Accounts of the British Expeditionary Force in 1914 have generally followed the lead set by the British Official History in emphasising the positive aspects of the campaign and downplaying anything negative. This has had the unfortunate consequence of obscuring the genuine historical record, where triumph and calamity often followed each other in quick succession.
John Hutton has written a very good account of one of the more unfortunate and strange episodes during the retreat from Mons and Le Cateau (completely ignored in the Official History). The British II Corps suffered heavy casualties at Le Cateau, and many units withdrew from the battlefield in a state of disorder. Among these were two battalions of the 4th Division, the 1/Royal Warwickshire Regiment and the 2/Royal Dublin Fusiliers, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonels John Elkington and Arthur Mainwaring, respectively.
Although some soldiers had become detached as they fell back from Le Cateau, the nucleus of the two battalions withdrew towards St Quentin in the hope of continuing the retreat by rail. Having reached the town, the exhausted and increasingly demoralised troops discovered that all trains had left. They also came across stragglers from other units in a decidedly mutinous mood, whose attitudes undoubtedly affected the men of the Warwicks and Dublin Fusiliers who now refused to move.
In desperation, the two battalion commanders asked the local mayor for assistance, but fearful of German retribution he demanded that they either leave the town immediately or sign a document of surrender. Elkington and Mainwaring erroneously believed the Germans were on the outskirts of St Quentin, and unbalanced by lack of sleep and the drama of events they signed the document.
Fortunately for the British, Major Tom Bridges – a cavalry officer commanding one of the rearguards – managed to secure the surrender document from the mayor, and after much effort, he eventually rounded up the British troops in St Quentin and persuaded them to continue the march south to safety. A few days later Elkington and Mainwaring were court-martialled for their part in the affair, and although the threat of the firing squad hung over them they were cashiered from the Army in disgrace.
This well-researched book tells the story of the St Quentin ‘surrender’ with clarity and insight, and with compassion for the two officers who had been so overwhelmed by the shock of battle. Given the author’s legal background, it is little surprise that the narrative of the court proceedings against the defendants is particularly well presented.
While Mainwaring retired into obscurity, there was an unusual coda to Elkington’s story. In early 1915, at the advanced age of 48, he enlisted in the French Foreign Legion and served bravely as a private soldier in the bloody Champagne battle in September 1915, where he was badly wounded. When news of his exploits spread to Britain, he was reinstated to his former rank by George V – his error of judgement redeemed by personal bravery.
Pen & Sword Military, 208 pages, £19.99 (h/b)