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An important 1914 ‘Le Cateau’ D.S.O. group, Sherwood Foresters – seven times Mentioned in Despatches for the Great War, Director of Mobilization in 1917, later Director General of Mobilisation , in charge of demobilising the entire British Army at the end of the war.

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An important 1914 ‘Le Cateau’ D.S.O. group of eight awarded to Lieutenant-General Sir B. F. Burnett-Hitchcock K.C.B., Sherwood Foresters (Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment), who, whilst a Captain on the Staff of the 4th Division, was decorated for gallantry in rallying disordered troops and leading them against the enemy at Haucourt, 26 August 1914; seven times Mentioned in Despatches for the Great War, he subsequently rose to command the 55th (West Lancs) Division and the Deccan District (4th Indian Division)

Director of Mobilization in 1917, later Director General of Mobilisation , and was in charge of demobilising the entire British Army at the end of the war, in which roles he attended various War Cabinet meetings.

Distinguished Service Order, G.V.R., silver-gilt and enamel, with integral top riband bar; Queen’s South Africa 1899-1902, 3 clasps, Cape Colony, Orange Free State, South Africa 1901, unofficial rivets between state and date clasps, Capt. B. F. Burnett-Hitchcock, Derby: Regt.; 1914 Star, with clasp, Capt: B. Burnett-Hitchcock Notts: & Derby: R.; British War and Victory Medals, Brig. Gen. B. F. Burnett Hitchcock.; France, Third Republic, Legion of Honour, Chevalier’s breast badge, silver, silver-gilt and enamel, chip to white enamel; Italy, Kingdom, Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus, Officer’s breast badge, gold, silver-gilt, and enamel, slight enamel damage; France, Third Republic, Croix de Guerre, bronze, reverse dated 1914-1918, with bronze palm.

Provenance: Sotheby’s, July 1975 (when sold together with K.C.B. Knight Commander’s badge and breast star).

K.C.B. (Military), London Gazette 3 June 1932.

C.B. (Military), London Gazette 1 January 1918:

‘For services rendered in connection with the war’

D.S.O., London Gazette 9 December 1914:

‘On 26th August, at Haucourt, France, for gallantry in rallying troops in disorder and leading them against the enemy, thereby ensuring an orderly evacuation of the village.’

French Legion of Honour, London Gazette 3 November 1914:

‘For gallantry during the Operations between 21st and 30th August 1914’

Italian Order of St Maurice and St Lazarus, London Gazette 1 April 1919.

French Croix de Guerre, London Gazette 9 April 1920.

M.I.D. London Gazettes 19 October 1914; 17 February 1915; 1 January 1916; 15 June 1916; 4 January 1917; 15 May 1917; 12 February 1918

Basil Ferguson Burnett-Hitchcock was born on 3 March 1877, at Chatham, son of the late Colonel T. Burnett-Hitchcock, of Week Manor, Winchester, Hants, and Amelia Burnett-Hitchcock. Educated at Harrow and Sandhurst (Sword of Honour, Anson Memorial Sword, 1st passing out), he made two first-class appearances for Hampshire in the 1896 Country Championship before being commissioned Second Lieutenant into the Sherwood Foresters (Derbyshire Regiment) on 20 February 1897.

Promoted Lieutenant on 12 April 1898, he served during the Boer War in South Africa, 1899-1901, with the 1st Battalion, Sherwood Foresters, Mounted Infantry, and on the Staff, taking part in the operations in the Orange Free State, February to May, 1900; in Orange River Colony, May to 29 November 1900; also in Cape Colony 1899-1900; again during operations in Orange River Colony and Cape Colony 30 November 1900 to February 1901 (Queen’s Medal with three clasps).

Advanced Captain 12 March, 1901, he attended Staff College, 1903-4 and was was Staff Captain, Eastern Command, 1905-9; General Staff Officer, 2nd Grade, Bermuda, 1910-12 and Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General, 4th Division, Eastern Command in 1912.

Great War – The 4th Division at the Battle of Le Cateau

On the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914, Burnett-Hitchcock, whilst still a Captain in the 2nd Sherwood Foresters, was Deputy Assistant Adjutant and Quartermaster General on the Staff of General T. D’O. Snow’s 4th Division. Although initially held back in England to counter any German landing, the division was soon despatched to France, arriving just in time to play a valuable part in the retreat from Mons.

