Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914

Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914

Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914

The Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, was part of the wider Battle of the Frontiers of France (First World War). It was the first battle fought by the British Expeditionary Force since its arrival in France during the second week of August. On 22 August the five divisions of the BEF (four infantry and one cavalry) reached the Mons-Condé canal and took up positions along twenty miles of the canal. Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, had been expecting to join a French offensive into Belgium, but this plan had been based on a misunderstanding of the German plan. On 22 August the French had suffered a serious setback at the Sambre, when their Fifth Army had been attacked by the German Second and Third Armies.

During the night of 22 August French received a request to launch a counterattack against what was believed to be the right flank of the German army advancing through Belgium. This belief was mistaken. The German First Army, under General Alexander von Kluck, was advancing directly towards the British position – there was no open flank to attack. Fortunately French did not agree to the French plan, and instead simply promised to hold the line of the canal for 24 hours.

This was exactly what happened. On 23 August the First Army collided with the thin British line. 70,000 British soldiers with 300 guns faced as many as 160,000 Germans, supported by 600 guns. I Corps under General Douglas Haig was on the British right, II Corps under General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien on the left.

Although they were badly outnumbered, the British did have two big advantages. Both came from the professional volunteer nature of the British army. Many members of the BEF were long service soldiers, with experience gained in Britain’s colonial wars, but most importantly of all in the Boer War. There the British regulars had performed badly against the Boers, who combined accurate rifle fire with a willingness to dig deep trenches. On the South Africa plains the British had suffered a series of defeats on the empty battlefield, and had learnt their lessons. The British regular soldier of 1914 was expected to be able to fire fifteen aimed shots per minute. At Mons the British rifle fire was so rapid and so accurate that many Germans believed they had been facing massed machine guns.

The second British advantage at Mons was their willingness to entrench. At Mons they found the ideal environment for a defensive battle. The canal ran through a mining area, and was thus lined with mine buildings and spoil heaps that provided a multitude of potential strong points. When the first Germans reached the canal on 22 August, the British were almost invisible.

The German attack on 23 August was badly organised. At first the Germans attacked as they arrived on the scene, allowing the British to defeat them piecemeal. A more organised German attack later in the day did see German forces capture a salient on the southern bank of the canal, but the first days fighting between the BEF and the German army had gone to the British.

That night Sir John French ordered the BEF to pull back a short distance to the south, and to create a new fortified line. He had every intention of resuming the fight on 24 August. However, to the east the French were still retreating. A dangerous gap was beginning to open up between the BEF and the French Fifth Army, and so on the morning of 24 August French was forced to order a general retreat. This retreat would last for two weeks, and would cost the BEF many more casualties than had fallen at Mons.

British losses during the battle were around 1,600. German losses were not officially calculated but are generally accepted to have been between 3,000 and 5,000. The problem for the BEF was that the Germans could better afford to lose 5,000 conscripts than the British could afford to lose 1,600 of their precious regulars. By the end of the year the fighting at Mons, Le Cateau and in the First Battle of Ypres came close to wiping out the pre-war British army.

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World War I: Battle of Mons

The Battle of Mons was fought August 23, 1914, during World War I (1914-1918) and was the British Army's first engagement of the conflict. Operating at the extreme left of the Allied line, the British assumed a position near Mons, Belgium in an attempt to stop the German advance in that area. Attacked by the German First Army, the outnumbered British Expeditionary Force mounted a tenacious defense and inflicted heavy losses on the enemy. Largely holding through the day, the British finally fell back due to increasing German numbers and the retreat of the French Fifth Army on their right.


Oakham School Archives

The battle of Mons is the first battle the British fought in the First World War. This battle was the last of the four &ldquoBattles of the Frontier&rdquo and took place after the battles of Lorraine, Ardennes and Charleroi.

Britain had declared war on Germany on 4 th August 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force started arriving in France a few days later, where they concentrated in Maubeuge and moved to Mons in Belgium, near the French border, on 22 nd August 1914. The British Expeditionary Force was under the command of Field Marshall Sir John French and it consisted of the I and II Corps. Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien led the 25,000 men of the II Corps. The BEF comprised four divisions, about 75,000 men and 300 guns. At Mons, they faced The German 1 st Army and its 150,000 men and 600 guns, commanded by General Alexander von Kluck. The French 5 th Army, commanded by Charles Lanrezac, was at Mons at the start of the battle. They retreated towards Charleroi after the fall of Namur.

A 60-foot-wide canal north of Mons provided a defensive line for the British, and they concentrated most of their forces at a salient, formed by a loop in the canal. The Germans' strategy was to envelop both the British flanks while bombarding the front. However, the y failed to envelop the British eft, held by the II Corps.

In the morning of 23 rd August, the Germans, located on high ground northeast of the Mons salient, fired their guns at the British position at the northernmost point of the salient. The artillery bombardment and German attacks lasted about six hours but the British resisted despite the Germans&rsquo numerical advantage. The Germans' advance was slowed by defensive rifle fire by the British. After nine hours of fighting overall, the battle ended.

The German superiority in numbers overcame British resistance and the British were forced to retreat east and southeast of Mons. The Germans entered Mons after 7pm that day. The new line was established 3 miles from the Mons canal.

It was a victory for the Germans, even if the BEF has slowed their advance into France by a day. The Germans were victorious in all four Battles of the Frontier. It gave them confidence as they advanced through Belgium and northern France.

Although Mons was a defeat for the British, the battle was carried a mythic status in Britain. The legend of the Angel of Mons is a most-famous story, in which an angel appeared on the battlefield and impeded the Germans&rsquo advance with its flaming sword.

Casualties: In a day of fighting, 1,600 British and 5,000 Germans had been killed or wounded.


4. The Germans thought they were facing machine gun fire due to the British heavy artillery.

The real battle began on August 23 rd when German artillery began to fire on the British. The Germans tried to push across four bridges that crossed the canal at Mons, which the British were holding. TheGermans advanced on one bridge in a close column, but this meant they were easy targets for the British riflemen. They were able to fire at the Germans from over 1,000 yards, and the rifle fire was so intense that Germans thought they were facing machine gun fire instead.


5. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sydney Godley earned the first Victoria Crosses in the First World War during the fight.

Dease was leading a machine-gun section, and at first, the British had quite a success. However, the Germans quickly moved to an open formation and attacked again. This time, the looser formation made the British unable to mow down the soldiers, and the Germans were more triumphant. The British were quickly outnumbered and found it difficult to defend the canal crossings.

At Nimy bridge Dease, even though he had been shot several times, took control of his own machine gun after the rest of his section had been killed or wounded and continued to fire at the Germans. Once he was wounded a fifth time he was taken to the battalion aid station, where he died.

He was awarded the Victoria Cross posthumously. Godley took over from Dease and covered the retreat, then surrendered and incapacitated the gun by throwing parts of it into the canal.


Battle of Mons

War: The First World War known as the ‘Great War’.

Contestants at the Battle of Mons: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against the German First Army.

Commanders at the Battle of Mons: Field-Marshal Sir John French commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig commanding I Corps and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien commanding II Corps against General von Kluck commanding the German First Army.

Size of the Armies:
The BEFcomprised 2 corps of infantry, I and II Corps, and a cavalry division 85,000 men and 290 guns.
Both corps of the BEF and the Cavalry Division were in action, although the bulk of the fighting was carried out by Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps along the line of the Mons Canal (Le Canal du Centre or Le Canal de Condé). II Corps comprised around 25,000 men.

General von Kluck’s First Army comprised 4 corps and 3 cavalry divisions (160,000 men) and 550 guns.

Winner of the Battle of Mons:
The British were compelled to fall back to comply with the withdrawal of their French allies on their right and to avoid encirclement, leaving the Mons canal line in German hands. However heavy casualties were inflicted on the German infantry during their attacks on the British positions, although the numbers were insignificant compared with casualties in the battles later in the war.

British infantry receive the German attack: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Armies, uniforms and equipment in the Battle of Mons:
The armies on the Western Front in the Great War from 1914 were the Germans against the French, the British and the Belgians. In 1918 the Western Allies were joined by the United States. Other nationalities took part on the side of the Western Allies on the Western Front in small numbers: Portuguese, Poles and Russians. From 1915 onwards significant numbers of Canadians, Australians, Newfoundlanders and members of the Indian Army fought in the British line of battle. The first regiments of the Indian Army arrived in the Ypres area at the end of 1914.

The Great War began in August 1914. Britain despatched the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France to take up a position on the left of the French armies, with its concentration area around the fortified town of Mauberge, south of the Belgian border.

At the end of the 19 th and beginning of the 20 th Century the British Army’s day to day task was the ‘policing’ of a worldwide empire. With increasing tension on the continent of Europe, from 1900 onwards the British Government remodelled the British army to provide a field force capable of taking part in a continental war. This force was to comprise 6 divisions of infantry and a cavalry division. Initially, in August 1914, the BEF took only 4 infantry divisions to France with the remaining 2 infantry divisions following later in the year.

In the late 1870s Edward Cardwell, the British Secretary of State for War, set up the 2 battalion regimental system which was designed to provide 1 battalion in garrison abroad with a supporting battalion at home in Britain or Ireland. Four line regiments comprised 4 battalions while the 3 old Foot Guard regiments comprised 3 battalions. The rude shock of the Boer War in South Africa between 1899 and 1901 caused the British Army to remodel its training to emphasise the importance of small arms marksmanship and weapon handling. Regular musketry courses brought skills to a level where British infantrymen were capable of firing up to 20 or 30 rounds a minute of accurate rifle fire, the standard being 12 rounds a minute. This rate of fire was to give the Germans a shock in the opening battles of the Great War and create the impression that the British were armed with many more machine guns than they actually possessed. Opening volleys at this rate were referred to as the ‘mad minute’. British cavalry also received extensive training in firearms use, enabling them to fight effectively in a dismounted role, when required.

