Great Retreat | Cer | 24 August 1914

One well-known event today and one lesser-known happening.  On the Western Front, the Great Retreat from Mons begins, during which both sides will march over 250 miles, the fate of the war hanging in the balance all the while.  In the East, the Austro-Hungarians suffer the humiliation of being thrown out of Serbia at the Battle of Cer.


All the actions taken by Austria-Hungary during the July Crisis assumed that Serbia could be quickly crushed by their army. However, for the last five days they’ve been retreating back across the border into Bosnia, and the Battle of Cer closes today in a humiliating and overwhelming victory for Serbia. It’s a major blow to Austro-Hungarian prestige, and more practically, it’s cost them huge casualties. 10,000 men are dead. 30,000 more have been wounded. 4,500 are now Serbian prisoners. The Serbs themselves have lost half as many men; 15,000 wounded and 4,000 dead.

This isn’t the end of the action in this theatre; far from it. Both sides will be launching offensives in the days to come.

Great Retreat

Horrendously outnumbered, the BEF is doing the only thing it can do, and that’s bravely running away. 80,000 men are directly in the path of an entire German army. The full extent of the situation only becomes apparent today, and the apologies from Intelligence ring very hollow indeed. Now the BEF is in a hell of a jam. The first priority is to retreat as fast as they can go to avoid being flanked, surrounded, and destroyed. They must also do so while both Corps keep in touch with each other, and II Corps maintains some sort of contact with the French 5th Army, which is also retiring. If they lose contact, they will leave gaps that the Germans can march through, and split the Allies apart.

Everyone is heading backwards, even the generals. BEF GHQ had been established at Le Cateau, 30 miles behind Mons. This had seemed like a perfectly safe distance a week ago, when optimistic plans were being laid from an advance. Now Sir John French is retiring along with the rest of his army. The question of French’s command is rarely raised any more. He’s been on the wrong end of about 60 years of people concluding that he was a complete moron, which I think is a somewhat harsh conclusion. I do find it very interesting that historians have lined up around the block to defend Douglas Haig, but nobody’s interested in standing up for his predecessor, and I’ll be exploring why that is in the days to come.

Here’s something you rarely hear about him. It would have been very easy for him to give orders that his men should retire into the fortress at Maubeuge, where the prepared defences are excellent and in good order. The fortress held out a good long time while surrounded and defended only by its garrison; adding the BEF would have tripled its strength. In theory, they could have held out long enough for General Joffre to organise a relief force. However, those aren’t the orders French gave; he ordered the retirement to continue towards Le Cateau. And, as it happened, going to Maubeuge would have played directly into the hands of the Germans, who were looking for an opportunity to surround the BEF while they attempted to achieve their main objective of encircling the French Army in the field.

(He later claimed that he’d remembered the story a similar retreat during the War of 1870, when the French retreated into the fortress of Metz, an event that can be claimed as a major reason for their losing that war.)

Other actions

The French launch a major counter-attack against the Germans in Lorraine, and achieve a major success against their over-extended German opponents. They regain a large portion of the ground that they’d lost in the last few days.

A German corps offers strong resistance to the advancing Russians at Tannenberg, stopping them almost in their tracks all day. The corps then retires to avoid being surrounded.

In Galicia, Austria-Hungary continues to achieve early successes against the Russians near Krasnik. It’s a highly mobile battle, with extensive use of cavalry. There’s so much more to combat in the First World War than trenches, artillery, machine guns and gas, and the Eastern Front is only the tip of the iceberg in this regard.

Actions in Progress

Battle of the Frontiers (Battle of Lorraine)
Battle of Cer
Great Retreat
Battle of Tannenberg
Battle of Galicia

Further Reading

The excellent tumblr Today in World War I has plenty more to say about the Battle of Cer.

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