The memorable rear-guard action by 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, in which the battalion held up the German advance for much of the day
Date: 27th August 1914.
Place: In North East France, to the east of St Quentin.
War: The First World War also known as ‘The Great War’.
Contestants: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against the German First Army. This battle was an action by a small British force, acting as rearguard for the BEF I Corps, against the pursuing German formations from the German First Army.
C Company 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers marching to ‘PT’ in Aldershot before leaving for France. Within 1 month of arriving in France in August 1914, all the members of C Company were either dead or prisoners following the Battle of Étreux on 27th August 1914
Generals: Field-Marshal Sir John French commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig commanding I Corps and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien commanding II Corps, against General von Kluck commanding the German First Army and General Bülow commanding the German Second Army.
Size of the Armies:
The BEF comprised 2 corps of infantry, I and II Corps, the 4th Division, the 19th Independent Infantry Brigade and the Cavalry Division; 110,000 men and 330 guns.
The British formation engaged in the Battle at Étreux was: 1st Guards Brigade of the 1st Division of I Corps: 1st Coldstream Guards, 1st Scots Guards, 1st Black Watch and 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers with 1 troop from 15th Hussars and 1 section comprising 2 guns from 118th Battery RFA.
2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers comprised A, B, C and D Companies and the battalion Machine Gun Section.
The German troops engaged were from X Reserve Corps of the 2nd Army.
Uniforms and equipment:
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.
The BEF at this stage in the Great War comprised around 30% current regular soldiers and 70% reservists with previous service in the Regular British Army. The British Army was the only major European army with recent experience of active service; in South Africa in the Boer War from 1899 to 1901 and on the North West Frontier of India. The German Army had not fought a war since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1.
In these early battles of the Great War, the British soldiers outfought the Germans, although forced to retreat by pressure of numbers and the withdrawal of the French armies on their flanks. The British units’ ability to move about the battlefield in cover, and their facility to deliver high rates of accurate rifle fire repeatedly enabled them to repel attacks by massed German infantry. The British artillery units consistently provided support to the infantry with accurate gunfire, while manoeuvring about the battlefield with speed and resource.
This was the force the Kaiser described as a ‘Contemptible Little Army’. German officers were stunned by the way the British troops brought the German attacks to a standstill time and again.
During the course of 1914, the old British army melted away as the casualties caused by artillery, machine gun and rifle fire mounted, until the ‘Contemptibles’ were largely gone, to be replaced by the new mass British Army of war-time volunteers and conscripts.
The courage and technical ability of the units in the BEF during 1914 is striking.
The II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) spent the 26th August 1914 contesting the area to the west of Le Cateau with the pursuing Germans, assisted by the Cavalry Division, the 19th Infantry Brigade, and the newly arrived 4th Division. See the Battle of Le Cateau at http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-le-cateau.htm
During the 26th August, the I Corps, comprising 1st and 2nd Divisions, commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, marched south from the area of Landrecies, on the edges of the Forest of Mormal, towards the town of Guise. This route was essentially down the east bank of the Sambre and the Oise Rivers and canal.
In order to pass through Guise, the only available route south lying on the east side of the Oise River, the I Corps’ transport was channelled through the town in 2 streams under careful supervision by corps staff officers. Only once the transport was clear of the town could the fighting formations pass through to the south.
The pursuing Germans were reported to be in significant strength and closing in on I Corps from the north and the north east.
An erroneous report put the Germans just to the north of St Quentin, to the west of I Corps, adding to the urgency to pass the Corps through Guise as quickly as possible.
The fighting formations of I Corps were due to pass through the town of Étreux, 5 miles to the north of Guise, where they were to be re-supplied. These formations spent the night of the 26th/27th August 1914 in the area around and to the north of Étreux.
The I Corps rear guard was deployed to the north of Ētreux, in order to keep the Germans off the high ground between Wassigny, to the west of the Oise Canal, and Fesmy, just east of the road to Guise. The rear guard was expected to keep the Germans to the north of Ētreux until the 1st and 2nd Divisions were clear of this town and heading south towards Guise, which was expected to be during the course of 27th August.