The regular British Army comprised some 200 infantry battalions and 30 cavalry regiments. The Royal Artillery comprised batteries of field and horse artillery. The Royal Garrison Artillery manned the heavy 60 pounders guns.

As part of the army reforms the old concept of ‘service for life’ was abandoned. Soldiers served 7 years with the colours, with the option of extending to 14 years, rarely taken up other than by successful non-commissioned officers, and then 7 years service in the reserve after the soldier returned to civilian life. The home battalions were heavily under manned as recruitment into the army was always inadequate. With the outbreak of the Great War units filled up with reservists who made up a substantial proportion of most battalions and cavalry regiments, in some cases up to 70%.

The rifle carried by British troops, both infantry and cavalry, was the .303 Lee Enfield bolt action magazine rifle. The Lee Enfield was a robust and accurate weapon that continued in service with the British Army until the 1960s.

The British Royal Field Artillery was equipped with the 18 pounder quick firing field gun and the Royal Horse Artillery with the smaller equivalent 13 pounder gun, both effective weapons remaining the mainstay of British field artillery for the rest of the Great War.

The Royal Field Artillery also operated field batteries armed with the 4.5 inch howitzer.

The British heavy gun operated by the Royal Garrison Artillery was the 60 pounder. The British Army lacked heavier guns comparable with the weapons used by the Germans and the French during the early period of the war.

Each British infantry and cavalry regiment was issued with 2 machine guns. These weapons immediately dominated the Great War battlefield.

German attack on the Nimy Bridge at the Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War: picture by W.S. Bagdatopoulos

The German Army at the Battle of Mons:
War between France and Germany was considered inevitable following the annexation of Alsace and Lorraine by Germany after the Franco-Prussian War in 1870 to 1871. The armies of each country were from 1871 onwards organised with such a war in mind. With the pact between France and Russia it was clear that Germany, with its ally Austria-Hungary, would have to fight on an eastern front against Russia as well as the western front against France.

The German Army was formed on the same basis as all the main European armies, with a force at the colours to be massively augmented by reservists on mobilisation. These reservists served with the colours and then joined the reserve on return to civilian life. On mobilisation the German army increased to a force of around 5 million men, while the French army comprised around 3 million men.

Full-time military service in Germany was universal for males and comprised 2 years with the colours or 3 years in the cavalry and horse artillery. There was then 5 or 4 years service in the Reserve followed by 11 years in the Landwehr. The army was organised into 25 active army corps each of 2 divisions and a number of reserve corps and divisions in support of the active formations. There were 8 cavalry divisions, each with jäger infantry supporting units.

The German armaments company of Krupps supplied the German army with a range of highly effective artillery of all weights. Machine guns were widely issued. The German army was well advanced in radio communication and in the use of airplanes for reconnaissance and artillery spotting.

It is clear that none of the armies involved in the war at this early stage anticipated the impact of the modern weapons they were deploying and in particular the impact of machine guns and concentrated artillery fire.

125th Würtemberg Infantry Regiment of the German Army during exercises in around 1905: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War: illustration by Major General von Specht

Background to the Battle of Mons:
The trigger for the Great War, or First World War, was the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, Arch-Duke Ferdinand, and his duchess in Sarajevo on 28 th June 1914 by Gavrilo Princip, a member of a gang of Serbian Nationalists who objected to the annexation of Bosnia-Herzegovina by Austria. Reacting to the assassination, Austria declared war on Serbia, following which Russia declared war on Austria in support of their fellow Slavs in Serbia. In accordance with its treaty with Austria, Germany declared war on Russia and in accordance with its treaty with Russia, France declared war on Germany.

It was apparent from the outset of the Great War that the principal theatres of war would be the Western Front between France and Germany and the Eastern Front between Germany and Austria and Russia. The Austrian campaign against Serbia was of less significance militarily although important symbolically.

General von Schleiffen in the 1890s devised the German plan for invading France. The Schleiffen plan provided for a line of German formations wheeling through Belgium, outflanking the French armies by marching around the west side of Paris, while other German units held the French armies in a line from the Swiss frontier to the Belgian border.

Once it was clear that the Germans were invading Belgium, Great Britain declared war on Germany and Austria. In the period from 1900 to 1914 Britain and France had developed the ‘Entente Cordiale’ on the assumption that the 2 countries would be fighting Germany as allies, although no formal pact was entered into.

British infantry, before moving up to the front line: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Each nationality at the outset of the war seems to have had the expectation that the war would be finished by Christmas 1914 with their own victory. One of the few to foresee that the war would be long and hard fought was Lord Kitchener, appointed British Minister for War on 6 th August 1914.

Russia began its mobilisation on 29 th July 1914. France and Germany began their mobilisation on 1 st August.

At the outbreak of war the German Commander in Chief was the Kaiser, Wilhelm II. The actual commander was General von Moltke, the German Chief of Staff. The German strategic plan was to take advantage of the slowness of Russian mobilisation to commit the preponderance of German forces against France and to switch them to the Eastern Front once France was defeated. The Germans expected the defeat of the French to be quickly achieved. The speed of the Prussian defeat of France in 1870 led the Germans to believe the same could be achieved in the next war.

While nominally applying the Schlieffen Plan von Moltke made a significant change. The change was that the wheeling German armies would pass to the east of Paris, not to the west as von Schlieffen intended. This would have the consequence that the German right wing would not be able to swing well clear of the French left flank.

It was von Schlieffen’s intention that the armies on the German left, well away from the Paris envelopment, would give ground and not make any attempt to push back the French forces opposing them. This important element of the plan was also abandoned in the face of clamours from the commanders on the German left wing to be permitted to attack the French and push them back.
Germany declared war on France on 3 rd August 1914. On the next day German troops crossed the border into Belgium. In the light of Germany’s invasion of Belgium, Britain declared war on Germany the same day and began mobilising.

4th Dragoon Guards on the Mons Canal waiting for the infantry to take over their positions: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

On 6 th August 1914 the decision was taken to send the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) to France, comprising 2 Corps and a cavalry division commanded by Field-Marshal Sir John French. I Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig comprised 1 st and 2 nd Divisions. II Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir John Grierson comprised 3 rd and 5 th Divisions. The Cavalry Division was commanded by Major-General Allenby. 4 th Division would remain in Britain and the 6 th Division would remain in Ireland, for the time being.

A significant element of the Royal Flying Corps accompanied the BEF and from an early date provided useful information from reconnaissance flights on German movements. This information was often insufficiently exploited by the higher command in the early period of the war.

There was no commitment in France of the British Territorial Force, which comprised full regiments of part-time soldiers, in the first weeks of the War, although they were soon sent to France to act as line of communication troops and were thrown into the fighting around Ypres at the end of 1914. Lord Kitchener had an antipathy to the Territorial Force regiments and chose later to raise completely new battalions as ‘Kitchener’s Army’.

Units from the Indian Army arrived in France later in 1914 in time for the ‘Race to the Sea’, which ended in the savage fighting around Ypres.

The advanced party of the BEF crossed to France on 7 th August 1914 and the BEF itself crossed to the French ports of Le Havre, Rouen and Boulogne between 12 th and 17 th August and moved forward to its concentration area between Mauberge and Le Cateau, near the Belgian border, where it was assembled by 20 th August.

On 16 th August 1914 the Germans captured Liége after an heroic defence by the Belgian Army.

On 19 th August 1914 the German Kaiser commanded the destruction of Britain’s ‘Contemptible little army’ (The translation from the German might also allow ‘Contemptibly little army’. Bismarck, the German Chancellor in the 19 th Century had memorably said that ‘If the British Army lands of the coast of Germany I will send a policeman to arrest it.’)

The Germans expected the BEF to land in the area of Calais before moving in a south-easterly direction and von Kluck’s First Army was deployed to meet this threat. The German navy informed the German army command shortly before the Battle of Mons that the British had not yet landed in France. Von Kluck was unaware that the BEF lay in the path of his advance south into France.

The French Army formed between the borders of Switzerland and Belgium, in order from right to left: First Army, Second Army, Third Army, Fourth Army and Fifth Army (under Lanrezac). The BEF was expected to come up on the left flank. The French Cavalry Corps (under Sordet) moved into Belgium.

The French Commander-in-Chief was General Joffre. The BEF was not subordinated to the French Command but was expected to co-operate with it. The relationship between the British Commander-in-Chief, Sir John French, and General Joffre was ill-defined and unsatisfactory.

In preparation for the execution of the Schlieffen Plan the German armies were formed up with their First Army under von Kluck on the right, advancing through Belgium Second (under Bulow) and Third (under Hausen) Armies also advancing through Belgium Fourth Army advancing on Sedan Fifth Army advancing on Verdun from Thionville and Metz with Sixth and Seventh Armies in Southern Lorraine holding the left wing up to the border of Switzerland.

The 3 Armies on the Western Front exercised different policies in relation to their reserve troops. The British policy is set out above. The reservists filled out existing regular formations. For the French and German armies reservists completed regular formations but also formed reserve units up to divisional and corps strength. The French did not intend to rely upon these units and kept them well back in reserve.

The Germans in contrast put their reserve units into the fighting line with the result that they deployed a substantially stronger force than the French, even with their commitments on the Eastern Front.

Map of the Battle of Mons 23rd August 1914 in the First World War: map by John Fawkes

Account of the Battle of Mons:
On 17 th August 1914 Lieutenant-General Sir John Grierson, commanding the British II Corps, died of a heart attack on a train in France. His command was taken over by General Sir Hubert Smith-Dorien DSO from 22 nd August.

On 20 th August 1914 Sir John French, the British Commander-in-Chief, reported to General Joffre, the French Commander-in-Chief, that the concentration of the BEF was complete.

Matters were not going well for the French Army. The French First and Second Armies suffered severe reverses at the hands of the German Sixth and Seventh Armies on the far right of the French line.

