Sir John French, the commander of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), had successfully inflicted some wounds upon the advancing Germans at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd. Though forced to retreat by the number of Germans threatening his flanks, his forces had first inflicted over 5,000 German casualties against only about 1,500 of his own.
Both British and German forces moved at impressive speeds, routinely marching over 20 miles a day. The British were trying to avoid contact, and the Germans were trying to force a fight. As the withdrawal neared the area of Le Cateau-Cambrésis, in Northern France, one of Sir John’s commanders, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, reported that German troops were too close on his heels to avoid them anymore. He stopped his 4 divisions (3 infantry, 1 cavalry) and prepared to defend against an assault by 6 German divisions (3 infantry, 3 cavalry).
At first it was the same story as at Mons: the British troops’ excellent rifle training and practice proved a deadly weapon. But then more German infantry divisions arrived to threaten the British flanks. Worse, the Germans had hidden their artillery well, and their air-bursting shells took a dreadful toll on the British troops.
Forced to retreat, the British also incurred about 7,800 casualties and had to abandon over 30 artillery pieces, while the Germans lost about 5,000 troops.
. . .
The fighting at Le Cateau had finished by mid-morning on the 27th, but the German First and Second Armies (led by Alexander von Kluck and Karl von Bülow respectively) were determined to overtake the British withdrawal and smash their opponents. Thus, another British reargaurd actions was necessary at Étreux, beginning at about mid-day on the 27th.
Smith-Dorrien knew that he had to do something decisive, else the losses of Battle of Le Cateau would simply be repeated over and over as his British troops tried to continue their withdrawal to the southwest. Thus, he ordered the 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers to hold their ground at all costs while the rest of the British force continued their retreat.
The Munsters, consisting of only about 800 men and 2 field guns, found themselves facing an increasingly large number of German troops. They held their ground, however, until they became surrounded and their ammunition was nearly exhausted. When their survivors (about 240 men) surrendered late on the 27th, they found that they had resisted about 5,000 German troops. Even the Germans had been impressed with their courage, and congratulated the British on their bravery. The Germans had lost perhaps 1,500 troops in trying to destroy the Munsters.
The sacrifice of the Musters had gained the rest of the British Expeditionary force some breathing room as it continued its retreat to the southwest, but the biggest question of all still remained: how were the French and British going to stop the Germans from racing through France, if at all?