Britains Contemptible Little Army

By John Dudek 26 Aug 2014 0

The two wounded British sergeants of an undermanned 13 pound artillery gun crew crouched behind the splinter shield of their overheated gun as German artillery shells continued erupting around and above their battery position near the village of Nery France on the misty early morning of 1 September 1914. Theirs was the last British gun still in action after the rest of their six gun battery had been destroyed or put out of action by heavy German shell fire over the past two hours, along with most of their gun crews.  Dead and wounded men, horses, overturned and dismounted cannon and burning shell caisson limbers littered the area like so many scattered and broken children's toys thrown across a playroom floor. Whenever the German shell fire lifted momentarily, one of the wounded artillery sergeants would dash across the bullet and shell swept landscape to their gun caisson limber some 20 yards away to fetch yet another shell for their over-heated, embattled gun. They paused only long enough to cut the shell fuse to 1.5 seconds, before slapping it into the gun's smoking breech and fire it at the German gun positions 600 yards away atop the heights above the village. Occasionally their counter-battery return fire would result in an air burst above the German gun positions, mowing down a number of their gun crews and silencing yet another one of their dozen artillery pieces. During the course of the fighting, both NCO's were struck numerous times from flying shrapnel, while all of their remaining officers serving the gun were either killed or wounded.  In addition concussions from the near constant firing of the single 13 pound gun caused blood to run from both men's ears and noses. After two and a half hours of one sided fighting, the disconcerting sight of large formations of German Uhlan cavalry could now be seen deploying atop the distant heights preparing to make a dismounted bayonet charge down into the village.  One gunner sergeant grimly said to the other.  "We're for it now.  This is the last round."  Their 13 pound gun spoke one final time, its shell landing in the midst of the massed German cavalry, cutting down dozens of horses and troopers. Only a miracle could save the British gunners now.

Many, if not most, historians agree that the most professional, well trained and effective army to enter the fighting on the European continent during that summer of 1914 was the British Army.  Although comparatively small when compared to the opposing million man armies fielded by both Germany and France, it numbered but 80,000 men in two corps.  However the British Army Expeditionary Force was comprised primarily of long service veterans and territorials who'd served a minimum of seven years for both king and country in wars ranging in size from the small colonial wars of empire to the Boer War in South Africa 14 years before.  They were a hard bitten, professional lot of "Old Sweats" who saw the army as not only their occupation, but as an integral part of their very core of being and not merely as a temporary term of enlistment and national service. They knew the savage killing art of soldiering and every aspect of their terrible trade from muzzle to butt-plate.  They could put a life saving tourniquet on a wounded arm using their teeth to tighten the knot, and still roar defiance at an oncoming enemy by firing 30 aimed shots at them in a "mad-minute" from their Lee-Enfield rifles. "These long service veterans had made the British Army their home and they would no more not be a part of it than for a fish to exist out of water."   The aforementioned .303 calibre Short Magazine Lee-Enfield rifle MK.III was perhaps the best designed bolt action rifle ever used on the battlefield and it continued to serve the British Army well into the 1950's. Its smooth pull bolt action meant that a rifleman skilled in its use could quickly chamber and fire numerous rounds without ever losing the enemy's sight picture, giving every British infantryman a devastatingly effective high rate of fire.  It was said that Germany's ruler Kaiser Wilhelm upon hearing of Britain's declaration of war against them on 4 August 1914, derisively dismissed the six divisions and five cavalry brigades of the British Expeditionary Force soldiers now arriving in France as members of "This Contemptible Army".  Whether he ever spoke these words or not, the average German soldier would soon discover the British Army's true worth and learn much from the bitter experience after meeting them in battle.

Germany went to war in the west in August 1914 with seven full field armies.  Their general staff war plans relied upon a modified version of the "Schlieffen Plan" to quickly destroy the French Army through a fast marching "end-around" invasion through neutral Belgium before encircling the French and pinning them hard against Germany's border. The Germans hadn't planned on the fierce Belgian resistance they immediately encountered, nor on the whole sale self-destruction and demolition of Belgium's railroads, some of the best in Europe at the time.  Germany had planned on making heavy use of Belgian railroads to keep their far flung armies supplied in the field.  This was not to be, and it took German Reich Bahn railroad repair crews many months, if not longer to rebuild or repair all of the blown bridges and destroyed trackage throughout the country.  In the meantime, the fast moving German armies on the march were increasingly forced to live off the land like the armies of antiquity, but in far greater numbers than those of earlier times. As a result, the French countryside was quickly stripped bare of all livestock, grain, fruit or any sort of other sustenance by hungry German troops like an overwhelming swarm cloud of two legged locusts.

