“The regulars mowed down these exposed Germans with accurate rifle, machine gun and artillery fire, with the Hun believing batteries of machine guns faced them as the rifle fire was so accurate.”
Shortly after the outbreak of war in the early days of August 1914, Great Britain mobilised its Regular Army and ferried it across to France. This collection of units was called “The British Expeditionary Force”, or BEF. It numbered 160,000 all ranks – very small compared to the vast conscript armies of Europe and amongst its Battalions was the First Battalion South Wales Borderers. I have chosen this battalion to follow in order that we can watch their progress throughout the war.
The 1st SWB had been very busy over the years. After reforms the 24th of Foot had become the South Wales Borderers on 1 July 1881, with the regimental depot in Brecon since 1873. They had seen service in Egypt, Gibraltar and India, before being posted back to Aldershot Garrison in 1910 and, on the outbreak of the First World War, were one of the first battalions to be deployed. First Battalion The South Wales Borderers paraded at Bordon and set sail for France, arriving at Le Havre on 13th August 1914.
They formed up as part of the 3rd Infantry Brigade within the 1st Infantry Division. Also within the Brigade were;:
1st Battalion The Gloucester Regiment
2nd Battalion The Welsh Regiment
2nd Battalion The Royal Munster Fusiliers
Attached for certain periods were;
1/6th Battalion The Welsh Regiment
1/4th Denbighshire Battalion, The Royal Welch Fusiliers
1/9th Battalion, the Kings (Liverpool) Regiment
The term “British Expeditionary Force”, applied in the Great War, tends to apply to all the regular units first deployed and present on The Western Front, up to and including The First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, though “BEF” seems to have been applied throughout the conflict for all British troops.
It was so called (the BEF) since the Haldane Reforms following the 2nd Boer War that had ended back in 1902. Expeditionary warfare was the way forward back then, the Empire was well versed in sending its soldiers off to battle and had formed an army capable of expeditionary operations.
These soldiers were all regular, professional soldiers having seen active service in The Boer War and India amongst others. Newly landed in France, they became known as “The Contemptibles” after it was reported that Kaiser Wilhelm The Second gave orders to “exterminate first, the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army”. Therefore, those regulars who fought through that period were nicknamed “The Contemtibles” as a slight to the Kaiser.
After the hurried deployment overseas the BEF soon found itself outgunned and outnumbered. The Germans in their sweep to Paris to quickly knock France out of the war were simply too numerous, withdrawal and defend became the order of the day until the Germans were held in check. By the end of 1914, after only roughly four months of combat, the old British regular army was virtually wiped out. The Contemptibles suffered massive casualties but they had bloodied the German nose and stopped the advance.
The call went out across Britain to “Join Up and Serve!” along with cries of “Your Country Needs You!” The new army formation, soon called “The Kitchener’s”, was made up of Territorials and new enlistments who had flooded to the recruitment offices to sign up.
The 1st Battalion South Wales Borderers fought through the main battles as part of the BEF in this first year, seeing action in Mons, Marne, Aisne and Ypres amongst others – names forever since being emblazoned on the colours as Battle Honours.
Those old regular soldiers still standing at the War’s end became known as “The Old Contemptibles”.
The British Expeditionary Force fought its first major battle at the Belgian town of Mons, not far over the border with France. Battle flared all along the advancing German front line in a bid to hold and stop the German rapid advance. The British, with the French army on the right hand side attempted to hold the line along the Mons to Conde Canal, with strong points at the bridge crossings.
The first contact between the two armies happened near Obourg when a British Cyclist Recce Unit came upon some Germans. Private John Parr was killed and became the first British fatality of the many, many thousands that would occur during the War.
Things were still primitive in these early days, bikes and horses were very much in full use on both sides, as was brightly covered uniform!
The German artillery opened the battle with a barrage at dawn on the 23rd of August, a mere eighteen days into the war and at 09:00 the huge assault began. Defenses were strong at the four bridges across the canal, many German battalions were sent in to clear them, advancing towards the British in “Parade Ground Order”!!
The regulars mowed down these exposed Germans with accurate rifle, machine gun and artillery fire, with the Hun believing batteries of machine guns faced them as the rifle fire was so accurate. The success was however short lived, as by sheer weight of numbers the approaching Germans spread out and poured into the defenses.
On one bridge, Lieutenant Dease won the Victoria Cross for his actions. After every man in his section had been killed or wounded he manned the machine gun post, being shot several times until his evacuation after a fifth wound. He died in the Aid Station.
The inevitable happened though and the BEF was forced to retreat after the Germans pushed through on the French side and the sudden French retreat dangerously left the right flank exposed. A tactical withdrawal was put into place; units disengaged and withdrew, though many were withdrawing under full contact with the advancing enemy troops.
At times the situation got desperate and, by darkness the following day, after retreating in good order to the fallback defensive lines near the Valenciennes to Maubeuge Road but, with the French continuing to retreat, they had no choice but to abandon the new positions and carry on the withdrawal. The retreat continued over four hundred kilometres with the Germans in close pursuit causing chaos, whole units disappeared and more guns were captured since the losses during the American War of Independence.
It is worth mentioning here the action fought at Le Cateau.
The two Corps making up the BEF had become separated in the withdrawal. They had planned to reunite after the pull out at Le Cateau but Haig’s 1 Corps were nowhere to be seen. 2 Corps, under Smith – Dorrien decided to establish a defensive position and hold as his troops were exhausted and need a period of organised stability. The Germans caught up and attacked heavily on the 26th August.
For the second time that week the professional British soldiers caused massive casualties with accurate, sustained rifle fire against the German attackers. However, also for the second time in a week, the German numbers began to count. They swept either flank aside and began to encircle the British troops, only to be suddenly reprieved by a French counter-attack by Cavalry on the British left flank
The BEF and French consolidated on the outskirts of Paris along the River Marne, before the next stage of the War started.
So the first units had been bloodied in the first battle and the hold out against overwhelming German strength went down in folklore.
The small “contemptible little army” caused casualties far outweighing its size, but it had suffered greatly and would need reinforcements before facing the Hun again.