Our retreat had been solitary. The French, everybody thought, had left us in the lurch at Mons and again at Le Cateau, when the cavalry we knew to be there refused to help us. For all we knew the French Army had been swept off the face of the earth. We were just retiring, and retiring before three or four times our own numbers. We were not even supported by the 1st Corps on our right. It was smashed, and had all it could do to get itself away. We might have been the Ten Thousand.
But the isolation of our desperate retreat dismayed nobody, for we all had an unconquerable belief in the future. There must be some French somewhere, and in spite—as we thought then—of our better judgments, we stuck to the story that was ever being circulated: “We are luring the Germans into a trap.” It was impressed upon us, too, by “the Div.” that both at Mons and Le Cateau we were strategically victorious. We had given the Germans so hard a knock that they could not pursue us at once; we had covered the retirement of the 1st Corps; we had got away successfully ourselves. We were sullen and tired victors, never defeated. If we retreated, it was for a purpose. If we advanced, the Germans were being crushed.
The Germans thought we were beaten, because they didn’t realise we knew we were victorious the whole time.
I do not say that we were always monotonously cheerful. The night after Le Cateau we all thought the game was up,—until the morning, when cheerfulness came with the sun. Then we sighed with relief and remembered a little bitterly that we were “luring the Germans on.”
Many a time I have come across isolated units in hot corners who did not see a way out. Yet if a battery or a battalion were hard hit, the realisation of local defeat was always accompanied by a fervent faith that “the old Fifth” was doing well. Le Cateau is a victory in the soldier’s calendar.
Le Cateau and La Bassee,
It jolly well serves them right.
We had been ten days or more on the Aisne before we grasped that the force opposite us was not merely a dogged, well-entrenched rearguard, but a section of the German line.
Soon after we arrived a French cavalry officer had ridden into D.H.Q., and after his departure it was freely rumoured that he had ridden right round the German position. News began to trickle in from either flank. Our own attacks ceased, and we took up a defensive position. It was the beginning of trench-warfare, though owing to the nature of the country there were few trenches. Then we heard vaguely that the famous series of enveloping movements had begun, but by this time the Division was tired to death, and the men were craving for a rest.
Strategy in the ranks—it was elementary stuff pieced vaguely together. But perhaps it will interest you at home to know what we thought out here on this great little stage. What we did you have heard. Still, here is the play as we acted in it.