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Great Britain had guaranteed Belgium's neutrality under the Treaty of London in 1839, and quickly declared war on Germany after they violated that neutrality and invaded the country.  France entered the war with five full field armies and were hoping of taking back their former provinces of Alsace Lorraine that had been ceded to Germany following the disastrous French defeat following the Franco-Prussian War of 1870.  In the Battle of the Frontiers that followed, the Germans slowly fell back from French Army probes, while inflicting heavy casualties on French infantry.  In the fierce German counterattacks that soon followed, the French were forced to withdraw to Altkirch before sending many of their troops to support the defense of Paris.  At this same time, the hard marching German troop formations continued sweeping through Belgium, while preparing for the crucial turning movement called for in the Schlieffen Plan.  The right wing of the German Army under Field Marshal Alexander Von Kluck soon ran headlong into the British Expeditionary Force who were dug in around the canals and of Mons, Belgium, on 23 August 1914.  The British Expeditionary Force had arrived in Mons the day before, only to find the French Fifth Army on their right flank already heavily in engaged in battle with the Germans. The BEF had a full day to dig in and prepare for the battle that was not long in coming.

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The dawn of 23 August truly came on like thunder as the Germans opened a preparatory heavy artillery barrage on the British positions.  Around 9 a.m. the first massed German infantry assault went in, attempting to seize the four bridges across the canal.  Their feldgrau gray uniforms stood out well against the green late summer landscape, presenting an all too easy target for the British infantrymen, who opened fire on them at 1,000 yards.  The tightly packed German attack columns moving in parade field formation were quickly mowed down by the wall of British rifle fire like ripe wheat before a scythe, leaving the dazed survivors to swear they were facing the fire of several machine gun batteries.  After taking such heavy casualties during the first infantry assault, the Germans switched to more open troop formations for the next assaults, but these attacks were no more successful than the first had been.  By afternoon, the ground leading up to the canal seemed to be carpeted with German feldgrau uniforms, some 5,000 men in all.  In spite of holding the line against all German attacks, the BEF II Corps was forced to withdraw from their fortified positions after it was discovered that the French Fifth Army was no longer on its right flank and had retreated.  After fighting a number of sharp rear guard actions over the next several days, the British Expeditionary Force infantry and cavalry units managed to extricate itself from the would-be German trap in good order and fall back to more defensible ground.  The British were in fine spirits and their marching song reflected this.  It was a ribald version of ?The Girl I Left Behind Me? that went  "Oh we don't give a **** about old Von Kluck and all his ****ing great army..."

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On 31 August the road weary British 1st Cavalry Brigade of some three regiments of horsemen and L Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, armed with six 13 pound guns, bivouacked in and around the town of Nery France.  It was supposed to be a short lay over for the brigade and they were ordered to pull out of the town before dawn the next day.  Overnight, a heavy fog descended upon the area; therefore, the unit's departure was delayed several hours until the sun could burn off the mist.  The troopers of the brigade happily looked forward to the all too rare treat of preparing and eating a proper breakfast as numerous cook fires were lit by a number of their men.  Meanwhile, farriers and other cavalrymen looked to the grooming and care of their horses.  Unbeknownst to the men of the British Brigade, the much larger 4th German Cavalry division, armed with twelve 77 mm. cannon were then deploying on the heights above the town.

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Around 5:40 am the first twelve German artillery shells crashed down on the British bivouac, throwing both men and horses into complete panic, while wounding or killing dozens more.  Heavy German machine gun and rifle fire joined in, as frightened, riderless horses stampeded north through the town. Many of the British cavalrymen frantically sought cover from German shells and gunfire, while others tried to regain control over their panic stricken mounts.  As further German shells continued to impact around the bivouac, Captain Bradbury rallied his men by shouting "Who's for the guns?!"  The men of Battery L grimly bent to the task of unlimbering their six, 13 pound cannon, the product of the Woolwich Arsenal as they prepared to return fire.  The 13 pound guns were a reliable, robust and effective lighter artillery cousin to the heavier 18 pound infantry support weapons then in use in the British Army. The gun was capable of firing high explosive as well as shrapnel rounds.  Each 13 pound shrapnel shell contained 263 pellets around a bursting charge and was highly effective out to a range of about 6,000 yards, making it a near perfect cavalry support weapon.  The devastating curtain of German artillery fire continued unabated on the town of Nery and soon put three of the British guns and their crews out of action.  These losses continued to mount until there was but one gun remaining, F Gun.  It was served by Sergeant Nelson, Battery Sergeant-Major Dorrell and Corporal Payne.  Captain Bradbury and Lieutenant's Munday and Campbell stood nearby, observing the fall of their shells through their binoculars, all the while making range adjustments to the gun.  They also fetched ammunition from the nearby gun limber caisson until all the officers and Corporal Payne were wounded or killed.