The BEF moved forward towards the Belgian border on 22 nd August 1914. Sir John French’s intention was to establish a defensive line along the high road from Charleroi to Mons with the French on the BEF’s right. This proved impracticable as the German movement to the BEF’s left occupied Charleroi and the French Fifth Army under Lanrezac fell back on the right. The BEF took up positions with the British II Corps along the line of the Mons canal and I Corps on the right, angled back from the line of the canal.

As the BEF moved up into position in the area of Mons the Cavalry Division provided a screen in front of the advancing infantry divisions.

Captain Hornby, 5th Dragoon Guards, a successful polo player in India before the war: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

22 nd August 1914:
The British cavalry covered the gap between the 2 British infantry corps to the east of Mons. A squadron of the 4 th Dragoon Guards commanded by Major Tom Bridges was the first British unit into action. Bridges’ men encountered German cavalry of the 4 th Cuirassiers on the road north of Obourg. The Germans withdrew pursued by Lieutenant Hornby with 2 troops. Hornby caught up with the cuirassiers near Soignies, which lies to the north east of Obourg and does not appear on the map, and after a brisk fight forced them into flight. The pursuing British Dragoon Guards were brought up short by fire from a regiment of German Jӓgers. The British dismounted and returned fire until Bridges received orders to return to his regiment and the fight ended. The squadron of the 4 th Dragoon Guards arrived in the brigade lines with captured German soldiers, horses and equipment to the cheers of the brigade. Lieutenant Hornby received the DSO.

At the left end of the British line a squadron of the 19 th Hussars, the divisional cavalry of the 5 th Division, and a company of cyclists engaged the advancing German cavalry at Hautrage all day.

Other British cavalry regiments, the Scots Greys and 16th Lancers, engaged the German cavalry screen.
During the night of 22 nd August 1914 the Cavalry Division, less the 5th Cavalry Brigade, moved across to the left flank of II Corps to the area of Thulin-Elouges-Audregnies, a march of around 20 miles. The 5 th Cavalry Brigade remained with Haig’s I Corps on the right of the BEF.

British infantry waiting to advance in the Mons area: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The Mons positions:
The Mons Canal (‘Le Canal du Centre’ or ‘Le Canal de Condé’) runs from Charleroi on the Sambre River in the east to Condé on the Scheldt or L’Escault River. For the section from Mons to Condé the canal follows a straight line running east to west. To the immediate east of Mons the canal forms a semi-circular bulge or salient to the north, with the village of Nimy at the north west of the bulge and Obourg on the north east side.

The Mons canal ran through what was in 1914 an important coal mining area and its route was, in the area occupied by the BEF, almost continuously built up and covered with small enclosures, pit-heads and slag heaps for a mile or so to either side of the canal. There were some 12 bridges and locks in the length of the canal between Condé and Obourg, including 3 bridges in the salient, a railway and a road bridge at Nimy and a road bridge at Obourg.

British infantry waiting to move forward in the Mons area: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

During 22 nd August 1914 the British II Corps moved up to the section of the Mons Canal between Obourg and Condé, 3 rd Division taking the right flank with 5 th Division on its left.

Of the 3 rd Division the 8 th Brigade occupied the area on the east side of the canal salient and to its south, with the battalions from the right: 2 nd Royal Scots, 1 st Gordon Highlanders, both in position to the south east of the canal, the Gordons occupying a feature of high ground call Bois La Haut with the Royal Scots as the connecting battalion to I Corps 4 th Middlesex lined the canal in the area of Obourg, with 2 nd Royal Irish Regiment in reserve.

Soldiers of the 1st Lincolns in position to the south of Mons: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The 9 th Brigade lined the canal salient through Mons with the battalions in line from the right: 4 th Royal Fusiliers, 1 st Royal Scots Fusiliers (1 st RSF) and 1 st Northumberland Fusiliers with 1 st Lincolns in reserve.

Royal Fusiliers entraining in France: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The 13 th and 14 th Brigades of the 5 th Division lined the Mons Canal extending the BEF’s position to the west. From the left flank of 3 rd Division: 13 th Brigade comprising 1st Royal West Kents (1 st RWK) and 2 nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers (2 nd KOSB) with 2 nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (2 nd KOYLI) and 2 nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (2 nd DWK) in reserve. 14 th Brigade: 1st East Surreys positioned north of the canal, 2 nd Manchesters and 1 st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (1 st DCLI) along the canal with 2 nd Suffolks in reserve.

On the left of 5 th Division the independent 19 th Brigade came up to the Mons Canal during the 23 rd August with, in line from the right 2 nd Royal Welch Fusiliers (2 nd RWF), 2 nd Middlesex and 1 st Cameronians with 2 nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (2 nd ASH) in reserve. This brigade joined the 6 th Dragoon Guards, Carabineers, on the canal.

The 7 th Brigade formed the II Corps reserve in the area of Cipley.

Of the British I Corps, the 1st Division occupied positions along the Mons-Beaumont Road and the 2 nd Division held positions at Harveng (4 th Brigade), Bougnies (5 th Brigade) and Harmignies (6 th Brigade).
Several authorities, including Brigadier Edmonds in the ‘Official History of the War’, describe the British positions on the Mons Canal as an ‘outpost line’, stating that the intention was to hold positions on the higher and more open ground a mile or so to the south of the canal.

A Company, 4th Royal Fusiliers in the market square of Mons on 22nd August 1914, the day before the Battle of Mons. Soon after this photograph was taken the battalion moved up to the Mons Canal line at Nimy

The British battalions that moved up to the canal ‘dug in’ with varying degrees of success. It is apparent that it was the high command’s intention to use the canal as an obstacle to the German advance. The Royal Engineers were ordered to sink all barges in the canal and to prepare the bridges for demolition.

There were some 12 or more bridges and locks in the section of the canal covered by the British line and this was a difficult order to comply with in the few hours available. In the confusion of the advance some important demolition stores were missing. The Sappers did what they could in the circumstances.

Soldiers of 1st Northumberland Fusiliers preparing street barricades in the Mons area before the fighting started on 23rd August 1914

While the Royal Engineers worked on the canal the infantry and gunners did their best to turn a confused suburban industrial landscape into a workable defensive line with positions both north and south of the canal. The artillery batteries in particular found it hard to find positions for their guns with a reasonable field of fire and to establish practicable observation posts. It was assumed that the numerous slag heaps must provide good vantage points, but the numbers of them interfered with sight lines and many were found to be too hot to stand on.

Soldiers of 1st Northumberland Fusiliers preparing street barricades in the Mons area before the fighting started on 23rd August 1914

A curious and sad feature was that the Belgian population was largely unaware that their home was about to be turned into a battlefield. 23 rd August 1914 was a Sunday and began with ringing of bells, much of the population hurrying to church, with trains bringing in holiday makers from the cities. Many of these civilians were caught up in the day’s fighting.

Soldiers of 1st Northumberland Fusiliers preparing street barricades in the Mons area before the fighting started on 23rd August 1914

23 rd August 1914:
The opening episodes of the battle were confused by the lack of knowledge each side possessed of the deployment of the other. Von Kluck’s First Army marched through Belgium in a south westerly direction at a speed that gave it little time to assess the situation in its path. It seems that the German High Command was unaware that the British were in the line in front of them, assuming that the BEF was still not in France, although Von Kluck’s orders to First Army for 23 rd August state that a British cavalry squadron had been encountered and a British airplane shot down and captured.

As the BEF advanced north from its assembly area around Mauberge cavalry patrols and reconnaissance flights by the Royal Flying Corps warned of large German troop concentrations, but the reports that the BEF II Corps with 3 divisions was about to be attacked by 6 infantry and 3 cavalry divisions of von Kluck’s First Army appear to have been discounted by Sir John French.

The German forces advancing on the Mons Canal line comprised the German 3 rd , 4 th and 9 th Corps with the 9 th Cavalry Division from the German 2 nd Cavalry Corps all of von Kluck’s First Army. That was 3 corps with cavalry from another advancing on Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps. The advance by the cavalry division was across the canal to the east of Mons and the division took no part in the direct attack on the canal line.

During the 23 rd August the 17 th Division of von Kluck’s 9 th Corps crossed the canal to the east of the salient beyond the reach of the British defensive line and attacked the Gordons holding the high ground on Bois La Haut, so that it was simply a matter of time before the canal salient became untenable by the British, regardless of the success of their action against the regiments of the German 9 th Corps attacking across the canal from the north.

In one of the first incidents of the German attack on the Mons Canal line in the early hours of the morning of 23 rd August 1914 a German cavalry officer with 4 troopers rode up to an outpost of 1 st DCLI, ½ mile north of the canal on the road to Ville Pommeroeul, appearing out of the mist. A British sentry shot the officer and 2 of the troopers before they could get away.

The initial German assault on the canal line, by the 18 th Division of the 9 th Corps, fell on the canal salient north-east of the city of Mons the point defended by the 4 th Middlesex, the 4 th Royal Fusiliers and the 1 st RSF. Heavy German artillery fire from the high ground to the north of the canal supported the attack, with fire direction given from spotter planes flying over the battlefield, a new technique not yet adopted by the British and French. The German infantry advanced on the canal in massed formations headed by skirmishers.

Private Carter, D Company, 4th Royal Fusiliers on sentry duty in Mons on 22nd August 1914: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

For the first time the Germans encountered the facility with which the British troops used their rifles the ‘Mad Minute’ in which individual soldiers could fire up to 30 aimed rounds in a minute from their .303 Lee Enfield rifles. This fire coupled with supporting machine guns decimated the advancing German formations.

The Boer War in 1899 to 1901 taught the British Army the importance of concealment when under fire and the art of concealed movement around the battlefield. The British infantrymen were in well-hidden trenches and positions in the urban landscape from which they poured a devastating fire on the advancing German infantry.