The covering units for I Corps, all taken from the 1st Division, were 1st (Guards) Brigade as the rear-guard, 2nd Brigade posted to the west of the canal, in the area of Wassigny, and the 2nd Welch Regiment, from 3rd Brigade, with 46th Battery RFA, as a guard to the east. The 5th Cavalry Brigade was marching down the west bank of the Oise.
With this cover, the Corps moved, with the 2nd Division leading the 1st Division, through Ētreux and on through Guise south-west down the east bank of the Oise River.
Of the 4 battalions of 1st (Guards) Brigade; 1st Coldstream Guards, 1st Scots Guards, 1st Black Watch and 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers were given the post of ultimate rear guard for the Corps.
D Company 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers at Tidworth in 1912 (this D Company will not have been the same D Company that fought in 1914, as in 1913 the companies in infantry battalions were doubled in size and halved in number, so that each battalion had 4 companies instead of the previous 8; each new company absorbing 2 of the previous companies, with a company sergeant major as the senior non-commissioned rank in place of the colour-sergeants)
The Royal Munster Fusiliers bivouacked on the night of 26th/27th August at Fesmy, on the road that ran south east from the main Landrecies to Guise road. D Company of the battalion, commanded by Captain Simms, was positioned at the cross roads at a village called Hautrève. This village is called in all the main accounts Chapeau Rouge (and will be in this account from here on), although Chapeau Rouge is in fact a village some quarter of a mile west of the cross roads.
1st Scots Guards lay in positions towards Wassigny on the west side of the canal. 1st Coldstream Guards held positions on both sides of the canal, at the point where the road crossed the canal to the west bank and ran south for about 2 miles, before crossing back to the east bank at Étreux.
1st Black Watch lay in reserve on the west bank of the canal at Étreux, where they dug entrenchments along the railway embankment; entrenchments later used by German troops to hold back the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers comprised A, B, C and D companies and a 2 gun Machine Gun Section. With the Royal Munster Fusiliers was a 2 gun section from 118th Battery, RFA, and a troop of the 15th Hussars, the divisional cavalry regiment (the Official History refers to 2 troops, but accounts from officers present refer to only 1 troop).
The Royal Munster Fusiliers and the accompanying units were commanded by Major Paul Charrier, the acting commanding officer of the battalion. Charrier was a large, lively personality, who wore a hot weather service topee helmet, with a green and white Munsters hackle on the side, rather than a conventional service cap.
The Welch Regiment, with its accompanying battery, lay to the south east of Bergues, the next village to the south east of Fesmy. Bergues itself was occupied overnight by French troops.
The countryside was agricultural and divided into small fields, bordered by thick hedges inset with wire. For the troops of both sides this was extremely difficult countryside to cross, forcing attacks to be made principally down the roads. Considerable use was made of the drainage ditches along the roadsides for movement in cover.
The weather on the morning of the 27th August was misty, with heavy rain storms following during the day.
At 4am on 27th August, Major Charrier sent D Company, under Captain Jervis, to re-enforce C Company at the Chapeau Rouge cross-roads.
The Royal Munster Fusiliers got under arms at dawn, as did the rest of the brigade.
At 8am, battalion scouts reported to Major Charrier that the French had left Bergues and that the village was unoccupied. Charrier sent ½ of A Company, under Captain Woods, to hold Bergues.
At 9am German cavalry vedettes came down the Landrecies road towards the Chapeau Rouge cross roads. However they fell back without engaging.
At around the same time, a German column of all arms was seen advancing from Le Sart to the north east of the main battalion positions, but also retreated.
By 9.30am, all was again quiet on the battalion’s front. Charrier received a message from the commanding officer of the 2nd Welch, that his battalion was retiring to Boué to the south of Fesmy.
Charrier also received orders from Brigadier-General Maxse, commanding 1st (Guards) Brigade, that the Royal Munster Fusiliers were to stay in place around Fesmy until specifically ordered to retreat or they were forced out.
At 10.30am, the German attacks on the Royal Munster Fusiliers began. The first attack was on A Company at Bergues. There was also a build up of German troops on the road approaching the Chapeau Rouge cross roads. The 2 gun section from 118th Battery, RFA, began firing to the north west on the German concentrations menacing Chapeau Rouge. At the Chapeau Rouge cross-roads B and D Companies were well dug in.
