As we turned into the Grand' Place at St. Quentin on that late August afternoon not a single German was to be seen. The whole square was thronged with British infantrymen standing in groups or wandering about in an aimless fashion, most of them without either packs or rifles. Scores had gone to sleep sitting on the pavement, their backs against the fronts of the shops. Many, exhausted, lay at full length on the pavement. Some few, obviously intoxicated, wandered about firing in the air at real or imaginary German aeroplanes. The great majority were not only without their arms but had apparently either lost or thrown away their belts, water bottles and other equipment.
There must have been several hundred men in the Square, and more in the side streets; yet apparently they were without officers anyway, no officers were to be seen. On the road down to the station we found Major Tom Bridges with part of his squadron and a few Lancers, horse-gunners and other stragglers who had attached themselves to his command. We followed him down to the station.
Apparently some hours before our arrival the last train that was to leave St. Quentin Pariswards for several years, had steamed out, carrying with it most of the British General Staff. A mob of disorganized soldiery had collected at the station, and I was told some had booed and cheered ironically these senior Staff officers as the Staff train steamed out.
Certainly many of these infantrymen appeared to be in a queer, rather truculent, mood. Bridges, who had sized up the situation, harangued this disorganized mob that only a few hours before had represented at least two famous regiments of the 4th Division.
Dismounted and standing far back in the crowd I could not hear what he said, but his words of encouragement and exhortation were received with sullen disapproval and murmurs by the bulk of those around him. One man shouted out: "Our old man (his Colonel) has surrendered to the Germans, and we'll stick to him. We don't want any bloody cavalry interfering!" and he pointed his rifle at Bridges.
I failed at first to understand how all these English soldiers could have surrendered to the Germans whom we had left several miles outside the city. But I was tired and hungry and I didn't much care what happened. Losing interest in what was taking place at the station I rode back up to the Grand' Place, hoping I should find some food and a sofa on which I could lie down. As I rode up from the station many of the men in the street stared at me disdainfully, their arms folded ; scarcely one saluted I was for them only "one of the bloody interfering cavalry officers." The events of the last three or four days had evidently diminished the prestige of the officer caste.
I began to wonder whether Bridges would be really shot if he continued his harangue at the railway station. In the Grand' Place I seemed to be the only officer.
I tied my horse to a lamp-post, intending to find a shop where I could buy some food and get permission to lie down. But nearly every shop was closed or else the door was blocked by an indignant proprietor and his wife who insisted, as I was an officer, that I should go in at once and clear out the English soldiery who had entered and were lying asleep in the bedrooms and passages, and in some cases had helped themselves to food.
"Your men are all drunk, will you order them out of the house? I have young daughters in my house the men have entered my kitchen it is disgraceful! Why is there no order? Why are there no officers? Your troops have been here for hours and up to no good ; please order them to go away!"
"It is all your fault," I said angrily, "I have seen your people giving our tired men white wine to drink; and you know they can have had nothing to eat for twenty-four hours. Why on earth do you not give them all some bread and butter and make them some coffee?" They looked at me in amazement. French peasants will often give wine away but who ever heard of a French shopkeeper giving away butter!
The townsfolk were exaggerating only a few of the men were drunk. Certainly in nearly every house and shop I entered there were a few English soldiers. Even in a chemist's shop where I tried unsuccessfully the proprietor was merely rude to buy some soap, two British soldiers were lying fast asleep, not on, but underneath the couch in the chemist's back parlour.
But I saw few actually drunk. Eventually I got some bread and a bottle of white wine, and to avoid the recriminations of the shop people I decided I would sleep out in the Grand' Place as so many men were doing. The pavement looked hard and the cobblestones in the square too uneven. Eventually, for the first time in my life may it be the last ! I decided to sleep in the paved gutter which looked dry and cleaner than the road. Rolling up my Burberry for a pillow, I lay down in the gutter close to my horse.
When I awoke it was dusk, and two or three officers of the 4th Dragoon Guards were in the square with Bridges. Apparently, Bridges was having an interview with some official I believe, the Mayor of St. Quentin urging him to provide horses and carts to take those of our men who were too sore-footed to be able to march out of the town. I walked over to listen. As far as I could understand, the official Mayor or whoever he was was very indignant; he kept on saying:
"You understand, m'sieur le Majeur, it is now too late. These men have surrendered to the Germans!"
"How? The Germans are not here."
"Their colonel and officers have signed a paper giving me the numbers of the men of each regiment and the names of the officers who are prepared to surrender, and I have sent a copy of this out under a white flag to the commander of the approaching German army."
"But you have no business, m'sieur, as a loyal Frenchman, to assist allied troops to surrender."
