Military Wiki
Great Retreat
Part of the Western Front of World War I
File:British casualties at Le Cateaua.jpg
British dead at Le Cateau.
Date24 August – 28 September 1914
LocationFrom Mons, Belgium to River Marne, France
Result Allied forces fall back to the river Marne
United Kingdom United Kingdom
German Empire German Empire
Commanders and leaders
Joseph Joffre
United Kingdom John French
German Empire Helmuth von Moltke

The Great Retreat, also known as the Retreat from Mons, is the name given to the long, fighting retreat by Allied forces to the River Marne, on the Western Front early in World War I, after their holding action against the Imperial German Armies at the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914. The Allies were closely pursued by the Germans, acting under the Schlieffen Plan.

Le Cateau

The Allies retreated from Mons, past Maubeuge (which fell to the Germans on 7 September after a successful siege), and the British troops were supposed to meet at the town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis (usually referred to as just Le Cateau). However, I Corps under Douglas Haig did not reach Le Cateau, getting no nearer than Landrecies. Thus a gap of some miles was opened up between I and II Corps. Several days were to pass before the two corps were reunited.

On the evening of 25 August, British II Corps commander General Horace Smith-Dorrien was faced with the prospect that, if his exhausted troops continued to retreat, they would be enveloped in a piecemeal fashion. He therefore ordered his corps to stand and fight to deliver a 'stopping blow' to the Germans. The Allies set up defensive positions near the town and prepared for the inevitable attack. As Haig's I Corps had not arrived, Smith-Dorrien's right flank was 'in the air' (unprotected). On the morning of the 26th, the Germans launched a heavy assault on the British positions, and the Battle of Le Cateau began. The four British divisions were attacked by six German ones. Using similar tactics to those used at Mons the British regulars were able to hold their own; rapid rifle and artillery fire inflicted heavy losses on the advancing Germans. However, when two more German divisions joined the battle, II Corps came close to defeat. By the afternoon, both British flanks began to break and the order to withdraw was given. Envelopment was prevented by the arrival of General Sordet’s French Cavalry Corps on the British left.[1]

Smith-Dorrien's decision to turn and fight the Germans at Le Cateau was vindicated. The Germans suffered heavy casualties and another delay was imposed on their timetable, also Haig's I Corps was able to break away from the Germans. However, the disagreement between Sir John French (who had opposed the action) and Smith-Dorrien was to have consequences in the coming months.[2] Of the 40,000 Allied troops fighting at Le Cateau, 7,812 were killed, captured or wounded. Many British units had disappeared from the rolls altogether. About 2,600 men became prisoners of war, although in one extravagant German account[which?] it is suggested that 12,000 prisoners had been taken. Thirty eight British artillery guns were also lost.[citation needed]

Some senior British losses at Le Cateau were Lt-Col Charles Brett, CO 2nd Suffolks, Lt-Col Alfred Dykes, CO 1st King's Own, and Lt-Col Edward Panter-Downes, CO 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, who were all killed in action. Although none of the men have a known grave, all are commemorated on the La Ferté-sous-Jouarre memorial to the missing. As the retreat continued south towards Paris, there were a number of small but vigorous holding actions by various units of the British rearguard:[2]

  • Le Grand Fayt, 26 August
  • Etreux, 27 August
  • Cerizy (Moÿ-de-l'Aisne), 28 August
  • Action at Néry, 1 September
  • Crepy-en-Valois, 1 September
  • Villers-Cotterets, 1 September

St. Quentin

With retreat all long the line, the commander-in-chief of the French forces, Joseph Joffre, held off the German advance through counterattacking. This was only done with the help of the Fifth Army under Charles Lanrezac.

The BEF was also involved, although not in a way one might expect. A cavalry officer, Major Tom Bridges, on riding into the town, was horrified to learn of the near disintegration of units in the British 4th Division. Exhausted men were sleeping in the streets of St. Quentin; officers had escaped by train to Paris. With such an air of defeat in the town, Bridges decided that something must be done and came up with the notion of music. Lacking a band, he went to a toyshop and bought a drum and a penny whistle. Giving the whistle to his trumpeter, he proceeded to the town square and beat out the time for 'The British Grenadiers', while the trumpeter accompanied him. The watching soldiers, while thinking him mad, formed up and continued the retreat.[3]

On 29 August, the French Fifth Army attacked St. Quentin with its full force. Possessing orders captured with a French officer, Bülow was already aware of the counter-offensive and had time to prepare. The attacks against the town by the eighteenth corps met with heavy casualties and little success, but the tenth and third corps on the right flank was rallied by the commander of the first corps, Franchet d'Esperey. Advances on the right were made successfully against the Germans with Guise falling back, in addition to units of the Guard Corps and Bülow's elite.

