The action in which the British 4th (Guards) Brigade kept the pursuing German army at bay, in a night of fighting in the town of Landrecies.
Date: 25th August 1914.
Place: In the North of France
War: The First World War also known as ‘The Great War’.
Coldstream Guards at Landrecies on 25th August 1914: picture by William Barnes Wollen
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Contestants: 4th (Guards) Brigade, with supporting units of artillery (XLIV Howitzer RFA Brigade), of the 2nd Division of I Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF): against German troops of the General von Kluck’s First Army.
The German units involved in the attack on Landrecies were: 14th Infantry Brigade under Major-General von Oven, comprising 6 battalions of 27th and 165th Regiments, of 7th Division, of IV Corps, with a squadron of 10th Hussars, and 4th Field Artillery Regiment. Only the 27th Regiment and some guns took part in the assaults in the early part of the night of 25th August 1914.
Brigadier-General Scott-Kerr commanded 4th (Guards) Brigade.
Size of the Armies:
The BE, on 25th August 1914, comprised 2 corps of infantry, I and II Corps, and an independent 19th Brigade, with the recent addition of the 4th Division, and a cavalry division; 95,000 men and 320 guns.
The 4th (Guards) Brigade, the formation in action at Landrecies, consisting of 2nd Grenadier Guards, 2nd and 3rd Coldstream Guards and 1st Irish Guards, comprised around 5,000 men.
General von Kluck’s 1st Army comprised 4 corps and 3 cavalry divisions (160,000 men) and 550 guns. The German formations in action at Landrecies comprised an infantry brigade of 6 battalions, cavalry and a battery of artillery from IV Corps; around 8,000 men.
The 4th (Guards) Brigade held the German attack on Landrecies during the night of 25th August 1914, and then retreated in good order.
Uniforms and equipment:
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.
Private of the Coldstream Guards in 1914.
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.
Following the fighting along and behind the Mons Canal on 23rd and 24th August 1914, the BEF retreated south before the oncoming German First Army; the British II Corps and the Cavalry Division taking the route to the west of the Forest of Mormal, a dense area of woodland, 10 miles from north to south and 6 miles across; the British I Corps marching down the route of the Sambre River to the east of the forest (see map on Le Cateau at http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-le-cateau.htm).
The fortress of Mauberge prepared to resist the German advance, with its French garrison. The British I Corps marched through the gap between Mauberge and the Forest of Mormal, sharing the congested roads with French army formations, and the flood of French and Belgian civilian refugees moving south, with all the belongings they could carry, to avoid the advancing German army.
On the night of 25th August 1914, units of the British I Corps, 2nd Division, halted at the villages of Noyelles (5th Brigade and XXXVI Brigade RFA), Maroilles (6th Brigade and XXXIV Brigade RFA), and Landrecies (4th (Guards) Brigade, XLI Field and XLIV Howitzer Brigades). A troop of the 15th Hussars, the divisional cavalry of 2nd Division, occupied the bridge at Maroilles.
The British Guards reached Landrecies during the afternoon of 25th August 1914, at the end of a ‘hurried and painful march’. 3rd Coldstream was the first battalion into Landrecies, and took up quarters in the French infantry barracks to the north of the town.
The pursuing Germans pushed forward to seize the crossings over the Sambre River at Ponts de Sambre, Maroilles and Landrecies, the German III and IV Corps moving south east, through and around the Forest of Mormal. The Germans were not expecting the BEF still to be on the Sambre River, and were pressing on to spend the night in comfortable billets on those towns.
The battle at Landrecies was as much a surprise for the Germans as it was for the British Guards; the German regimental transport was one of the leading formations when the fighting started, hurrying forward to ensure that there was a hot meal for the exhausted infantry, when they reached their destination.
The Grenadier Guard’s history states that a 15th Hussar rode into Landrecies at 4pm, with information that German troops were approaching. The 4th Guards Brigade turned out, and took up positions throughout the town, but stood down when no attack materialised.
