3459 THE TWENTIETH CENTURY-THE GREAT WAR.
his advance. Again and again they turned
and fought to gain the precious hours
needed for withdrawal. They mowed down
the great massed formations of the Germans as grass falls before the sickle, yet
more masses were constantly pushing
forward. "Nothing seems to stop them,"
a French soldier explained to a correspondent. ''We kill them and kill them,
but they come on." One of the most
heroic episodes took place at Marville,
where five thousand Frenchmen of all
arms, with quick-firrer, beat back 20,000
of the enemy for twelve hours, inflicting
tremendous losses and falling back at
last, carrying many helmets as trophies,
only because they were losing touch with
the rest of their army.
For the British, Wednesday, the 26th,
proved to be "the most critical day of all."
The little army had been reinforced the
day before by a new division, the Fourth,
which had just detrained, but this accession
hardly more than made up for the losses
already suffered. "At daybreak," says
Field Marshal French, "it became apparent that the enemy was throwing the
bulk of his strength against the left of the
position occupied by the Second Corps
and the Fourth Division. At this time
the guns of four German army corps were
in position against them, and Sir Horace
Smith-Dorrien reported to me that he
judged it impossible to continue his retirement at daybreak (as ordered) in face
of such an attack. I sent him orders to
use his utmost endeavors to break off the
action and retire at the earliest possible
moment, as it was impossible for me to
send him any support, the First Corps
being at the moment incapable of movement."
No help was possible either from the
French, while the position was the more
serious because the troops had not had
time to entrench their position properly.
But the artillery, though outmatched at
least four to one, fought splendidly and
inflicted terrible losses on the German
masses. Once the Prussian Guards Cavalry Division charged the British 12th
Infantry Brigade, but "were thrown back
with heavy loss and in absolute disorder."
In the afternoon, however, it became "apparent that, if complete annihilation was
to be avoided, a retirement must be
attempted," and the movement was begun,
and successfully carried out, with the
utmost skill and resourcefulness, by Sir
Singing Tipperary as he went, "Tommy
Atkins" trudged southward day after day,
pausing to shoot when the Germans came
too close, and disgustedly demanding why
he was kept retreating when he had not
Meanwhile what of France? News of
the retreat from Mons and Charleroi was
suppressed as much as possible, but the
fact could not be indefinitely concealed
from the people that the armies were falling
back. Terror-stricken fugitives in hordes,
bearing their most precious possessions,
streamed southward to escape the "Huns,"
spreading far and wide the bitter news
that the enemy was coming.