After the battle of Mons, the BEF's two corps had become separated by the Forest of Mormal. On 26 August, Smith-Dorrien judged that the Germans were so close to II Corps that he could not disengage without fighting another battle. Contrary to the wishes of Sir John French, he conducted a determined holding action at Le Cateau, where the Germans again suffered severely in the face of the BEF's musketry. II Corps itself lost 7,182 officers and men, but because of its timely stand was able to continue its retreat in relatively good order.
The Battle of Le Cateau was fought on 26 August 1914, after the British, French and Belgians retreated from the Battle of Mons and had set up defensive positions in a fighting withdrawal against the German advance at Le Cateau-Cambrésis.
In the morning on 26 August, the Germans arrived and heavily attacked the British forces commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. Unlike the Battle of Mons where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was an artilleryman's battle, demonstrating the devastating results which modern quick-firing artillery firing airbursting shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open. Holding their ground tenaciously against superior odds despite taking heavy casualties, by the mid-afternoon, the right, then left flanks of the British, began to break under unrelenting pressure from the Germans. The arrival of Sordet's French cavalry acted to shield the British left flank, and supported a highly-co-ordinated tactical withdrawal despite continued attempts by the Germans to infiltrate and outflank the retreating British forces.
That night, the Allies withdrew to Saint-Quentin. Of the 40,000 Allied men fighting at Le Cateau, 7,812 were injured, killed, or taken prisoner. Several British regiments had even disappeared from the rolls altogether. Thirty-eight artillery guns were abandoned to the advancing Germans, the majority having their breech blocks removed and sights disabled by the gunners before retirement.
For these losses, however, the engagement at Le Cateau had achieved its objective, and enabled the British Expeditionary Force to retreat unmolested by the Germans for a further five days. Despite being later criticised for his decision to "stand and fight" at Le Cateau by his superior Field Marshal Sir John French, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was lionised by both the army and the public at home for his actions. The consensus amongst military historians considers Le Cateau as amongst the most successful holding actions in British military history, ranking alongside the Battle of the Imjin River during the Korean War in terms of its strategic effect.
Smith-Dorrien's strained relations with Sir John French deteriorated beyond repair after Le Cateau. However, the stand by II Corps achieved its objective, for it not only led the Germans to overestimate British strength but also deterred Kluck from immediate pursuit. Moreover, Kluck's mistaken conclusion that the BEF was falling back south-west rather than to the south gave the British formations an unexpected breathing space, permitting them to retreat comparatively unmolested over the next few days.
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