In Maroilles, which was occupied by the British 6th Brigade, at around 5.30pm, there were rumours among the French civilian population that German troops were in the vicinity. The rumours were discounted, to the extent that the local mayor refused permission to the troop leader of the 15th Hussars, to destroy a house near to the bridge that obstructed the hussars’ field of fire.
In Landrecies, the information from the French civilians was more specific: the Germans were advancing on the town from the North West.
The rumours of the German approach caused the battalions of the 4th (Guards) Brigade to adopt defensive positions around Landrecies: 3rd Coldstream at the northern end of the town, 2nd Grenadiers on the western side, 2nd Coldstream on the eastern and southern edges of the town, and 1st Irish Guards fortifying the centre.
Number 2 Company of 3rd Coldstream Guards, commanded by Captain Heywood, was in position at the northern end of the town, where the road to the North West forked into two routes, both leading around the southern end of the Forest of Mormal. The battalion machine gun section deployed at the forks, with one gun aimed down each road.
2nd Grenadiers were posted with Number 2 and 3 Companies, under Major Lord Bernard Lennox, at the railway level-crossing, deployed to either side of the road. Number 1 Company, under Major Hamilton, occupied positions on the left of these companies. Number 4 Company, under Captain Colston, held the bridge over the Sambre River. The battalion was directed to barricade the main street leading north, which they did using the battalion’s tool carts, leaving them immobile and thereby depriving the battalion of the tools for the rest of the campaign. Houses along the road were occupied and put in a state of defence.
Coldstream Guard Bank Picket before the Great War: picture by Harry Payne
During the afternoon, Number 2 Company of 3rd Coldstream Guards engaged German mounted patrols and drove them off, thus confirming the French reports.
One German Uhlan patrol was reported as penetrating, unopposed, into the centre of Landrecies (in fact they were Hussars: but the British tended to describe all German cavalry as ‘Uhlans’). These various attacks, and the Uhlan incursion, made the point forcibly to the brigade, that they could not assume, as they had until then, that there were other British infantry brigades between them and the Germans; the assumption being that the Germans would pursue the I Corps down the east side of the Forest of Mormal, rather than marching diagonally north west to south east through the forest, or around it to the south.
At 7pm, Heywood’s Number 2 Company of 3rd Coldstream was relieved by Captain Monck’s Number 3 Company. Monck received reports that French troops were expected through his position. In due course, a body of troops approached in the dusk, singing in French. Monck shouted a challenge and was answered in French. A flashlight was shined on the approaching troops. The leading files seemed to be in French uniforms, but they were followed by German troops (this seems likely to have been a misidentification in the dark, perhaps arising because the German troops in question were wearing forage hats and not helmets). Before the Coldstreamers could open fire, the Germans rushed the forward piquet, bayoneted the gunner at the machine gun, and dragged his gun away. Monck was knocked over in the rush. The piquet opened fire and the machine gun was recovered, the Germans falling back in the face of the British retaliation.
With this attack, the brigade resumed the defensive positions prepared earlier in the evening.
During the night, the Germans launched repeated attacks down the two roads from the North West, all of which were held and driven back by 3rd Coldstream. The position of a farm building at the right hand end of the British line enabled the Germans to enfilade the Coldstream with a machine gun. The Germans were supported by a field gun, firing up the road. This gunfire set a haystack near the Coldstream line on fire. The sudden blaze illuminated the British troops, and made them easy targets. Private 5854 G. H.
Wyatt rushed forward and put out the blaze, under fire from the Germans, who were within 25 yards. Again the stack was ignited, and again Wyatt put the flames out.
One of the German attacks, infiltrating round the left flank of 3rd Coldstream, reached as far as the railway station, where it was repelled by the Grenadiers of Number 2 Company, commanded by Major Lord Bernard Lennox.
