The Battle of Mons
23-24 August 1914
first battle is a heavy, unheard of heavy, defeat, and against
the English -
the English we had laughed at. (Walter Bloem, Reserve Captain, 12th Brandenburg Grenadier Regiment, in his autobiographical work 'Vormarsch')
Elements of the British Expeditionary Force which took part in this engagement:
5th Cavalry Brigade
I Corps (Haig): 1st and 2nd Divisions
II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd and 5th Divisions
19th Infantry Brigade
Subsidiary actions which followed the main battle:
The Action of Elouges, 24 August 1914
1st and 3rd Cavalry Brigades
1st Norfolk and 1st Cheshire of 5th Division
The rearguard action of Solesmes, 25 August 1914
7th Infantry Brigade of 3rd Division
19th Infantry Brigade
The Affair of Landrecies, 25 August 1914
4th (Guards) Brigade of 2nd Division.
The first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans came about simply because pre-war plans had placed the British Expeditionary Force in the way of the German advance towards Paris. This position had been agreed during pre-war discussions between the British and French Armies.
German troops entered Luxemburg on 2 August and moved into Belgium near Liege next day. The British Government declared war on 4 August 1914, and by 22 August the four infantry divisions and one cavalry division of the BEF had disembarked in France and taken up their positions just across the Belgian border, some miles south of Mons, on the extreme left of the Allied line
By this time the German armies were moving en masse towards the west. Their plan had placed much strength on their right flank, which was by now streaming through Belgium with the First Army under von Kluck - the largest of their armies - moving on Ath and Mons. The British command quickly became convinced by cavalry reports, together with those by aerial observation, that German troops were closing in on Mons.
Mons was in 1914 the regional centre of a heavy mining and engineering industry. The landscape is gently hilly, cut by canals, railways and roads, and pitted with coal mining slagheaps. The weather was fine and warm.
First clash: 22 August 1914
At dawn on Saturday 22 August 1914, C Squadron of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, commanded by Major Tom Bridges, pushed out two patrols north from Mons towards Soignies and met the Germans for the first time. There is a memorial near the spot today. C Squadron commenced a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières. Four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop under Captain Hornby and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood. There were other cavalry encounters with the enemy in the areas of La Louvière and Binche.
|In the centre of the picture is a memorial to the first encounter with the enemy between the British cavalry units and the advancing German patrols, which happened here in August 1914. The sign board in front of it is modern, one of several marking a tourist route.||The hamlet of Maisières lies between Casteau and Nimy. A plaque on the church wall records the exploits of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, 4th Middlesex, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers on 23rd August 1914, and the fact that a number of men of these units fell here.|
During the day and in rear of the cavalry screen, the British infantry took up a thin line of roughly entrenched positions along the Mons-Conde canal, following it round the pronounced salient to the north of the town, with the I Corps to the east echeloned back and facing north-east. It was decided that, if pressure grew on the outposts along the canal, then the II Corps would evacuate Mons and take up a defensive position among the pit villages and slag heaps a little way to the south. The Germans were apparently unaware of the presence of the BEF in this area until the skirmishes on the 22nd, and even then they did not know the British strength.
The fight on the canal banks, morning 23 August 1914
At 5.30am, Sir John French met with Haig, Allenby and Smith-Dorrien at his advanced HQ at a chateau in Sars-la-Bruyère, where he ordered the outpost line on the canal to be strengthened and the bridges prepared for demolition. They recognised that the British position was not good, for the canal turn was very exposed on three sides.
'the selection of positions by the 5th Division was a matter of the greatest difficulty, the ground being a wilderness of deep ditches, straggling buildings, casual roads and tracks, and high slag heaps. Fortunately on the enemy side the conditions were almost identical.' (Official History)
The morning of Sunday, 23rd August broke in mist and rain, which cleared around 10am. There were some early exchanges between German cavalry and British infantry outposts around 6.30am, near Obourg, Nimy and Ville Pommeroeul. But there could be little doubt where the main blow would fall - it would concentrate on the units of II Corps, thinly spread along the canal.
Before 9am, German heavy guns were in a position on high ground north of the canal, and opened fire on the positions of the 4th Middlesex and 4th Royal Fusiliers. German infantry attacks - units of the IX Korps - began from across the canal and increased in strength all round the salient from Obourg to Nimy. It was the 84th Regiment, from Schleswig, who made the first attacks on the Nimy positions. The British infantry shot down the feldgrau in masses as they advanced towards the canal in dense lines.
