Battle of Mons
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 lasted for two weeks and took the BEF to the outskirts of Paris before it counter-attacked 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. Unlike Continental European armies, the BEF in 1914 was exceedingly small. 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 had c. 80,000 soldiers in two corps of entirely professional soldiers made up of long-service volunteer soldiers and reservists. The BEF was probably the best trained and most experienced of the European armies of 1914. British Army training emphasized rapid marksmanship and the average British soldier was able to hit a man-sized target fifteen times a minute, at a range of 300 yards (270 m) with his Lee-Enfield rifle. This ability to generate a high volume of accurate rifle-fire which played an important role in 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 position on the French flank meant that it stood 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 helped to resist the German right wing and prevent the Allies from being outflanked.
The British reached Mons on 22 August. On that day, the French Fifth Army, located on the 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 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 digging in along the canal.
British defensive preparations
At the Battle of Mons the BEF had the Cavalry Division an independent cavalry brigade, two corps, each with two infantry divisions – c. 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 division had 18,073 men and 5,592 horses, in three brigades of four battalions. Each division had twenty-four Vickers machine guns – two per battalion – and three field artillery brigades with fifty-four 18-pounder guns, one field howitzer brigade of eighteen 4.5-inch howitzers and a 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 (see map). 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 battle and the German attack was faced mostly 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 which was difficult to defend and formed the focus of the battle.
The first contact between the two armies occurred on 21 August, when a British bicycle reconnaissance team encountered a German unit near Obourg; and Private John Parr, became the first British soldier to be killed in the war. The first substantial action occurred 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 north-east 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 cavalry, 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.[Note 1]
German offensive preparations
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 had two divisions each, with attendant cavalry and artillery. The First Army had the greatest offensive power of the German armies, with a density of about 18,000 men per mile of front, or about ten per 1 metre (1.1 yd).
Late on 20 August General Karl von Bülow the 2nd Army commander, who had tactical control over the 1st Army while north of the Sambre, held the view that an encounter with the British was unlikely and wished to concentrate on the French units reported between Charleroi and Namur, on the south bank of the Sambre; reconnaissance in the afternoon failed to reveal the strength or intentions of the French. The 2nd Army was ordered to reach a line from Binch, Fontaine-l'Eveque and the Sambre next day to assist the 3rd Army across the Meuse by advancing south of the Sambre on 23 August. The 1st Army was instructed to be ready to cover Brussels and Antwerp to the north and Maubeuge to the south-west. Kluck and the 1st Army staff expected to meet British troops, probably through Lille, which made a wheel to the south premature. Kluck wanted to advance to the south-west to maintain freedom of manuoeuvre and on 21 August, attempted to persuade Bülow to allow the 1st Army to continue its manoeuvre. Bülow refused and ordered the 1st Army to isolate Maubeuge and support the right flank of the 2nd Army by advancing to a line from Lessines to Soignies, while the III and IV Reserve corps remained in the north, to protect the rear of the army from Belgian operations southwards from Antwerp.
On 22 August, the 13th Division of the VII Corps on the right flank of the 2nd Army, encountered British cavalry north of Binche as the rest of the army to the east began an attack over the Sambre river against the French Fifth Army. By the evening the bulk of the 1st Army had reached a line from Silly to Thoricourt, Louvignies and Mignault; the III and IV Reserve corps had occupied Brussels and screened Antwerp. Reconnaissance by cavalry and aircraft indicated that the area to the west of the army was free of troops and that British troops were not concentrating around Kortrijk, Lille and Tournai but were thought to be on the left flank of the Fifth Army, from Mons to Maubeuge. Earlier in the day, British cavalry had been reported at Casteau, to the north-east of Mons. A British aeroplane had been seen at Louvain on 20 August and on the afternoon of 22 August, a British aircraft en route from Maubeuge, was shot down by the 5th Division. More reports had reached the IX Corps, that columns were moving from Valenciennes to Mons, which made clear the British deployment but were not passed on to the 1st Army headquarters. Kluck assumed that the subordination of the 1st Army to the 2nd Army had ended, since the passage of the Sambre had been forced and wished to be certain to envelop the left (west) flank of the enemy forces to the south but was again overruled and ordered to advance south rather than south-west on 23 August. 
