A brave but hopeless battle

Many Irish men were slaughtered in the Royal Munster Fusiliers’ heroic last stand in Etreux, northern France, in 1914

 

The retreat from Mons was an epic of endurance for the British Expeditionary Force (BEF).

In their first encounter with the Germans at the Battle of Mons on August 23rd, 1914, the British Army had given a good account of itself and inflicted severe casualties on the enemy.

The soldiers were keen to fight but their French allies had fallen back. The Germans had more than a million men on the Western Front. The British had 80,000. The British could not fight back until the French were ready and no one knew when that would be.

The BEF marched some 300km from Mons to south of the Marne, just 20km from Paris. The slog was long, dangerous and slow. Men marched in broiling summer heat, worn down by bulky equipment. They were hungry and thirsty. Sleep was a luxury, four hours a night was typical. New army boots caused agonising blisters. Many men walked in their stocking feet.

The BEF comprised of the 1st and 2nd corps. The 2nd made a bloody but relatively successful stand against the Germans at Le Cateau on August 26th. The following day it was the turn of the 1st corps under General Sir Douglas Haig to slow the advance of the German Army.

The 2nd battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers was assigned the task of providing a rearguard action against the German 2nd Army approaching from the north. They would hold the Germans up from concealed positions just long enough and then retire from the battlefield themselves.

The rest of the 1st Corps, some 40,000 men, equipment and horses had to squeeze through the narrow streets of the northern French town of Guise. This was a time of maximum danger for the 1st Corps. The inevitable delay would give the Germans time to catch up. They had to be stopped.

The battalion was held in reserve at Mons and was eager to fight. The soldiers were led by Paul Charrier, an officer of French descent, who was 6ft 7ins tall and felt the occupation of his ancestral homeland very keenly.

The Munsters were set up along a front about 3km long, blocking the road to Etreux with their backs to the natural barrier of the Sambre and Oise canal.

The plan was to use well-aimed machine gun and rifle fire backed up by artillery to make the Germans think twice about pursuing the 1st Corps. The 800 or so Munsters expected and prepared to be outnumbered, but they did not know just how outnumbered they would be.

Herd of cows

The Munsters inflicted terrible casualties. At one stage, the Germans drove a herd of cows in front of them to mask their assault.

Then came the order to retreat at 2pm, but unfortunately the message never got through to the battalion. They were now on their own. Dead and dying soldiers littered the battlefield of this hitherto pastoral idyll of northern France with its prosperous farmlands and meandering canals.

The Munsters retreated across the canal. They erected a machine gun in the middle of the road to keep the Germans at bay but found their way to Etreux and safety blocked by the Germans who had got there first.

They tried to force the passage, but were thwarted by overwhelming numbers. They were now surrounded, cut off and in desperate straits. They took ammunition from their dead comrades to continue the battle.

The situation was hopeless. At 9.15pm the melancholy task was left to Lieutenant Gower, one of only four Munsters’ officers left alive, to surrender in an orchard just outside the village. Some 127 of his men had been killed and 450 would end up being taken prisoner.

Most were sent to Limberg where the Irish prisoners were held together. They were visited by Roger Casement, who aimed to raise an Irish brigade to fight for and not against Germany. Casement had to be rescued by camp guards.

Among the dead were 18 soldiers from Cork, 13 each from Kerry and Limerick and four from Clare.

The battalion had faced a force at least six times its number and had been destroyed. It had also done its task, allowing the 1st Corps to distance itself even further from its pursuers and proceed through Guise unmolested. A few of the Munsters escaped and were sheltered by local people, but they were betrayed the following year. Five of them, along with five Connaught Rangers and one cavalryman from the 15th Hussars, were executed by the Germans in 1915 in the village of Iron. A memorial to the men was erected in Iron three years ago.

Celtic Cross

In 1921, Captain Walter Styles MP, whose brother was killed in the Battle of Etreux, bought the orchard and erected a Celtic Cross to the soldiers who died there.

The Irish ambassador to France, Rory Montgomery, and hundreds of others attended a centenary commemoration in the Etreux orchard on August 27th where 95 of the men are buried. They laid wreathes at the base of the cross.

The inscription on the memorial states: “The survivors were warmly congratulated by the Germans on the fine fight they had made. No other claim to a memorial near Etreux is likely to be advanced – certainly nothing which would not take second place to the Munsters.”