Charrier sent the troop of 15th Hussars to reinforce A Company at Bergues. He also sent further platoons from A Company. Of these only the cavalry and Captain Emmerson with some of the A Company men managed to get through to Bergues.
At 11am, 3rd Brigade moved south from Oisy towards Étreux, as part of the 1st Division’s continuing retreat towards Guise. At around this time 2nd Welch reached Boué on their way south.
In the centre of the Royal Munster Fusiliers positions the Germans began what was described at the time as a ‘brisk attack’. The Munsters replied with heavy rifle, machine gun and gun fire. This attack continued to build up from the direction of Le Sart in the north east.
At midday, instructions arrived from Brigadier-General Maxse, directing that the battalion could withdraw via Boué, when the time came. Charrier had informed Maxse that this was his preferred route. No time was given for the withdrawal.
Also at around midday, a German aeroplane flew over the battalion positions, attracting a considerable amount of small arms fire which did it no apparent damage. It began to rain heavily.
At 12.20pm, Étreux finally cleared of transport and the I Corps fighting formations were free to continue the retreat. At 1pm Brigadier-General Maxse sent out orders to his 4 battalions to retreat ‘at once’. 2 copies were sent to each battalion, apparently by cyclist, but neither copy reached the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
At 1pm the Germans began a heavy attack on the Chapeau Rouge cross-roads. B and D companies fell back down the road to the main battalion positions around Fesmy, without suffering loss. The guns of 118th Battery were now firing on the German troops in the area Le Sart.
At around 1.15pm the Germans launched an attack on Fesmy from the direction of Le Sart with artillery support. The Royal Munster Fusiliers responded with gun and rifle fire and with the fire of their 2 gun machine gun section, commanded by Lieutenant Chute.
During the ensuing battle, Chute’s machine guns were at the forefront in holding off the repeated German attacks, firing down the roads at the advancing columns.
To try and shield themselves from the heavy small arms fire from the Munsters, the German infantry advanced down the Le Sart road behind herds of cows. All the Germans who penetrated into the Munster’s positions became casualties or prisoners.
At 1.15pm Charrier sent a message to Brigadier-General Maxse: ‘Am holding on to position north of Fesmy village, being attacked by force of all arms. Getting on well. The Germans are driving cattle in front of them up to us for cover. We are killing plenty of them.’
At this time Charrier despatched a platoon from A Company to join the Munsters/15th Hussars at Bergues. The platoon was driven back by the Germans and failed to reach Bergues. By this time the party in Bergues was itself being driven out of the village and was falling back towards Boué.
At around 1.50pm Charrier sent a message to Brigadier-General Maxse saying: ‘We have German wounded prisoners, who say “that about two regiments are opposing us and some guns. They belong to the 15th Regiment.”
In fact the German regiment was the 15th Reserve Infantry Regiment.
At around 2pm, 2nd Brigade marched from Wassigny to Hannapes, to the south of Étreux, taking the road down the west bank of the canal. This left the 1st (Guards) Brigade as the last units facing the Germans advancing on Étreux.
At 2.30pm, although neither of the messages from Maxse had reached the Munsters, Charrier made the decision to withdraw towards Oisy. His original plan, approved by Maxse, to take the route through Bergues and Boué was no longer possible due to the German occupation of Bergues.
The withdrawal began with D Company out as a left flank guard and B Company out on the right. Munster casualties at this stage were still light. Progress was slow due to the difficult hedging surrounding each of the small fields in the area.
C Company brought up the rear and was subject to vigorous German attacks. The rear guard was engaged closely and fell well behind the rest of the companies, finally catching up at around 5.45pm.
At 3pm, the cyclist from 1st (Guards) Brigade Headquarters reached Oisy, after a substantial Odyssey around the countryside looking for the Munsters, pursued and shot at by various parties of German troops. The cyclist delivered Maxse’s ‘retreat at once’ order of 1pm to 2nd Coldstream Guards and the Coldstream prepared to march south towards Étreux.
At around this time, the ½ A Company of the Munsters arrived from Bergues with the troop of the 15th Hussars at Oisy. The Coldstream handed over the guard on the 2 canal bridges, 1 permanent and 1 built by the Royal Engineers, to the A Company Munsters, before marching south to Étreux. The 2 bridges had been prepared for demolition, but were not destroyed as this was now the only route for the main body of the Munsters, the Bergues-Boué road being occupied by the Germans.