Late on 22 August reports arrived that the British had occupied the Canal du Centre crossings from Nimy to Ville-sur-Haine, which revealed the location of British positions except for the left flank. On 23 August the 1st Army began to advance north-west of Maubeuge, to a line from Basècles to St. Ghislain and Jemappes. The weather had turned cloudy and rainy, which grounded the 1st Army Flieger-Abteilung all day, despite an improvement in the weather around noon. News that large numbers of troops had been arriving at Tournai by train arrived and the advance was suspended, until the reports from Tournai could be checked. The IX Corps divisions advanced in four columns against the Canal du Centre, from the north of Mons to Roeulx and on the left (eastern) flank, met French troops at the canal, which was considered to be the junction of the British and French. The corps commander, General von Quast had ordered an attack for 9:55 a.m. to seize the crossings, before the halt order was received. The two III Corps divisions were close to St. Ghislain and General Ewald von Lochow ordered them to prepare to attack from Tertre to Ghlin. In the IV Corps area, General Sixt von Armin ordered an attack on the canal crossings of Péruwelz and Blaton and ordered the 8th Division to reconnoitre from Tournai to Condé and to keep contact with the II Cavalry Corps.
At dawn on 23 August a German artillery bombardment began on the British lines; throughout the day the Germans concentrated on the British at the salient formed by the loop in the canal. At 9:00 a.m., the first German infantry assault began, with the Germans attempting to force their way across four bridges that crossed the canal at the salient. Four German battalions attacked the Nimy bridge, which was defended by a company of the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers and a machine-gun section led by Lieutenant Maurice Dease. Advancing at first in close column, "parade ground formation", the Germans made easy targets for the British riflemen, who hit German soldiers at over 1,000 yards (910 m) and whom were mown down by rifle, machine-gun and artillery fire. So heavy was the British rifle fire throughout the battle that some Germans thought they were facing batteries of machine-guns.
The initial German attack was thus repulsed with heavy losses and 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. The outnumbered defenders were soon hard-pressed to defend the canal crossings and the Royal Fusiliers at the Nimy and Ghlin bridges, faced some of the day's heaviest fighting; only piecemeal addition of reinforcements to the firing line and the exceptional bravery of two of the battalion 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 fired the weapon despite being shot several times. After a fifth wound he was evacuated to the battalion aid station, where he died. At the Ghlin bridge, Private Sidney Godley operated the other machine-gun throughout the day and stayed behind to cover the Fusilier retreat at the end of the battle. Godley surrendered after throwing parts of the gun into the canal to prevent its capture by the Germans. Both soldiers were awarded the Victoria Cross, the first two awarded 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 from the divisional reserve and effective fire support from the divisional artillery, they managed to hold the bridges. The Germans expanded their attack, assaulting the British defences along the straight reach of the canal to the west of the salient. The Germans used the cover of fir plantations that lined the northern side of the canal and advanced to within a few hundred yards of the canal to rake the British 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, which despite many casualties, repulsed the Germans throughout the day.
By the afternoon the British position in the salient had become untenable; the 4th Middlesex had 15 officer 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. At Nimy, Private Oskar Neimeyer, had swum across the canal under British fire to operate machinery closing a swing bridge. Although he was killed, his actions re-opened the bridge and allowed the Germans to increase pressure against the 4th Royal Fusiliers.
At 3:00 p.m. the British 3rd Division was ordered to retire from the salient, to positions a short distance to the south of Mons and a similar retreat towards evening by the 5th Division to conform. By nightfall II Corps had established a new defensive line running through the villages of Montrœul, Boussu, Wasmes, Paturages and Frameries. The Germans had built pontoon bridges over the canal and were approaching the British positions in great strength. News had arrived that the French Fifth Army was retreating, dangerously exposing the British right flank and at 2:00 a.m. on 24 August, II Corps was ordered to retreat south-west into France to reach defensible positions along the Valenciennes–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 Germans. For the first stage of the withdrawal, 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. At Wasmes elements of the 5th Division faced a big attack, German artillery began bombarding the village at daybreak, and at 10:00 a.m. infantry of the German III Corps attacked. Advancing in columns, the Germans were immediately met with massed 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 German attacks on the village despite many 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 threatened by a German outflanking move 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, the cavalry and the two artillery batteries, screened the withdrawal of the 14th and 15th Brigades, four hours of intense fighting.
