23rd - 24th August 1914
The Battle of Mons was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War. It was a subsidiary action of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the Allies clashed with Germany on the French borders. At Mons, the British army attempted to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal against the advancing German First Army. Although the British fought well and inflicted disproportionate casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the sudden retreat of the French Fifth Army, which exposed the British right flank. Though initially planned as a simple tactical withdrawal, and executed in good order, the British retreat from Mons ultimately lasted for two weeks and took the BEF to the outskirts of Paris before it was finally able to counterattack, in concert with the French, at the Battle of the Marne.
Britain declared war on Germany on 4 August 1914, and on 9 August the BEF began embarking for France. By the standards of Continental European armies, the BEF was, in 1914, exceedingly small. Whereas at the beginning of the war the German and French armies numbered well over a million men each, divided into eight and five field armies, respectively, the BEF initially numbered only about 80,000 soldiers divided into two corps. Unlike the largely conscript armies of Germany and France, however, the BEF was an entirely professional force made up of long-service volunteer soldiers. As a result, the BEF was, on balance, probably the best trained and most experienced of the European armies of 1914. In particular, pre-war British Army training emphasized rapid marksmanship, meaning that the average British soldier was able to hit a man-sized target fifteen times a minute at a range of 300 yards with his Lee-Enfield rifle. This ability to pour out rapid, accurate rifle-fire would play an important role in all of the BEF's battles of 1914.
The Battle of Mons took place as part of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the advancing German army clashed with the advancing Allied armies along the Franco-Belgian and Franco-German borders. The BEF was stationed on the left of the Allied line, which stretched from Alsace-Lorraine in the east to Mons and Charleroi in southern Belgium. The British army's position on the French flank meant that it stood directly in the path of the German First Army, the outermost wing of the massive "right hook" intended by the Schlieffen Plan to encircle and destroy the Allies. The BEF, small as it was, thus had the crucial role of holding back the German right wing and preventing the Allies from being outflanked.
The British reached Mons on 22 August. On that day, the French Fifth Army, located on the immediate right of the BEF, was heavily engaged with the German Second and Third armies at the Battle of Charleroi. At the request of the Fifth Army commander, General Charles Lanrezac, the BEF's commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, agreed to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal for twenty-four hours to prevent the advancing German First Army from threatening the French left flank. The British thus spent the day creating entrenched positions along the canal.
Disposition of forces and first contact
At the Battle of Mons the BEF consisted of two corps, each with two infantry divisions, plus an additional five brigades of cavalry – a total of approximately 80,000 men. I Corps was commanded by Sir Douglas Haig and was composed of the 1st and 2nd Divisions. II Corps was commanded by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and consisted of the 3rd and 5th Divisions. Each infantry division consisted of three brigades, each with four battalions. It was armed with twenty-four Vickers machine guns – two per battalion – and was supported by three field artillery brigades totalling fifty-four 18-pounder guns, one field howitzer brigade of eighteen 4.5-inch howitzers, and one heavy artillery battery of four 60-pounder guns.
The British II Corps, on the left of the British line, occupied defensive positions along the Mons-Condé Canal, while I Corps was positioned almost at a right angle away from the canal along the Mons-Beaumont road I Corps was deployed in this manner to protect the BEF's right flank in case the French were forced to retreat from their position at Charleroi. In the event, however, the fact that I Corps did not line the canal meant that it played very little role in the upcoming battle, and the German onslaught was faced almost exclusively by II Corps. The dominant geographical feature of the battlefield was a loop in the canal, which jutted outwards from Mons towards the village of Nimy. This loop formed a small salient that would, inevitably, be difficult for the British to defend, Consequently, this salient formed the focus of the battle.
Advancing towards the British was the German First Army, commanded by Alexander von Kluck. The First Army was composed of four active corps (II, III, IV, and IX Corps) and three reserve corps (III, IV, and IX Reserve Corps), although only the active corps took part in the fighting at Mons. German corps, like British corps, consisted of two divisions each, with attendant cavalry and artillery. Of all the German field armies, the First Army had the greatest offensive power, with a density of about 18,000 men per mile of front, or about 10 per metre – higher than any other German army.
The first contact between the two armies occurred on 21 August, when a British bicycle reconnaissance team encountered a German unit near Obourg. One of the cyclists, Private John Parr, was killed, thereby becoming the first British fatality of the war. The first substantial action occurred a day later, on the morning of 22 August. At 6:30 a.m., the 4th Dragoon Guards laid an ambush for a patrol of German lancers outside the village of Casteau, to the northeast of Mons. When the Germans spotted the trap and fell back, a troop of the dragoons, led by Captain Hornby, gave chase, followed by the rest of his squadron, all with drawn sabres. The retreating Germans led the British to a larger force of lancers, who they promptly charged, and Captain Hornby became the first British soldier to kill an enemy in the Great War, fighting on horseback with sword against lance. After a further pursuit of a few miles, the Germans turned and fired upon the British cavalrymen, at which point the Dragoons dismounted and opened fire. Drummer Edward Thomas is reputed to have fired the first shot of the war for the British Army, hitting a German trooper.
