able to hold off the initial German infantry assaults as they tried to flank the Brits' right flank along the Selle River valley around 8:00 am.  BEF II. Corps commanders believed that Haig's I. Corps forces were covering this flank, when in actuality they had continued their retreat to the south.

German artillery renewed the barrage at about 10:00 am, and at this point inflicted heavy losses, but German infantry and machine-gun companies were still able to make only little headway. Near 12:00 pm, Riedel's 7th Division came into contact with BEF 5th Division elements who were attempting to fall back with operational artillery pieces, and it soon became apparent that the BEF right wing was collapsing. By 3:00 pm, Riedel had completely surrounded the Suffolks Regiment and two companies of the Argylls. The Germans were able to capture about 25 field guns and one howitzer. At this point, II. Corps had already commenced a general retreat southward toward BEF HQ located at St. Quentin. Many BEF regiments, however, did not receive the retirement order and were subsequently overcome by the increasingly rapid German pursuit.

The BEF's decision to turn and fight paid off rather well for the Allies: it delayed the German swoop toward Paris and inflicted heavy casualties on Kluck's numerically superior First Army. It also allowed the BEF's I. Corps to escape a potential rout and gave them some much needed breathing space. The decision likewise drove an unfortunately sharp and lasting wedge between BEF Commander-in-Chief French, who had ordered a continued southerly retreat, and Smith-Dorrien, who was subsequently sacked for his actions.

* click to enlarge
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