"What else ? " urged the Mayor. " Consider, m'sieur le Majeur, the alternatives. The German army is at Gricourt? Very well ; I, representing the inhabitants of St. Quentin, who do not want our beautiful town unnecessarily destroyed by shell-fire because it happens to be full of English troops, have said to your colonels and your men: 'Will you please go out and fight the German army outside St. Quentin?' But your men, they say, 'No ; we cannot fight! We have lost nearly all our officers, our Staff have gone away by train, we do not know where to. Also, we have no artillery, most of us have neither rifles nor ammunition, and we are all so very tired!' Then, m'sieur le Majeur, I say to them, 'Then, please, if you will not fight, will you please go right away, and presently the Germans will enter St. Quentin peacefully; so the inhabitants will be glad to be tranquil and not killed, and all our good shops not burnt.' But they reply to me, 'No, we cannot go away! We are terribly, terribly tired. We have had no proper food or rest for many days, and yesterday we fought a great battle. We have not got any maps, and we do not even know where to go to. So we will stay in St. Quentin and have a little rest.' Then I say to them, 'Since you will neither fight nor go away, then please you must surrender.' So I send out a list of those who surrender to the German commander, and now all is properly arranged."
Arraigned? Yet the logic of this argument was irresistible but for one point, which Bridges had quickly seized upon. The men could be got away if every horse and cart in St. Quentin was collected for those men too tired to march ; his cavalrymen would escort them out of the town. So the shops and streets would be cleared of tired and drunken men, and there would be no more firing off of rifles. But there was to be no more of this wine, only tea or coffee and bread.
So eventually it was arranged. Bridges had saved the situation which, though bad, was understandable. Disorganized stragglers had arrived by the hundred, many out of sheer fatigue having thrown away their packs and rifles. They had tramped beneath the blazing August sun with empty stomachs, dispirited and utterly weary ; many had received quantities of wine from friendly French peasants to revive them in those dusty lanes. Literally, in many cases their bellies were full of wine and their boots were half-full of blood ; that I saw myself.
The English soldier's feet, like his head but unlike his heart, are not his strong point.
To me it seems there was every excuse for the two colonels and the one or two pale, exhausted-looking subalterns whom I had noticed mingling with the crowd down at the station. Without Staff, without maps or orders, without food, without ammunition, what could the remnants of broken infantry do before the advance of a victorious army whose cavalry could have mopped them up in an hour ? Probably, looking back on it now, the two colonels did almost the only thing feasible and the brave thing. Middle-aged men, both of them looked utterly exhausted. From their appearance they were suffering severely from the sun ; that alone might account for their not having thought of using the mayor as a collector of country carts. So Bridges sent the remnant of his squadron round St. Quentin to encourage and collect in the square as many as possible of the infantrymen who were willing to join us in making our escape. The shots in different parts of the town still continued. Perhaps a few drunken soldiers were still having an imaginary wrestle with the "Angels of Mons," or something more repulsive ; white wine can raise many images. Or did some of Bridges' squadron shoot a few who too truculently scorned their suggestion that there was still time to run and fight another day?
Ridges asked me to count the men who were collecting in the square and get them into fours. I counted one hundred and ten fours ; that is to say, four hundred and forty men. Then he asked me to do something else I forget what it was. A few men had whistles and Jews' harps .perhaps they had them in their haversacks, as soldiers often do and they formed a sort of band. We persuaded one of the colonels to march in front of his men. My recollection is that he looked very pale, entirely dazed, had no Sam Browne belt and leant heavily on his stick, apparently so exhausted with fatigue and the heat that he could scarcely have known what he was doing. Some of his men called to him encouraging words, affectionate and familiar, but not meant insolently, such as: "Buck up, sir! Cheer up, daddy! Now we shan't be long! We are all going back to 'Hang-le- Tear'!"
Actually I saw him saluting one of his own corporals, who did not even look surprised. What with fatigue, heat, drink and the demoralization of defeat, many hardly knew what they were doing. I was so tired myself that I went to sleep on my horse almost immediately after I remounted and nearly fell off, much to the amusement of some of the infantry, who supposed I was as drunk with white wine as some of their comrades.
By this time it was quite dark. It seemed to have taken hours to collect the men, yet we did not move off. I began to feel quite sick with impatience. Over-tired or sheer funk ? What on earth were the German cavalry doing ? At about five that afternoon they had been at Gricourt. We had held on there, keeping them back until about six o'clock, and it was now nearly eleven o'clock, and Gricourt was but a few miles outside the town. Why had they not entered the town and mopped up this disorganized mob? Had they, informed by their aeroplanes of the situation, already encircled the town ? It was nearly half-past twelve before we left St. Quentin. The sultry August day had passed, to leave a thick summer mist. Our small army was at last collected. Every kind of vehicle had been filled with men with blistered feet. In front of them, on foot, were several hundred infantry, mostly of two regiments, but containing representatives of nearly every unit in the 4th Division, and behind, to form the rearguard to this extraordinary cavalcade, Tom Bridges' mounted column the gallant little band of 4th Dragoon Guards, with driblets of Lancers, Hussars, Irish Horse, Signallers and the rest of the stragglers. In front of all rode a liaison officer and a guide sent by the Mayor, and, I think, Tom Bridges. By his side, walking, armed with a walking-stick, was one of the two colonels, a thick-set man, who had surrendered (the other had disappeared). And immediately behind them the miscellaneous "band" of Jews' harps and penny whistles.
