ONE hundred years ago this week the realities of war were brought home to the men of the 2nd Battalion of the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry Regiment (OBLI). The unit was one of the first sent to France to take the war to the Germans, but as events unfolded around them they found themselves in headlong retreat. Mark McKay reports
IN the early morning of August 23, 1914, British and German cavalry patrols exchanged a volley of rifle fire just north of the Belgian town of Mons.
The day brought the first major clash for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War and the start of a 200-mile retreat to the River Marne, near Paris.
The march would test the discipline and endurance of the men in the 2nd OBLI to the limit if they were to stay one step ahead of their German pursuers.
Details of the battle and start of the retreat are included in the battalion’s war diary and regimental chronicle.
Within 10 days of Britain declaring war on Germany, the 2nd OBLI had disembarked on the Continent to support their French allies.
The unit was part of 5th Brigade, 2nd Division, 1st Army Corps of the BEF under the leadership of Field Marshal Sir John French.
From their disembarkation point in Boulogne, the 2nd OBLI were sent to the BEF’s concentration area near the fortified town of Maubeuge on the Franco-Belgian border.
Here, they were to attach themselves to the French forces to the south-east and move into Belgium.
The move was set out in The War Book – a catalogue of instructions to follow in different scenarios should Britain find itself at war.
On August 22 – the day before the Battle of Mons – the 2nd OBLI marched 15 miles across France from Las Groise to Pont-Sur-Sambre.
The next day they marched from 3.30am across the Belgian frontier towards Genly.
Little did they know at the time, but their positions would be the anvil to the oncoming hammer of the German First Army which had been advancing through Belgium with ruthless tenacity since the war’s opening week.
From 9am on August 23, German artillery started shelling British positions along the Mons-Conde canal, north of where the 2nd OBLI were positioned.
The first German attacks were repulsed with heavy losses. The regulars and reservists of the BEF were trained to fire at least 15 aimed rounds per minute from their short magazine Lee Enfield rifle – though many could double this.
The cavalry resting during the retreat
As well trained as they were, German pressure began to tell and by early afternoon some British units began to pull back as canal crossings were forged.
While the German assault was developing at Mons, the 2 OBLI were ordered to march again at 5pm to the east of Bougnies. Here they were ordered to dig trenches to cover the retreat. This order was then cancelled and by 9pm they were on the march again – though not in the direction many would have hoped.
By the day’s end the BEF had suffered about 1,500 casualties.
Though question marks hang over claims of German losses reaching 5,000 men, there is no doubt the BEF soldiers had acquitted themselves well in their first taste of battle.
The 2nd OBLI were kept in reserve while the British High Command hoped to hold the line and strengthen the positions overnight.
But these plans were scuppered when news arrived that the French Fifth Army on their right would start a general retreat from 3am on August 24. News then filtered through that large columns of German forces had broken through to the BEF’s south and threatened to cut the British off from the French.
There was nothing for it but for Sir John French to order his men to fall back and hope to re-establish contact with their allies further west – for the 2nd OBLI it would be a case of retreat and rearguard for almost 200 miles to the River Marne. The men of the OBLI received their orders to fall back at 5am on August 24.
According to the battalion war diary, the unit suffered its first casualty this day when it was asked to cover the retirement of the Worcester Regiment and Highland Light Infantry from Paturages, in Belgium.
The entry in the diary reads: “This retirement was carried out under shell fire with the loss of a few men.
“The German infantry did not follow up and after these two battalions had passed through we were able to retire without molestation except by a few badly aimed shells.”
The 2nd OBLI then started to fall back. By 5pm its men had marched about 10 miles south west before sheltering in a field near Bavai across the French border in the Foret de Mormal.
The unit’s first casualty was Private W Hancox, of D Company, who was reported missing. The retreat continued on the 25th with the 2nd OBLI falling back nine miles and another 15 miles on the 26th.
The BEF fought another, though more costly, battle at Le Cateau where men in the Royal Field Artillery fired shrapnel over open sites into German columns advancing over open county.
The day would end with British losses of about 8,000 men and 38 valuable field guns – though some were rescued when crews limbered up in full view of the German guns before fleeing under a barrage of artillery and small-arms fire.
Again the 2nd OBLI was away from the frontline, marching 15 miles from Aunoye to Barzy while the fighting at Le Cateau could possibly be heard 15 miles to the west.
During August 27 and 28 the OBLI would cover 42 miles. But the men – though their throats parched with thirst – would not waiver, such was their discipline and training.
By August 29 Sir John French was largely free from the anxiety of the Germans enveloping an open flank and encircling his vulnerable force.
Though the 2nd OBLI, along with the BEF, would continue to fall back until the first week of September the gravest threat had largely passed.
The time had now arrived for the Allies to strike back against the Germans. This counter blow would be made astride the banks of a river to the north east of Paris, in a move that became known as ‘the miracle on the Marne’.
Next week read how the 2nd OBLI got its first taste of trench warfare on the slopes of the Chemin des Dames, overlooking the River Aisne.
Force maintained its good morale
THOUGH the Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry were away from the frontline in the first battles, the unit made its mark during the retreat to the River Marne.
After the British Expeditionary Force’s first battle at Mons on August 23, the 2nd OBLI acted as the rearguard covering the BEF’s retreat which lasted until early September.
Vicki Wood, education officer at the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, with the war diary of the 2nd Battalion Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry
Education outreach officer at Woodstock’s Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum, Vicki Wood, said it was during this period the men of the 2nd OBLI proved their worth.
She said: “At the Battle of Mons they were held in reserve, but really came in to their own during the tactical withdrawal of the British Expeditionary Force. The men were initially ordered to cover the retreat of units in front of them.
“This entailed digging entrenched positions not far from Mons to act as a rearguard for the retreat.
“This they bravely did, until ordered to join the retreat in searing heat and great discomfort.”
The 2nd OBLI were spared the action at Le Cateau on August 26. Instead they continued what Ms Wood described as their “courageous march”.
She said: “The physical hardships were bad enough, but retreating was also potentially hard, mentally, for fighting men. The 2nd OBLI acquitted itself excellently during this testing time, maintaining good order and morale throughout.”
One soldier's personal account of endurance
THOUGH some were almost crippled with fatigue, the men of the 2nd Oxfordshire & Buckinghamshire Light Infantry marched with an iron discipline.
Among those who felt the strain was D Company commander, Major Guy Blewitt, who kept a diary during the retreat.
On August 24, the day after the Battle of Mons, he recounted the unit’s retreat to the French town of Bavai, on the Franco-Belgian border.
It paints a picture of the chaos and confusion during the testing August days of 1914.
Major Blewitt's personal diary
The entry reads: “I have never been so tired as in the last 46 hours, I had no sleep, covered 40 miles besides having the anxiety of rearguard.
“At nearing Bavai it was evident that things were serious.
“The road being packed, cavalry with their horses, cavalry men who had lost their horses, ambulance wagons, refugees, bicycles, perambulators, guns, infantry in fours, infantry men who had lost their units and infantrymen whose units didn’t know where they were required and were sleeping by the side of the road.
“The cobbles of Bavai and its vicinity made one’s feet sorer and we were very glad to be turned into a stubble field to bivouac.
“Here, fires were soon burning and we got some food to eat and straw to sleep on.”
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