First British fatality of the War
John Parr, buried in St. Symphorien Military Cemetery
The Battle of Mons opened at dawn on 23 August with a German artillery bombardment of the British lines. Understanding that the salient formed by the loop in the canal was the weak-point of the British defences, throughout the day the Germans focused their primary efforts on attacking the British there. At 9:00 a.m., the first German infantry assault began, with the Germans attempting to force their way across the four bridges that crossed the canal at the salient. Four German battalions attacked the Nimy bridge, which was defended by a single company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, as well as a machine gun section led by Lieutenant Maurice Dease. Advancing at first in close column – "parade ground" formation – the Germans made nearly unmissable targets for the well-trained British riflemen (who were evidently making hits at over 1,000 yards (910 m), and were mown down by rifle, machine gun, and artillery fire. Indeed, so heavy was the British rifle fire throughout the battle that the Germans thought they were facing batteries of machine guns.
The initial German attack was thus repulsed with heavy losses. Quickly realising the folly of attacking in close order, however, the Germans switched to an open formation and attacked again. This attack was more successful, as the looser formation adopted by the Germans made it more difficult for the British to inflict casualties rapidly. As a result, the outnumbered defenders were soon hard-pressed to defend the canal crossings. The Royal Fusiliers, defending the Nimy bridge and the Ghlin bridge, faced some of the day's heaviest fighting, and only the piecemeal addition of reinforcements to the firing line as well as the exceptional bravery of two of the battalion's machine gunners allowed them to hold off the German attacks. At the Nimy bridge, Dease took control of his machine gun after every other member of his section had been killed or wounded and continued to fire the weapon despite being shot multiple times. Only after being wounded for a fifth time was he evacuated to the battalion aid station, where he died.[At the Ghlin bridge, Private Sidney Godley operated the battalion's other machine gun tenaciously throughout the day, ultimately staying behind to cover the Fusiliers' retreat at the end of the battle. He only surrendered after disassembling his gun and throwing the pieces into the canal to prevent its capture by the Germans. Both soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the first two earned in the First World War.
To the right of the Royal Fusiliers, the 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment and the 1st Battalion, Gordon Highlanders were equally hard-pressed by the German assault on the salient. Greatly outnumbered, both battalions suffered heavy casualties but, with the addition of reinforcements from the Royal Irish Regiment (which was acting as the divisional reserve) and effective fire support from the divisional artillery, they managed to hold the bridges. At this point, the Germans expanded their attack, assaulting the British defences along the straight reach of the canal to the west of the salient. The Germans attackers were aided by fir plantations that lined the northern side of the canal, allowing them to advance under cover to within a few hundred yards of the canal and to rake the British defences with machine gun and rifle fire. The German attack fell particularly heavily on the 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment and the 2nd Battalion, King's Own Scottish Borderers, but, although these battalions endured heavy casualties, they managed to repulse the Germans throughout the day.
Five 1914 burials in Nouvelles Communal Cemetery near Mons
Under the weight of continuing German attacks, by the afternoon the British began to realize that their position in the salient was untenable. Many of the battalions defending the salient had taken heavy casualties – the 4th Middlesex, for example, had suffered 15 officers and 353 other ranks killed or wounded. To the east of the British position, units of the German IX Corps had begun to cross the canal in force, threatening the British right flank. And at Nimy, a German private, August Neimeier, had swum across the canal under British fire to operate machinery closing a swing bridge. Although he was killed, his actions allowed the Germans to increase pressure against the 4th Royal Fusiliers.
In consequence, at 3 p.m. the British 3rd Division was ordered to retire from the salient to positions a short distance to the south of Mons. This retirement necessitated a similar retreat towards evening by the 5th Division, and by nightfall II Corps had established a new defensive line running through the villages of Montrœul, Boussu, Wasmes, Paturages, and Frameries. By this point, however, the Germans had built pontoon bridges over the canal, and were approaching the British positions in great strength. Additionally, news had arrived that the French Fifth Army was retreating, dangerously exposing the British right flank. At 2 a.m. on 24 August, II Corps was ordered to retreat southwest into France with the goal of reaching defensibile positions along the Valenciennes to Maubeuge road.]
The unexpected order to retreat from prepared defensive lines in the face of the enemy meant that II Corps was required to fight a number of sharp rearguard actions against the pursuing Germans. For the first stage of the withdrawal, Gen. Smith-Dorrien detailed the 5th Brigade of the 2nd Division, which had not been involved in heavy fighting on 23 August, to act as rearguard. The 5th Brigade fought a holding action at Paturages and Frameries, the Brigade artillery in particular inflicting heavy casualties on the Germans. Elsewhere, at Wasmes, elements of the 5th Division faced a heavy assault. German artillery began bombarding the village at daybreak, and at 10 a.m. infantry of the German III Corps attacked. Advancing in columns, however, the Germans were immediately met with heavy rifle and machine gun fire, and were "mown down like grass." For a further two hours, soldiers of the 1st West Kents, 2nd Battalion, King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, 2nd Battalion, Duke of Wellington's Regiment, and 1st Battalion, Bedfordshire Regiment held off repeated German assaults on the village despite taking heavy casualties, and then retreated in good order to St. Vaast.
