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THE GREAT RETIREMENT, Dominion, Volume 8, Issue 2406, 11 March 1915
THE GREAT RETIREMENT
FROM MONS TO THE AISNE TROOPS ABSOLUTELY EXHAUSTED TERRIBLE HARDSHIPS I i AN OFFICERS STIRRING STORY. The following graphic account of tho greafc retirement of the British forces from Mons to the Aisne is contained in a letter received by the Minister of Defence (the Hon. J. Allen) from an officer who participated in the lighting. The letter states: — "Our brigade was actually the first brigade ,to land in France, and I was with it' until nearly the end of tho Battle of the Aisne after we had driven the Germans back from the Mame. Then we were twelve days continuously ill the trenches on tho Aisue in pouring wet and cold before we wero relieved, and that on tho top of the retreat, and the pursuit, I suppose, got mo down. You say you would like to hear something of our doings in Franco and some account of tho retreat. As you rightly say, no better practical lessors in fighting could be learnt than thoso we got during the lirst six weeks of the war. This is now a most peculiar war in many ways, and although there is always something to bo learnt, you will understand that the conditions that have existed since t'.e armies got locked together on the Aisno are quite exceptional, and will be extremely unlikely to apply to any but a European War with enormous masses of troops. The Poor Infantry, "To reproduce these conditions you must have two armies strung out in long lines in trenches close together,' and with flanks that cannot bo turned or attacked, from a flank, also enormous masses of tho heaviest artillery that has ever accompanied a field army, unlimited ammunition (high explosive and other), no chance whatever to use mounted troops. (The cavalry, since there have been enough infantry to relievo them from' trenches, have not done a hand's turn and cannot. They are simply exercising their horses behind), and everyone and everything within reach of the enormous guns (and it is a very long reach) well dug in and concealed not only from the front, but, as far as possible, from above. The .guns are mostly dug in, and the horses taken right away.. Nothing can' be brought up except' in the dark. In fact, now it is a war for sappers versus garrison and heavy gunners. The poor infantry have a poisonous time in the wet and- cold trenches, although they have now enough to relieve them every day or two, and they do not have to stick it for four days on end as our poor beggars had to do when they fought on the Aisne. Some of our trenches were not more than 150 yards from the German trenches, and many of the trenches now are even closer, so that they can throw grenades into .one another's trenches by night. The first period of the war was, of course, quite different and mora resembled . what might be called the normal style of warfare (although, of course, with huge masses) as apart from, siege warfare like the present. ' • , Thirteen Days' Retreat. "When we were disembarked we went up by train to the concentration area, olid, after we had been there for six days and our corps was about complete, wo were ordered to move. We marched by long marches to Jlons, where we held a line for some distance southeastwards.. We had made our dispositions and dug ourselves in during the day. of arrival before night and before dawn were ordered to retire. Nanmr had fallen, and the Flench had fallenback from our right, also large German columns were discovered coming in to our front and working round our western flank. There, was very hard lighting before we got away, partly on our front, but mostly on that of the corps at Mons and to the west of it. We retired, or retrcatod," from that morning for tlie whole of thirteen days, and the greater part of thirteen nights, without a spell of any sort, fighting rear-guard actions day after day, and digging at night when not marching. Wo finished up, as far as our corps was concerned, near Melun, on the Seine south of Paris, so you can see on the map the sort, of march we made. The weather was frightfully hot and the difficulties of transport and supply can be understood when it is realised that our bass had to be abandoned and a new base and also a new oversea base established. No one who did not see it can ever realise the hardships the troops had to endure, continual marching, hardly any sleep, rear-guard fighting' by day, digging and outposts at night. Many nights one did not close one' 6 eyes at all, and very rarely got moro than two hours' sleep, that is, the commanders and staffs, of course. Some of the troops were able to go to sleep directly they halted, and so got more. No troops except the very best in the world under the very best discipline, and in the best of condition, could have stood it without becoming an absolute rabble and falling to pieces, and even with ours it required constant and unceasing watchfulness and encouragement all the tune. Without that on tho part of all officers, and non-commissioned officers too, the troops would have been content to lie down and let the German Army walk over them. Tlie.v