At Le Havre, the 4th Division (10th, 11th and 12th Brigades with light artillery) entrained for Le Cateau from where, on 25th August, it marched to Solesmes to cover the retirement of II Corps after the Battle of Mons. Having arrived at Solesmes amid chaotic scenes of retreating British soldiers and long lines of civilian refugees, the wet and weary 4th Division fell back through the villages of Briastre and Le Coquelet before coming under the command of II Corps just as General Smith-Dorrien decided to make his stand in the rolling country around Le Caudry, to the west of Le Cateau – Smith Dorrien declaring, ‘”Very well, gentlemen, we will fight, and I will ask General Snow to act under me as well.” Smith-Dorrien’s decision to fight this important delaying rearguard action may well have saved the British from destruction by the massive German onslaught during the general Allied retreat following sustained German successes at the four Battles of the Frontiers.

The location, a long ridge running west-east with Le Cateau at its eastern end, was far from ideal. The ground was soft, so easy for the troops to dig in, but it lacked cover, was dominated by a German-held ridge to the north and, worst of all, both flanks were open. The situation on the right flank, the hills around the Le Cateau valley, was perilous from the start, as the Germans infiltrated during the night. The west, held by 4th Division, was absolutely vulnerable to flanking movements designed to encircle II Corps. Snow now set up his Division HQ at the village of Haucourt with 12th Brigade further forward on the left near Esnes and Longsart and 11th Brigade forward to the right in front of Ligny. 10th Brigade remained in reserve around Haucourt.

Wilson’s 12th Brigade was attacked in force early on 26 August and suffered heavy casualties, but managed to rally and held the extreme left of the British line until the B.E.F. was able to retreat. The 1st Battalion, King’s Own Royal Lancaster Regiment suffered in particular. Surprised just as breakfast was being served, they came under heavy machine gun and artillery fire. The battalion was nearly destroyed as a fighting unit, the commanding officer and many others being killed, with many more wounded or taken prisoner of war.

Meanwhile, Hunter-Weston’s 11th Brigade spent most of the day desperately holding the position in front of Ligny while coming under heavy artillery and machine-gun fire. A feature of the fighting being the greater respect shown by the Germans for British rifle prowess than at Mons where they had suffered heavy casualties.

One unfortunate consequence of 4th Division’s rapid deployment to France was that it lacked a Signal Company (as well as cavalry, cyclists and Royal Engineers) to provide its commander and his brigadiers with the information necessary to control their units. Burnett-Hitchcock’s employment as a messenger for General Snow during the early part of the Battle is documented in a statement published by Lieutenant-Colonel A. E. Mainwaring, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion Royal Dublin Fusiliers, 10th Infantry Brigade at Le Cateau (Mainwaring and Lieut. Col. Elkington, 1st Royal Warwickshires were, notoriously, cashiered out of the service for cowardice at St. Quentin just days after Le Cateau.):

‘During the first part of the action I received two messages from the divisional staff, both verbal, and sent the one already referred to above to the 10th Brigade, in which I described our positions. The first was delivered by the A.D.C. to the G.O.C. IV Division. Captain Allfrey said to me, “The General says he wishes you to hold on here to the end.” Then, turning in his saddle, he added, “General Snow told me to say that this is a personal message from him to the regiment.” I answered that the General might rely on us to do what he said. Later on Captain Burnett-Hitchcock, of the same staff, said, “It’s only going to be a case of long bowls; no retirement.” Again I said there should be none.’

Soon the shelling of the British hastily prepared positions started and it was during these early stages of the fighting that Burnett-Hitchcock distinguished himself in rallying disordered groups of troops and leading them back towards the front line under shell-fire. General Snow recalls this episode in his memoirs:

‘I felt, however, I should like to see what was going on in the front line before the battle commenced. I snatched a cup of tea and an egg and ran out into the courtyard but found my car was not ready. Colonel Bowes had just driven up, and I jumped into his car and started off for Cattenieres. In getting out of the village we overshot the turning and found ourselves on the road to Esnes. As we were turning to retrace our steps the road we had intended to take was swept by a outburst of shrapnel, and at the same time I saw shells bursting all along the position, and soon afterwards a good many stragglers began coming back from the ridge. Haucourt village was also being shelled; so we left the car and walked across the field to a grove of trees, west of Haucourt. There we met Captain Allfrey, who told me that the rumour was that I had been killed and that General Milne had taken command. Gradually the staff rejoined me, and I was told that Captain Burnett-Hitchcock had done a very gallant act in rallying the stragglers whom I had noticed, and on horseback leading them back to the firing line.’ (The Confusion of Command, The War Memoirs of Lieutenant General Sir Thomas D’Oyly Snow, 1914-1915 edited by Dan Snow and Mark Pottle refers)

