On the morning of the 26 August 1914, the retreat from Mons was in full swing, with widespread confusion sweeping through British troops. The men of the 11th Hussars (Prince Albert’s Own), had now found themselves as rear guard for the retiring British Expeditionary Force (BEF) at the Battle of Le Cateau. The events that were to unfold over the next 24 hours, would see a group of A Squadron, 11th Hussars cut off behind enemy lines, and forced to use whatever means possible to return to friendly territory. The story is most famously known for the exploits of Patrick Fowler and Herbert Hull who were taken in and hidden by local families in the village of Bertry. It seems entirely forgotten now, but they were not alone in being cut off behind enemy lines.
The morning of the 26 August had been spent by the 11th Hussars acting as an advanced guard on the high ground around the Le Cateau area, from where they could see a fierce battle raging. In the early afternoon they were relieved and moved into Brigade Reserve, allowing for some much needed rest time. This was to be short lived, as at around 16:00 the regiment were turned out to support an urgent request from the infantry, who were coming under heavy enfilading fire. Due to the sheer number of German troops advancing, the infantry were forced to retire, shortly followed by the 11th Hussars who eventually halted near the village of Busigny at around 17:30.
It was by now early evening when A Squadron, under the command of Captain A B Lawson (affectionately known as ‘Bubble’), were ordered to re-establish touch with the 1st Cavalry Brigade, who had last been heard of at Escaufort. The squadron promptly set off, and on arriving as Escaufort found no trace of the brigade. The decision to return to the regiment had just been made when they came under enemy shell fire, forcing the squadron into artillery formation. Luckily no casualties were caused and the squadron proceeded to move off to the west, back towards Busigny. The route selected by Capt Lawson took them onto the railway line running from Le Cateau down to Busigny, with the men thinking this was relatively safe from attack and behind the British lines.
The route included a steep railway embankment about a mile and a half north of Busigny station, which was reached at dusk. Here they would leave the railway line and head down the bank through a hedge at the bottom, leading them out into a field on the other side. Halfway through this manoeuvre, A Squadron came under rapid small arms fire from a small hill about 300 yards away.
MAP TO FOLLOW!
Reactions were quick, and pre-war training undoubtedly saved the lives of many of the squadron. The squadron advance guard along with 3 Troop were well clear of the railway line by this point, closely followed by 4 Troop who were just leaving the bottom of the embankment. The men galloped off to cover as quickly as they could, and were tailed by the first few men of 2 Troop who had just begun descending the embankment as they came under fire.
The remainder of 2 Troop (who had yet to reach the embankment) saw the now fire swept embankment in front of them and quickly returned down the railway line the way they had come. They had only to go 300 yards before meeting with Lieut F V Drake and 1 Troop, who had been acting as rear guard.
Casualties were light with only 1 horse killed and 1 wounded, but the consequences were to prove disastrous. In the confusion of the battle and the fluid situation around Le Cateau, they had not in fact come under fire from German forces as they had presumed. They had actually come under friendly fire from men of the 19th Hussars, who had mistaken them for a German cavalry patrol. In a strange twist of fate, the 19th Hussars later that evening came under friendly fire themselves, this time from the 2nd Battalion Royal Welsh Fusiliers.
The situation for A Squadron of the 11th Hussars had now become rather bleak. They had been split in two, with no means of communicating with each other or the rest of the regiment.
Capt Lawson had fallen with his horse during the brief action, which had promptly bolted. He quickly managed to recover the horse from a nearby infantry post, where the news was also broken that they had come under friendly fire. Capt Lawson now found himself in the unenviable position of missing half of his squadron, who still believed the Germans had engaged them. Anxious to re-unite the squadron and see the safe return of his men, he waited at the infantry post an hour for the remainder to re-join them. Patrols were also sent out to try and find the missing men, but were unsuccessful in gaining any news or contact. Eventually they could wait no longer and were forced to move on with the retiring infantry when it became completely dark, eventually rejoined the regiment.
But what of Lieut Drake and the rest of the missing Squadron?
After coming under fire on the railway lines, the remainder of the squadron with Lieut Drake left the embankment and headed down into the fork between the two lines for cover. In the confusion of battle and the fast fading light, Lieut Drake was only able to gather around 15 men when he consolidated his position. The remainder now unaccounted for, were alone and would need to find their own way back to the regiment. Regrettably, no further information could be found regarding these unaccounted men, but they presumably were taken prisoner, or made it back to the regiment, as records show none were casualties.
Lieut Drake had sensibly waited for the cover of darkness before leading his small band of men on over the open countryside. They headed into the nearby village of Honnechy over open ground, but to their horror almost immediately ran into a group of German officers by a motor car in the village street. The Germans were alert and wasted no time in opening fire on them at point blank range. Several of Lieut Drake’s men were hit and the rest forced to scatted after a brief firefight.
It was at this point, the 3 Troop interpreter Maurice Deleage (2nd Cuirassiers) galloped off after wounding one of the Germans, promptly followed by Pte Patrick Fowler and Pte Robert Skates. Lieut Drake and his remaining few men then had the further misfortune of running into a German barricade where a short but fierce hand to hand fight ensued. The situation was now desperate, but having successfully broken free of the barricade, Lieut Drake and his now 8 remaining men managed to escape to a nearby wood, west of the village. As a young troop commander, I imagine that Lieut Drake was now facing his toughest challenge of command. As far as he could tell, he was behind enemy lines, with an overwhelming German force sweeping the area. It was here that he made the decision to split his party into pairs, so they would have the best possible chance of making it back to British lines undetected. Instructions were given that they should travel only by night, along with rough directions.
Little in the way of records survive as to who these men were, or what became of them. What I am certain of, is these men must have had some truly incredible stories of being caught behind enemy lines! Through some careful research, I have managed to piece together the following on those who had been cut off at the railway line.
Only 4 men managed to make it back to the regiment over the following few days, the rest were either killed, taken prisoner or remained at large for a long period of time.
Saddler L/Sgt George Chapman and Pte Richard Felthouse were killed outright during the fighting in Honnechy and were buried in the village by the Germans. L/Cpl William Shenton is thought to have been killed outside Honnechy and was buried by the Germans amongst civilians in Maurois Communal Cemetery.
L/Cpl William Rackley and Pte Thomas Rutter both died of wounds in German hands in Honnechy on the 27 August. They were presumably wounded by the party of Germans by the motor car, or during the hand to hand fighting at the barricade. Both were buried in the village by the Germans.
Lieut Drake paired with L/Cpl Lamont Smith managed to successfully make it back to Britain, the detailed story being published in the national newspapers of the time.
Prisoner of War (PoW) records indicate that 10 men remained at large behind enemy lines for a considerable time before being captured. The longest I have managed to find so far (excluding Fowler and Hull) are Sgt Frederick Charles Taylor and Pte Charles Goodwin, who both remained at large for nearly 3 months before being captured on the 16 November 1914.
7 men are known to have been captured within 24 hours, including men of Lieut Drake’s party, and most likely men who had become separated at the railway lines. A further 5 men are known to have been taken PoW, but I have been unable to find a date as yet. There are undoubtedly further men who I have yet to identify.
Having arrived in France only a week earlier, A Squadron could only muster 60 out of 120 men after the separation on the 26 August. The research is still a work in progress, but the story is so fascinating, I couldn’t help but share it!
For further information on the story of Patrick Fowler and his four years in hiding, please do visit HorsePower, The Museum of The King’s Royal Hussars, where you can see the actual cupboard he hid in!