23 August 1914, the Battle of Mons: a very small part of the initial clashes between the German and French Armies, often known as the Battle of the Frontiers. The British Expeditionary Force begins the lengthy Retreat from Mons which only ends in early September.
British order of battle
- Cavalry Division (Allenby)
- 5th Cavalry Brigade
- I Corps (Haig): 1st and 2nd Divisions
- II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd and 5th Divisions
- 19th Infantry Brigade
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.
Part of a map included with the British Official History. Crown copyright. The BEF’s planned mobilisation placed the British force on the extreme left of the French line and as it turned out, directly in the path of Von Kluck’s First Army. By 22 August the BEF had moved forward to Mons, where it encountered the advancing enemy.
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.
Part of a map included with the British Official History. Crown copyright. The BEF takes up a position: Haig’s I Corps on the right, Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps on the left, and the Cavalry Division on the left-rear near Elouges
The British and German formations deploy before the battle.
…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)
- 5.30am: Sir John French met with Haig (I Corps), Allenby (Cavalry Division) and Smith-Dorrien (II Corps) 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.
- 6am – 7am: German cavalry patrols encounter British forces in area of Nimy and Pommereuil; British cavalry patrols also go out and met with opposition at Obourg; shots are exchanged. 5th Division pushes its mounted troops and two battalions across to north side of canal at Tertre (1st Royal West Kent and 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers of 13th Infantry Brigade);
- 9am: German guns are now shelling the canal bend line held by 8th and 9th Brigades; German infantry of IX Korps have advanced and are now closely engaged with 4th Middlesex at Obourg; attack against canal bend intensifies and Germans take heavy casualties
- 11am: attack is spreading westwards; German III Korps now also attacking canal line at Jemappes but also take heavy casualties; Germans also close on canal at Mariette and Tertre: 1st Royal West Kents at Tertre forced to withdraw across canal;
- Noon: German attack frontage has now broadened to St Ghislain and Les Herbieres and now stretches some 7 miles from Mons; soon after noon the Germans cross the canal at Obourg and reach the line of the railway: the 4th Middlesex, now supported by 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, are now in a precarious position and under heavy attack;
- 2pm: German artillery begins to come into action against British 3rd Infantry Brigade of 1st Division; German cavalry is seen moving towards St Symphorien; 4th Royal Fusiliers is ordered to withdraw from Nimy (see “First VCs”, below) and Germans cross canal
- 3pm: British 3rd Division is now signalling that it is under heavy attack; Haig orders two battalions of 4th (Guards) Brigade to take over defence of Hill 93 (SE of Mons) from 3rd Division; reports arrive stating that French cavalry on the British right is also under attack and falling back;
- 3pm: 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers of 9th Infantry Brigade ordered to withdraw from Jemappes to Frameries; Germans cross canal here too;
- 3.15pm: German infantry is working around both sides of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment near Obourg: a decision is taken to withdraw the battalion to hold a new line at Bois la Haut; the 4th Middlesex also withdraws;
- 7-8pm: renewed German attack against 8th Brigade: after an hour the brigade is ordered to withdraw to Nouvelles;
- The Germans did not exploit their success in the canal salient as dusk fell. Instead, their buglers were heard to sound the ‘cease fire’;
- 8.40pm: Sir John French orders II Corps to hold fast and strengthen positions during the night;
- Late: news arrives that the French Fifth Army is going to begin a general withdrawal at 3am on 24 August; this is officially confirmed by French Conmander in Chief Joffre at 1am; it now appeared that Tournai had fallen to the enemy; that long columns of the enemy had broken through; and that 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 great retreat from Mons is set to begin. 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.
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.