The machine gunners of 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers
The withdrawal and march south from Oisy by the Coldstream began at 3.30pm.
At around 4pm, strong German cavalry forces were seen to the west of Wassigny and were engaged by the British guns at Maison Rouge. The Germans were now hard on the heels of the 1st (Guards) Brigade.
It is not clear at precisely what time Charrier’s main body of Munsters (B, C, D Companies and the remainder of A Company and Chute’s Machine Gun section with the 2 gun section of 118th Battery, RFA) crossed the canal and reached Oisy. It was probably around 5pm.
C Company was left as the bridge guard, with a detachment under Lieutenant Awdry holding the north of Oisy.
Charrier continued south towards Étreux with A, B and D Companies, the machine guns, and the 2 RFA guns. To his rear, C Company withdrew down the road from Oisy, under covering fire from Chute’s 2 machine guns.
At around 6pm, Charrier’s leading troops approached the outskirts of Étreux. German soldiers were in the road ahead of them. It was clear that the Munsters were cut off.
The road into Étreux was blocked by 6 battalions of the German 73rd and 77th Reserve Infantry Regiments supported by a number of machine guns. The German infantry had occupied and loop-holed the first house in Étreux, on the west side of the road, and were positioned in and around the other houses in the northern outskirts of Étreux. Several German battalions were holding the trenches dug by the Black Watch earlier in the day along the railway embankment, which cut across the road. There were further German infantry and guns on the far bank of the canal a mile to the east. More German infantry and cavalry were closing in from the west. Substantial German forces were following up behind C Company from the North.
A farmhouse on the east side of the Oisy-Étreux road burst into flames. This seemed to act as a signal to the various German forces surrounding the area. It would be a fair description to say that ‘all hell was now let loose’ as the German troops opened fire on the Munsters from south, east and west.
The 2 guns of 118th Battery came into action against the German batteries on the far side of the canal, but after a full day of firing they were low on ammunition. Positioned on the road the guns had no cover, and a number of British gunners and horses were quickly shot down.
To escape to the south, Charrier decided that his only course was to attack into Étreux, and try to clear the Germans from his path to the bridge and into the main part of the town.
Second Lieutenant O’Malley was sent to direct C Company to hold the rear, which he did by bicycle, managing to avoid the storm of fire being laid on the road. 2 ammunition carts were sent back to re-supply C Company with ammunition.
Lieutenant Chute brought his machine guns up from the rear to support the attack and D Company moved into an orchard on the east side of the road.
Charrier, with his adjutant Captain Wise, led B Company in an attack on the loop-holed house. ½ of A Company came up in support. B Company was heavily engaged with fire from both sides of the road. The attack failed and Charrier was wounded. Wise managed to reach the house and fired his revolver through a loop-hole before being stunned by falling masonry.
In spite of his wound, Charrier led a second attack on the loop-holed house. This attack also failed, under the heavy fire from the house and the German infantry around the house and in the entrenchments along the railway embankment. Captain Simms, the company commander of B Company, was killed.
Company Sergeant Major McEvoy, the CSM of B Company, went back to bring up re-enforcements, calling “Come on boys. The Irish never lost a Friday’s battle yet.”
Charrier led a third attack on the loop-holed house which also failed in the face of the heavy fire.
The Munsters were now suffering heavy casualties under the relentless fire from all sides by rifles, machine guns and field guns.
While directing his machine guns, Lieutenant Chute ran across the road. He was struck by 2 bullets and killed. Sergeant Johnson continued in command of the 2 machine guns, firing until all the ammunition was exhausted, whereupon Johnson and his gunners smashed the guns.
1 of the 118th Battery field guns was knocked out by the gunfire from the east side of the canal. Charrier brought the second gun up to fire on the loop-holed house, but all the gun crew and team horses were shot down by rifle and machine gun fire from the town.
Charrier now ordered C Company up in support of B and A Companies, in their assault on the loop-holed house, and directed D Company, under Captain Jervis, to launch an attack on the Germans in the entrenchments along the railway embankment.
