Mons 1914: The big kick off
One Hundred years ago today the British Army fought its first battle of the First World War at Mons in Belgium. The initial contingent of soldiers and guns sent to stop the German juggernaut was tiny in comparison to the opposition – but they fought gamely and held up the German advance on Paris. This is my take on the Battle of Mons.
Just a matter of weeks after declaring war on Germany, 80,000 members of the BEF (British Expeditionary Force) along with 30,000 horses and 315 guns of assorted size and calibre had landed in France and were unwittingly marching straight towards an enemy who had already passed through Luxembourg and was now putting Belgium to the sword. The German Schlieffen plan was working beautifully.
On 22nd August, a forward patrol of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards encountered the enemy for the first time. While conducting 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, it is thought he was the first British soldier to fire in anger at the enemy 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.
Meanwhile to the rear, having got an idea that things were about to get a bit heavy, the BEF decided to dig in a loose line along the Mons-Conde canal. They didn’t really know how many Germans were on the other side of the canal, but they would find out soon enough. Suffice to say, it would not be a fair fight. Less than 80,000 British troops with 300 odd pieces of artillery, were about to face off against 160,000 German soldiers who were backed up by double the amount of artillery. Ouch!
The BEF had two distinct advantages amongst many challenges. Firstly, they were professional soldiers, highly skilled and probably the best exponents of the noble art of rifle fire on the planet. Secondly, the German 1st Army, whom they were facing, were under strict orders not to risk outflanking the British, thus potentially losing touch with the German 2nd Army, so they had to launch a frontal attack, which they duly did at dawn on 23rd August 1914.
The war was most definitely on.
The German artillery opened up at dawn with the first infantry attack commencing at 9am. Their objectives were to take control of the bridges that crossed the canal and once in possession of these bridges they were to push on directly to the British lines and beyond. They advanced across open country in close formation making a perfect target for the trained British riflemen. The result was carnage. The Germans suffered terribly and by noon the German bodies were piling up all over the place. They had made next to no progress at all.
However, during this time the BEF were being shelled constantly by the massed German artillery and enjoyed little or no cover. Despite this, they held on for six hours before blowing the bridges over the canal and retreating to a pre-established second line position a few miles away. The Germans were tired and disorganised and failed to press home any advantage despite their huge numerical superiority. German reserves were called up and massed for a new attack in the evening. It was here that the British commanders finally realised the size of the enemy, and promptly ordered the retreat. They had already lost 1,600 men and didn’t fancy losing too many more. The men were organised, rounded up and the order was given: a fighting retreat towards Maubeuge and then down the road from Bavai to Le Cateau almost twenty miles away…
This narrative has been taken from ‘World War One: A Layman’s Guide‘ – available from Amazon in either paperback or e-book formats
The Battle of Mons infographic has been taken from ‘The Great War 100 – The First World War in Infographics‘ – available from Amazon, Waterstones, and other decent books shops throughout the UK (Due for release in the USA in September 2014).