After an uncanny afternoon of battle–his battalion fired all of their ammunition into German masses that never reached their trench, yet suffered only “three or four” men killed by inaccurate German artillery–John Lucy again spent the night bringing ammunition carts up to the battalion. But as day dawned, a century back, the operational situation was much clearer: with the French armies on their flank already in retreat and a great number of Germans in front and ready to fill that gap, the BEF must retreat as well or face being outflanked and annihilated.
So goes strategy. As for the human experience, Lucy remembers that the order to leave their packs behind and march light was the thing that truly disconcerted: “the men of the regiment hated the idea of abandoning their packs and greatcoats” both because of the loss–worse when one forgot to retrieve one’s tobacco–and because they knew what it would mean to the German troops who stumbled upon the discarded gear.
Yesterday they had driven off the German assault, mauling the enemy with little loss. This sudden retreat seemed nonsensical: “What was happening anyway? And why did we not finish the business by assaulting the broken Germans?”
But the 2/Royal Irish Rifles recovered their spirit, and began what would come be to known as “The Retreat” or “The Retirement” singing, as marching soldiers always used to do. And yes, they sung “Tipperary,” among other favorites–with apparent sincerity, although we will shortly see a parallel claim for Tipperarian ironic disdain.
Now, the only way to withdraw in the face of the enemy–packs or no packs–is to do so under of some sort of skirmishing rear-guard. Traditionally, the main force of an army would withdraw behind a screen of cavalry, and this day, a century back, tradition would carry.
The cavalry, despite their high visibility and extreme vulnerability to rifle and machine-gun fire, were still the only mobile force available, and they were needed to engage and delay the enemy pursuit.
John Buchan describes the experiences of the brothers Grenfell.
Monday the 24th saw the beginning of the retreat from Mons. This is not the place to repeat an oft-told tale. Our concern is only with one cavalry unit engaged in acting as a rear guard. At four o’clock that morning Francis, who had retired from Thulin at 10.30 the night before, was ordered to reconnoitre the town at dawn. He had gone only a little way through its streets when he came under heavy fire at short range, and in withdrawing had his horse “Ginger” shot down. Presently from his position at the railway station he saw a mass of German troops advancing. A sharp fight ensued of which he records, “Rivy and I found ourselves for the first time standing together under fire, and not much disconcerted…”
At first the 9th Lancers fought dismounted, firing at the Germans moving up through yesterday’s British infantry positions. But soon they will mount up, and Buchan begins to stir, mixing heroic/romantic battle piece clichés and historical allusions with that modern battle-writing style in which jargon is deployed to lend a (mostly false) sense of precise movement.
…Presently the retiring 5th Division, which had now been in action for some twenty-four hours, was threatened with an enemy envelopment, and Sir Charles Fergusson asked for protection from the cavalry for his western flank. De Lisle decided to charge the flank of the advancing masses, the 4th Dragoon Guards on the left and the 9th Lancers on the right. That charge was as futile and as gallant as any other like attempt in history on unbroken infantry and guns in position. But it proved to the world that the spirit which inspired the Light Brigade at Balaclava and von Bredow’s Todtenritt at Mars-la-Tour was still alive in the cavalry of to-day.
…Francis formed his squadron in line of troops column and they galloped into a tornado of rifle and machine-gun fire and the artillery fire of at least three batteries.
No objective could be discerned, for the Germans at once took cover among the corn stooks. The ground had not been reconnoitred, and long before they came near the enemy the Lancers found themselves brought up by double lines of wire. In that nightmare place Francis’s first job was to get his squadron in hand. He could not find his trumpeter, so he blew his whistle and cursed with vehemence anybody he found out of place.
Note please the presence of wire–in this case not yet the thicket of tangled barbed wire that characterized later Great War battlefields, but simple fencing. Still, it is the bane of the cavalry officer, whether in action or, on his day off (there were several months of these, before the war), riding to hounds.
Paul Fussell will make much of Sassoon and others making much of wire’s translation from a wicked practical/commercial imposition on the open countryside of Olde England to the rusting thickets of no man’s land, a simple but nasty industrial wickedness, suitable for prolonging tactical stalemate. But back to Buchan on the charge of the 9th Lancers:
The charge had swung somewhat to the right… Meantime Francis found a certain amount of cover behind a house. “We had simply galloped about like rabbits in front of a line of guns,” he wrote, ” men and horses falling in all directions. Most of one’s time was spent in dodging the horses.”
Very soon the house was blown to pieces, so the squadron moved off to the shelter of a railway embankment. Francis remembered that on one occasion the regiment had been ordered to trot in South Africa under a heavy fire, and he now adopted this method of keeping his men together. Under the embankment he collected the remnant. He found a number of odd 9th Lancers besides his own squadron, and as senior officer he took command and attempted to sort the troops out.
South of the embankment was the 119th Battery, R[oyal].F[ield].A[rtillery]… It was under a desperate fire from three of the enemy’s batteries, one of which completely enfiladed it, and most of its gunners had been killed. Seeing the position, Francis offered his services. At that moment he was hit by shrapnel.
