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Hello - as a spin-off from another thread the subject of Le Cateau has become an area of increasing interest. My perception (and this may be ill-informed) is that Le Cateau 1914 has largely been depicted as a tactical success for the British by military historians. Having now read a fair amount of the raw material my overriding impression is that Le Cateau was far from the success that it has been depicted. In particular, aspects of the execution of the disengagement phase went disastrously badly for a number of units. It set me thinking that perhaps our understanding of this episode has been too heavily influenced by the legacy of the propaganda at the time - dressing up what was essentially a desperately ill-organised rearguard action as a major success. This seems to have been further exacerbated by the rather unbalanced version of events propagated by Edmonds and the British OH: France and Belgium 1914 Vol I.

I will revert with some detailed thoughts later this week but I thought I might put down a marker in case anyone had similar or conflicting views that they might like to share. MG

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Martin

You are already cheerfully eviscerating all my dearly held beliefs about the Christmas Truce on another thread and now you are turning your guns on one of my favourite battles and it's general.

Next you'll be telling me the Worcesters' counterattack at Gheluvelt was in fact a cake walk, if it happened at all! (Please don't! Spare at least one of my beleaguered illusions about the BEF in 1914)

David

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Martin

You are already cheerfully eviscerating all my dearly held beliefs about the Christmas Truce on another thread and now you are turning your guns on one of my favourite battles and it's general.

Next you'll be telling me the Worcesters' counterattack at Gheluvelt was in fact a cake walk, if it happened at all! (Please don't! Spare at least one of my beleaguered illusions about the BEF in 1914)

David

The other thread got me thinking that maybe I should read that new book. Like you, I am worried that my views on Le Cateau and Smith-Dorien are about to experience a sea change. S.D.is the guy whom I always felt should have been Commander in Chief!!!

Hazel

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Martin, feel free to go against the grain, i'm loving your detailed look at things.

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Le Cateau was supposed to have given the Germans a " bloody nose" .

it was also fought on the anniversary of Crecy.

It lends itself to the folklore tradition of gallant British Army defensive stands against a vastly superior foe.

There were suggestions - endorsed by the BOH - that the Germans werer slaughtered in their thousands by the legendary British musketry.

The most recent research indicates that about three thousand Germans were killed or wounded in the battle.

British casualties have been officially placed at 7,812, of whom a very large proportion were prisoners. This figure has now been called into question.....a research into the best database reveals that only about seven hundred British troops were killed that day, which suggests that in terms of bloodshed the battle was more or less a draw : it was the heavy British loss in prisoners that made the big difference.

British artillery deployment was fatally flawed, with guns firing from exposed positions which were dreadfully punished.

It was a defeat for the British, rendered honourable and inspirational in folklore as an example of guts and gumption by a beleaguered and gallant band of brothers.

Bernard Law Montgomery, who fought there, would cite it as a prime example of what he liked to describe as " a dog's breakfast".

Phil (PJA)

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Bernard Law Montgomery, who fought there, would cite it as a prime example of what he liked to describe as " a dog's breakfast".

Phil (PJA)

They're all a "dog's breakfast" ? Including Arnhem?

As Holmes said " It is important to consider how many officers and men would have been lost had the retreat been continued without striking a blow, with an enemy fresh, greatly superior in numbers, and unshaken by gun and rifle fire, at the heels of the weary, footsore men of the 2nd Army Corps."

But I'm a wee bit oot o' ma depth here. :whistle:

Mike

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You are already cheerfully eviscerating all my dearly held beliefs about the Christmas Truce on another thread and now you are turning your guns on one of my favourite battles and it's general.

Next you'll be telling me the Worcesters' counterattack at Gheluvelt was in fact a cake walk, if it happened at all! (Please don't! Spare at least one of my beleaguered illusions about the BEF in 1914)

David. I can assure you there is no agenda to prove or disprove anything. :)

It is simply analysis of the available information. I suspect in the digital age as our access to more material increases and our ability to manipulate (in a good sense) compare and process archive material, we will continue to re-assess events of the past. For the best part of 50 years most authors were not even equipped to challenge the OH version of events as the raw material was locked up. Even after 1967 when the archives were declassified and released to the public on the (new) 50 -year rule, access was limited to those who could afford the time and money to get to the (then) PRO and later TNA. Even then, our ability to gather process and analyse the vast quantities of info was limited.

Thankfully these barriers are slowly being dismantled and I suspect in the digital age we will see our ability to re-assess events of the past will grow exponentially. Simply having a platform such as the GWF to share thoughts and consolidate research from a number of people is something that would have been rather difficult only a few years ago.