On the extreme left of the British line, the 14th and 15th Brigades of the 5th Division were particularly hard-pressed by the Germans, who were attempting to outflank them, and were forced to call for help from the cavalry. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade, along with the 119th Battery RFA and L Battery RHA, were sent to their aid. Dismounting to fight, the cavalry, protected by the two artillery batteries, successfully screened the withdrawal of the 14th and 15th Brigades during four hours of intense fighting.
By nightfall on 24 August, the British had successfully retreated to what was expected to be their new defensive lines on the Valenciennes to Maubeuge road. Their retreat did not stop there, however. Significantly outnumbered by the German First Army, and with their French allies also falling back, the BEF had no choice but to continue to retire – I Corps retreating to Landrecies and II Corps to Le Cateau. Ultimately, the retreat would last for two weeks and cover over 250 miles. Throughout the retreat, the British were closely pursued by the Germans, and were forced to fight a number of rearguard actions, including the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August, the Étreux rearguard action on 27 August, and the Action at Néry on 1 September.
In a way, both sides were victorious at the Battle of Mons. The British, outnumbered by as much as 3 to 1, managed to hold off the German First Army for 48 hours while inflicting significantly heavier casualties on their enemies, and then were able to retire in good order. They thus achieved their main strategic objective, which was to protect the French Fifth Army from being outflanked. Additionally, the Battle of Mons was an important moral victory for the British. As their first battle on the European continent since the Crimean War almost 60 years earlier, it was a matter of great uncertainty as to how they would perform. In the event, the British soldiers came away from the battle with a clear sense that they had gotten the upper hand during the fighting at Mons. The Germans, likewise, seem to have understood that they had been dealt a sharp blow by an army they had previously considered inconsequential. The German novelist and infantry captain Walter Bloem, for example, wrote his thoughts on the outcome of the battle:
the men all chilled to the bone, almost too exhausted to move and with the depressing consciousness of defeat weighing heavily upon them. A bad defeat, there can be no gainsaying it... we had been badly beaten, and by the English – by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before.
For the Germans, the Battle of Mons was a tactical defeat, but nonetheless a strategic victory. Although the First Army was temporarily held up by the British and suffered heavy casualties, it still managed to cross the barrier of the Mons-Condé Canal and begin its advance into France. Ultimately, it would drive the BEF and French armies before it almost to Paris before finally being stopped at the Battle of the Marne.
Over time, the Battle of Mons has attained an almost mythic status. In the British historiographic tradition in particular, it has been given a reputation as an upset victory against overwhelming odds of the same order as the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Indeed, Mons spawned its own famous myth: a miraculous tale claiming that the "Angels of Mons" – angelic warriors sometimes described as phantom longbowmen from Agincourt – had saved the British army by halting the German troops.
Soldiers of the BEF who fought at Mons later became eligible for a campaign medal, the 1914 Star, often colloquially called the Mons Star, honouring troops who had fought in Belgium or France between 5 August and 22 November 1914. On 19 August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly issued an Order of the Day which read in part: "my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over Field Marshal French's contemptible little Army." This led to the British "Tommies" of the BEF proudly labelling themselves "The Old Contemptibles". However, no evidence of the famous Order of the Day was ever found in the German archives after the war, and the ex-Kaiser denied having given it. An investigation conducted by General Frederick Maurice traced the origins of the Order to the British GHQ, where it apparently had been concocted for propaganda purposes.
After the battle, the Germans established the St Symphorien military cemetery as a memorial to the German, British, and Irish dead. On a mound in the centre of the cemetery was erected a grey granite obelisk, 7 metres (23 ft) tall, with a German inscription: "In memory of the German and English soldiers who fell in the actions near Mons on the 23rd and 24th August 1914". Originally, 245 German and 188 British and Irish soldiers were interred at the cemetery. Subsequently, additional British, Canadian, and German graves were moved to the cemetery from other burial grounds, and there are now over 500 soldiers buried in St. Symphorien. Of these, over 60 are unidentified, and special memorials have been erected to five soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment believed to be buried in unnamed graves. Other special memorials record the names of four British soldiers, buried by the enemy in Obourg Churchyard, whose graves could not be found. Poignantly, St. Symphorien cemetery also contains the graves of the two soldiers believed to be the first (Private John Parr, 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regt., 21 August 1914) and the last (Private Gordon Price, Canadian Infantry, 11 November 1918) Commonwealth soldiers to be killed during the First World War. A tablet in the cemetery sets out the gift of the land by Jean Houzeau de Lehaie.
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