The Retreat South
Rear guard action at FUGNIES; Battery stampeded enemies’ Supply Column – day of alarms—bivouacked.
By first light the column was ready for another day of marching. The morning started out cool and Fred sat tall in his saddle while the infantry marched at a good pace. But by midmorning the heat returned along with the humidity. The infantry looked like wilting flowers, their arms dangled from their shoulders and tired legs dragged boots along the dusty road.
Men began to shed any unnecessary equipment in an effort to keep up. In order to lift spirits, one of the sergeants began signing a lively tune and for awhile others joined in. But the choking dust soon took its toll since most were without water.
Marching from early morn to late at night through [the towns of MARBAIX, GOHELLE, to OISY.
Riding beside George we seldom spoke for our mouths were as dry as chalk. When we caught up with the limber Pudgie was driving all we could do was exchange head nods.
Late in the afternoon it became cloudy, which offered some relief from the baking rays of the sun. By evening we heard thunder and lightning flashes mimicked bursting shrapnel shells.
The wind picked up and soon we were marching through mud and faces looked skyward with mouths open to capture as much rainfall as possible. Some took off their hats to catch the rain.
[It rained] all night, [but] no water for horses, [and marching in the heat] am sorry for infantry, we give them a lift now and then on horses and vehicles, am glad to stretch legs after long days in saddle.
The rain seemed to refresh the men, even though we were soaked and it continued to rain most of the night.
By early morning the clouds were replaced by the blazing sun, which quickly dried up any remaining remnants of last night’s shower and turned it into unbearable humidity.
Just three days ago our uniforms were clean, boots polished and a spark of determination in their eyes. From his saddle he looked over the ragged men who looked like they were molded from mud. There were many stragglers and we did the best we could to give them a lift on our wagons and limbers.
The Germans were nipping on our heels so we had to keep a steady pace.
[We] marched via ETREUX, GUISE, to BERNOT [and] came into action several times to cover our retirement.
Our battery dropped into action on several occasions to keep the enemy at bay. He and George would drop back and setup a temporary observation post to direct fire, then leave the wire and return to the column before they were caught.
Every town they passed through was packed with refugees trying to escape before the Germans arrived. The worst town was Guise. He was deeply saddened by the look of horror and helplessness he saw on the faces of the people. In their panic to escape the fast approaching enemy they used whatever means of transportation they could find in order to take their treasures and keepsakes with them.
Later in the day he told George “The look of panic and horror on the faces of the refuges will haunt him the rest of his life.”
George responded, “I know what you mean, what scared me was the look on the faces of the children.”
“George, I felt so helpless. I wanted to help but there was nothing I could do.”
Was pitiful to see refugees at Guise, they were all horror stricken. [They were] removing what they could carry on any kind of cart. All rushing from the town, for the Germans came in the town as we went out.
Food and supply ordinance department was trying their best to keep the moving column supplied with food. What made their task more difficult was I and II Corps were on different paths.
They tried to predict the rate and direction of travel so they could dump a load of supplies at a cross road hoping they would be found. However, I Corps had missed the last supply stash and rations were getting low.
The column stopped to water their horses when a breeze carried the smell of freshly baked bread to his sensitive nose. He mounted his charger and followed the sent to a small bakery. Using what French he knew, he bartered with the baker and eventually walked out with a loaf of bread. He did not dear return to the column with a whole loaf, so he eat half of it and hid the remaining bread in his horse’s nose bag.
Long night march, was lucky to stop to water horse near a bakery and managed to secure a loaf of bread. I was very hungry [for] food had been very scarce for a few days [i]– I needed no butter on the bread, and put the remainder in horse’s nosebag for next day. – [We] bivouacked in field about midnight. [ii]
I Corps had passed through the town of Bernot and they were marching towards Brissy. Around 4:30 in the morning the battery was ordered to a position near the town of Brissy to perform rear guard action to cover the Corps retirement.
Later they were ordered to cover Scots Gray and infantry who were fighting their way across the Oise River.
The lack of food, sleep and long marches began to take their toll. Some of the men had worn out their boots so they wrapped their feet in rags to continue marching.
The combination of the August heat and exertion slowed the marching pace. Men were so exhausted whenever the column stopped to rest they fall asleep in any position.
Some soldiers would fall asleep and collapse to the ground, while others dropped from exhaustion. Wagons tried to pick up the stragglers and sometimes a comrade would wake them up and get them back on their feet and started to sing in order to stay awake.
While riding his horse he often fell asleep in the saddle while the horse followed the other horses. Even the horses were exhausted and every so often he had to dismount and walk beside his horse to give him a rest.