‘It felt as if a whip had hit me in the leg and hand. I think an artery was affected, as the blood spurted out, and my observer, Steadman, and young Whitehead very kindly bound me up. We also had to put on a tourniquet, and referred to the Field Service Regulations to find out how it had to be put on. This would have amused you. Of course, we found out how to stop blood in every other part of one’s body except one’s hand, but eventually came upon this useful information. Things began to go round and round, and I luckily remembered that in the wallets of the horse I had borrowed I had noticed a flask. This proved to contain a bottle of the best old brandy, and my observer and I at once drank the lot. I now felt like Jack Johnson, instead of an old cripple.”
Jack Johnson, the reigning heavyweight champion of the world and the greatest boxer of his day, would, in a typically mild effusion British racism (the mild kind, that is, that they reserved for the racial minorities oppressed by other nations or empires), soon have his named borrowed for a common type of German artillery–heavy, with an explosion marked by thick black smoke. As of now, however, he is apparently a byword for violent virility.
Major Alexander asked Francis to find if there was an exit for his guns. The diary continues the story. ‘It was not a very nice job, I am bound to say, and I was relieved when it was finished. It meant leaving my regiment under the embankment and riding out alone through the guns, which were now out of action and being heavily shelled all the time, to some distance behind, where I found myself out of range of the shells. It was necessary to go back through the inferno as slowly as possible, so as to pretend to the men that there was no danger and that the shells were more noisy than effective. I reported to the Battery Commander that there was an exit ; he then told me that the only way to save his guns was to man-handle them out to some cover. My experience a few minutes before filled me with confidence, so I ordered the regiment to dismount in front of their horses, and then called for volunteers.
This is Buchan’s account of Francis’s account of a speech he made under fire, so one must take it with many grains of salt. And yet what’s to doubt? There will be no suspiciously well-rounded phrases, and where we might expect dramatic speech making we have instead the direct appeal to regimental tradition, to pride and loyalty.
‘I reminded them that the 9th Lancers had saved the guns at Maiwand, and had gained the eternal friendship of the gunners by always standing by the guns in South Africa; and that we had great traditions to live up to, as the Colonel had reminded us before we started. Every single man and officer declared they were ready to go to what looked like certain destruction. We ran forward and started pushing the guns out. Providence intervened, for although this was carried out under a very heavy fire and the guns had to be slowly turned round before we could guide them, we accomplished our task. We pushed out one over dead gunners. I do not think we lost more than three or four men, though it required more than one journey to get everything out. It is on occasions like this that good discipline tells. The men were so wonderful and so steady that words fail me to say what I think of them, and how much is due to my Colonel for the high standard to which he had raised this magnificent regiment.’
The trope of “every single” man volunteering may seem like a stretch, but, then again, in a proud regular unit, with men who have been serving together for a long time, it’s not too hard to imagine that any frightened or disinclined men would go along with a vocal majority. And, as Francis reminds them, this was a chance to do something paradigmatically heroic. Leading do or die assaults was the most ancient way to be recognized for extraordinary valor, but in the modern era attacks were usually supposed to be conducted by order and with due discipline–berserkers were not rewarded. In fact, it would soon be the case–by the time of the Second World War, and most emphatically in Vietnam–that the majority of the highest medals for valor will be won for acts of self-sacrifice. We’re now in a sort of middle ground, between charging the enemy host on your own volition and falling on the grenade to save your buddies: volunteering to help the artillery save the guns fits in very well–a very early modern (i.e. 18th and 19th century) way to be heroic.
I’ve made a little fun of the Grenfell twins before–their unexceptional intelligence and boyish dutifulness stick out a bit here, amidst the crowd of precious and precocious writers. But Francis had been an officer for a long time now, and he knew his business. He knew how to make the same sort of simple appeal that Lucy, a young lance-corporal, liked. He led well, made good decisions under fire, volunteered for a dangerous task he could have avoided with his honor intact, and accomplished it.
The old cliché would be to assert that all this was “in his blood.” A silly notion–but it was in his upbringing, his training, and his personality. And, come to think of it, “his” blood had been spilled in similar ways. Many of our subjects are too young to remember the 19th century, but Francis Grenfell was already eighteen when he learned of the death of his older brother Robert during a cavalry charge in the Battle of Omdurman. No amount of preparation, aspiration, or yearning to meet a self-imposed standard of courage can guarantee that a man will find himself brave in his first battle–but if it could, it would have done so for Francis. And what if he had no doubts that it could, wouldn’t that have made it easily to go about his business so handily, despite the danger?
Overcome by his wounds that evening, Grenfell’s men bid him a temporary goodbye.
…’The N.C.O.’s and the men came and shook me by the hand and gave me water from their water-bottles. I cannot tell you how much this day has increased the feeling of confidence and comradeship between me and my squadron. My fingers were nastily gashed, but the bone was not damaged ; a bit of shrapnel had taken a piece out of my thigh ; I had a bullet through my boot and another through my sleeve, and had been knocked down by a shell ; my horse had also been shot, so no one can say I had an idle day.’
