Battle of Le Cateau
|Battle of Le Cateau|
|Part of the Great Retreat on the Western Front of the First World War|
British dead at the Battle of Le Cateau.
|Commanders and leaders|
Friedrich Bertram Sixt von Armin|
Georg von der Marwitz
|Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien|
Höhere Kavallerie-Kommando 2
23 infantry battalions|
18 cavalry regiments (9 at half strength)
6 divisional cavalry squadrons
162 guns (27 batteries)
40 infantry battalions|
12 cavalry regiments
2 divisional cavalry squadrons
246 guns (41 batteries)
c. 80 machine-guns
|Casualties and losses|
7,812 (700 killed, 2,600 captured)|
The Battle of Le Cateau was fought on 26 August 1914, after the British and French retreated from the Battle of Mons and had set up defensive positions in a fighting withdrawal against the German advance at Le Cateau-Cambrésis. Although the Germans were victorious, the rearguard action was successful in that it allowed the majority of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to escape to Saint-Quentin.
On the morning of 26 August, the Germans arrived and attacked II Corps (General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien). Unlike the Battle of Mons, where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was an artilleryman's battle, demonstrating the devastating results which modern quick-firing artillery using shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open. The British deployed their artillery in the open, about 50–200 metres (55–219 yd) behind their infantry, while the German artillery used indirect fire from concealed positions. With the guns so close to their infantry, the British had unintentionally increased the effectiveness of the German artillery-fire, because shells aimed at the British infantry could just as easily hit the British artillery.
The British 5th Division was positioned on the right flank, on the southern side of the Le Cateau–Cambrai road between Inchy and Le Cateau. The 3rd Division was in the centre, holding the ground between Caudry and Inchy. The 4th Division was on the left flank, on the northern bank of the Warnelle. This was a poor choice of terrain on the part of the British, because the road was sunken in places, providing inadequate long-range firing positions. In fact, in most cases, the Germans could march close up to the British positions, which is what they often did. This was especially true at the weakest point in the British line, the right flank west of Le Cateau, where the Germans simply marched straight down the road from the north, all the way to Le Cateau. The British position was on the forward slope and consequently, casualties were heavy during the withdrawal.
At 03:30, Smith-Dorrien decided to "strike the enemy hard and after he had done so, continue the retreat". The purpose of the operation was unclear to his subordinates. A "hold at all costs" mentality was evident in the 5th Division on the British right flank. The commander of the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, was given a written order that "There will now be NO retirement for the fighting troops; fill up your trenches, with water, food and ammunition as far as you can." The order was confirmed by a colonel from the II Corps staff, who, upon arriving, repeated it.
Smith-Dorrien's delaying operation never occurred because the order to defend arrived at the front line about the same time the Germans did, sometimes later. Nor were the conditions of a doctrinal delay observed, such as refusing to let British units become decisively engaged with the enemy. He did not choose positions with adequate fields-of-fire and with prepared and hidden routes of withdrawal.
According to the German official history, the IV Corps commander, Sixt von Armin, issued an order at 11:15 that turned the regimental- and brigade-level fights into a centrally coordinated battle, but there is no evidence of German command and control above the divisional level. Seventy-five percent of IV Corps troops were in contact before they received this order and the rest never made it to the battlefield. The IV Corps commander did not control the other half of the German forces, II Cavalry Corps, which fought independently.
Holding their ground despite many casualties, the British right and then the left flank began to break around midday, under unrelenting pressure from the Germans. The arrival of the Cavalry Corps (General André Sordet) acted as a shield for the British left flank and supported a highly co-ordinated tactical withdrawal, despite German attempts to infiltrate and outflank the retreating British forces.
That night, the Allies withdrew to Saint-Quentin. Of the 40,000 British troops fighting at Le Cateau, 7,812 British casualties were incurred, including 2,600 taken prisoner. Thirty-eight guns were abandoned, most having their breech blocks removed and sights disabled by the gunners first.
II Corps retreated on the morning of 27 August and in two days of marching, broke contact with the Germans. Having lost 7,000 of its infantry at Le Cateau and 2,500–3,000 footsore and exhausted men who had to be evacuated to Le Mans for recuperation, II Corps was not battleworthy for at least two days. Although credited at the time by Field Marshal Sir John French for having saved the BEF, Smith-Dorrien was later criticized for his decision to stand at Le Cateau by French. German losses were 2,900 men.
The Germans were pleased with their victory. The historian of Infantry Regiment 93 wrote
The battle of Beaumont-Inchy will always be one of the most glorious days in the history of the regiment, which demonstrated that in a frontal attack against an enemy that was heretofore considered unbeatable, the crack troops of the British Army, the 93rd was not merely their equal, it was superior." 75th Field Artillery Regiment said that the battle "strengthened the self-confidence of the German troops … all the more so because the British army was made up almost exclusively of long-service active army troops, who were superbly trained and equipped.— Historian, IR 93
German pleasure with the victory in part arose from a mistaken belief that they had defeated the entirety of the BEF, not knowing that they had in fact only faced one corps and one of the cavalry brigades. It was this mistake which allowed II Corps to retire as German troops were given a night of rest instead of being sent to pursue the British forces.
A second battle of Le Cateau took place in much the same area from 5 to 11 October 1918. The Allies captured the St. Quentin-Cambrai railway, 12,000 prisoners and 250 guns, but suffered 536 casualties.
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