On 4 August 1917, members of Chard Borough Council took part in a public meeting marking the third anniversary of the declaration of war.
Following prayers, speeches and hymns, “the Chaplain mentioned that there was present in the hall a Member of the original ‘Contemptible Little Army’, who had taken part in the glorious Retreat from Mons and had also fought in Serbia. A tremendous outburst of cheering greeted this remark”.
The ‘Contemptible Little Army’ refers to the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), lead by Sir John French. The BEF was deployed to Europe at the very start of the War and took part in the Battle of Mons, the first engagement between British and German forces on the Western Front, in August 1914. Due to the greater strength of the German force, and the sudden retreat of the French army, the BEF was forced to retreat, although not before inflicting heavy casualties on the larger German army. This long, fighting retreat to the River Marne became known as the ‘Great Retreat’.
These diary extracts provide more insight into the battle:
Arthur Henry Cook, who served with the 1st battalion Somerset Light Infantry on the Western Front for the entire war, described the Retreat from Mons:
26 Aug 1914: …but still they came, the more that fell, the more seemed to come. Our numbers were gradually decreasing, men were being killed and wounded left and right of me. We were gradually getting outflanked so we fell back about 800 yards. This battle was called the battle of Le-Cateau…
Captain Whittuck, also of the 1st battalion, continues the tale in his diary:
27 Aug 1914. As it began to grow light we were taken off the roads and had to march across country, which was very trying as the weather was hot and our feet were sore. Some men’s feet already were in a shocking state. About 10am it was evident that we could not get any further without something to eat but though there were villages about and farms, they were all deserted…we eventually found a village where we managed to get the men a little bread, sardines and chocolate. We had just started our own meal and very good it looked too, when we heard guns firing and a message came that we were to get on the move at once again…shells were bursting in the village now and it seemed very hard to have to leave it when we had only just told the padrone who had fed us that the Germans would not come…
Aug 28th. In the early morning we arrived at a large village called Nauroy I think. We were told to go into billets in a school and and just got in, though the accommodation was bad, when we were ordered to move on again…orders were then given that all our baggage was to be destroyed…
Aug 30th. The General held a conference of Commanding Officers and said confidentially that it was every man for himself, and that we must make our best way to Paris.
The survivors who had belonged to the regular army in 1914 later adopted the name ‘The Old Contemptibles’. It is said to come from an order issued in August 1914 by Kaiser Wilhelm II to “exterminate…the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little army”.
This article was written by Louise Toller; a volunteer for the Somerset Remembers Project. Diary extracts from Archivist Liz Grant.