Brigadier Edmonds in the Official History of the Great War comments that British officers attending German manoeuvres in the years before the war watched the German technique of massed infantry attack and foresaw what would happen when such a form of advance was used against British infantry.

While there were clear disadvantages in attempting to defend the urban area around Mons, the canal provided the British regiments with a defensible obstacle. The canal barges and boats had been sunk by the Royal Engineer field companies. The canal was sufficiently deep to prevent the Germans from wading across so that access to the British lines could only be gained by the permanent bridges and locks or across bridging units brought up and put in place by the attacking troops, not a practicable proposition under such heavy fire. Several road and railway bridges crossed the canal and each of these became the focus of the German attacks.

The pattern of the day was repeated along the canal line from east to west initial German attacks by massed infantry formations that were shot to pieces, followed by more careful, but increasingly heavy attacks, using open formations of infantry supported by artillery fire, that increased in weight and accuracy during the day, and by machine guns.

Artillery support was provided for the British infantry by Royal Field Artillery batteries firing 18 pounder quick firing guns positioned in sections and single guns behind the canal.

For each side these opening days of the war were the first experience of quick firing gun fire and the troops were taken aback by the all pervading effect of shell-fire. While the German guns took some time to range on the British line, once they had done so the British positions seemed to be constantly smothered by bursting shells. The myth was born of armies of civilian spies ‘spotting’ for the German batteries. It took time for the reality to be acknowledged that sophisticated artillery observation from the ground and air was directing the guns.

The initial focus of the German attack was the bridges around the canal salient the Obourg Bridge held by the 4 th Middlesex and the Nimy Bridge and the Ghlin Railway Bridge held by Captain Ashburner’s company of the 4 th Royal Fusiliers, supported by the battalion’s 2 machine guns commanded by Lieutenant Maurice Dease.

On the right of the canal salient the Germans put in a series of heavy attacks on the 4 th Middlesex at the Obourg Bridge. The positions around the bridge were held by Major Davey’s company with a second company under Major Abell coming up in support, losing a third of its strength in the process.

Lieutenant Maurice Dease 4th Royal Fusiliers, awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross for his handling of his machine gun at the Nimy Bridge: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

German advance to the canal was in close company formations of the German 18 th Division, presenting a good target to the Middlesex riflemen and machine guns. In the opening attacks the leading German companies were mown down as they attempted to reach the canal bridge. The Germans fell back into cover and after half an hour resumed the assault in a more open formation.

Equally heavy German infantry attacks in close columns fell on the 4 th Royal Fusiliers holding the Nimy Bridge Captain Ashburner’s company supported by 1 of Lieutenant Dease’s machine guns. These columns were decimated and the Germans fell back into the plantations along the north side of the canal. After half an hour of re-organisation the attack was renewed in more open order. While the Royal Fusiliers held the attacks the pressure increased with the build-up of German infantry and the weight of the supporting artillery fire.

Further platoons of the Royal Fusiliers came up to support Ashburner’s company, all suffering heavy casualties of officers and men. Dease continued to work his machine gun although wounded three times.

On the left of the Nimy Bridge, the Germans attacked the Royal Fusiliers on the Ghlin Railway Bridge where Private Godley manned the battalion’s second machine gun. Again the Germans suffered heavy casualties as they attempted to force the bridge. The battalion was provided with supporting fire by 107 th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.

Private Godley firing his machine gun at the attacking German infantry at the Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War: picture by W.S. Bagdatopoulos

To the west of Mons the German attack on the straight section of the canal took longer to develop and was less intense.

The German 6 th Division launched an attack against 1 st RSF and the positions of the 1 st Northumberland Fusiliers on the north bank of the canal, while to the west of Jemappes the Germans advanced on the bridge at Mariette, marching up to the bridge in column of fours. The massed Germans were shot down by Fusiliers waiting in their positions to the north of the canal. The attack was renewed in a more open order but was again repelled.

German pontoon bridge in place over the Mons Canal at Jemappes after the Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The German infantry waited in cover while guns were brought up to fire on the Fusiliers’ positions. The German attack was then renewed. Whether deliberately or by accident a crowd of Belgian school children headed the German advance, preventing the British infantry from firing. Pressing through the children the Germans forced the Fusiliers across the canal to the south side from where the German attack was again driven back.

The next battalion to the west in the British line, the 1 st RWKs, were engaged north of the Mons Canal, from where they were providing support to the divisional cavalry squadron of the 19 th Hussars. The 1 st RWKs eventually fell back to positions behind the canal. The attacking troops, the Brandenburg Grenadiers, then focussed on the St Ghislain Bridge but were repelled by the RWKs supported by 4 guns of 120 th Battery RFA positioned on the canal tow path. The guns were forced to withdraw but the heavy fire brought down on the Brandenburgers effectively ruined the 3 battalions of the regiment.

To the west of the RWKs, the 2 nd KOSB held the north canal bank, the battalion’s 2 machine guns positioned on the top storey of a house on the south side of the canal. The battalion was able to pour a heavy fire into the German infantry forming up on the edge of a wooded area on the north bank, until it was forced to fall back across the canal.

One of the regiments attacking the 2 nd KOSB was the German 52 nd Infantry Regiment. Once the KOSB were back on the south side of the canal this regiment delivered an attack against the railway bridge held by 1 st East Surreys, advancing with 2 of its battalions in mass formation. These 2 battalions suffered the same fate as all the German mass attacks against the Mons Canal line, cut down by rifle and machine gun fire from the concealed British infantry.

9th Lancers in Mons on 22nd August 1914: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

By the end of the morning the 8 British battalions engaged along the Mons Canal were still in place in spite of the efforts of 4 German divisions.

Around midday the Germans infantry began to attack along the whole line of the straight section of the canal west of Mons, sworking their way forward using the numerous fir plantations and villages as cover.

At around 3pm the British 19 th Brigade arrived by train at Valenciennes and came up to occupy positions at the western end of the canal line, taking over from the single cavalry regiment, 6 th Dragoon Guards (the Carabineers). Soon afterwards the German attack increased in intensity.

The main area of crisis for the BEF in the day’s fighting was the Mons salient where the British battalions were subject to attack and fire from front and flank, although the main influence on the future deployment of the BEF was the increasing withdrawal of Lanrezac’s Fifth French Army on its eastern flank.

At around midday the German IX Corps redoubled its attacks on the Mons Canal salient, its artillery bombarding the British from positions to the north and east of the line. The German 17 th Division after crossing the canal to the east of the canal salient, beyond the reach of the British defences on the canal line, attacked the 1 st Gordons and the 2 nd Royal Scots positioned to the south of the canal and facing east. The attack was driven back but the increasing threat was clear.

Soldiers of 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Royal Irish Regiment at Mons on 22nd August 1914: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The Germans, now over the canal in strength, were threatening the flank and rear of the 4 th Middlesex. The 2 nd RIR were ordered to move up to support the Middlesex. They did so, but any movement in the canal salient was difficult due to the heavy German artillery fire and it took them some time to work their way forward. The RIR’s machine gun section dispersed a German cavalry attack but was then wiped out by gunfire.

It was clear that the BEF II Corps could no longer maintain a position along the canal with the Germans crossing the canal to the east of the British line, the French Fifth Army falling back on the British right and the Germans advancing on the BEF’s left. Orders were issued to II Corps to withdraw to the positions prepared to the south of Mons and behind the Haines River.

At around 3pm the Middlesex and the RIR began to withdraw from the canal salient. The Royal Fusiliers and the RSF were already doing so. The withdrawal of the Royal Fusiliers was covered by the wounded Private Godley still firing his machine gun on the railway bridge. When it was time for Godley to follow the withdrawal he broke up the machine gun and threw the pieces in the canal. Godley crawled to the road and lay there until he was taken to the Mons hospital by some civilians, where he was captured by the advancing Germans.

At around 4pm the 1 st DCLI, still positioned to the north of the canal, fell back across the canal after shooting up a large detachment of German cavalry advancing down the road from Ville Pommeroeul.

Other British battalions maintained positions north of the canal until the general withdrawal began.

In the evening the order was given to the British 5 th Division to retire from the canal line. Along the canal the British battalions began to withdraw by companies and platoons. Where there were bridges desperate attempts were made to destroy them. The Royal Engineers managed to destroy the road and railway bridges at St Ghislain and 3 further bridges to the west.

At Jemappes, Corporal Jarvis of the Royal Engineers worked for an hour and a half under German fire to demolish the bridge with the assistance of Private Heron of the RSF, earning himself a Victoria Cross and Heron a DCM.

Lance Corporal Charles Jarvis, of 57th Field Company Royal Engineers, preparing the demolition of the bridge at Jemappes, for which he received the Victoria Cross: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

At Mariette, Captain Wright RE persisted in trying to destroy the bridge although seriously wounded, winning himself a Victoria Cross. Companies of the Northumberland Fusiliers hung on to cover Wright’s attempts.

At around 5pm the German IV Corps came up and attacked the 19 th Brigade on the western end of the canal line.

Along the line the British regiments withdrew as the Germans pressed their attack, bringing up bridging pontoons to cross the canal.

Captain Wright placing explosives under the bridge at Mariette in the Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War: picture by G.D. Rowlandson

On the right the Middlesex and RIR experienced considerable difficulty in extricating themselves from the salient as German infantry were infiltrating through Mons to the open country south of the city. A strong German attack on the Gordons and Royal Scots on the Bois la Haut was repulsed with heavy German losses. Behind the high ground German infantry advancing through Mons ambushed the withdrawing 23 rd Battery RFA, but were driven off.

Finally the German army command decided to let the British withdraw without further interference and bugles sounded the ‘Cease Fire’ along the German line, much to the surprise of the British.
During the night the 2 corps of the BEF fell back to their new positions. The 8 th Brigade extricated itself from the canal salient and withdrew without further interference from the Germans.

