23 August 1914
The first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans on the Western Front in the Great War 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 late on 4 August 1914, and by 22 August the four infantry divisions and one cavalry division of the British Expeditionary Force had disembarked in France and taken up their positions near the fortress town of Maubeuge, some miles south of Mons on the extreme left of the Allied line. General Lanrezac's French Fifth Army was on the right of the British.
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 - wheeling round past Brussels to 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.
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.
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. 19th Infantry Brigade took up a position on the left of the British line. 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. By 9am on 23rd German artillery had been placed on high ground north of the canal.
'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)
First Victoria Cross actions
The bridges at Nimy were defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers, the forward company being under Captain Ashburner. The battalion's section of two machine guns were under Lieutenant Maurice Dease. As the German attacks increased, all men of his section were killed or wounded and he took over a gun himself. He was wounded five times, and eventually taken to a medical dressing station where he succumbed. Private Sidney Godley took over a gun and kept it firing. He covered the withdrawal despite being wounded, and eventually dismantled and threw the gun into the canal just 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 outside Mons, along with many men and officers of his battalion.
The total British casualties amounted to just over 1,600 of all ranks, killed, wounded and missing, during the Battle of Mons. 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 are said by official British sources to have been in excess of 5,000 but this figure is disputed.
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