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Affair of Nery

 

The Affair of Nery was a skirmish fought on 1 September 1914 between the British Army and the German Army, part of the Great Retreat from Mons during the early stages of the First World War. A British cavalry brigade preparing to leave their overnight bivouac were attacked by a German cavalry division of about twice their strength, shortly after dawn. Both sides fought dismounted; the British artillery was mostly put out of action in the first few minutes but a gun of L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery kept up a steady fire for two and a half hours, against a full battery of German artillery. British reinforcements arrived at around 8:00 a.m., counter-attacked the Germans and forcing them to retreat; the German division was routed and did not return to combat for several days. Three men of L Battery were awarded the Victoria Cross for their part in the battle' the battery was later awarded the honour title of "Nery", the only British Army unit to have this as a battle honour.

On 31 August, the Expeditionary Force continued falling back to the south-west, crossing the River Aisne between Soissons and Compiegne, with a rear guard provided by the brigades of the Cavalry Division. The day's march was cut short by the warm weather, which exhausted the already fatigued infantry, and they halted for the night just south of the Aisne. The I Corps bivouacked north of the forest around Villers-Cotterets, with the II Corps to their south-west at Crepy-en-Valois, and the III Corps further to the west around Verberie. This left a gap of around five miles between the II and III Corps, which was filled by the 1st Cavalry Brigade, stationed at the village of Nery. The brigade had spent the day scouting for the German vanguard to the north-west of Compiegne, and did not reach its rest area until dusk, around 8.30pm. The British plan for the following day was for a march of ten to fourteen miles southwards to a new defensive line, which called for an early departure from their rest areas; the III Corps rearguards were expected to pass through Nery by 6 am, which would already have been vacated by the cavalry. However, most units had reached their overnight stations quite late on the 31st, and so General Pulteney, the corps commander, ordered a later departure.

On the British side, the 1st Cavalry Brigade bivouacked at Nery consisted of three cavalry regiments under the command of Brigadier-General Sir Charles Briggs, the 2nd Dragoon Guards (Queen's Bays), 5th (Princess Charlotte of Wales's) Dragoon Guards and 11th (Prince Albert's Own) Hussars. Each had a nominal strength of 549 men in three squadrons, with two Vickers machine-guns; They were supported by L Battery of the Royal Horse Artillery, which had a nominal strength of 205 men with six 13-pounder guns. Both units were part of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) Cavalry Division, and had seen action throughout the Retreat from Mons, including fighting at the Battle of Mons and the Battle of Le Cateau but neither had suffered many casualties and were still close to establishment size.

Nery is set in a north-south oriented valley around a small river, which feeds into the River Autonne to the north; it is overlooked from the east and west by high bluffs. The main landmark was a sugar factory, just south of the village, where L Battery were billeted; the cavalry regiments were stationed in and around the village proper. Dawn on 1 September came with heavy fog lying in the valley; the force had been awakened and prepared for a move at 4.30 am, but due to the terrible visibility it was decided to wait an hour and a half for the mist to clear, and the men stood down to rest, water the horses, and prepare breakfast. The teams for the artillery were left harnessed to their guns, but with the limbers lowered to take the weight off the horses. At 5.25 am, a patrol from the 11th Hussars, which had been sent out to the south-east, encountered a strong force of enemy cavalry and escaped back to the village; the regiment quickly took up dismounted defensive positions along the eastern edge of the village, though the commander of the 5th Dragoon Guards refused to believe an attack was imminent.

Whilst Bradbury kept the gun in action, the men of the cavalry regiments had moved into position, on foot, along the eastern edge of the village to prevent an attack by the dismounted German cavalry. At 6am, two squadrons of the 5th Dragoon Guards were sent north to try to outflank the attackers, looping around to the east and pressing in to hold them in place. By the time Bradbury's gun stopped firing, the first reinforcements from III Corps had arrived; the 4th Cavalry Brigade with I Battery RHA, and two battalions of infantry. I Battery began firing directly on the German guns, now exposed by the clearing mist, as did the machine guns of the 1st Middlesex Regiment; the German horses took heavy casualties, and when the artillery withdrew eight of the guns had to be abandoned for lack of horses to pull them. A squadron of the 11th Hussars passed through to pursue the retreating Germans for a mile, taking seventy-eight prisoners, from all six regiments of the German division.

L Battery was almost destroyed as an operational unit in the engagement, losing all five officers and a quarter of its men and was withdrawn to England in order to reform. It did not see active service again until April 1915, when it was sent to Gallipoli. The three cavalry regiments of 1st Brigade suffered less, taking eighty-one casualties between them, one of whom was Colonel Ansell, the commanding officer of the 5th Dragoon Guards. The brigade major of 1st Brigade, Major John Cawley, was also killed.

The 4th Cavalry Division, conversely, was almost completely routed. Its actual casualties are unknown, though were thought to be greater than the British losses, and eight of their twelve guns were captured by the counterattack of the Middlesex Regiment. The brigades were ordered to disperse according to one officer, they "had to withdraw or be destroyed" when the strength of the British reinforcements became apparent, and scattered in various directions. The Germans either moved north into the Compiegne Forest or east towards Crepy-en-Valois, but hearing fighting at Crepy doubled back to the south-east. They halted in the forests around Rosieres, south of Nery; however, they were forced to abandon their remaining four guns, and most of their food and ammunition in the process. That afternoon, the cavalry observed the British columns retreating south along the roads, but were unable to attack them because of their lack of supplies. They left Rosieres in the evening of 1 September; a patrol of the 1st Rifle Brigade entered the village at 7pm and found it had just been abandoned by a cavalry unit, leaving in such haste that they had abandoned a machine-gun. The bulk of the units managed to rejoin the First Army by the morning of 3 September, but the division was left behind with a reserve corps on 4 September when the II Cavalry Corps began to advance again.

Missouri Civil War Museum