The first Victoria Crosses of the war
The bridges at Nimy were defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers, the forward Company under Captain Ashburner. Two machine guns were under Lieutenant Maurice Dease. As the German attacks increased, all men of his sections were killed or wounded and he took over a gun himself. He was wounded five times, and eventually taken to the dressing station, where he succumbed. Private Sidney Godley took over the gun, and kept it firing. He covered the withdrawal despite being wounded, and eventually dismantled and threw the gun into the canal as he was taken prisoner. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross. Godley died shortly after the Second War; Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery, along with many men and officers of his battalion.
|The Mons-Conde canal runs through the northern outskirts of the town. Although altered somewhat in recent times, the general layout is much as it was in 1914. The infantry of II Corps of the BEF took up defensive positions along the canal bank (left in this picture) on 22nd August 1914, and were attacked from across the canal the next day. The railway bridge in the distance was a key point, defended by the machine gun section of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, as was the road bridge which is behind the photographer.||Under the railway bridge on the canal path is this memorial to a gallant defence by the Royal Fusiliers.|
The battle intensifies and widens, morning 23 August 1914
The troops in the canal salient had orders for 'a stubborn resistance', and they held their original positions, although very hard pressed, until after 11am. A remarkable feat took place at Nimy, where a Private Niemayer jumped into the canal under fire and closed the swing bridge which enabled the first German troops to cross. The brave Niemayer was killed in the act.
The attack spread gradually westwards along the straight canal, as the III Korps came into action at Jemappes, 2 miles west of Mons. The forward post of the Royal Scots Fusiliers north of the canal was withdrawn, and gradually the Germans advanced to within 200 yards of the bridge at Lock 2, where they were brought to a standstill by the accuracy of the British fire. Still further west, the Brandenburg Grenadiers fought forward through Tertre and were only stopped by the maze of wire fences, boggy dikes and the crossfire of the West Kents and Scottish Borderers on the canal bank. Fighting was by noon continuous along the straight canal. Under continuous observed shelling and infantry attacks, the battalions to the west began to fall back in the early afternoon. Near Frameries, two of the three bridges escaped being blown by lack of exploders to fire the charges, and the Germans crossed hard on the heels of the Scots Fusiliers.
In the canal salient, the Germans shortly after noon succeeding in passing the canal west of Obourg, and reached the village railway station. Taught by recent hard experience they abandoned massed formation and deployed in extended order. The situation of the Middlesex and Royal Irish in this sector was now precarious, being under observation from the heights to the north of the canal, and with advanced German patrols pushing through Mons to their rear. By 3.15pm both battalions began to withdraw. A little earlier, the Royal Fusiliers withdrew from Nimy. Their losses did not greatly exceed 100, and after reforming in Mons they moved to Ciply.
Owing to the close proximity of the enemy, only one bridge was blown. An officer of the RE was taken prisoner at the Nimy bridge, and all the work of laying charges was done under fire of snipers. Some small parties, either not receiving orders to withdraw, or ordered to defend to the last man, were engulfed as the Germans swarmed across the salient, through Nimy and along the straight road into the city. In spite of the efforts of the Staff to co-ordinate the withdrawal to the planned defence line, there was no uniformity of movement from the outpost line on the canal, and parties of infantry began to get mixed up; command devolved onto Captains, subalterns, and senior NCOs.
'Altogether, the British commanders were not ill-satisfied with the day's work. The men, too, were in high spirits, for they had met superior numbers of the most highly renowned army in the world and had given a good account of themselves' (Official History)
The Germans did not exploit their success in the canal salient as dusk fell. Instead, their buglers were heard to sound the 'cease fire'. However, information arrived from the French 5th Army HQ during the night that Tournai had fallen, and long columns of the enemy had broken through. And a wide gap had opened up on the right between the BEF and Lanrezac's Army. Sir John French had little option but to order a general withdrawal, in the direction of Cambrai, and to try to re-establish contact with his allies. The men of the Old Contemptibles were mystified by the orders to withdraw - they fervently believed that they had fought the Germans to a standstill at Mons, and simply could not understand why they were marching away. Not one of them could have guessed just how much marching they would do over the next two weeks.
Tactical victory: strategic defeat
British fire-and-movement infantry tactics were essentially those taught in the pre-war years and followed the guidance of the Field Service Regulations. Intensive and accurate rifle fire and the effect of air-bursting shrapnel rounds on a massed and unprotected enemy were impressive. The British force engaged withdrew brilliantly in the face of overwhelming odds and without flank protection. The Germans suffered a serious blow. They now knew where the British were and that they could inflict damage and delay to the advance. However, with overwhelming strength and speed, that advance went on. The French line, extended on its left by the BEF, was in the process of being outflanked by the German First Army and retreat was inevitable.
The total British casualties amounted to just over 1,600 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing. Practically half of these were from just two battalions (400 of the 4th Middlesex and 300 of the 2nd Royal Irish, both of the 8th Brigade in the canal salient). German losses were in excess of 5,000.
|Compared with later battles, Mons was a small-scale affair, and casualties were relatively few. Most of the dead are buried at the military cemeteries at Hautrage and Saint-Symphorien. The latter is today a pleasant suburb of Mons. The cemetery there was begun by German units, burying their own casualties and those of their foe in adjacent areas. It was for most of the war a considerable distance from the fighting, but was used again when the British advanced here in late 1918. The cemetery is arranged on a number of levels, with many trees forming glades around the grave plots. It is a unique and very attractive place.||German graves can be seen here behind the Commonwealth War Graves Commission stones. Unusually in a German cemetery, individuals have their own grave. They are buried in regimental plots, with grave stones of different patterns for each unit. 220 British soldiers are buried here.|