[We] marched at 4:30 a.m. and came in action near BRISSY to cover retirement, and later to support Scots Greys and infantry fighting [their] way across [a] river.
[We] continued retirement, [and] everybody, men and horses, [were] dead beat – weather very hot.
Slowed up, had rather easy day, and much needed short rest. [I had] a wash [and] overhauled telephones etc: - [At] ST GOBAIN [we] heard [the] news of 600 Manchester Fusiliers and section of the 118th Btty getting wiped out.
Soldiers of the 118th Battery, 26th Brigade of the Royal Field Artillery were killed or wounded in action at Etreux on the 29th August 1914. Etreux is a village and commune in the Department of the Aisne 32 kilometers NE of St. Quentin and 20 Kilometers W of La Capelle. In the same action 600 Manchester Fusiliers were either killed or wounded.
Marched to PINON, [a] long, [and] very hot march. [We] bivouacked in the grounds of lovely chateau, [where I] had a dip in [a] lake.
The address of the chateau is 6 Rue des Etangs and it lies southeast of the city of Pinon. The manner house has water on three sides and a large square body of water some distance behind the house. Rolling meadows surround the house and they eventually fade into forest.
Marched at 3:30 a.m. [It was a] long, hard, hot march. [The] infantry [were] falling exhausted, at every halt. Men [would] go to sleep, sitting, standing, lying, all seem near knocked up – [We] marched till late at night, I slept for hours on and off in the saddle.
We were awakened around 1 a.m. and without a light we hitched up the horses and began our days march at 3:30 a.m. Not sure why they woke us up so early, perhaps to get a jump ahead of the Germans. With the nights being uncomfortably warm and humid the only benefit from getting an early start is that you don’t have to deal with sun.
By noon everything left exposed to the sun was too hot to touch. Bobby commented, “I bet if we sat a fry pan out in the sun for fifteen minutes we could fry an egg.” Pudgie was quick to respond, “That might be true if we had eggs.”
No longer do we march in column formation, the men stagger about the road like drunken sailors. They march until they drop and somehow force themselves to get-up and continue marching.
Uniforms tattered, a few are wounded and some march with their feet wrapped in their puttees, while others wear blood stained socks.
There seems no end to this constant marching or the heat. Water is in short supply and we are rationed only one pint for the day. We are not allowed to drink the local water for it may have been poisoned.
Everyone is so put-out from the lack of food, sleep and water, some of the men fall asleep while marching and fall over. Details are sent out nightly to find stragglers before the Germans do.
It was around 2 or 3 a.m. when we were called to formation. We started the days march at 5:30 a.m. in order to reach the Marolle Bridge before dark. Usually we stopped to rest after an hour or two, but today we continued marching for five hours. We were told we had to cross the bridge over the Aisne River before it was blown up.
Men were dropping like leaves in the fall and those that followed were unable to lift their legs to step over the fall so they walked around the bodies.
[We] marched at 5:30 a.m. and [it was a] long march to MAROLLE Bridge. [iii]
[We passed] COMPIEGNE [and found out later that] about a mile in our rear was attacked at dawn, L Battery H [indecipherable] getting knocked out. We moved just in time, but did not know how near we were to be out up, until later.
[Arrived] at 6:30 p.m. and I went to sleep by my saddle, [later] we were aroused by alarm at 11:30 p.m.
[We were asked] to move, for [the] Engineers were waiting to blow up the bridge. We got across, just in time and up went the bridge.
[The] German Cavalry were very close, [so] we marched through the night and halted on the roadside about 3:00 a.m. In less than a minute I was sound asleep on a friendly heap of stones.
Up again, marching again, how I longed for a sleep —anywhere. Continued retirement reached MEAUX at 5:30 a.m.
Marched via VARREDDES, GERMINGNY, and bivouacked near JOUARRE, [it was a] long and weary march - very hot.
Halted nearly all day east of SAMMERON [where] the rear guard was slightly engaged – weather hot.
Marched to COULOMMIERS, [and] bivouacked early. [I was able to] washed my underclothing. [iv]
[I] thought we were going to have a day’s rest, but had to move quickly in the morning, and take up position SW of COULOMMIERS. We dug in and remained in action all night, leaving position at dawn; marched with Division to ROZNY.
In position at ROZNY, [but] no contact with enemy.
We hear that the retreat is over, with the French we are to advance, how glad we were - anything but that continual marching[v]
The soldiers of I Corps covered 250 miles and ten days and with little rest they fight their first offensive battle of the war.