German air reconnaissance detected British troops on 21 August, advancing from Le Cateau to Maubeuge and on 22 August from Maubeuge to Mons, as other sources identified halting places but poor communication and lack of systematic direction of air operations, led to the assembly of the BEF from Condé to Binche being unknown to the Germans on 22–23 August. British reconnaissance flights had begun on 19 August with two sorties and two more on 20 August, which reported no sign of German troops. Fog delayed flights on 21 August but in the afternoon German troops were seen near Courtrai and three villages were reported to be burning. Twelve reconnaissance sorties were flown on 22 August and reported many German troops closing in on the BEF, especially troops on the Brussels–Ninove road, which indicated an enveloping manoeuvre. One British aircraft was shot down and a British observer became the first British soldier to be wounded while flying. By the evening Sir John French was able to discuss with his commanders, the German dispositions near the BEF which had been provided by aircraft observation, the strength of the German forces, that the Sambre had been crossed and that an encircling move by the Germans from Grammont was possible. During the battle on 23 August, the aircrews flew behind the battlefield looking for troop movements and German artillery batteries.
By nightfall on 24 August, the British had retreated to what was expected to be their new defensive lines, on the Valenciennes–Maubeuge road. Outnumbered by the German First Army and with the French Fifth Army also falling back, the BEF had no choice but to continue to retire – I Corps retreating to Landrecies and II Corps to Le Cateau. The chaos and confusion was graphically illustrated in Landrecies on 25 August, where a senior officer "apparently took leave of his senses and began firing his revolver down a street."  The Great Retreat continued for two weeks and covered over 250 miles (400 km). The British were closely pursued by the Germans and fought several 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. Units disappeared and "[m]ore guns were lost than at any time since the American War of Independence."
Both sides had success at the Battle of Mons, the British had been outnumbered by about 3:1 but managed to withstand the German First Army for 48 hours, inflict more casualties on the Germans and then retire in good order. The BEF achieved its main strategic objective, which was to prevent the French Fifth Army from being outflanked. The battle was an important moral victory for the British; as their first battle on the continent since the Crimean War, 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 got the upper hand during the fighting at Mons. The Germans appeared to recognise that they had been dealt a sharp blow by an army they had considered inconsequential. The German novelist and infantry Captain Walter Bloem wrote:
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 repulse and a strategic success. The First Army was delayed by the British and suffered many casualties but crossed the barrier of the Mons–Condé Canal and began its advance into France. The First Army drove the BEF and French armies before it almost to Paris, before being stopped at the Battle of the Marne.
The British Official Historian J. E. Edmonds recorded "just over" 1,600 British casualties, most in the two battalions of the 8th Brigade which had defended the salient and wrote that German losses "must have been very heavy", which explained German inertia after dark, when the 8th Brigade was vulnerable, several other gaps existed in the British line and the retirement had begun. John Keegan estimated German losses to have been c. 5,000 men. In 1997 D. Lomas recorded German losses from 3,000–5,000 men.
The Battle of Mons has attained an almost mythic status. In British historical writing, it has a reputation as an unlikely victory against overwhelming odds, similar to the English victory at the Battle of Agincourt. Mons gained a myth, a miraculous tale 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 became eligible for a campaign medal, the 1914 Star, often colloquially called the Mons Star, honouring troops who had fought in Belgium or France from 5 August – 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". No evidence of the Order of the Day has been found in German archives and the ex-Kaiser denied giving 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.
The Germans established the St Symphorien Military Cemetery as a memorial to the German and British dead. On a mound in the centre of the cemetery a grey granite obelisk 7 metres (23 ft) tall, was built 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 soldiers were interred at the cemetery. More British, Canadian and German graves were moved to the cemetery from other burial grounds and more than 500 soldiers were eventually buried in St. Symphorien, of which over 60 were unidentified. Special memorials were 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. St. Symphorien cemetery also contains the graves of the two soldiers believed to be the first (Private John Parr, 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment, 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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|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Battle of Mons.|
- A source for Kaiser Wilhelm's Order of the Day
- The Battle of Mons
- A good description and article about the Battle
- War Walks. Mons. Series 1; episode 3 of 6. Richard Holmes. BBC original date of broadcast: 1996 . Retrieved 19:24, 6 March 2014 (UTC).