The Affair at Nery: Sept. 1, 1914, reprinted from Camaraderie
By Paul F. Guthrie
Our U.S. Branch WFA 2007 tour included a tour of British action at the beginning of the war featuring the fighting around Mons and the retreat. It ended at the Battle of Le Cateau of Sept. 25, 1914.
The next action of any significance was the affair at Nery. It’s a fascinating encounter and one of the best visits on the entire Western Front because the approaches to the village, the village itself and the surrounding fields are unchanged since the battle.
Why is it called the affair at Nery rather than the battle of Nery? It’s a matter of battlefield nomenclature, because the British Army didn’t feel the action was large enough to be called a battle. It was the first time in the war that the British were in control of the battlefield after the action. It was fought almost entirely by cavalry units on both sides, with the Germans having superiority of numbers of about two to one.
The main street of the village runs from north to south. The north of the village was defended from German attack by the C Squadron of the Fifth Dragoon Guards and their machine guns. A bit further south was the headquarters of the First Cavalry Brigade, which was the larger unit participating in the battle. Just a bit south is the village church where the 11th Hussars had its headquarters and established a strong defense along the church with machine guns and rifle fire. At the south end of the village on the west side of the road were the Queen’s Bays, and on the east side of the road L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, which achieved fame and two Victoria Crosses.
Further south and beyond the village is a sugar factory. Just to the east of the village is a deep ravine.
The German Third Cavalry Brigade approached from that direction. At the north side of the village were the 9th Uhlans, who formed a dismounted firing line, and the 2nd Cuirassiers who did the same. Firing against L Battery and the Queen’s Bays, were the 18th Dragoons of the 17th Cavalry Brigade. All of these units were part of the 4th Cavalry Division which had its headquarters about 1,000 yards to the east of the village. It was a British brigade against a German division.
The Queen’s Bays were one of the oldest cavalry regiments in the British Army, having been raised by James II to deal with the Monmouth Rebellion in June 1685. Originally the regiment was named the Queen’s Regiment of Horse, and it was a matter of pride that all the horses were bays. The regiment served for much of its history in India. During the Great Sepoy Mutiny, it won three VCs and took part in a famous cavalry charge during the relief of Lucknow in 1858.
One Royal Horse Artillery battery of six 13-pounder horse-drawn guns was attached to each cavalry brigade. L Battery was commanded by Maj. Walter Sclater-Booth, who had taken command in 1910, and the battery captain was Edward Bradbury. This unit of five officers, almost 200 men and 228 horses was organized into three sections. Each had two modern quick-firing 13-pounder guns with buffer recoil systems and bullet-proof shields. They could fire 15 rounds a minute. Each section was accompanied by two ammunition wagons. The battery had seen considerable action after enduring the Battle of Mons.
On August 31, the First Cavalry Brigade was directed to Nery. They arrived there about 6 p.m. The horses had been watered earlier, since it was thought there would not be sufficient water at Nery.
German cavalry were to make a night attack against Nery. They were quite tired and suffered a number of other disadvantages before beginning the attack. The division had suffered considerable casualties in the advance through Belgium. The Germans had sacrificed support for speed, and the division was lacking much of its logistics, including support transport, ammunition wagons, lead horses, etc.
German cavalry units by doctrine were to be supported by infantry and horse artillery that closely followed the advancing cavalry. The unit that was to attack Nery had no infantry, and six machine guns were also absent.
In German cavalry doctrine, mounted action would take place primarily against other cavalry, not infantry. It is true that in this attack the German cavalry was fighting British cavalry but, the Germans were armed with carbines, smaller less effective versions of the rifle carried by the infantry. Contrarily, the British carried the standard Lee-Enfield infantry weapon, and the firepower of the individual soldier was much greater.
The Fourth Cavalry Division rode all through the heat of the day on August 31st and following night without a stop for food or rest apart from one 2-hour stop. At 5 a.m., the general in charge, von Garnier, ordered an immediate mounted attack designed to surprise and destroy the British forces with overwhelming shell fire and mounted flanking attacks.
Visibility was poor and hampered the German artillery, but the attack did achieve surprise. At the beginning of the attack, L Battery was quite shot up with tethered horses and men suffering equally. However, it was able to return fire fairly quickly.
The farm to the right of the Nery church was defended by the 11th Hussars. Then and now it doesn’t look like what we think of as a farm. It rather looks like a series of fortified buildings. It suffered a lot less in the initial attack than the units at the south of the village.
Battery lines had been laid out neatly for the night with each section of two guns and their horses and limbers in line. This was the first time this had been done on the retreat and an indication that the battery felt secure. Following reveille at 2:30 a.m., the battery prepared for meeting out at 4:30 a.m., but because of the dense mist prevailing that morning, headquarters ordered a stand still until 5 a.m. which was extended till 5:30. Thus L Battery was still in place when attacked.
The surprise of the attack could hardly have been greater. The battery’s horses were standing in march order with their poles down. Shrapnel exploding among the horses and men was horrific, causing panic among the horses which drove their lowered poles into the ground, trapping them until they were shot down. The terrified horses could not be released easily from their harnesses, and were killed.
There was chaos with limbers and wagons overturned. Despite efforts by their crews, B, C and D guns were knocked out, leaving the F gun in action. The ammunition supply was in wagons 20 yards from the gun and collecting it meant crossing an open space with machine gun fire and shrapnel, but it was done.
L Battery kept up its effort until almost 8 a.m. when I Battery arrived and began firing. It was firing only shrapnel, but the shrapnel had a wicked effect on the Germans opposing. It forced the Germans to concentrate all their guns to the south of Nery. Resistance of the gunners of L Battery, against all odds, was the key to the survival of the First Cavalry Brigade that morning.
The First Dragoon Guards were also effective in preventing Third Brigade from succeeding its attack further north.
The Queen’s Bays (2nd Dragoon Bays) provided very significant support to the men of L Battery. On the south side of the village there are memorials to both units. Seven men were all that were available to man the Queen’s Bays machine guns, but they did so to great effect.
Every unit arrived in support of the British and once I Battery commenced firing, the rest of the German guns fell silent. The Germans attempted to bring up horse teams to get the guns away but came under fire from the guns of I Battery and the machine guns of the Queen’s Bays. Despite valiant effort, they were unable to get their horses close enough to get all the guns away. Four were extracted, but eight were captured.
By 9 a.m., it was clear to General von Garnier that the situation was very dangerous for his division with the apparent hapless enemy not being overcome, and in fact being reinforced. Four infantry brigades and another cavalry brigade were gathering to attack, and it was becoming dangerous to remain at Nery. He thus decided to recall his units from their attack position as quickly as possible and concentrate his division, and the Germans retreated, leaving the British in control of the battlefield. This is the first time during the war this had happened but, of course, the retreat was resumed shortly.
The Fourth Cavalry Divisions likely suffered about 200 casualties, about twice those of the British. The affair did have a deleterious effect on the Germans and gave the British reason to believe that under the right conditions they could still win.
The failure of their action at Nery and the futility of cavalry charging sound defensive positions manned by well-trained men with modern rifles and machine guns confirmed to the Germans the value of having supporting infantry integrated with the cavalry.
For the cavalry on both sides, the attack proved the acclamation of the critical importance of ground reconnaissance before charging boldly at the enemy.