As for Gheluvet and the Worcesters, I think it might be some time before anyone starts to find a foothold on the smooth edifice that Stacke built in his monumental history. If the maxim that 'history is written by the victors' needs any proof, I think the Worcesters version of events is a pretty good example of how to dominate the narrative high-ground. Interestingly the 2nd Bn Worcesters' war diary starts with Gheluvelt and then works backwards and includes a very long printed narrative. In the mainstream of British military history Gheluvelt is inextricably associated with the 2nd Bn Worcestershire Regt. I think many people would be surprised to discover that 29 other British Infantry Regiments share the same battle honour and might have had something to do with the outcome..... perhaps a discussion for another time.

Anyway, back to Le Cateau, does anyone have any idea of what proportion of the POWs were wounded? It would seem to be a fairly critical stat, given the BEF were in retreat and having left the battlefield it seems inevitable that wounded men were more likely to become POWs.

Also I would be interested to know if there are any reliable figures on the number of guns the British started with at Le Cateau. So far my research has not been able to establish this number. Any pointers would be very gratefully received.

MG

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Martin

Adrian Gilbert's ' Challenge of Battle' does refer to Le Cateau as a defeat. I don't have the book to hand, and doubtless you've seen it anyway, but some of his cited sources may point you in the right direction? Incidentally, the book makes a similar point about Gheluvelt and the Worcester's involvement, that many other units were present.

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Is Beckes' work also considered https://archive.org/details/royalregimentofa00beck, it might help in establishing the number of guns. Also there are some very interesting cutting in the back of this copy.

Wonderful. Thank you. MG

Edit:,Someone has rather conveniently annotated the pages with the lost guns and which batteries lost them. 36 of 246 guns or 14.6% of the Artillery present on the day.

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Martin G. I think some of Beckes' papers relating to this Battle where sold to Woolwich about 10 years ago by Maggs, might be worth checking out.

As can be seen from Beckes complaints the detail from the war diaries was very poor.

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Anyway, back to Le Cateau, does anyone have any idea of what proportion of the POWs were wounded? It would seem to be a fairly critical stat, given the BEF were in retreat and having left the battlefield it seems inevitable that wounded men were more likely to become POWs.

MG

Here's an " idea " for you, Martin.

Statistics of the Military Effort tabulates British battle casualties, Western Front, August 1914 as 14,409.

Of these, 1,161 were killed ; 3,483 were wounded ; and a staggering 9,765 were missing. Of those missing, 8,190 were confirmed as prisoners.

Extrapolating from those figures for Le Cateau, with its questionable figure of 7,812 applied pro rata, gives us 629 killed ; 1,887 wounded and 5,296 missing, of whom about 4,450 were prisoners.

Spears, Liason 1914, estimated 5,200 killed or wounded and 2,600 prisoners : a roughy and ready breakdown of two thirds killed or wounded and one third prisoners, with the inference ( in my reckoning) that those prisoners were unwounded, and that the total haul taken by the Germans would be much higher if the wounded captives were taken into account.

In his assessment of the March 1918 fighting, Terrainne alludes to an estimate that 30% of British POWs were wounded and 10% gassed. If that applies to Le cateau ( no gassed, obviously) we might allow for 2,600 unwounded and 1,750 wounded prisoners.

That's guesswork on my part. Your meticulous research into war diaries is required....I wonder what you might turn up .

Phil (PJA)

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Appendix III of the Beckes' gives infantry losses but these are only approximate. Has any looked at the OH Medical Volumes online?

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It must have been very difficult - perhaps impossible - to attribute specific loss to that engagement on that day ; the dispersal of units and the chaos that followed are hard to reconcile with accurate records. I suppose that applies to all battles in all wars, but this one in particular poses a special challenge.

Historians have claimed that it was the biggest battle fought by British arms since Waterloo almost exactly a century earlier on ground not that far distant. I have to wonder, though, wether more British lives were lost at Inkerman or Isandlwhana....certainly Smith Dorrien himself might have reflected on the latter engagement, being that he was one of the few survivors to escape the Zulus.

Phil (PJA)

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On 5/12/2014 at 17:00, PJA said:

Here's an " idea " for you, Martin.

Statistics of the Military Effort tabulates British battle casualties, Western Front, August 1914 as 14,409.

Of these, 1,161 were killed ; 3,483 were wounded ; and a staggering 9,765 were missing. Of those missing, 8,190 were confirmed as prisoners.

Extrapolating from those figures for Le Cateau, with its questionable figure of 7,812 applied pro rata, gives us 629 killed ; 1,887 wounded and 5,296 missing, of whom about 4,450 were prisoners.

Spears, Liason 1914, estimated 5,200 killed or wounded and 2,600 prisoners : a roughy and ready breakdown of two thirds killed or wounded and one third prisoners, with the inference ( in my reckoning) that those prisoners were unwounded, and that the total haul taken by the Germans would be much higher if the wounded who were taken into account.