Initially II Corps fell back to the line Montreuil-Wasmes-Paturages-Frameries during the evening. In the early hours of the 24 th August the order was issued to II Corps to continue the withdrawal to the Valenciennes to Mauberge road, running west to east 7 miles to the south of the Mons Canal (at the bottom of the map to the south of Bavai).

British transport passing the memorial to the Battle of Malplaquet, fought by the Duke of Marlborough on 11th September 1709 to the south of Mons, during the retreat: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

The need for this withdrawal was not easily understood by the British troops who considered that they had seen off the German attacks, but was necessary for the BEF to conform to the French Fifth Army on its right and to avoid encirclement by the German corps moving south on their left.

This withdrawal was the beginning of the ‘Retreat from Mons’ which ended south of the Marne on 5 th September 1914.

The Angels of Mons: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Casualties in the Battle of Mons:
British casualties were thought on the day to be much greater than in fact they were. This was due to the intense artillery fire on the British line, giving the expectation of high casualties, and to the confused nature of the withdrawal. Platoons and companies became separated during the night, rejoining their parent battalions hours later or during the next day. Total British casualties of the day’s fighting were around 1,500 killed wounded and missing. The casualties were suffered by II Corps and by 3 rd Division in particular. The 4 th Middlesex and the 2 nd Royal Irish Regiment suffered around 450 and 350 casualties respectively.

German casualties are unknown with accuracy but are thought to have been around 5,000 killed, wounded and missing from the fighting along the Mons Canal Line.

Wounded soldiers from the Battle of Mons back in ‘Blighty’: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Aftermath to the Battle of Mons:
The BEF retreated in compliance with Lanrezac’s French Fifth Army on their right. The retreat continued until 5 th September 1914, when the French counter-attack from Paris took place on the Marne and the Allied armies turned and pursued the Germans to the line of the Aisne River.
The actions of the BEF in the various incidents are described in the next sections.

‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’: The 1914 Star (in the centre), the British War Medal and the Victory Medal awarded to Private Conway, 1st Battalion the Cheshire Regiment: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Decorations and campaign medals:
The 1914 Star was issued to all ranks who served in France or Belgium between 5 th August 1914, the date of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and midnight on 22 nd /23 rd November 1914, the end of the First Battle of Ypres. The medal was known as the ‘Mons Star’. A bar was issued to all ranks who served under fire stating ‘5 Aug. to 23 Nov. 1914’.

An alternative medal the 1914/1915 Star was issued to those not eligible for the 1914 Star.
The 1914 Star with the British War Medal and the Victory Medal were known as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’. The British War Medal and the Victory Medal alone were known as ‘Mutt and Jeff’.

The book ‘The Bowmen’ by Arthur Machen, the origin of the ‘Angel of Mons’ myth: Battle of Mons on 23rd August 1914 in the First World War

Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Mons:

  • Walter Bloehm, a reserve officer in the German 12 th Brandenburg Grenadier Regiment which suffered heavy losses in its attack against 1 st Royal West Kent’s at St Ghislain, wrote in his memoir entitled ‘Vormarsch’: ‘Our first battles is a heavy, unheard of heavy defeat, and against the English, the English we had laughed at.’
  • The Angel of Mons: In September 1914 a journalist, Arthur Machen, published in the Evening Standard newspaper a story called ‘The Bowmen’ in which archers from the time of the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 assisted the British troops at Mons. The story was re-printed in parish magazines across Britain. The story gave rise to the legend, widely accepted as true, that there was angelic intervention on behalf of the British at Mons.
  • Lieutenant Maurice Dease, the machine gun officer of 4 th Royal Fusiliers received a posthumous Victoria Cross for his actions in assisting in the defence of the 2 bridges at Nimy in the Mons Canal Salient on 23 rd August 1914.
  • Private Sidney Godley was one of the gunners in Lieutenant Dease’s machine gun section. Godley continued to work his gun at the Nimy bridges, although wounded, remaining in action while the rest of his battalion withdrew. Unable to move, Godley was taken to Mons Hospital by local civilians where he was captured by the Germans. He was awarded the Victoria Cross, presented to him by King George V in 1919 after his release from prison camp.
  • Captain Theodore Wright, Royal Engineers, received a posthumous Victoria Cross, in part for his repeated but unsuccessful efforts to ‘blow’ the bridge at Mariette. The 2 field companies of the Royal Engineers of which Wright was the adjutant, the 56 th and 57 th , were given the responsibility of destroying 10 to 12 bridges across the Mons Canal. Due to the closeness of overwhelming numbers of German troops only 1 bridge, at Jemappes, was destroyed. Wright died after being severely wounded on the Aisne on 14 th September 1914.
  • Lance Corporal Charles Jarvis, Royal Engineers, a member of 57 th Field Company achieved the destruction of the bridge at Jemappes and received the Victoria Cross.

References for the Battle of Mons:

Mons, The Retreat to Victory by John Terraine

The First Seven Divisions by Lord Ernest Hamilton

The Official History of the Great War by Brigadier Edmonds August-October 1914

The previous battle in the First World War is the British Expeditionary Force (BEF)

The next battle in the First World War is the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges


Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914 - History

Overview

As Europe slid into war in 1914 the UK Government mobilized the British Expeditionary Force and declared war just before midnight on 4 August. A well oiled deployment to northern France followed, where in accordance with Plan WF (With France), the BEF would fight on the left wing of General Lanrezac&rsquos Fifth French Army. Field Marshal Sir John French and his allied counterpart, however, got on badly from the start and when the British advance reached Mons and tangled with German patrols on 22 August around Mons, the BEF&rsquos intent was to continue the advance into Belgium alongside their ally but Lanrezac only informed the BEF of his withdrawal from Charleroi late in the day. As a result with little time to prepare their defenses, the British were compelled into an unexpected encounter battle with von Kluck&rsquos First German Army outnumbering the BEF three to one. Fortunately he was also working in an information vacuum.
In the resulting battle on 23 August in the dreary industrial area around Mons, the professional soldiers of the BEF&rsquos 3rd Division with the salutary experience of the Boer War behind them, proved themselves to be more than the equal of the German Army, man to man they were seriously outnumbered. Training counted and in defending the canal line the days spent on the range practicing the &lsquoMad minute&rsquo of rifle fire counted and whilst the German army had closed up to and secured crossing points on the canal by nightfall, they were halted in their tracks.

On 24 August the German advance resumed but with the threat of the Germans enveloping them, the BEF was to withdraw. 5th Divisions&rsquo orders to move back, were however, delayed and consequently they fought a withdrawal in contact through the mean industrial streets, railway lines and slag heaps of Wasmes and Hornu. Out on the left flank the British cavalry was in action against a dangerous enveloping move by the Germans.

The BHTV team take the viewers to the heart of the action to examine weapons, tactics and raw heroism as they tell the story. Illustrated with maps and location scenes, they make this most complicated of British battles easily understandable.


Battle of Mons2

The Kaiser described Britain’s soldiers as a “Contemptible little army“, small by European standard but it was the finest in the world all volunteer, expertly trained and equipped.

The British Expeditionary Force of two infantry corps and a cavalry division under Major General Sir Edmund Allenby had begun to embark at Dublin and Southampton on 12th of August 1914. It crossed the English Channel that night, spent a few days in tented reception camps near Boulogne, Le Harve and Rouen, travelled by train as far as Le Cateau and then spent the next five days marching into Belgium along rough paved roads and in sweltering temperatures. It was a journey which had at first exacted a price in blistered feet and sweating exhaustion, (especially among the newly-recalled reservists) but which by the evening of 22nd of August had brought them to a satisfactory state of physical and morale fitness.

The British army was of course a joke, German comic papers had long portrayed its soldiers as figures of fun in their short scarlet tunics and small caps set at art angle on their heads, or with bearskins with thebritcav chin-straps under their lip. The first sight of them on that fateful morning did little to dispel the impression. Hauptmann Walter Bloem, commanding a fusilier company of the 12th Brandenburger Grenadiers and part of General Alexander Von Kluck’s First Army approached a group of farm buildings on the outskirts of Tertre, just north of the canal which runs from Conde’ sur l’Escaut eastwards to the small town of Mons, when he turned a corner and saw in front of him a group of fine looking horses, all saddled up. He had hardly given orders for there capture when a man appeared not five paces away from behind the horses – a man in a grey-brown uniform, no, in a grey-brown golfing-suit with a flat-topped cloth cap.
Could this be a soldier?’ Surely not! But it was an officer from ‘A’ Squadron, 19th Hussars, the cavalry regiment attached to the 5th Division of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), and behind this reconnaissance patrol on the far side of the 20-metre (66-ft) wide canal, waited the infantry of one or the 5th Division’s brigades, the 14th. Other brigades flanked this on each side on the west just past Conde’ sur l’Escaut, and on east to the Mons salient, where they linked with the left-handed brigade of the 3rd Divisions comprising the British II corps under the command of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien. The divisions of I Corps under General Sir Douglas Haig then continued the line eastwards towards flank of Lanzerac’s army.

monsmpThe Quiet Sunday morning

The morning of 23rd August brought sites of ordinary small town and village life continuing unconcernedly among the narrow streets, between the numberless slag heaps and pit heads of this small coal-mining community. Church bells rang, sombre-coated villagers responded to their summons, a small train filled with holiday-makers chuffed away towards the coast, the scent of newly-ground coffee was everywhere and the sudden explosion of a shell in the outskirts of Mons itself, among the Royal Fusiliers, was so unexpected that the whole world seemed to hold its breath in astonishment. But not for long. As the sound and smoke died away, the rifles came up and the appearance of a German cavalry patrol opposite caught no-one unawares except themselves the first volley of the Fusiliers emptied all their saddles, and very shortly afterwards oberleutenant Arnim of the Death’s Head Hussars was brought in swearing profusely with a smashed knee. By now the whole of the British line was alert and waiting, though hardly for what happened next. Before their astonished eyes the woods, hedges and buildings stretching before them, 1.6 km (1 mile) away across the canal and the flat water-meadows beyond, began erupting solid columns of grey-uniformed men, moving unhurriedly towards them in a solid mass like a football crowd after a match.

