After a two day retreat after the Batlle of Mons, Smith Dorrien's troops were exhausted and despite the order of BEF's ...
The aim of the German Army was to take possession of Paris. To do it, they needed to pass through Luxembourg, Belgium and the North of France. From August 20 to 24, a battle occurred in Mons which opposed Germans, French, English and Belgians: it is called the Battle of the Borders. It was the first clash with the enemy. The German Army led by Von Kluck had to surround the English Army but they missed their objective. On August 23, an order came from Field Marshal FRENCH to withdraw to Saint Quentin without stop.
While the 2nd Corps of Smith Dorrien and the Haig’s 1st Corps retreated, they were separated by the Mormal forest. Field Marshal French, the British Expeditionary Forces’ Commander-in-Chief, ordered to continue the retreat but the army was pursued by the 1st German army. Smith Dorrien first agreed to continue the retreat but, seeing the greatly fatigued condition of his troops, he decided to stop it at Le Cateau and to fight against the pursuing army.
At 02:00, on August 26th 1914, orders are given by the 2nd Corps Divisional Commander: engage the enemy and then retire.
At 05:00, the Great Headquarter at Saint Quentin was informed of the situation and phoned to advise Smith Dorrien to retire but it was too late. The battle was engaged. The 1st Corps was informed before the 2nd Corps and it was already gone. The retirement of the 1st Corps to South instead of the South-West opened a gap on the right of the British lines and the gap was to go widening.
The battle was unequal between the artilleries. Since the Battle of Mons, Germans understood that if they attacked in deep masses, they had no chance to win. So they decided to bombard English positions. German army concentrated on the 5th Division on the right during the morning. British losses amounted to 200 men.
At 06:00, the right-side companies tried to contact the 1st Corps in retreat. They were surprised by the German 4th Corps which crossed Le Cateau while there was fog. 200 men died. Germans controlled all the surrounding hills and they had a good position to encircle the English army. However, they did not manage to go through it. Only 42 cannons and a howitzer battery prevented the German advance. Until the end of the morning, Corps at the right side (Suffolks, Manchesters and Argylls) suffered heavy losses.
At 1:30 p.m., Smith Dorrien ordered the retirement whereas the situation at the right side became increasingly precarious. The retirement had to be done from right to left. The 5th Division was the first to retire. 2nd regiment King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 2nd Suffolk did not receive the order and would be surrounded. The situation would repeat for some units.
At 7:00 p.m., Smith Dorrien’s soldiers noticed that Von kluck’s artillery continued to bombard the deserted positions.
Von kluck ordered to pursue the English army but he gave the wrong advice to his troops. It was a 2nd defeat for Von kluck.
In the evening, when German troops stopped the pursue, the retreat was easier. What remains of the 2nd Corps was gathered North-West of Saint Quentin.
The Battle of Le Cateau was a success for the British army as it slowed the German advance to Paris. Losses were high to both sides, including 7,812 British casualties. The German forces suffered losses not only in manpower but in further delaying their planned advance on Paris.
It was also a success because it allowed the French armies regrouping for the Battle of la Marne from September 6th to 9th 1914.