were not tired. They were absolutely exhausted. Many of them just limped along. I hope never in my life to see such a sight again. I saw many officers well known as athletes and army footballers limp along, unwashed and unshaven, looking like old men, I know fiom my own experience that though I walked sometimes to talk to the men, yet I mostly rode (as I had my own work to do properly), and yet my feet were bruised and blistered, and my toenails went black and came off afterwards through having to keep my boots on for weeks, so what the poor men suffered through having to tramp all the time can be imagined. In Pursuit of the Germans. "Wo arrived at the end of the retreat near Melun, as I explained before, and then without a single day's rest darted off next morning in pursuit of the Germans. The men's spirits rose at once as soon as their heads were turned round. We pursued and fought them then for about ten days continuously across the Mame and over the Aisne, where they had already entrenched positions occupied by other troops, and where they made their stand. We were in touch with them, and 1 we fought with them more or less all the'way, especially on the Mame and Aisne. That you will see make 3 a total of twenty-sit days' solid marching, i.e., three days' advance to Mons, thirteen days' retreat from Mons to Melun, ten days from Melun :to Aisno, fighting the best part of twenty days out of the twenty-six, and digging most of the nights. Ido not think that record has ever been beaten, and I am firmly of the opinion that no other troops in the world except the British Uegular Army could have done it.
"You\inay say that the Germans had as far to travel as we h;<d, but that is not so. They had an overwhelming superiority in cavalry, and a very large supply *of motor transport, especially constructed to carry artillery, Maxim guns, infantry supplies, ammunition, etc., so they were able to harass the rearguard constantly, also when they went back to the Aisue we were faced by l'resli troops already in position and Many of the bridges were blown up by the enem;/ as they retired, and . nearly all were destroyed over the Aisne.' We had not only to light them over tho rivers, hut to construct bridges, Ojotttpons &i'st v gnd stq?g Jjeal m-
could. We tried to cross the Aisne in parallel columns, a division on eapli road, and between three to six miles between divisions. Tho first corps got over and halfway up the slopes on the north' side before they were finally brought up by the enemy. The second corps on our left did not get across the same day, but only succeeded the day afterwards, 'l'hdy never got as far .up the slopes as we wero able to do. The battle went on all day with unlimited heavy gun-fire by the enemy, and they had the best of the positions in every way. | Terrible Story of Hardship. "At nightfall we were ordered to dig ourselves in, and hang on. and there we hung on' for twelve days, so far as we wero concerned, until we were relieved by other troops and brought back a couple of miles out of the trenches. Every night was spent in improving the trenches. No movement cculd be made by even tho smallest part of the force during the daylight. It began to rain incessantly before we reached the Aisne, and continued for about twelve days after we got over, so you can imagine what the men and trenches were like. Not a soul in the trtmches during that time got a warm meal, not even a cup of tea, and not a single change of clothes during the whole twelve days ill the wet. All tho horses, transport, and even guns that were left after the shelling had to be taken right back for the rearguard. The casualties among the gun horses were very heavy indeed until that was done. The Brigade of Artillery that was with us had about 250 horses killed the first two days. Tho enemy kept attacking at intervals during the day and night, -shelling all day and every day, and even all night for the whole time. We (the whole British Army) could do nothing but hold on. Wo were all strung out- in one long, thin line, with practically no reserves, That was practically the situation of tho whole army at that time, the enemy having an enormous superiority in artillery both as to number and range,/and apparently an inexhaustible supply of ammunition; also fifty to one as regards the position. In addition, wo had the river at our backs, with only very few pontobn bridges over it (all permanent ones had been destroyed by the Germans), and':those the enemy constantly smashed by shell fire. At the end of twelve days after we wero relieved I had to come away. The British army stayed in the same position a little longer, when it was moved, as you know, round to ,the.left\towards tho coast, and its place was taken by tho French.
"Up to the time I left our brigade had lost in killed and wounded (not including sick) about 40 per cent, of the officers and 25 per cent, other ranks, and we had been exceedingly lucky, as most had lost as many, and very many, more. Some regiments hardly existed at all."
THE GREAT RETIREMENT, Dominion, Volume 8, Issue 2406, 11 March 1915
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