The Grenadiers machine gun section, commanded by Lieutenant Cecil, moved forward and provided additional support to the 3rd Coldstream, who were suffering from the fire of the single German field gun, directed down the street.
The 3rd Coldstream Commanding Officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Fielding, brought up a howitzer from the supporting RFA battery. The howitzer was manhandled up to the level-crossing and opened fire on the German gun. The third round put the German gun out of action.
German attacks had also fallen on the east of the town. 1st Irish Guards launched a counter-attack in that area, at around 3am. The German attacks on the town lost their momentum and finally ceased in the early hours of 26th August 1914.
3rd Coldstream fell back into the town, their positions being taken over by 1st Irish Guards.
At dawn, the 4th (Guards) Brigade marched out of Landrecies to the south, heading for Étreux, unimpeded by the Germans. Instead of much needed rest, the brigade had spent the night fighting.
Many of the soldiers had left their kit in billets and were unable to retrieve it in the hurried withdrawal. During the next day the soldiers fell asleep, whenever there was a pause in the march, and could only be roused with difficulty.
As the brigade left Landrecies, the brigade’s field ambulance, Number 4, was ordered into the town to bring out the wounded left behind from the battle.
B and C sections of the ambulance moved back into Landrecies, passing the battalions as they marched south. The Germans occupied the town, while the British RAMC troops were still collecting the wounded, and the British medical staff and wounded were taken prisoner (10 medical officers up to the rank of colonel were captured). Only A section of the divisional ambulance escaped capture.
Most of the British casualties were suffered by 3rd Coldstream Guards, which lost 2 officers, Lieutenants Viscount Hawarden and Lieutenant Windsor-Clive, and 12 soldiers killed, and 3 officers, Captain Whitbread and Lieutenants Keppel and Rowley, and 105 soldiers wounded, with 11 soldiers missing, presumed killed or captured (Lieutenant Keppel was captured by the Germans). 2nd Grenadier Guards lost 1 officer killed, Lieutenant Vereker, and 6 soldiers wounded. Overall British casualties were given as 200, the balance being from the 2nd Coldstream, 1st Irish Guards and other units.
GHQ BEF estimated German casualties at between 700 and 1,000 men.
In fact the Germans lost 4 officers and 48 soldiers killed, 4 officers and 69 soldiers wounded, with 2 soldiers missing: a total of 127 casualties.
During the 26th August 1914, the 4th (Guards) fell back to Étreux, where the brigade dug in. During the course of the day’s march, the soldiers could hear firing from the West, where II Corps was fighting the Battle of Le Cateau.
A German aeroplane flew over the positions of 2nd Grenadiers, and dropped a bomb. Every soldier in the area, who had a weapon, opened fire on the aeroplane, which crashed about a mile away. A cavalry patrol found the crew to be 3 German officers, 2 dead and 1 wounded.
The 3rd Coldstream Guards claimed that it was their Number 3 Company, under Captain Monk, that brought the aeroplane down.
Decorations and campaign medals:
Private 5854 G.H. Wyatt of 3rd Coldstream Guards received the Victoria Cross for putting out the burning hay on 2 occasions, and also for his valour at the subsequent Battle of Villers Cottérêts
Private GH Wyatt, 2nd Coldstream Guards who won the
Victoria Cross for bravery at Landrecies and at Villers Cotterets.
Landrecies was the first action for the 3rd Battalion of the Coldstream Guards, re-formed in 1910, having been disbanded in 1892.
The previous battle in the series is: Mons Day Two
The next battle in the series is: Le Cateau
Official History of the Great War Volume 1
History of the 2nd Division 1914-1918 Volume 1 by Wyrall
The Grenadier Guards in the Great War of 1914-1918 Volume 1 by Ponsonby
The Coldstream Guards 1914-1918 Volume 1 by Ross of Bladensburg
The Irish Guards in the Great War 1st Battalion by Kipling