Withdrawal and Fighting at Haucourt

Despite all intentions, overwhelming German attacks during the early afternoon inevitably led to Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s decision to break off the action and resume his retreat. The line began to thin out around 5pm as units were ordered off the field – the 10th Brigade, still around Haucourt, being detailed as rear guard. 4th Division Headquarters, also at Haucourt, overseeing the withdrawal, had been shelled earlier with the the General’s A.D.C. and several men being hit – sadly the 4th Division, having no Field Ambulance, had great difficulty in getting any of its wounded away; a first-aid post was established at Haucourt Church and the wounded were taken prisoner later that night. Division H.Q. was now also finding the transmission of orders extremely difficult as its units became disarranged. The 10th and the retreating 12th Brigades in particular had broken into smaller groupings some of which were intermixed. Half of the King’s Own (12th Brigade), receiving no orders to retire, remained in position at Haucourt, covering the retirement of the artillery. As the German 13th Reserve Infantry Brigade infiltrated the village supported by extensive artillery fire, and street fighting continued into the evening, the King’s Own are known to have delivered several bayonet charges one of the most brilliant being led by Captain Clutterbuck, who, with a handful of men, routed four times their number. He paid for the price of his gallantry with his life.

Sir Arthur Conan-Doyle in ‘The British Campaign In France And Flanders 1914’ presents his own picture of some of the remarkable events at Haucourt on 26 August as the bulk of the 4th Division made good their escape:

‘One of the regiments of the Twelfth, the 2nd Royal Lancasters, together with about three hundred Warwicks, from, the Tenth Brigade, and some detachments of other regiments, were, by some mischance, isolated in the village of Haucourt with no definite orders, and held on until ten o’clock at night, when the place was nearly surrounded. They fought their way out, however, in a most surprising fashion, and eventually made good their retreat. One party, under Major Poole of the Warwicks, rejoined the Army next day. Another, which consisted of about sixty of the Royal Lancasters under Major Parker, were surrounded in a barn and fought on until the Germans blew in the gate with a Field-gun. Instead of surrendering, they then made a desperate sally, and, dashing out with their bayonets, they charged down the village street, which was full of German infantry. They actually cut their way through and got away into the open country.’

Subsequent Army Career

For his gallantry at Haucourt, Burnett-Hitchcock was mentioned in Sir John French’s despatch of 8 October 1914, was created a Companion of the Distinguished Service Order and was made a Chevalier of the French Legion of Honour. He went on to serve at the Marne, the Aisne, the First Battle of Ypres, Festubert (1915), Second Battle of Ypres, Loos and Battle of the Somme. He was given the Brevet of Major 18 February 1915, became Major 1 September 1915; was given the Brevet of Lieutenant-Colonel 3 June, 1916 ; and was given the Brevet of Colonel 1 Jan. 1917.

Burnett-Hitchcock’s war services, 1915-1918, are referred to by Alan H. Maude in ‘The 47th (London) Division 1914 – 1919’:

‘Major B. F. Burnett-Hitchcock, D.S.O., Sherwood Foresters, joined us as G.S.O.2 in France on March 25th, 1915, and after a short absence as A.Q.M.G. of the IVth Corps, returned to us as G.S.O.1 on August 20th, 1915, and remained with us till June 15th, 1916, when he left us to become a Brigadier-General and D.A. and Q.M.G. of an Army Corps, and later a Major-General and Director of Mobilisation at the War Office. It fell to him to work out and control the whole process of demobilisation at the end of the war.’

For the Great War Burnett-Hitchcock was Mentioned in Despatches seven times, created a C.B. in 1918, was made an Officer of St. Maurice and St. Lazarus (Italy), 1918 and awarded the Croix de Guerre (France), 1920.

He was appointed Temporary Brigadier-General in France in 1916; Director of Mobilisation at the War Office, with rank of Temporary Brigadier-General, 1917, and Director-General of Mobilisation, with temporary rank of Major-General, 1918; and promoted Major-General 3 June, 1919. In charge of Administration, Aldershot Command 1921-25, he commanded the 55th (West Lancs) Division, Western Command, 1926-28 and was Officer Commanding the Deccan District (4th Indian Division) 1928-30. Advanced Lieutenant-General, 1930, he was placed on half-pay, 1930-32, and was a created a Knight Commander of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath in 1932.

He retired in 1933 and died at Westminster, London on 23 November 1938.

Condition NEF unless mentioned otherwise.

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