The next day, the French continued the retreat back to the Marne, with the Germans refraining from following.

British troops retreating.

The Marne

The Allied retreat finally ended at the River Marne where they prepared to make a stand to defend Paris. This led to the First Battle of the Marne, which was fought from 5 to 12 September 1914. This battle would prove to be a major turning point of the war by denying the Germans an early victory.

Field Marshal John French, commander of the British Expeditionary Force, began to make contingency plans for a full retreat to the ports on the English Channel followed by an immediate British evacuation. The French Military Governor of Paris, General Joseph Gallieni, was tasked with the defence of the city. He wanted to organise the French and British armies to counter the weight of the German advance. So, after consulting with Lord Kitchener, Gallieni managed to secure overall command of the BEF, and ordered Field Marshal French not to withdraw to the channel.

Gallieni's plan was a very simple one: All allied units would counter-attack the Germans along the Marne, hopefully halting their advance. As this was going on, allied reserves would be thrown in to restore the ranks and attack the German flanks. At noon on 5 September, the battle commenced when the French 6th Army, led by General Michel-Joseph Maunoury, accidentally stumbled into the forward guard of the German 1st Army under General Alexander von Kluck.

Opening of the Western Front in France, Belgium 1914

The British avoided joining the battle until von Kluck made a grave tactical error on 9 September 1914. Von Kluck commanded his forces to pursue and annihilate the French 6th Army as the latter retreated back towards the Marne. This command opened a 50 km gap between the German 1st and 2nd Armies on his right flank, a gap discovered by allied observation aircraft. The Allied forces quickly exploited this tactical error by attacking the flanks of both German armies, using the entire BEF as well as the French 5th Army.

German Chief of the General Staff Helmuth von Moltke suffered a nervous breakdown upon learning about the gravity of the error. His subordinates assumed command over the two flanked armies, which were withdrawn to regroup at the Aisne River. Von Moltke is said to have reported to the Kaiser: "Your Majesty, we have lost the war." The total British casualties amounted to 1,701 of all ranks, killed, wounded or missing between 6 September and 10 September. Some notable casualties for the British Army were Brig.-Gen. Neil Findlay, CRA 1st Division, who died as a result of wounds received on 10 September 1914 and is buried at Vailly British Cemetery and Lt-Col Guy Knight, OC 1st Loyal North Lancs. Knight died the next day and was buried at Priez Communal Cemetery.

The German retreat between 9 September and 13 September signaled the abandonment of the Schlieffen Plan. In the battle's aftermath, both sides dug in for trench warfare and four years of grueling stalemate ensued. The defeat of the German Army on the River Marne was decisive. Their war plan, to quickly overcome France before turning attentions to Russia, had come to nothing despite the enormous efforts expended. It has sometimes been argued that Germany could no longer win the war after their defeat on the Marne in 1914.

Around six hundred Paris taxicabs, mainly Renault AG, were commandeered by Gallieni and used to transport six thousand French reserve infantry troops from the seventh division[4] to the battle.

The tables were now turned with the Allies pursuing the retreating Germans. Their next major clash was to be the First Battle of the Aisne.

See also


  2. 2.0 2.1
  3. Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 213 & 214, Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  4. Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) p. 12 Guiness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0


  • Evans, M. M. (2004). Battles of World War I. Select Editions. ISBN 1-84193-226-4.
  • Jones, Nigel H, The War Walk, (1983), Robert Hale Ltd.
  • Brown, Malcolm, The Western Front, (1993), Sidgwick and Jackson.
  • Tuchman, Barbara W. (1962). The Guns of August. Ballantine Books- New York. ISBN 0-345-38623-X.
  • Isselin, Henri. The Battle of the Marne. London: Elek Books, 1965. (Translation of La Bataille de la Marne, published by Editions B. Arthaud, 1964.)
  • Perris, G. H. (1920). The Battle of the Marne. London: Methuen.

External links

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