Enemy in sight

Watching the grey ocean lapping across the fields, one British officer asked another to pinch him in case he was dreaming, and his wonder was palpable as along 26 km (16 miles) of dead straight canal the British infantry waited while thousands of men walked with apparent innocence and unconcern towards almost certain death. At least 12,000 Lee-Enfield rifles, each held by a soldier, expert in the famous British ‘rapid fire’, augmented by 24 Vickers machine-guns, waited behind the embankment of the canal and it would seem that hardly one of them was fired until the German front ranks had come within 550 m (600 yards), the range over which the Lee-Enfield fired a flat trajectory. When fire was opened, the slaughter was immediate and horrific. Within minutes whole German battalions were wiped out, junior officers found themselves the only officers left to a regiment bereft of all warrant or non-commissioned ranks and the majority of the men.

Artillery superiority

But there were only 75,000 men in the BEF – and that number, however well trained, cannot hold up 200,000 men indefinitely except in circumstances of severe geographic confinement, which did not apply at Mons. German artillery was brought up during the late morning and blew gaps in the British line. The Royal Fusiliers and the 4th Middlesex, holding The sides of the narrow Mons salient, were in an especially dangerous situation once the guns registered on the town. And all the while more of Von Kluck’s battalions were flooding down the roads leading to the battle, widening the front until it overlapped the British line and threatened the flanks. The 5th French army withdrew in the early evening of the 23rd back towards the French border. Bygasmcgun 2100 it was evident that the British had been left on their own, and despite justifiable feelings of confidence throughout all the ranks in their ability to beat the enemy, they must now retreat. During that night the tired, frustrated and puzzled men of the BEF began the march back that would end on the Marne. Most of the disengagement went well with the 5th division. The German artillery played its part by effectively bombarding the Brandenburg Grenadiers. British artillery played cat and mouse in the slag heaps, and at one time the Dorset’s found themselves being supported by 3 howitzers from the 37th Battery giving close support like machine guns! Only one small disaster took place at Wasnes, when the 2nd battalion the Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding Regiment) did not get the order to withdraw and lost 400 casualties, but they held at bay a German brigade of six battalions. The BEF had fought the battle of Mons, and it would live in history for all time, as does the ‘Happy Few’ of Henry V and the ‘Few’ of 1940. They left behind them a confused and depressed enemy. That night Bloem wrote in his diary “the men are chilled to the bone, almost to 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 bean beaten and by the English…by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before”. A combination of British infantry training and the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield had shot them flat.


Battle of Mons (2nd Day): Elouges

The 9th Lancers charge German infantry and guns during the action at Elouges: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville

The previous battle in the First World War is the Battle of Mons

The next battle in the First World War is the Battle of Battle of Landrecies

Date of the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges: 24 th August 1914.

Place of the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges: Northern France on the Belgian Border.

War: The First World War known as the ‘Great War’.

Contestants at the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against the German First Army.

Commanders at the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges: Field-Marshal Sir John French commanding the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) with Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig commanding I Corps and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien commanding II Corps against General von Kluck commanding the German First Army.

Size of the Armies at the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
The BEF comprised 2 corps of infantry, I and II Corps, and a cavalry division 85,000 men and 290 guns.
General von Kluck’s First Army comprised 4 corps and 3 cavalry divisions 160,000 men and 550 guns.

Winner of the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
The BEF continued to retreat, but inflicted significant casualties on the German First Army and evaded its attempts to envelope it.

Uniforms and equipment in the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.

Background to the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
See this section in the ‘Battle of Mons’.

The BEF at this stage in the Great War comprised around 30% current regular soldiers and 70% reservists with previous service in the Regular British Army. The British Army was the only major European army with recent experience of active service in South Africa in the Boer War from 1899 to 1901 and on the North-West Frontier of India. The German Army had not fought a war since the Franco-Prussian War in 1870-1.

In these early battles the British soldiers outfought the Germans, although forced to retreat by pressure of numbers and the withdrawal of the French armies on their flanks. The British units’ ability to move about the battlefield in cover and their facility to deliver high rates of accurate rifle fire repeatedly enabled them to repel attacks by massed German infantry. The British artillery units consistently provided support to the infantry with accurate gunfire, while manoeuvring about the battlefield with speed and resource.

This was the force the Kaiser described as a ‘Contemptible Little Army’. German officers were stunned by the way the British troops brought their attacks to a standstill time and again.

During the course of 1914 the old British army melted away as the casualties caused by artillery, machine gun and rifle fire mounted, until the ‘Contemptibles’ were largely gone, to be replaced by the new mass British Army of war-time volunteers and conscripts.

The courage and technical ability of the units in the BEF during 1914 is striking.

Map of the Battle of Elouges 24th August 1914: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War: map by John Fawkes

Account of the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
Following the withdrawal of the BEF II Corps during the night of 23 rd /24 th August 1914, following the German assault on the Mons Canal line, the BEF occupied a line about 17 miles long facing north east about 3 miles south of Mons.

The positions of the components of the BEF were:

I Corps:
1 st Division around Grand Reng, Hoveroy and Givry.
2 nd Division: 4 th Brigade at Harveng, 5 th Brigade at Paturages and 6 th Brigade at Harvigny. 2 nd Connaught Rangers were at Bougnies.

II Corps:
3 rd Division: 7 th Brigade at Cipley, 8 th Brigade and 9 th Brigades at Nouvelles.
5 th Division: 1 st Bedfords at Cipley, 13 th Brigade at Wasmes, 1 st Dorsets at Wasmes, 14 th Brigade at Hornu, 15 th Brigade at Champ des Sarts and Hornu.
19 th Brigade at Thulin and the neighbouring towns.
Cavalry Division at Thulin, Elouges, Audregnies and Quivérain.
5 th Cavalry Brigade around Givry.

Much of the BEF was exhausted, after a long day in action on 23 rd August 1914 in the case of II Corps, and in marching considerable distances to come up in support in the case of I Corps.

A cyclist delivers a message to the Commanding Officer of 1st Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) on the march in France: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

At about 1am on the morning of 24 th August 1914, the Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French, summoned the senior staff officers of I and II Corps and the Cavalry Division and informed them that the BEF was to withdraw to a line based on the town of Bavai, to comply with the French Fifth Army of General Lanrezac, retreating on the British right. Later in the morning the two corps commanders, Generals Haig and Smith-Dorrien, met to co-ordinate the withdrawal of their Corps.

In the meantime General Haig, commanding I Corps, formed a special rear guard, commanded by Brigadier-General Horne and comprising the 5 th Cavalry Brigade, J Battery RHA, 2 brigades of field artillery and the 4 th Guards Brigade. The task of this rear-guard was to concentrate at Bonnet and engage the Germans, while the 2 divisions of the I Corps withdrew to their new positions.

At 4am on 24 th August the 1 st Division marched off, heading for the new positions between Feignies and Bavai, while the 2 nd Division moved out at around 4.15am. The Germans shelled both divisions but inflicted little loss.

Hornes’ rear-guard fell back behind I Corps, the 4 th Guards Brigade withdrawing from Harveng and Bougnies to positions between Quévy le Petit and Genly, with the 5 th Cavalry Brigade moving on its left flank. As it fell back the force was subjected to artillery fire which caused it little difficulty.

I Corps reached its new positions in the line, stretching from Feignies to La Longueville and then to Bavai, at around 10pm. The troops were exhausted, having in some cases marched nearly 60 miles in 64 hours, although few units of I Corps had been in action against the advancing Germans, other than by way of harassing artillery fire.

Matters were otherwise for II Corps on the left flank of the BEF, where the German First Army of General von Kluck was concentrating its efforts to envelope the western flank of the BEF.

At around 4am General Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps prepared to defend the area to which it had withdrawn during the evening of the 23 rd August after the battle along the Canal Line. This area was essentially the line of rising slopes to the south of the railway and road between Mons and Valenciennes, from Cipley in the east to Hornu in the west. This defence would precede the withdrawal of the Corps which could only begin once the roads in its rear areas were cleared of the transport columns. In the meantime II Corps would hold the positions it had occupied on the previous evening, while on its right I Corps fell back to the new line.

1st Scottish Rifles (Cameronians) marching through a French town: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

The initial German move was to open an extensive barrage against the right of II Corps, followed by an infantry attack to spread along the Corps front from east to west by 5.15am.

The initial German infantry assaults fell on the 7 th Brigade around Cipley and the 9 th Brigade around Frameries.

109 th Battery supported the 9 th Brigade with a heavy fire and all the German attacks were repelled with heavy losses inflicted by infantry rifle and machine gun fire and the artillery barrage. This success enabled the 9 th Brigade to fall back through Frameries in good order at around 9am and begin its march to Sars la Bruyere.

The 7 th Brigade remained in place for longer, until it fell back towards Genly. This delay caused the brigade to suffer significantly heavier losses than the 9 th , one of its battalions, the 2 nd South Lancashires, suffering around 250 casualties through machine gun fire from German guns moved up to the slag heaps around Frameries.

The staff of the British 9th Brigade in Frameries on 24th August 1914: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

At around 8am the 8 th Brigade began its withdrawal from Nouvelles to Genly, doing so with little interference from the Germans other than largely ineffective artillery fire.

At around 6am a Royal Flying Corps reconnaissance plane reported that a German infantry division was advancing towards Condé, clearly intending to march wide around the BEF’s left flank, comprising II Corps’ 5 th Division and the Cavalry Division.