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Sometime around 8am, just as the German bayonet assault was making progress in its attack on the village, the miracle occurred that saved F Gun's wounded pair of hard fighting sergeants, plus all the remaining men of L Battery and the cavalrymen still in the bivouac around Nery.  Two fresh squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards moved around the German positions on the heights in an attempt to outflank the attackers.  These British cavalry men were quickly joined by the added reinforcements from III Corps along with the supporting machine guns and a full strength battalion of men of the Middlesex Regiment, plus the horse artillery of Battery I, just now arriving on the scene.  As the first British artillery shells from the newly arrived gun battery crashed down onto the German artillery positions upon the heights, a gunner from L Battery later wrote: "There was never heard a grander music."  The Germans on the heights had no choice but to beat a precipitous retreat that soon turned into a full blown rout before the attacking British infantry and cavalry counter attacks.  The Germans lost 8 of their guns atop the heights for lack of battery horses to pull them away. Two of the guns were still loaded with unfired shells in their breaches.  "They were beautifully built and finished pieces, bearing the Imperial Crown and the legend "ultima ratio regis." (the last argument of kings).  British cavalry kept up their pursuit of the fleeing German cavalry for over a mile as a squadron of the 11th Hussars chased them down, before returning with 78 additional prisoners from all six regiments of the German 4th Cavalry Division.  In addition, the British found the other four German 77 mm. guns abandoned in a nearby forest.  It was a perfect rout of the German 4th Cavalry Division by inferior sized British forces and one that had far reaching strategic consequences in the days to come.  With the German 4th Cavalry Division now unfit for further combat, dispersed and scattered to the four winds, Field Marshal Von Kluck lost his best mode of obtaining vital intelligence information as to the enemy's plans and location.  In short, he was blind and completely unaware to the fact he was now facing the new French 6th Army now located on his right flank. On 7 September the French struck hard at Von Kluck's right and easily crushed the single corps of German troops detailed towards preventing a major French break through. This initiated the First Battle of the Marne, "The Battle that Saved France."  With the French 6th Army on one German flank and the two corps of the BEF on the other, Von Kluck had no other choice but to abandon the successful offensive warfare of the Schlieffen Plan.  With both of his flanks turned, he was forced to make a hasty withdrawal behind the Aisnes River and dig in.  This brought about the advent of four years of deadly and ruinous trench warfare to the fields of France.

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British casualties in the Battle of Nery numbered 80% of Battery L's officers and men with 135 killed and wounded. German losses were impossible to gather, given how many men probably died along the route of retreat. Rarely have so many Victoria Crosses been awarded for a battle of such short duration.  They were awarded to Captain Bradbury (posthumously), Battery Sergeant Major Dorrell and Sergeant Nelson.  Dorrell and Nelson were later promoted to Lieutenant. DSO's (Distinguished Service Orders) were awarded to the unit's commanding officer and to a Lieutenant.  In addition, DSM?s (Distinguished Service Medals) were awarded to two enlisted men for their part in the battle. These early battles of the First World War represented a high water mark in the fortunes of the British Army, for all too soon the majority of this hard core legion of "Old Sweats" would lie beneath the green fields of France and Belgium, especially around the town of Ypres in the coming battles of that November and in the following year.  The massive British civilian conscript army now flocking to the colours and taking shape under the leadership of Lord Kitchener were fully capable, worthy heirs, but lacked the  overall martial dedication, spirit and mindset of their professional forebears.  On this 100 year anniversary of the beginning of the First World War it is only fitting to pay tribute to these professional soldiers, England's finest, the "Old Sweats" of the "Contemptible Little Army?.

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