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   Chapter 4 THE BATTLE OF LE CATEAU

Adventures of a Despatch Rider By William Henry Lowe Watson Characters: 12926

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


The principal thing about Le Cateau is that the soldiers pronounce it to rhyme with Waterloo-Leacatoo-and all firmly believe that if the French cavalry had come up to help us, as the Prussians came up at Waterloo, there would have been no Germans to fight against us now.

It was a cold misty morning when we awoke, but later the day was fine enough. We got up, had a cheery and exiguous breakfast to distant, intermittent firing, then did a little work on our bicycles. I spent an hour or so watching through glasses the dim movement of dull bodies of troops and shrapnel bursting vaguely on the horizon. Then we were all summoned to H.Q., which were stationed about a mile out from Reumont on the Le Cateau road. In front of us the road dipped sharply and rose again over the brow of a hill about two miles away. On this brow, stretching right and left of the road, there was a line of poplars. On the slope of the hill nearer to us there were two or three field batteries in action. To the right of us a brigade of artillery was limbered up ready to go anywhere. In the left, at the bottom of the dip the 108th was in action, partially covered by some sparse bushes. A few ambulance waggons and some miscellaneous first-line transport were drawn up along the side of the road at the bottom of the dip. To the N.W. we could see for about four miles over low, rolling fields. We could see nothing to the right, as our view was blocked by a cottage and some trees and hedges. On the roof of the cottage a wooden platform had been made. On it stood the General and his Chief of Staff and our Captain. Four telephone operators worked for their lives in pits breast-high, two on each side of the road. The Signal Clerk sat at a table behind the cottage, while round him, or near him, were the motor-cyclists and cyclists.

About the battle itself you know as much as I. We had wires out to all the brigades, and along them the news would come and orders would go. The -- are holding their position satisfactorily. Our flank is being turned. Should be very grateful for another battalion. We are under very heavy shell fire. Right through the battle I did not take a single message. Huggie took a despatch to the 13th, and returned under very heavy shrapnel fire, and for this was very properly mentioned in despatches.

How the battle fluctuated I cannot now remember. But I can still see those poplars almost hidden in the smoke of shrapnel. I can still hear the festive crash of the Heavies as they fired slowly, scientifically, and well. From 9 to 12.30 we remained there kicking our heels, feverishly calm, cracking the absurdest jokes. Then the word went round that on our left things were going very badly. Two battalions were hurried across, and then, of course, the attack developed even more fiercely on our right.

Wounded began to come through-none groaning, but just men with their eyes clenched and great crimson bandages.

An order was sent to the transport to clear back off the road. There was a momentary panic. The waggons came through at the gallop and with them some frightened foot-sloggers, hanging on and running for dear life. Wounded men from the firing line told us that the shrapnel was unbearable in the trenches.

A man came galloping up wildly from the Heavies. They had run out of fuses. Already we had sent urgent messages to the ammunition lorries, but the road was blocked and they could not get up to us. So Grimers was sent off with a haversack-mine-to fetch fuses and hurry up the lorries. How he got there and back in the time that he did, with the traffic that there was, I cannot even now understand.

It was now about two o'clock, and every moment the news that we heard grew worse and worse, while the wounded poured past us in a continuous stream. I gave my water-bottle to one man who was moaning for water. A horse came galloping along. Across the saddle-bow was a man with a bloody scrap of trouser instead of a leg, while the rider, who had been badly wounded in the arm, was swaying from side to side.

A quarter of an hour before the brigade on our right front had gone into action on the crest of the hill. Now they streamed back at the trot, all telling the tale-how, before they could even unlimber, shells had come crashing into them. The column was a lingering tragedy. There were teams with only a limber and without a gun. And you must see it to know what a twistedly pathetic thing a gun team and limber without a gun is. There were bits of teams and teams with only a couple of drivers. The faces of the men were awful. I smiled at one or two, but they shook their heads and turned away. One sergeant as he passed was muttering to himself, as if he were repeating something over and over again so as to learn it by rote-"My gun, my gun, my gun!"

At this moment an order came from some one for the motor-cyclists to retire to the farm where we had slept the night. The others went on with the crowd, but I could not start my engine. After trying for five minutes it seemed to me absurd to retreat, so I went back and found that apparently nobody had given the order. The other motor-cyclists returned one by one as soon as they could get clear, but most of them were carried on right past the farm.

A few minutes later there was a great screaming crash overhead-shrapnel. I ran to my bicycle and stood by waiting for orders.

The General suggested mildly that we might change our headquarters. There was a second crash. We all retired about 200 yards back up the road. There I went to the captain in the middle of the traffic and asked him what I should do. He told us to get out of it as we could not do anything more-"You have all done magnificently"-then he gave me some messages for our subaltern. I shouted, "So long, sir," and left him, not knowing whether I should ever see him again. I heard afterwards that he went back when all the operators had fled and tried to get into communication with our Army H.Q.

Just as I had started up my engine another shell burst about 100 yards to the left, and a moment later a big waggon drawn by two maddened horses came dashing down into the main street. They could not turn, so went straight into the wall of a house opposite. There was a dull crash and a squirming heap piled up at the edge of the road.

I pushed through the traffic a little and came upon a captain and a subaltern making their way desperately back. I do not know

who they were, but I heard a scrap of what they said-

"We must get back for it," said the captain.

