War history: How the Suffolk Regiment heroes looked Death in the eye to help our soldiers escape
PUBLISHED: 09:03 24 August 2014
A century ago, soldiers of The Suffolk Regiment played a major part in protecting retreating troops and stopping the German advance on Paris. Mike Peters, Galloway’s resident military historian, looks at this key early point in the war and the toll it took
One of my favourite First World War battlefields is the area surrounding the small French town of Le Cateau. I like it not because it is particularly scenic, or even dramatic, but because of those who fought there. As a soldier, I admire those men for the way they went about their profession on August 26, 1914.
The battle fought there does not conform to the average reader’s perception of fighting during the First World War. There were hastily-dug trenches but this was not the static, bloody trench deadlock that appears in people’s imagination when the Great War is mentioned.
One hundred years ago this week, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was reeling in front of a huge and seemingly unstoppable German army that was sweeping through Belgium and Northern France. On more than one occasion it seemed that the vastly outnumbered BEF would be surrounded quickly and overwhelmed by its much larger adversary. The situation was indeed grave. Within just a few weeks of mobilisation, the very existence of the most modern army fielded by Great Britain was directly threatened.
The BEF had already fought its first battles, attempting to hold the line of the Mons-Conde Canal. With reluctance, the order had been given for the entire force to abandon the canal line defences in order to avoid encirclement by withdrawing to the southwest.
This march, now known as the retreat from Mons, was difficult for everybody involved. Many of the soldiers were footsore from previous marches and physically exhausted. The roads were extremely crowded, packed with men, horses, field guns and wagons. The weather was hot and the roads were very dusty, all of which made for thirsty work.
Regiments marched anywhere between 25-30 miles a day in these conditions, every man constantly aware that the German Army was close behind them.
At dusk, as the head of the weary columns approached the town of Le Cateau, they were lucky enough to be caught in a torrential shower. The heavy rain relieved the men and horses, dampened the road dust and cooled the oppressive heat. However, it did nothing to slow the Germans. Something much more hard-hitting was required.
Among the long, dusty columns were men of the 2nd Battalion of the Suffolk Regiment. The Suffolks were a proud regiment with a reputation for steadiness under fire that had been reaffirmed during the Boer War.
The need to create breathing space between the rear of the British columns and their pursuers was now pressing. The task of remaining behind and acting as a rear-guard to gain that time and space fell to the men of the 14th Brigade. The 14th included the footsore Suffolks.
The orders to stand and fight were passed through the early morning mist of August 26, 1914. By first light the Suffolks knew they had been ordered to stand and fight on an exposed hillside that was a far from ideal position for defence.
Early in the battle, things did not go well for the Suffolks. Initial instructions to Lieutenant Colonel Brett DSO, the commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, were clear. He had been told by Brigadier Rolt ‘You understand that there is no thought of retirement’. With these instructions in mind, Colonel Brett issued orders for his men to dig in and establish a defence line on the hill.
The Germans did not wait long into the morning before attempting to dislodge the Suffolk men and the supporting battalions nearby. Lieutenant Colonel Brett was killed quite early in the battle and replaced by Major Douglas.
The battle raged into the afternoon. The Suffolks held a lynchpin position in the British line; they could not afford to give ground at any cost. Failure would result in the collapse of the entire rearguard... and disaster.
Grimly, in spite of mounting casualties, they held on against, first, cavalry probes, then infantry attacks, machine gun enfilade and intense shelling by artillery. Every minute counted and the 14th Brigade secured eight precious hours for the remainder of their brigade, the 5th Division and probably the entire BEF.
Against such overwhelming odds, the Suffolks and other battalions around them could not hold on indefinitely. Eventually, large numbers of German troops outflanked the British line; the Suffolks were surrounded and fighting back to back.
The survivors realised that surrender was now unavoidable. Reluctantly, the large number of wounded men had no choice. The cost to the regiment and the county was significant: 720 Suffolks were listed as killed, missing, wounded or reported to be prisoners of war.
The corps commander who had given the order for the rearguard action was Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien. After the war he said this of the Suffolks:
“…In fact, had not the Suffolks and other intrepid troops refused to budge, there would have been nothing to prevent the enemy sweeping on the scattered units of the Division before they had time to get to the road allotted for their retirement. Had this happened, the safety of the whole force fighting at Le Cateau, and indeed the whole BEF, would have been jeopardised… it was the blow to the Germans delivered on the field of Le Cateau which upset their plans and prevented their descent on Paris. The Suffolks were one of the units that made that blow possible. I thank them and the whole nation should be grateful to them.”
Today, a memorial on the hill outside Le Cateau that was the centrepoint of the Suffolks’ position a century ago commemorates the brave actions of the men of General Smith-Dorrien’s II Army Corps. Although the memorial is dedicated to the Suffolks, the Manchesters, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders and the Royal Artillery Batteries who supported them, the hill is referred to in most guidebooks as Suffolk Hill and the memorial in turn as the Suffolk’s Memorial.
It really is a special place and one I recommend you visit if you ever have the chance. It tells a story, and it is a Suffolk story that we can all be proud of.