In his assessment of the March 1918 fighting, Terrainne alludes to an estimate that 30% of British POWs were wounded and 10% gassed. If that applies to Le cateau ( no gassed, obviously) we might allow for 2,600 unwounded and 1,750 wounded prisoners.

That's guesswork on my part. Your meticulous research into war diaries is required....I wonder what you might turn up .

Phil (PJA)

Hmmm. Casualties have the rather odd dual qualities of being slippery but can bite you the same time. Rather like a Conger eel. I have been bitten by casualty data more than a few times in this area and it's not fun.

 

Casualty data are only one rough way of assessing this battle, however I guess one need to at least know the hard facts.

 

My first observation is the wounded to killed ratio of 3,483 to 1161 gives a ratio of exactly 3. We know that data collection was poor in the first few months and I very strongly suspect the killed and wounded figures in 'Statistics 1914-1920' for Aug 1914 are made up. Not in a deliberately devious way, but I think they simply assessed the numbers killed and multiplied by three to get the numbers wounded. A theory I can not yet prove. I would challenge anyone to find a killed/wounded ratio among the tens of thousands of data points in 'Statistics 1914-1920' that comes out as an integer. Possible but improbable and given what we know about record keeping in early 1914 it is a questionable figure. Which means the Le Cateau figures will be a large Conger eel too.

 

According to Geoff's Excellent search engine there were 884 men killed in the Army on 26th Aug 1914. No idea yet how many of these were engaged at Le Cateau but looking at August summary data I suspect the answer lies somewhere between 884 and your extrapolated figure. Not surprisingly CWGC website concurs with Geoff's Engine.

 

The other problem with 'Statistics 1914-1920' is that it underestimates the Killed as it does not adjust for missing who were later assumed to be killed. The 1914 data does not make the adjustment. It merely shows that data as reported at the time. To illustrate this point, 'Statistics 1914-1920' records 1,161 killed in Aug yet CWGC data shows 1,713 killed just for the Infantry battalions in the BEF in August. The CWGC data shows 2,204 (Army) were killed in Aug 1914. Assuming a handful of oddities are included in the 2,204 such as men who died in the UK or elsewhere in the world, say the leaves at least 2,100... which means somewhere in the region of 939 of the 'Missing' in Statistics were in fact MIA who were eventually presumed KIA or DOW in August. That is a big swing factor; 42.6% more in fact (calc: 939/2204 x 100 = 42.6%). I think this simply illustrates the size of the Conger eel we are dealing with here. We need to know how the stats are defined before we start manipulating them (in a good sense).

I have sheets of CWGC data by battalion for the BEF so getting the exact KIA Inf figures will be relatively easy and then searching 26th Aug 1914 fro the RFA will likely generate the next biggest group. and so on...That will at least enable us to eliminate the MIA eventually assumed to be KIA and reduce the margin of error by quite a bit.

 

To illustrate the extent to which The Retreat was dominated by the II Corps here are some interesting stats from the infantry battalions in each Corps:

 

I Corps lost 169 men in August (killed)

II Corps lost 1544 men in August (killed)

 

II Corps lost nine times as many men as I Corps killed in August .

 

It gets more interesting. Within the I Corps Data just three battalions account for 83% of the I Corps infantry losses in August - 2nd Bn The Royal Munster Fus, 3rd Bn Coldstream Guards and the 2nd Bn Connaught Rangers. The RMF under Maj Charrier (an unsung hero in my book) accounted for more than half of all I Corps infantry losses in Aug 1914. Another rearguard action.

 

I shall revert with the hard data in a few days, but I thought it worth highlighting the potential pitfalls of Statistcs 1914-1920 especially the 1914 and particularly the August data. Regular casualty returns don't really appear as a feature of the diaries until late 1914 with 7th Div. Up to that point it is a rather random process. The only other explanation is that the diaries were weeded of casualty returns. I have not yet waded through the Div Admin files which might hold some clues.

 

Estimates for Aug 1914 casualties are wide, and for Le Cateau are very wide, which in itself is interesting. My instincts tell me that the numbers of estimated killed for August will be too low and the numbers of prisoners too high as most authors seem to have used 'Statistics 1914-1920' without realising this enormous distortion of under-reported KIA. Just a theory at the moment. Rather counter-intuitively I think the estimates for numbers killed at Le Cateau will prove to be too high as 'casualties' and 'killed' may well have become confused. We shall see.

 

Off to catch some eels.

 

MG

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You'll go mad if you try and pinpoint this with precision, Martin !

Let the eels slip away.

A rough and ready assessment is good enough, at least for me.