BE2 Aeroplane: one of the models used by the Royal Flying Corps in the first months of the Great War: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

Immediately to the west of Frameries, the Germans launched determined attacks on the right flank of the 5 th Division. The area of Paturages was filled with miners’ cottages and held by 3 battalions of the 5 th Brigade and 1 st Bedfordshires. The German artillery bombarded the area from dawn onwards, but without hitting any of the British positions to any effect. A fierce but inconclusive battle was fought by one of the Bedford companies north of Paturages against advancing German infantry.

To the west of Paturages, in the area of Wasmes, a line of British units dug in along the railway, prepared to receive the German attack: 1 st Dorsets, flanked on the left by 2 guns of 121 st Battery, 2 nd KOYLI with 37 th Howitzer Battery, 2 nd KOSB at Champ des Sarts and in the town of Wasmes, 2 nd Duke’s and 1 st RWK.

Acting as the 5 th Division reserve at Dour were 1 st Cheshires, 1 st Norfolks and 119 th Battery RFA. Other artillery units in the area of Dour were XXVII Brigade RFA, VII Howitzer Brigade and XXVIII Brigade RFA.

The Germans began their assault on the centre of the 5 th Division at dawn with a heavy 2 hour artillery bombardment against the northern edge of St Ghislain, in the erroneous assumption that the British were still entrenched along the canal bank.

Following the bombardment, German infantry patrols crossed the canal by a number of foot bridges that remained intact, to find that the British had withdrawn during the previous night.

2 battalions of German infantry passed through St Ghislain and emerged into open country from the southern boundary of Hornu. Here the Germans came under heavy fire from the 13 th Brigade battalions positioned north of Wasmes and the British guns and their advance was abruptly halted.

Royal Flying Corps aeroplanes: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

At 9am the 5 th Brigade, (2 nd Division, I Corps) comprising 2 nd Worcesters, 2 nd Oxfordshire LI and 2 nd HLI, began to withdraw from Paturages, heading southwards in compliance with the orders issued by I Corps, their destination being Sars la Bruyere. This left the Bedfords, at the eastern end of the II Corps position, exposed with an open flank. Some Dorsets moved to assist in covering the flank, but there was for the time no threat from the Germans at this point, other than by way of artillery fire, as their infantry assault was falling further to the west and was in any case designed to keep II Corps in position so that it could be outflanked from the area of Condé.

The German infantry attack from St Ghislain and Hornu continued with increasing numbers, attempting to force its way out of Hornu into open country. Each attack was beaten back by gunfire from 37 th Battery RFA and rifle fire from the infantry battalions in the Wasmes area.

The Germans made no attack on the 14 th Brigade, the next brigade in the II Corps line on the left of the 13 th Brigade.

The German assault on the 5 th Division:

On the extreme left of the BEF, the 19 th Brigade, an independent formation receiving its orders directly from General Headquarters (GHQ), began to withdraw to Elouges at 2am.
Also at 2am the French 84 th Division left Condé, moving south.

General Allenby began the retreat of the Cavalry Division at dawn, pulling back from positions in the rear of the 19 th Brigade. Allenby intended to withdraw some distance as there was a strong build-up of German troops on his left, in the gap between the left flank of the BEF and the French troops in the area of Valenciennes.

Sir Charles Fergusson, GOC of the 5 th Division, passed a message to Allenby informing him that the 5 th Division was required to stay in position for the moment, while the other divisions withdrew, and requesting his assistance.

Allenby agreed to move the Cavalry Division to the area around Elouges to guard the 5 th Division’s left flank from the Germans marching south from Condé. A squadron of the 9 th Lancers moved forward to Thulin and engaged the Germans as they advanced into the village.

As the 19 th Brigade reached Baisieux it came under General Allenby’s command and he halted the brigade in that town, to provide further support for the 5 th Division.

The squadron of the 9 th Lancers in Thulin, commanded by Captain Francis Grenfell, inflicted significant losses on the Germans attacking the village, while falling back on the main body of the regiment. Once in Thulin, German guns opened fire on the 9 th Lancers.

Troops from the German 7 th Division of IV Corps were seen marching west along the road to Valenciennes and then turning onto the road to Elouges. Here they were engaged with dismounted fire by the 9 th Lancers and the 18 th Hussars, causing the German force to deploy into the fields and mount a full attack on the British cavalry. The crisis was fast developing for the 5 th Division, still in position around Wasmes, with the Germans advancing in strength to cut into the division’s left rear, despite the efforts of the cavalry regiments.

General Allenby attempted to discover whether the 5 th Division was beginning its withdrawal, sending 3 successive staff officers to find out. In the meantime, the Cavalry Division and the 19 th Infantry Brigade fell slowly back, deliberately leaving the road to the immediate south of Elouges clear for the 5 th Division’s withdrawal when it took place.

The 19 th Brigade fell back to Rombies, followed by the main part of the Cavalry Division. The 2 nd Cavalry Brigade, in its role as rear-guard, took up positions in the area between the Mons-Valenciennes railway and Elouges, taking advantage of the sunken roads, slag heaps and mineral railways that cut the area up. The 2 nd Cavalry Brigade was supported by L Battery RHA, which took up positions behind the mineral railway that ran between Elouges and Quiévrain.

By 11.30am the withdrawal of the rest of the Cavalry Division enabled the 2 nd Cavalry Brigade to pull in all its detached parties and to fall back through Audregnies, albeit under a heavy German bombardment, with the 18 th Hussars acting as the brigade rear guard.

On the right of the BEF, General Horne’s rear-guard held a line from the Mons-Mauberge road north of Bonnet to the area of Genly. The brigades of the 3 rd Division passed through or by the rear-guard to form a defensive line. This end of the BEF was largely untroubled by the Germans, other than by artillery fire which caused little difficulty to the British troops.

At 11am General Horne declared that the responsibilities of his rear guard had been met and the rear-guard was dissolved, with the units returning to their established formations.

This was clearly premature as at 1pm HQ II Corps directed that the 3 rd Division was to withdraw no further as the 5 th Division was having considerable difficulty extracting itself from its positions around Wasmes, in view of the heavy German attacks.

The Dorsets and Bedfords were still in Paturages, covering the flank of the 13 th Brigade, which was engaging the German infantry attempting to force their way out of Hornu to the south. At 10.30am the 2 battalions began to withdraw through Paturages, their destination being Blaugies to the west of Bavai. In La Bouverie the Dorset’s transport was ambushed by German infantry and was forced to fight its way out.

At 11am the 2 battalions began their move across the rear of the 13 th Brigade in the course of their retreat. A detachment of Bedfords escorted the divisional artillery to St Waast to the west of Bavai while the remainder of the 2 battalions reached Blaugies at around 2pm.

At 11am Major General Sir Charles Ferguson, the GOC of the 5 th Division, was given leave by II Corps to begin his retreat. The division’s withdrawal was none too soon as the German infantry was working its way around the division’s right flank, into the gap left by the retreat of the 3 rd Division.

The 13 th Brigade held the division’s right flank. The next in line, the 14 th Brigade, fell back to Blaugies, its battalions moving in turn.

The 13 th Brigade then began to withdraw, sections from each battery of XXVIII Brigade RFA remaining with the infantry to provide covering fire.

The Duke of Wellington’s Regiment at Wasmes:
The order to retreat failed to reach 2 nd Duke’s and a battery of XXVII Brigade RFA. Difficulty in communication between brigade headquarters and battalions and batteries in close action with the fast advancing German infantry was to be a recurring theme during the retreat over the following weeks, leading to the loss of several units. Radio communication was in its infancy and sets were not available below divisional level, so that communication was still by telephone, when in static positions, or by hand of motorcycle or mounted despatch rider, runner or staff officer during the mobile phase of the war.

On the North-West Frontier of India and in South Africa the most efficient communication was by heliograph (flashing Morse code with mirrors), but this form of communication required stations to be positioned high up in mountains to achieve distance and a ready supply of sunshine, neither requisite available in Belgium and Northern France.

At 11.30am, when the Duke’s and the accompanying battery should have been withdrawing, they came under a heavy bombardment and infantry attack, which they managed to fend off.

At around 1pm the Germans launched a further heavy assault, by massed infantry from the direction of the Boussu-Quiévrain road. Again, these formations were shot down by rifle and machine-gun fire from the infantry and a fierce bombardment from the guns and the attack halted. Following this, the Dukes and the guns withdrew towards Dour.

The Duke’s casualties were around 400. The regiment and the battery had held off assaults by 6 German battalions (2 brigades).

The 9th Lancers charge German infantry and guns during the action at Elouges: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville

The action at Elouges and Audregnies:
By 2pm the British 13 th Brigade was in Warquinies on its way to St Waast and the 14 th Brigade was at Blaugnies on its way to Eth, both destinations lying to the west of Bavai.

As the brigades moved south-west from these initial destinations, it became clear to the GOC of the 5 th Division, Sir Charles Ferguson, that the British Cavalry Division and the 19 th Brigade were too far to the south and that the 5 th Division was threatened from the west by large bodies of German cavalry advancing against its open flank.

At 11.45am Ferguson sent a message to the Cavalry Division requesting assistance. At the same time Ferguson ordered the 1 st Royal Norfolk Regiment and the 1 st Cheshires with 119 th Battery RFA, the force commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel CR Ballard of the Norfolks, to move forward from Dour, where these units were in the Divisional Reserve, and counter-attack the advancing Germans. As Ballard’s 2 battalions and the guns moved up, they were diverted further west to take position along the Elouges-Audregnies-Angre road.

9th Lancers encounter a barbed wire fence in the course of their charge: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

Receiving Ferguson’s request for support at around midday, Allenby ordered the 2 nd and 3 rd Cavalry Brigades to turn back to the area of Audregnies, where they were within 2 miles of Ballard’s force. The 18 th Hussars returned to their positions in Elouges and the 9 th Lancers took up position with L Battery RHA to the west of the village.

The 4 th Dragoon Guards remained to the south of Elouges. The 3 rd Cavalry Brigade occupied a position on the high ground to the west of Audregnies.