It may be that Charrier hoped to clear an alternative route to the bridge, or still intended to capture the loop-holed house, once its support was driven off.
Jervis took his men along a sunken lane towards the embankment and launched his attack from the cover of the lane, moving forward by alternate rushes to within 70 yards of the Germans, and then charging, supported by the fire of one of the A Company platoons. All the officers and soldiers in D Company were shot down in the attack, except Jervis himself, who was captured.
Charrier was wounded for a second time as he directed his troops from the road. Shortly afterwards he was in the road by the disabled gun, when he was shot again and killed.
The time was 7pm. The Munsters were under heavy attack from the south, east and west. The battalion, under the command of Captain Hall, fell back to the orchard, where Hall was wounded.
Command now fell on Lieutenant E.W. Gower, the senior unwounded officer. The battalion resisted repeated attacks on the orchard until 9.15pm, when, with ammunition virtually spent, the battalion was overwhelmed and the survivors taken prisoner.
The casualties in the battle on the British side were substantially from 2nd Battalion Royal Munster Fusiliers.
Of the Munsters, 4 officers and 256 soldiers, wounded and unwounded, were captured in the orchard, when the battalion was finally overrun. In the whole battle, 6 officers and around 500 soldiers of the battalion were made prisoner, many of them incapacitated by wounds.
It is not known what casualties were suffered by the 15th Hussars troop or the section of 118th Battery. Probably most, if not all, of the hussars and gunners were either casualties or captured.
The next day the Germans caused parties of Munsters to collect the battalion’s dead and wounded from across the battlefield. The Germans permitted the Munsters to create a graveyard in the orchard and a memorial was built for the dead officers.
The Munsters’ officers killed in the battle and buried in the orchard were: Major Charrier, Captains Simms MVO and Barrett, Lieutenants Styles, Chute, Phayre and Awdry and Second Lieutenants Crozier and Sullivan. 82 soldiers from the battalion were buried in the orchard.
The soldiers from 118th Battery buried in the orchard comprised Battery Sergeant Major Strutt and 6 others. 1 private from the 15th (King’s) Hussars is buried in the orchard.
The Musters’ officers wounded in the battle were Captains Hall, Wise and Rawlins, Lieutenant Deane-Drake and Second Lieutenants Moseley, Thomas, Green and White Haddon.
Munsters reported that, after the battle, many buildings in Étreux were used to house German wounded, which seemed to number around 1,500. It would be reasonable to assume that the Germans suffered around 2,000 casualties in all during the battle. This would have been more than double the size of the Munster force.
The Munster prisoners reported that the German Corps Commander was furious when he realised the size of the force he had been fighting. Lower ranking German soldiers were complimentary of the conduct of the Munsters in resisting for so long and with such vigour.
Lieutenant Harry Newsom, 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, an unwounded officer captured at the Battle of Étreux: photographed after his capture and while a prisoner of war in Torgau, Saxony
After the battle, 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers assembled 5 officers and 196 soldiers.
Brigadier Edmonds, the British Official Historian of the Great War, records that the Munsters fight at Étreux delayed the German pursuit of the BEF I Corps for 6 hours, enabling the rear formations to get through the Guise bottleneck and retreat south.
Decorations and campaign medals:
See the entry on Mons at http://www.britishbattles.com/firstww/battle-mons.htm
Étreux is not a battle honour. Decorations for the battle were awarded after the War, in 1920. Little was known of the circumstances of the battle on the British side at the time, as everyone involved was either killed or captured, although reports began to be sent to Britain by captured officers and soldiers. Captain Wise received the Military Cross. A number of soldiers, including CSM McEvoy, received the Military Medal.
It would be reasonable to suppose that Major Paul Charrier would have received the DSO, had he lived. The DSO is an order, not strictly a decoration for bravery, and there is no provision for its award posthumously.
A German poster announcing the execution of Private George Lay of 1st Royal Berkshires
The previous battle in the series is: Le Grand Fayt
The next battle in the series is: The Battle of Néry.
The Official History of the Great War by Brigadier Edmonds August-October 1914.
The History of the Royal Munster Fusiliers.
The Story of the Munsters at Étreux, Festubert and Rue du Bois by Mrs Victor Rickard.