THE RETREAT FROM MONS TO ST.QUENTIN

Despite brave efforts to hold the line at Mons, with some 70,000 British troops of the British Expeditionary Force under the command of Sir John French facing over double that number of the German Army, by the night of 23rd August 1914 the British retreat from this Belgian town had begun. The II British Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien which had suffered the greater number of battle casualties began a fighting retreat to Le Cateau which they reached on 26th August. Here a very effective stand was made before the battered and tired troops resumed their retreat towards St.Quentin and beyond.

During that morning British General Headquarters was established in the elegant Henri Martin School off the Boulevard Richelieu, Staff Officers posting themselves at various points along the line of retreat directing some units southwards into St.Quentin and others to the south-west towards the village of Vermand. A conference was held in the school during the morning at which three French generals were present- Generals Joffre, d’Amade and Lanrezac. It would be an understatement to say that the conference was not a success. Sir John French was determined to continue the British retreat (it finally reached the River Marne before going forward to attack), whilst the inability of either Sir John and General Lanrezac to speak the other’s language competently did not help relations between them. By evening of the 26th August Sir John French was in Noyon some 25 miles from St.Quentin.

The situation was deteriorating rapidly as the remnants of II Corps filed into the centre of St. Quentin and thence out to the south of the city. All kinds of buildings were brought into use to provide facilities for the troops passing through. For instance the very elegant Palais de Fervaques was used as a temporary hospital and food and drink handed out from its broad steps as the British soldiers marched by.

It was thus left to the French Army to try to stem the German Army’s rapid advance. General Lanrezac commanding the French 5th Army managed to temporarily stem the enemy advance at Guise north east of St.Quentin, but the ill-equipped 10th Territorial Infantry Regiment met several powerfully armed prestigious German units in its action north west of St.Quentin and was forced to retreat. The advancing German troops were now free to enter the city which they did on 28th August. As the last British troops left, the citizens of St. Quentin were about to commence the terrible ordeal of an enemy occupation. It was to last over four years and it was not until 1955 that it could be said that the city had been restored to its pre-war status.