Legacies of War: Fight to the death as call to withdraw went astray

British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the Western Front during the First World War.
British troops in silhouette march towards trenches near Ypres at the Western Front during the First World War.
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Within weeks of the declaration of war, soldiers from across Yorkshire with the British Expeditionary Force faced the might of the Imperial German Army. Andrew Robinson reports.

When the 2nd Battalion of the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (KOYLI) landed in France on August 16 1914, the mood among the men was cheerful and the weather glorious.

Making their way through the French countryside, they quickly became tanned and, according to medical officer Cyril Helm, who kept a diary, there were a few upset stomachs as the French gave the men as much butter, milk, eggs and fruit as they could manage.

The calm was shattered on August 23 as they reached the German front lines near the Belgian town of Mons. Soon the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) and the Yorkshiremen were in retreat in the face of overwhelming enemy numbers.

Between August 23 and 26, the 2nd Battalion, many of them veterans of the Boer War, were in a fight for their lives at Le Cateau, a town 27km from Cambrai, after the order to withdraw did not reach them because of very poor communications.

By the time it was over, the famous KOYLI regiment had lost around 600 men, many of them killed and injured and over 300 captured.

The war memorials in the vicinity of Le Cateau contain dozens of men from the 2nd Battalion who fell at the end of August 1914.

Among them are Private Colin Patchett, 21, of Bradford; Private George Willie Taylor, 28, of Dewsbury; Private William Nottingham, 23, of Wakefield; Private John Waldron, 28, of Sheffield, and John William Whitham, 29, of Otley, all of whom are recorded as dying on the final day of the battle.

Two men of the 2nd Battalion were later awarded Victoria Crosses for outstanding acts of bravery among many courageous deeds during days of intense fighting.

As the bombs rained down and the German infantry got in and among them, a final band of brave Yorkshiremen, led by Major Charles Yate, 42, continued firing until their ammunition ran out.

In the words of his VC citation: “Major Yate (deceased), 2nd Battalion The King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, commanded one of the two companies that remained to the end in the trenches at Le Cateau on August 26, and when all the other officers were killed or wounded and ammunition exhausted, led his 19 survivors against the enemy in a bayonet charge in which he was severely wounded. He was picked up by the enemy and he subsequently died as a prisoner of war.”

Before the final sacrifice of Major Yate’s Yorkshiremen, Corporal Frederick Holmes carried a wounded man to safety for almost a mile, then went back to rescue a British 18-pounder gun and six horses. He too was awarded a VC; he survived the war and died in 1969.

The heroic last stand of Major Yate’s men had given the rest of 5th Division a chance to retreat in some kind of order, according to military historian Antony Bird.

“There is no doubt that on August 26 the heroism of the Suffolks with Major Doughty, the KOYLI with Major Yate, the Gordons, the Inniskillings, the Manchesters, the Argylls, the Rifle Brigade and countless gunners, enabled so many to get away unmolested.

“The lesson here is that heroism is an eternal military virtue; one determined outpost can hold up a whole enemy division.”

Mr Bird, author of Gentlemen, We Will Stand and Fight, Le Cateau 1914, adds: “Major Yate, Major Doughty and Captain Reynolds are acknowledged as the bravest of the brave for all time.”

One hundred years may have passed but what happened at Le Cateau is still being fought over by historians who have cast doubt on claims that the BEF had taken on a vastly superior force and inflicted far more casualties.

The final hours of Major Yate are also contentious, with claims that he took his own life with a razor after being challenged by German civilians after escaping captivity.

For historian Jack Sheldon, Le Cateau was a clear-cut German victory.

Speaking to the Yorkshire Post he said: “The reason units such as KOYLI and the Gordon Highlanders had to fight gallant rearguard actions is that communications below brigade level were often hopeless and the order to withdraw never reached them.
“This takes nothing away from their bravery, but it illustrates a point that the British do not like to accept that both Mons and Le Cateau were clear-cut German victories, achieved swiftly through large-scale fire and manoeuvre and at negligible cost compared with the major battles raging away to the south against the French Army.

“Le Cateau is a big British deal. In contrast, it gets about four pages in the 725-page Volume 1 of the German Official History.”

On Major Yate’s bayonet charge, Mr Sheldon, co-author of Le Cateau with Nigel Cave, says it was a brave but ultimately hopeless action.

“Sir John Alexander Hammerton in A Popular History of the Great War (1933) described Major Yate’s act of leading the 19 survivors in a final charge as ‘A supreme act of gallantry, but perfectly hopeless.’ I agree entirely with that assessment.

“He was an outstanding and brave soldier, who did his duty to the last. His death following an escape attempt is shrouded in mystery.”

Later this summer, the 100th anniversary of Le Cateau will be remembered at a special ceremony at the Royal Armouries in Leeds, on August 26.

It is being organised by Roger Preston, a retired Brigadier in the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry.

It is hoped the event will be marked with a bugler “sounding the retreat” and the positioning of a Vickers machine gun and a British 13-pounder gun outside the Armouries.

Mr Preston is hoping to produce a brochure telling the story of the two VC winners.
He is also hoping to hear from any descendents of the men who fought with the 2nd Battalion so they can be invited to the commemoration in August.

Mr Preston, chairman of the KOYLI Association, said the achievement of the 2nd Battalion at Le Cateau should not be forgotten.

“The danger for us today is to portray the battle as a major calamity and a defeat, although, to a certain extent, it was.

“The part KOYLI played was to delay the German advance so the bulk of the expeditionary force could escape. The order to retreat did not reach them.

“It was a very sad occasion losing so many but we can look on with a feeling of major accomplishment.”

Mr Preston believes that studying the First World War is vital if we are to understand the modern world in which we live.
“I think it is important that we learn from history – a failing of our leaders very often is they don’t learn from history.

“I could say something about Afghanistan but that is another story.

“So many people died in the First World War that it is important that descendents of those people are aware that today we are respecting the sacrifices that they made.”

Gentlemen, We Will Stand and Fight, by Antony Bird, is published by The Crowood Press, £19.95

Le Cateau, by Nigel Cave and Jack Sheldon, is published by Pen and Sword Books, £14.99.

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