The battle of Le Cateau took place during the retreat of the BEF in the aftermath of the battle of Mons (First World War). Both British and German troops were moving at impressive speeds, with some units marching more than twenty miles in a day. On 26 August both I and II Corps were forced to stand and fight against German troops that were too close to ignore. II Corps, under General Smith-Dorrien, consisted for three infantry and one cavalry division. On the morning of 26 August they were attacked by six German divisions – three infantry and three cavalry.
The British front line ran along the road between Le Câteau and Cambrai. During the morning the British regulars were able to hold their own. As at Mons their fast and accurate rifle fire inflicted heavy losses on the advancing Germans, but when two more German divisions joined the battle, II Corps came close to defeat. Towards the end of the day the British line was in danger of being outflanked at both ends, while the German II Corps was approaching from the direction of Cambrai.
The threatened envelopment was prevented by the arrival of General Sordet’s French Cavalry Corps on the British left. Overnight II Corps was able to slip away, continuing their retreat south towards Paris and the Marne. The British suffered more casualties at Le Cateau than at any battle since Waterloo – 8,077 men and 38 guns. The heavy losses at Le Cateau and at Mons seriously demoralised Field-Marshal Sir John French. For most of the period between Le Cateau and the first battle of the Marne he was convinced that the BEF would need to be withdrawn from the line to recover.