Room could not be found in any ambulance, so he was left by the roadside. Luckily a French Staff officer came by in a motor car and took him to Bavai. There he fell in with the Duke of Westminster, who took charge of him ; and he also found Rivy, who had been doing galloper [serving as an aide/message bearer] to De Lisle.
Francis Grenfell has, by the way, just earned the Victoria Cross, “the first man in the campaign to win the highest honour which can fall to a subject of the King.” It takes time for such decorations to be decided upon and rewarded–we’ll note the occasion come November–but let this be an early warning: what he has described with perfect well-bred diffidence (which is different in some slight way–usually–from the false modesty of ostentatiously quiet bravado) the army considered to be one of the great feats of its first major battle in ninety-nine years. Or, to take a more cynical view, the army would get around to rewarding a dashing young officer with a famous name, highlighting a brave action that might distract from the memory of the day’s dismal results.
And at the end of it all, Francis blithely runs into his brother and then “falls in” with the Duke of Westminister, called “Bend Or,” because the family coat of arms was once–before it became a bit more elaborate–“azure, a bend d’or.” (Yes, he really does have a heraldry-based aristocratic nickname; and yes, I would imagine that they are secretly giggling about the homophonic/homophobic double entendre there).
“They took me to a French convent, which was under the Red Cross and was full of wounded. A civilian doctor and six nurses attended me, each lady trying to outdo the others in kindness, which was rather alarming. There was a chorus of ‘Pauvre garcon! Comme il est brave! Comme il est beau!’
The difficulty arose as to how my leg should be treated. I suggested my breeches should be taken off, but the senior Red Cross lady said that that was impossible ‘Car il y a trop de jeunes filles.’ [‘Because there are so many women around!’]
So my breeches were cut down the leg. The doctor took me to his house and put me to bed. I am bound to say I felt rather done. I got into bed at ten o’clock. At midnight Rivy told me to get up, as the town was to be evacuated. The doctor gave me some raw eggs and coffee, and I left Bavai at 1.15 a.m. in Bend Or’s motor. I cannot say how nice it was to find such a friend at such a time. It is wonderful what Bend Or has done for Rivy and me. He took me to Le Cateau, which we reached about four in the morning, where I slept that day heavily in his bed.
Swap out “motor” for “carriage” and we have a Belgian cavalry escapade fit for any Napoleonic officer, perhaps even the Brigadier Gerard. This effect come not just from the bravado and understatedness–it’s also the fact that it’s hard to communicate the range and deadliness of these weapons.
And neither Grenfell or Buchan really try. These aren’t cannon that, at more than a few hundred yards, can do little more than skip a dodge-able cannonball at you; they’re not facing infantry with muzzle-loading weapons who have to form square and hope their bayonets hold off the charging horse-flesh.
Grenfell’s men had, at least at the start of the day, NINE FOOT LONG WOODEN LANCES (although, unlike the hapless French lancers, they also carried real rifles, and could fight effectively as mounted infantry). He rode out into shrapnel bursts fired from guns as much as a few miles away, and any German infantry with line of sight out to at least a quarter mile had a fair chance to bring him down.
So it was very heroic; and the German marksmanship unimpressive. The artillery fired high, apparently–but they would learn.
We have today, too, a near crossing of paths. The second battalion of the Royal Welsh Fusiliers had been ordered to act in support of the cavalry rearguard. Major Geiger recalls watching a cavalry charge about a half-mile from his position:
Some of them, the 9th Lancers I suppose, trotted forward in two lines about 150 yards apart, and eventually broke into a charge. No enemy was visible to us, but as soon as the cavalry began to gallop gun-fire was opened on them, and one could see through glasses a few empty saddles and horses down. After charging about half a mile the cavalry wheeled and returned, and when I lost sight of them they were re-forming.
A very matter-of-fact account of such a glorious charge. But then Geiger of the Royal Welch must be a rather phlegmatic infantry officer. Here’s how he describes yesterday’s sinister Taube: “It was here that we saw the first German aeroplane ; it flew quite low.”
So the retreat from Mons begins. But here’s one last “meanwhile:” Rupert Brooke wrote several letters today, updating friends on his still-fruitless search for military employment. He complains to Kathleen Nesbitt of the “insupportable stress of this time” and “a sort of neuralgic earache” caused by all this personal military uncertainty. News of the actual fighting by the actual soldiers has not yet reached England, of course…
Anyway, Brooke than segues into his usual mode of flirtatious self-loathing, and, on a busy day in Belgium, I would have let him slide. But today, a century back, Rupert also sent, to Eddie Marsh, a “rough” version of a new poem. (It was in fact complete, except for the title, and would later be published as “The Treasure,” one of the 1914 sonnets.)
When colour goes home into the eyes,
And lights that shine are shut again,
With dancing girls and sweet bird’s cries
Behind the gateways of the brain;
And that no-place which gave them birth, shall close
The rainbow and the rose;
Still may Time hold some golden space
Where I’ll unpack that scented store
Of song and flower and sky and face,
And count, and touch, and turn them o’er,
Musing upon them; as a mother, who
Has watched her children all the rich day through,
Sits, quiet-handed, in the fading light,
When children sleep, ere night.