So through the darkness and the thick, shrouding fog of that summer night we marched out, literally feeling our way through the countryside, so thick was the mist. At about two in the morning we had reached the villages of Savy and Roupy. Just as we started to leave St. Quentin I woke up to the fact that my precious map-case was missing, and I had to return to look for it in the now deserted Grand' Place. As for a moment I sat on my horse alone there, taking a last look round, I heard an ominous sound the metallic rattle on the cobbles of cavalry entering the town through one of the darkened side streets that led into the Grand' Place. The Germans must have entered St. Quentin but a few minutes after the tail of our queer little column disappeared westward through the fog towards Savy.
British Soldiers at Saint Quentin
Approaching St. Quentin, the situation of the infantry became precarious. Marched literally off their feet, they straggled into the town in a demoralized condition. In the early afternoon our Brigadier had called the officers together and said we were in a very tight corner, but must right it out and die like gentlemen. He appointed me rearguard commander with two squadrons and two companies of French Territorial infantry in support. My orders were to hold the Germans off and retire through St. Quentin at 6 p.m. (I was not actually clear of it until six hours later.) I made my dispositions and pushed out patrols to keep touch with the enemy. One of these, a corporal and three men, got cut off and joined a French cavalry regiment, but eventually found their way back to us a fortnight later.
"THE Germans were slow in coming on. During the afternoon a large grey car loaded with ladies came up on to a hill near by and had a good look round. The car was so like a Staff Benz that we thought the sex of the ladies doubtful. We sent a patrol to investigate, but it quickly turned and was gone. The Frenchmen were dug in on a rise north of the town, a nice position, with a clear field of fire. I arranged with the commandant that he should stay there till 4 p.m., but after visiting the outposts and returning about 2 p.m., there was not a pair of red trousers in sight anywhere. This was my first experience of Allied co-operation. The French, in spite of their gallantry and inherent military qualities, were often unreliable and unpunctual. It may be that their methods were different from ours. They came and went like autumn leaves. Where we would hold a position they would abandon it and retake it with a brilliant counter-attack, and l'heure militaire, inexorable for le dιjeuner, seemed meaningless in operations. One had to remember that Marianne was a woman and would keep you guessing. Heroic in danger, she would run from a mouse. She would rise to the heights and descend to the depths. Like the prophet Habakkuk, she was capable de tout. Our interpreter officer, Harrison (4th Hussars), went into St. Quentin to find out if the infantry were clear, as, barring an occasional solitary lame duck, they seemed to have ceased coming down the Le Cateau road, a part of which we could see.
On his return he reported the place swarming with stragglers. He could find no officers, and the men were going into the houses and lying down to sleep. I then dispatched Sewell [Brigadier-General Sewell] with some hefty henchmen, farriers and the like, to clear out the houses and get everyone into the market place. He was also to find the Maire and commandeer bread and cheese and beer for our men, who were now on short commons, and to have it put down ready by portions on the pavement outside the Mairie, so that if we were pressed, as seemed quite possible, we should not have to waste time issuing rations.
We gradually fell back into the town, leaving two troops and machine- guns to hold the bridge over the river. There were two or three hundred men lying about in the Place and the few officers, try as they would, could not get a kick out of them. Worse, Harrison now reported that the remains of two battalions had piled arms in the railway station, and that their commanding officer had given a written assurance to the Maire that they would surrender and fight no more, in order to save the town from bombardment. I had to relieve the Maire of this document at once, and sent Harrison back to tell the two commanding officers that there was a cavalry rearguard still behind them, and they must hurry up and get out. Apparently a meeting was then held and the men refused to march on the ground that they had already surrendered and would only come away if a train was sent to take them. I therefore sent an ultimatum giving them half an hour's grace, during which time some carts would be provided for those who really could not walk, but letting them know that I would leave no British soldier alive in St. Quentin. Upon this they left the station and gave no more trouble. I quote this unpleasant incident to show to what extremes good troops will be driven by fatigue. I conducted these negotiations through an intermediary, as I knew one of the colonels well and had met the other, and they were, of course, both senior to me.
"The men in the square were a different problem, and so jaded it was pathetic to see them. If one only had a band, I thought. Why not? There was a toy shop handy which provided my trumpeter and myself with a tin whistle and a drum, and we marched round and round the fountain where the men were lying like the dead, playing " The British Grenadiers" and "Tipperary," and beating the drum like mad. They sat up and began to laugh and even cheer. I stopped playing and made them a short exhortation and told them I was going to take them back to their regiments. They began to stand up and fall in, and eventually we moved slowly off into the night to the music of our improvised band, now reinforced with a couple of mouth-organs. When well clear of the town I tried to delegate my functions to someone else, but the infantry would not let me go. "Don't leave us, major," they cried, "or by God we'll not get anywhere." So on we went, and it was early morning before I got back to my squadron. Our rearguard was unmolested by the Germans, and it looked as if "more haste, less speed" might well have been the description of this part of the retreat.
Both the colonels above mentioned were afterwards court-martialled and cashiered. One of them, Elkington, joined the French Foreign Legion and worked his way to a commission. He was badly wounded and received the Legion of Honour. For his gallantry in the field the King reinstated him in the Army and awarded him the D.S.O.