"We shall never return," replied the subaltern gravely.

"It doesn't matter," said the captain.

"It doesn't matter," echoed the subaltern.

But I do not think the gun could have been saved.

About six of us collected in a little bunch at the side of the road. On our left we saw a line of infantry running. The road itself was impassable. So we determined to strike off to the right. I led the way, and though we had not the remotest conception whether we should meet British or German, we eventually found our way to 2nd Corps H.Q.

I have only a dim remembrance of what happened there. I went into the signal-office and reported that, so far as I knew, the 5th Division was in flight along the Reumont-Saint-Quentin road.

The sergeant in charge of the 2nd Corps Motor-cyclists offered us some hard-boiled eggs and put me in charge of our lot. Then off we went, and hitting the main road just ahead of our muddled column, halted at the desolate little village of Estrées.

It now began to rain.

Soon the column came pouring past, so miserably and so slowly,-lorries, transport, guns, limbers, small batches of infantrymen, crowds of stragglers. All were cursing the French, for right through the battle we had expected the French to come up on our right wing. There had been a whole corps of cavalry a few miles away, but in reply to our urgent request for help their general had reported that his horses were too tired. How we cursed them and cursed them.

After a weary hour's wait our subaltern came up, and, at my request, sent me to look for the captain. I found him about two miles this side of Reumont, endeavouring vainly to make some sort of ordered procession out of the almost comically patchwork medley. Later I heard that the last four hundred yards of the column had been shelled to destruction as it was leaving Reumont, and a tale is told-probably without truth-of an officer shooting the driver of the leading motor-lorry in a hopeless endeavour to get some ammunition into the firing line.

I scooted back and told the others that our captain was still alive, and a little later we pushed off into the flood. It was now getting dark, and the rain, which had held off for a little, was pouring down.

Finally, we halted at a tiny cottage, and the Signal Company outspanned.

We tried to make ourselves comfortable in the wet by hiding under damp straw and putting on all available bits of clothing. But soon we were all soaked to the skin, and it was so dark that horses wandered perilously near. One hungry mare started eating the straw that was covering my chest. That was enough. Desperately we got up to look round for some shelter, and George, our champion "scrounger," discovered a chicken-house. It is true there were nineteen fowls in it. They died a silent and, I hope, a painless death.

The order came round that the motor-cyclists were to spend the night at the cottage-the roads were utterly and hopelessly impassable-while the rest of the company was to go on. So we presented the company with a few fowls and investigated the cottage.

It was a startling place. In one bedroom was a lunatic hag with some food by her side. We left her severely alone. Poor soul, we could not move her! In the kitchen we discovered coffee, sugar, salt, and onions. With the aid of our old Post Sergeant we plucked some of the chickens and put on a great stew. I made a huge basin full of coffee.

The others, dead tired, went to sleep in a wee loft. I could not sleep. I was always seeing those wounded men passing, passing, and in my ear-like the maddening refrain of a musical comedy ditty-there was always murmuring-"We shall never return. It doesn't matter." Outside was the clink and clatter of the column, the pitiful curses of tired men, the groaning roar of the motor-lorries as they toiled up the slope.

Then the Staff began to wander in one by one-on foot, exhausted and bedraggled. They loved the coffee, but only played with the chicken-I admit it was tough. They thought all was lost and the General killed. One murmured to another: "Magersfontein, Dour, and this-you've had some successful battles." And one went to sleep, but kept starting up, and giving a sort of strangled shout-"All gone! All gone!" When each had rested awhile he would ask gently for a little more coffee, rub his eyes, and disappear into the column to tramp through the night to Saint Quentin. It was the purest melodrama.

And I, too tired to sleep, too excited to think, sat sipping thick coffee the whole night through, while the things that were happening soaked into me like petrol into a rag. About two hours before dawn I pulled myself together and climbed into the loft for forty minutes' broken slumber.

An hour before dawn we wearily dressed. The others devoured cold stew, and immediately there was the faintest glimmering of light we went outside. The column was still passing,-such haggard, broken men! The others started off, but for some little time I could not get my engine to fire. Then I got going. Quarter of a mile back I came upon a little detachment of the Worcesters marching in perfect order, with a cheery subaltern at their head. He shouted a greeting in passing. It was Urwick, a friend of mine at Oxford.

I cut across country, running into some of our cavalry on the way. It was just light enough for me to see properly when my engine jibbed. I cleaned a choked petrol pipe, lit a briar-never have I tasted anything so good-and pressed on.

Very bitter I felt, and when nearing Saint Quentin, some French soldiers got in my way, I cursed them in French, then in German, and finally in good round English oaths for cowards, and I know not what. They looked very startled and recoiled into the ditch. I must have looked alarming-a gaunt, dirty, unshaven figure towering above my motor-cycle, without hat, bespattered with mud, and eyes bright and weary for want of sleep. How I hated the French! I hated them because, as I then thought, they had deserted us at Mons and again at Le Cateau; I hated them because they had the privilege of seeing the British Army in confused retreat; I hated them because their roads were very nearly as bad as the roads of the Belgians. So, wet, miserable, and angry, I came into Saint Quentin just as the sun was beginning to shine a little.

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