As the sun set over the battlefield of Mons on the 23rd of August 1914, its final rays glinted off of thousands of dead German soldiers—evidence of the lethal effectiveness of rapid British rifle-fire. The scene had the look of a clear British victory. But, as the old saying goes, looks can be deceiving. That evening the British were surprised to find that they were being ordered to retreat. The French troops on their flank had withdrawn, and the small British force was in serious danger of being surrounded—carried away by the unstoppable flood of German troops. That night the British quietly picked up and left Mons, and started a journey towards Paris that would be dubbed “the Great Retreat.”
The retreat would prove to be an absolute misery. The British and French were fighting a massive rear-guard action—marching and fighting; fighting and marching—as the German army harassed them over hundreds of miles. Units took turns holding off the enemy, fighting small battles while their sister units retreated. It was exhausting work. Between all the marching, and the fighting, the lack of food, and the almost total lack of sleep, soldiers were reaching the limits of human endurance. On some days, 20 out of 24 hours was spent marching or fighting. In just two weeks, the British army retreated, mainly by foot, over 250 miles.
Fred Coxan, a British Reservist who had been at home with his wife and child just weeks before, was part of this massive retreat. His diary entries, often lengthy and detailed, become short and terse during this period—the sparse, staccato sentences giving evidence of the weariness and apathy of the writer. On the 31st of August, he wrote:
“Marched at 3:30 a.m. long, hard, hot march, infantry falling exhausted, at every halt, men go to sleep, sitting, standing, lying, all seem near knocked up –marched till late at night, I slept for hours on and off in the saddle.” (1)
Fred was lucky to have a horse. Those on foot often did not fare well. There are accounts of soldiers losing their boots—whether in fighting, through wear and tear, or in an exhausted haze—and stumbling down the road in blood-stained socks, or ill-fitting shoes scrounged up in abandoned towns.
Refugee columns of French civilians fleeing the approaching Germans choked the roads with traffic, and discipline among the soldiers was soon lost as units mixed, men fell out of line, and all were lost in the listless and dazed automatic shuffle of feet. According to John Lucy, the worst aspect of the whole situation was not the fighting or the fatigue from marching, but the intense sleep deprivation. He wrote in his memoir:
“Had we marched for four days on end, or for that matter for a week, the recollection of events in their proper order would be an easier task. Enemy action, physical weariness from mere marching, lack of food, and often water, did not trouble us much. Our curse was loss of sleep. We stood at bay in retirement, or marched on in a trance, or rather some idiot nightmare wherein images jostled material things, while the enemy relentlessly pursued us.
Our minds and bodies shrieked for sleep. In short time our singing army was stricken dumb. Every cell in our bodies craved rest, and that one thought was the most persistent in the vague minds of the marching men.
Officers rode up and down the ranks encouraging the soldiers, and one of them actually said that to give in to fatigue would mean four or five years in a German fortress, but this true prophecy was ignored by the most tired. No threat will stir a man in extremity.
The pained look in the troubled eyes of those who fell by the way will not be easily forgotten by those who saw it. That look imposed by circumstance on spent men seemed to demand all forgiveness from officers and comrades alike, as it conveyed a helpless and dumb farewell to arms.
This hopeless resignation to utter fatigue was a thing to wonder at. The pride of the fighting man was forgotten, and even the threat of immediate capture or death at the hands of the enemy had no power to change or influence it.
Some who collapsed were rescued by ambulances. Others were left unconscious in deep sleep by the roadsides and in the fields, and they passed out of our ken for years.” (2)
Those that marched on, did so in a waking dream—reality blended with fantasy. During the march, John Lucy made a habit of visiting his younger brother, who was serving in a different platoon of the same Regiment:
“One day he alarmed me, after a long period of silence, by remarking casually: ‘One more turn to the left now, at the top of Tawney’s Hill, and we’re home my lad.’ As he spoke a halt was called, and he bumped helplessly into the man in front and woke up. He stoutly denied having spoken, and then I knew that he had been asleep on the march, and had been enthralled by the prospect of rest and refreshment in a farmhouse of our childhood days, where as little boys we had built forts in the summer meadows and practiced mimic war in the role of Irish chieftains dealing death and destruction to the Sassenach. My heart became sore with longing for the warmth and shelter of the large farm kitchen in Ireland. I could see its smoky ceiling festooned with huge joints of meat, and hear the purr of the fire-blowing machine.” (3)
If I have one problem with Hollywood war movies, it is this: they can never accurately portray the little things that make war so horrible. They may show the killing and the gore, but they never seem to be able to capture the absolutely bone-aching fatigue, the utter exhaustion of men forced to fight without sleep or rest, or the intense longing for home that takes hold as misery piles upon misery. Somehow, the core of the experience of war is lost in translation.
Even now, I can’t seem to find the words to describe how bad the situation must have been for those retreating men. Human language falls short in such extreme circumstances, and collective memory can only take us so far. But what you and I cannot fully grasp was a reality for the likes of John Lucy and Fred Coxan. Their bodies were shutting down, and their minds were wandering free in a way that you and I will probably never be acquainted with.
Only those who were there can know what the Great Retreat was truly like. This is why war binds people together so tightly. Only those who have seen it can truly understand what the other was exposed to. The extremes of the human experience belong to the individual.
1. Fred G. Coxan, From Notes and Well Remembered Incidences, ed. Frederick L. Coxan (2014), accessed 13 August 2014, http://www.europeana1914-1918.eu/en/contributions/15138/attachments/157376?layout=0, Creative Commons license at http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0/legalcode.
2. John F. Lucy, There’s a Devil in the Drum (Uckfield, UK: The Naval & Military Press, 1993), 145 – 146.
3. Lucy, 149.
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