Chronicling and remembering individuals associated with the Londonderry area who lost their lives in the First World War.
August 1914 – The Retreat From Mons
The Great War started in August 1914, when Germany put into operation its strategy to defeat the French army by advancing through neutral Belgium and northern France.
With the German advance the British Expeditionary Force took up positions around the Belgian town of Mons.
It was here, on August 23, that the British faced the strength of the German army.
The British suffered greatly and began the retreat south.
By August 26, II Corps had withdrawn to positions around the French town of Le Cateau, where eight German divisions attacked them. British units held the line against vastly superior numbers until late in the day when the enemy succeeded in outflanking them.
O’Donnell, Private Charles, 7171
Private Charles O’Donnell, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, died in action on August 26, 1914 at Le Cateau. He was the brother of E. O’Donnell, 100, Glendermott Road, Waterside, and his name is recorded on the La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial, Seine-et-Marne, France.
La Ferte-sous-Jouarre is a small town 66 kilometres to the east of Paris. The Memorial is situated in a small park on the south-western edge of the town, on the south bank of the River Marne. The La Ferte-sous-Jouarre Memorial commemorates almost 4,000 officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force who died in August, September and the early part of October 1914 and who have no known grave. The monument consists of a rectangular block of stone, 62 feet by 30 feet and 24 feet high, with the names of the dead engraved on stone panels on all sides of the monument. The monument is surmounted by a sarcophagus and a trophy carved in stone. At the four corners of the pavement are stone piers with urns, carved with the coats of arms of the Empire.
Private O’Donnell’s name is also commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial, Londonderry. On the day of his death, the British, then in retreat from Mons, turned on the pursuing Germans and checked their advance at Le Cateau. The ensuing battle at the French town was a fearsome one. At one point the German superiority in machine guns was decisive. But the British effort was such that the Germans overestimated the size of the forces confronting them. After the battle, which held the line for long enough to enable thousands of men to fall back in relatively good order, the British retreat continued.
Private O’Donnell died fighting with the 2nd Inniskillings, and the gallant actions of this battalion, on the day of the private’s demise, are described in Sir Frank Fox’s excellent book, The Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers in the World War:
“On the morning of Le Cateau, August 26, 1914, the 2nd Inniskillings were on the extreme left of the 4th Division, and thus of the British line. The II Corps, consistently with the orders of GHQ, had made preparations to retire early that morning, and the 4th Division was to cover the retirement and to protect the left flank. The retirement was to begin at 4 a.m. At 2 a.m. General Smith-Dorrien finally decided that it was necessary to stand and to strike the enemy hard before conforming with the general retirement. The Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, was informed of this decision, and in reply gave General Smith-Dorrien ‘a free hand.’
“Owing to the necessity of pushing out the left flank as far as possible to meet the enveloping efforts of the enemy, the British front was extended to a very thin khaki line and there was no possibility of holding any troops in reserve. All four Companies of the 2nd Inniskillings were therefore in the line, B and C at Longsart (north-west of Hancourt), A and D at Esnes (south-east of Cambrai). The 4th Division had its complement of Field Artillery and Infantry, but was without its Divisional Cavalry and cyclists, its Heavy Battery, Field Engineers, Signal Co. Train, Ammunition Column or Field Ambulances. Thus it was heavily handicapped as regards keeping up communications and maintaining ammunition supplies, and could not send its wounded to the rear.
“The battle opened on a somewhat misty morning after a night of drizzling rain. The first experience of the Regiment in the engagement was distinctly dramatic. B and C Companies, the previous night, under Major Wilding, had been ordered to Beauvois, and at dusk barricaded the roads entering the village. During the night the villages all around were fired, telling of the presence of the enemy, but he did not attempt to enter Beauvois. Before dawn these two Companies were ordered to Longsart Farm (Brigade Headquarters). A French Cavalry Patrol was there and went out on reconnaissance, but never returned. Our men settled down to cook breakfast inside the Longsart farm orchard, which was enclosed by a high wall. Fires were just going when there was a heavy burst of machine-gun fire and shrapnel. Favoured by a slight ground mist the enemy had come quite close without being detected. The 2nd Inniskillings rushed out of the orchard and took up position. They were ordered to retire slowly, and did so in good order, and in short rushes, and took up a new position about three-quarters of a mile in the rear, which commanded the reverse slopes of the old position. Later, getting some artillery aid, the Companies advanced to their original position and held this until the general retirement.
