World War I started on 28 July 1914 when Austria-Hungary and Serbia went to war following the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian Nationalist. Germany, Russia and France joined the war over the next few days and Britain did so on 4 August 1914 after Germany refused to give an undertaking to respect Belgian neutrality after starting to advance westwards through that country.
Britain was gripped by patriotic fervour with crowds singing the National Anthem and smashing the windows of German-owned shops. Following an appeal for volunteers by the Minister of War, Lord Kitchener, young men flocked to recruitment centres, anxious to take part in a war that many believed would be over in weeks or months and which they did not want to miss.
At the time war broke out the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment was stationed at Victoria Barracks, Belfast. Under Herbert Asquith’s Government, the affairs of Ireland had reached a crisis. Protestant Ireland was actually arming to resist the proposed Home Rule Bill and was supported by Conservative England. The Dorsets were there to keep the peace but quickly turned their attention to mobilisation. On 4 August a party of officers and NCOs left Belfast for Dorchester to conduct reservists, taking with them the Regimental Colours which were laid up in St Mary’s Church, Dorchester the following day. The Queen’s Own Dorset Yeomanry were despatched to Norfolk for coastal defence duties. Reservists were called up and sent from the Dorchester Depot to Belfast to reinforce the 1st Battalion which was soon up to war strength in both numbers of men and equipment. The Dorsets embarked on 14 August 1914 on S.S. Anthony and landed at Le Havre on 16 August. By 17 August more than 80,000 men, 30,000 horses and over 300 artillery pieces had assembled to form the British Expeditionary Force that was to resist the large German army advancing through Belgium with the objective of enveloping Paris.
Quickly moving from France into Belgium, the Battalion took part in the Battle of Mons which started on 23 August when German forces attempted to cross several bridges over the Mons- Condé Canal. Despite fierce resistance, the British position became untenable and a general withdrawal was ordered. The Dorsets formed part of the rearguard for the BEF’s fighting retreat from Mons and were involved in several defensive actions to hold back the overwhelming force of the German 1st Army under General von Kluck. On 26 August a firefight developed at the French town of Le Cateau, when the rapid fire from the Lee-Enfield rifles of the highly trained British regular soldiers was so intense that the Germans were convinced they were faced by machine guns instead of single shot bolt-action rifles. With the Germans in hot pursuit, the Dorsets continued to act as a rearguard whilst the retreating British army struggled southwards through France to avoid annihilation. Men fell by the wayside from sheer exhaustion and occasionally a sympathetic officer would order a temporary halt to enable the flagging troops to be revived.
The Retreat from Mons by the Old Contemptibles (so called because Kaiser Wilhelm referred to them as a contemptible little army) has become a classic action in the annals of the British Army. The Dorsets were in retreat for 16 consecutive days covering a total distance of 220 miles (excluding distances travelled during the battles of Mons and Le Cateau). The longest distance marched on a single day was no less than 23 miles. Half of the men in the ranks were reservists and the weather throughout the retreat was intensely hot, this adding to the effects of lack of food and water and the pain from blisters caused by boots worn out by constant marching.
Back home, recruitment was given a boost by reports of German atrocities inflicted on the civilian populations of Belgium and France. Whilst some reports might have been exaggerated, it is indisputable that many innocent civilians were killed without mercy by certain elements of the enemy forces. The Musueum holds a photograph of an officer of the 1st Battalion of the Dorsetshire Regiment, Lieutenant A K D George, with his hosts the Curé of Ors (a village near Le Cateau) and his sister at whose home he and a fellow officer, Lieutenant R E Partridge, were billeted. One cannot help wondering whether or not the lives of those two gentle and hospitable people were spared as the Germans advanced relentlessly through their village. Lieutenant George lost his life a few weeks after the photo was taken.
Finally on 4 September 1914 the Dorsets reached the town of Gagny south of the River Marne and the retreat ended as the Allies managed to halt the German advance. The exhausted Battalion was billeted in the château but was heartened by the arrival of reinforcements consisting of 90 other ranks that had travelled from Dorchester under the command of Captain A B Priestley. The British Expeditionary Force was now poised ready to push the Germans northwards in the epic Battle of the Marne.
First published in the Bridport News