That three to one ratio of wounded to killed might be authentic ; but there is a large number of missing - in excess of fifteen hundred - to be accounted for from that August 1914 fighting.....killed or left dying, in the main, I would have thought.

Then we have to consider how many of those eight thousand plus prisoners were wounded : a third ?

Take a stab at it : you get about 2,600 dead and 6,000 wounded. At least five thousand unwounded prisoners. Only 219 others (IIRC) were posted as died of wounds...implying that wounded were abandoned and died on the field rather than being evacuated. Hence the unusual proportion of dead to wounded : a ratio very apparent in the awful French casualties in that fighting. Surely additional wounded died as POWs.

I am very susceptible to the "myth" of Le Cateau. In 1965 I enjoyed a picnic with my Dad there when I was twelve years old, and we were travelling to Italy. He told me about the battle, and how ghosts of the Crecy bowmen helped the Tommies slaughter the Germans. I was smitten. It's disappointing to learn that things were rather different.

Phil (PJA)

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Statistics of the Military Effort tabulates British battle casualties, Western Front, August 1914 as 14,409.

Of these, 1,161 were killed ; 3,483 were wounded ; and a staggering 9,765 were missing. Of those missing, 8,190 were confirmed as prisoners.

The total casualties reported to 1 Sep 14 were given at the time as :

OR's

Killed 212

Wounded 1,061

Missing 13,413

Total 14,686*

*This figure includes 2,682 men who had been returned to base as unfit.

(Times of 7 Sep 14)

Allowing for the fact these are figures straight from the front they do give a good overall correlation with the Statistics Figure - the apportionment within this figure is the bigger issue.

Craig

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I'm pleased that Martin has pointed out the danger of statistics, but at the moment the thread seems to a be a bit like the football league, using the casualty statistics to signify a win, loose or draw.

Le Cateau was a significant battle which was forced upon Smith-Dorrien who had very little time to respond to the German advance, in fact just a matter of hours. If it was ill- organised as mentioned, it was because of this shortage of time. For me, it was a battle that required great deal of extemporisation in the face of, not just infantry attacks, but of superior artillery fire.

It might be worthwhile exploring the more longer term effects of S-Ds stand rather than seeing it just as a day of triumph or disaster.

TR

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I'm pleased that Martin has pointed out the danger of statistics, but at the moment the thread seems to a be a bit like the football league, using the casualty statistics to signify a win lose or draw.

Le Cateau was a significant battle which was forced upon Smith-Dorrien who had very little time to respond to the German advance, in fact just a matter of hours. If it was ill- organised as mentioned, it was because of this shortage of time. For me, it was a battle that required great deal of extemporisation in the face of, not just infantry attacks, but of superior artillery fire.

It might be worthwhile exploring the more longer term effects of S-Ds stand rather than seeing it just as a day of triumph of disaster.

TR

Quite right, Terry - the "casualty exchange rate" is a winding road to nowhere (as always). As is considering the tactical facets alone; this action had strategic significance i.e. Joffre sent a telegram to GHQ praising this stand and thanking II Corps for saving the French left flank (a fact Joffre conveniently forgot to mention in his post-war memoirs).

See what Smith-Dorrien himself had to say in his memoirs http://www.richthofen.com/smith-dorrien/

Cheers-salesie

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Phil

Whether or not S-D had a choice or not is immaterial, my point is that there was a cause and an effect, and in this case the effect, as it turned out, was positive. You cannot judge success or failure simply by analysing casualty figures. That sort of narrow view is likely to distort matters.

TR

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The total casualties reported to 1 Sep 14 were given at the time as :

OR's

Killed 212

Wounded 1,061

Missing 13,413

Total 14,686*

*This figure includes 2,682 men who had been returned to base as unfit.

(Times of 7 Sep 14)

Allowing for the fact these are figures straight from the front they do give a good overall correlation with the Statistics Figure - the apportionment within this figure is the bigger issue.

Craig

The fatal apportionment for 1914 has always shocked me, Craig..

Three hundred thousand Frenchmen died on the Western Front in 1914. September was the worst month. The officially reported casualties for that month were 210,000 ; only 18,000 were posted as killed. It looks as if this needed to be multiplied three or fourfold to gauge the true number of deaths. It goes to show how hard it must have been to account for the mortality. I would think that it was even worse for August. Those figures that you cite exemplify this.

Phil (PJA)

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Phil

Whether or not S-D had a choice or not is immaterial, my point is that there was a cause and an effect, and in this case the effect, as it turned out, was positive. You cannot judge success or failure simply by analysing casualty figures. That sort of narrow view is likely to distort matters.

TR

If we've been lead to believe that the Germans suffered ten to fifteen thousand casualties, and it turns out that they actually suffered three thousand, I would say that that kind of distortion has some historiographical significance.

Phil (PJA)

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