When the enemy first advanced, the post of D Company was also forced to retire temporarily a short distance, but as the enemy attack developed it was driven back with loss and the D post recaptured.
Up till 2 p.m. no ground had been lost. Heavy toll was taken of the enemy throughout the day. One Company of the 2nd Inniskillings counted 47 dead of an attacking Battalion before its front during a lull in the engagement when an officer went forward to bring in the wounded. Retirement in good order was effected late in the afternoon on the orders of General Smith-Dorrien.
Then began the long march back, the 2nd Inniskillings being detailed as rearguard to the 4th Division, but not having to fight again until September 1…”
Browne, Private George, 7425
Private George Browne, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, was born in Londonderry, enlisted at Glasgow, and died in France on September 1, 1914. His name is commemorated on Londonderry’s Diamond War Memorial, and his remains are interred in Verberie Communal Cemetery, Oise, France.
Verberie is a village on the River Oise, 11 kilometres south-west of Compiegne on the main road to Senlis and Paris. The village was the scene of fighting on September 1, 1914, and in 1918, French ambulances were stationed in the village.
In the pages of Frank Fox’s excellent record of the Inniskillings in the Great War, we find detailed coverage of the exploits of the 2nd Inniskillings on the day Private Browne’s death:
“On September 1 came a heavy trial; after marching all the previous day through the forest of Compiegne, the 2nd Inniskillings formed the outpost line for the 12th Brigade along the south edge of the forest. At dawn a Company of German cyclists in close formation appeared out of the mist only 200 yards in front of Lt. Hinds’ two machine guns which were covering the road. He ordered them to open fire on this excellent machine-gun target and caused great slaughter. The Germans, however, opened an attack all along the line, and C and D Companies were ordered to withdraw, leaving A and B Companies in position to cover the withdrawal. The latter were then in turn ordered to withdraw, which they did in good order, through the village to Verberie.
“On reaching the south end of the village a Staff Officer rode up and ordered Captains Roe and Yardley to take their Companies back to the north end of the village, which position they had just vacated. This involved marching down the main street. As soon as the advance began a German field gun, which had been brought into position at the other end of the main street, opened fire over open sights at a range of a few hundred yards. The effect of this fire was deadly, as the shrapnel burst right on our advancing troops, who could only flatten themselves for shelter against the walls of the houses and try to sidle forward without a chance to reply to the enemy fire. In spite of this, Captains Roe and Yardley continued to lead their men forward, and not a man turned back until orders came to retire.”
Deery, Private William, 7044
Thirty-three-year-old, Private William Deery belonged to ‘A’ Company, 2nd Battalion Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers.
He was born at Templemore, County Londonderry, enlisted in Derry, and died on September 1, 1914. He was the son of Michael and Bridget Deery, and brother of Private Owen Deery, Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, and Michael Deery, 30, Fahan Street, Derry.
William Deery’s remains are interred in Verberie Communal Cemetery, Oise, France, and his name is commemorated on the Diamond War Memorial.
Private William Deery was one of five brothers who served in the Great War.
One of the brothers, Private John Deery, Highland Light Infantry, fought in the battle of Festubert on May 16, 1915, when he was shot through the knee.
After recovery, he was again with his regiment in the firing line at the battle of Loos, on September 25, 1915, when he received two bullets in the thigh. He remarked at the time that an Aberdeen priest gave him a pair of rosary beads, which he much prized, as he had them with him on both charges, and in one of the battles they diverted a bullet which otherwise might have had a fatal effect.