The area to the south of the Mons to Valenciennes highway sloped gently up to the Elouges-Audregnies road, where the British rear-guard was in position. Across this area ran the main railway from east to west with, to the south, a smaller railway for carrying newly dug coal. Across the middle of the area ran the old Roman road from Audregnies. Immediately to the east of the Roman road at Quiévrain stood a sugar factory and a cluster of slagheaps.

Colonel Ballard’s force of Norfolks, Cheshires and the 119 th Battery formed a line from the Elouges-Quiévrain railway to the outskirts of Audregnies. At around 12.30 pm firing presaged a heavy German attack from Quiévrain and Baisieux towards Audregnies.

Brigadier-General de Lisle, GOC 2 nd Cavalry Brigade, ordered Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell of the 9 th Lancers to deliver a mounted charge into the right flank of the attacking Germans, if the opportunity arose. L Battery RHA took up position behind the railway line to the east of Audregnies. The 9 th Lancers with 2 troops of 4 th Dragoon Guards advanced at the gallop and crossed the Baisieux-Elouges road. The force of cavalry found themselves in an area crossed by hedges, fences and ditches. The charge was brought up short by a wire fence and the squadrons came under heavy artillery fire. The 9 th Lancers split up, one group dismounted and took up positions around the sugar factory, another retired to the mineral railway line, where they joined the 18 th Hussars and a third headed back to Audregnies.

British Cavalry returning from a charge: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War: picture by Richard Caton Woodville

A squadron of the 4 th Dragoon Guards galloped down a lane heading for Quiévrain and occupied a cottage, losing significant numbers to rifle and artillery fire.

During this episode the commanding officer of the 9 th Lancers, Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell, rode across the open ground under heavy fire to obtain further orders, leaving his regiment under the command of Captain Lucas-Tooth. Lucas-Tooth organised his men around the sugar factory and subjected the advancing German infantry to a heavy fire.

Distracted by the activity of the 2 nd Cavalry Brigade, the Germans faltered in their advance, enabling Ballard’s 2 battalions to consolidate their positions and the 3 rd Cavalry Brigade to provide further support for the 2 nd Cavalry Brigade with D and E Batteries RHA firing across the valley.

Further dense columns of German infantry advanced out of Quiévrain and from the area between Quiévrain and Baisieux towards the British line. L Battery RHA came into action from behind the railway line, firing shrapnel low over the German formations and inflicting significant casualties. L Battery’s fire brought the German attack to a standstill. 3 German batteries attempted to silence the RHA guns, but were unable to do so.

From their lines, Ballard’s force fired on the German infantry attempting to advance up the slope to their positions, while 119 th Battery RFA, on the right to the south of Elouges, added its fire against the German infantry and guns.

At about 2.30pm it became clear to Ballard that the position of his 2 battalions and 119 th Battery were becoming untenable, as large masses of German infantry could be seen moving south from the area of Quarouble, to the south west of his positions, threatening the rear of his force. The German troops were the 36 th Regiment from the IV Corps. To Ballard’s east, the German 7 th Division was pressing hard.

Ballard ordered his troops to retire in compliance with the general rearward movement by all 3 divisions in contact with the Germans 3 rd , 5 th and the Cavalry Divisions.

The Rescue of 119th Battery, Royal Field Artillery:

119 th Battery fired on the advancing German infantry until they were around 900 yards away. The German artillery fire was inflicting heavy losses on the gunners of 119 th Battery. When the order to retire was received the German fire was so heavy that the horse teams could not be brought up to the guns. Major Alexander, the battery commander, directed his men to push the guns into cover, but found that there were insufficient unwounded gunners left to perform this task.

Major Francis Grenfell of the 9 th Lancers, whose squadron was positioned nearby, offered to assist Alexander’s battery and led a team of volunteers from his regiment in pushing the guns out of the line of fire. Once moved, the guns were limbered up and driven away. Alexander and Grenfell received the Victoria Cross.

Again, there was considerable difficulty in communicating with the units in contact with the Germans. None of the 3 messages to retire sent by Ballard reached the Cheshires. L Battery also failed to receive the initial order to withdraw. The brigade major of the 2 nd Cavalry Brigade rode forward and personally ordered the battery to retire. As with 119 th Battery, the guns of L Battery had to be run back into cover, before the gun teams could be brought forward, one at a time, and the guns extracted.

The Cheshires, with a party of Norfolks, were left engaging the advancing German infantry, unaware that there was a general retirement in progress. The battalion, commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Boger, until he was wounded, fell back to the Audregnies road, where a counter-attack drove back the advancing German infantry. After a lull the Germans resumed the assault and at around 7pm, with their ammunition largely exhausted and the battalion broken up into small groups, the Cheshires were overwhelmed and the survivors surrendered.

Part of the Cheshires reserve company in Audregnies was ordered to retire by a staff officer, who specifically forbade any attempt by these troops to re-join their battalion. Another party managed to fall back from Audregnies. These were the only Cheshires to survive the battle. Once these men reached Ath, they were found to number around 100, out of a battalion that had previously comprised 1,000 all ranks.

The final retreat of the flank guard of the 5 th Division and the Cavalry Division reached the area of St Waast at around 9pm, covered by artillery fire from the 5 th Division batteries along the line from Blaugies to Houdain.

The end of 24 th August 1914 found the formations of the BEF in these positions:

I Corps:
1 st Division in Feignies and La Longueville.
2 nd Division in Bavai
II Corps:
5 th Division in Bavai and St Waast.
3 rd Division in St Waast, Amfriopret and Bermeries.

Cavalry Division with the 19 th Infantry Brigade in St Waast and Wargnies (except the 5 th Cavalry Brigade which was on the right flank at Feignies).

In II Corps the 3rd Division was now on the left flank, with the 5 th Division on its right. This change was effected because the 5 th Division was in action against the Germans all day, while the 3 rd Division was free to march the greater distance to the left flank, leaving the 5 th Division with the shorter distance to retire once disengaged.

Throughout the BEF, all ranks were exhausted from marching and lack of sleep. For the units in action, supply had been a major problem and many soldiers went for 24 hours in action without food or rest.

It was considered that the day’s fighting had been a success. Substantial casualties had been inflicted on the German divisions, that had been in action. The British regiments had shown themselves adept at disengaging, after a vigorous defence. Only in the case of the Cheshires had a full battalion been overwhelmed. No guns had been lost despite the considerable danger that batteries such as 119 th RFA and L Battery RHA had been in.

British Cavalry on the march: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

Casualties at the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
Approximate unit casualties in killed, wounded and captured were:
Cavalry Division: 250 (mainly 9 th Lancers, 4 th Dragoon Guards and 18 th Hussars of the 2 nd Cavalry Brigade).
I Corps: 100.
II Corps: 1,650 (Cheshires approx. 750 Norfolks approx. 275 119 th Battery 30)
19th Infantry Brigade: 40.
German casualties are unknown but were probably in the region of 7,500.

Aftermath to the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
On 25 th August 1914, the BEF continued its retreat to the south, in line with the French armies, skirting the Forest of Mormal and the Fortress of Mauberge. The retreat would end with the Battle of the Marne and the Advance to the Aisne River in September 1914, followed by the transfer of the BEF to the Belgian front around Ypres in the ‘Race for the Sea’.

Other formations arrived from Britain, in particular the 4 th Division, relieved of garrison duties by Yeomanry and Territorial regiments, and in September the 6 th Division.

Captain Francis Grenfell VC, 9th Lancers: First Day of the Retreat from Mons and the Battle around Elouges and Audregnies, fought on 24th August 1914 in the First World War

Decorations and campaign medals for the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:
The 1914 Star was issued to all ranks who served in France or Belgium between 5 th August 1914, the date of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and midnight on 22 nd /23 rd November 1914, the end of the First Battle of Ypres. The medal was known as the ‘Mons Star’. A bar was issued to all ranks who served under fire stating ‘5 Aug. to 23 Nov. 1914’.

An alternative medal the 1914/1915 Star was issued to those not eligible for the 1914 Star.

The 1914 Star with the British War Medal and the Victory Medal were known as ‘Pip, Squeak and Wilfred’. The British War Medal and the Victory Medal alone were known as ‘Mutt and Jeff’.

Captain Francis Grenfell of the 9 th Lancers and Major Alexander of 119 th Battery, Royal Field Artillery, received the Victoria Cross for their actions in retrieving the guns of 119 th Battery.

Sergeants Turner and Davids of 119 th Battery each received the Distinguished Conduct Medal for the same incident.

Lieutenant-Colonel Campbell and Captain Lucas-Tooth each received the Distinguished Service Order for their conduct in leading the 9 th Lancers.

Anecdotes and traditions from the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:

  • Major Tom Bridges commanded one of the 4 th Dragoon Guards squadrons that charged with the 9 th Bridges was knocked from his horse and kicked on the head. He was extricated by an officer driving around the battlefield in a Rolls Royce motor car. Bridges later made a name for himself by rousing the sleeping British stragglers in St Quentin by beating a toy drum and blowing a toy whistle.
  • While escaping from the advancing German infantry, Bridges passed 2 guns of L Battery RHA, which he described as ‘firing away as if they were on exercise in Okehampton’.
  • Captain Lucas-Tooth of the 9 th Lancers was later killed on the Aisne.
  • Captain Francis Grenfell of the 9 th Lancers was killed in the fighting around Ypres on 24 th May 1915. His twin brother, Rivy, was killed in September 1914 serving with the 9 th The Grenfell’s older brother was killed at the Battle of Omdurman, in the charge of the 21 st Lancers in the Sudan in 1898, and their cousin Claud was killed at Spion Kop in the Boer War. 3 other brothers served through the Great War reaching the rank of lieutenant-colonel. The war poet Julian Grenfell and his brother Gerald Grenfell, both killed in the Great War, were cousins of Francis.
  • L Battery RHA was, on 1 st September 1914, the battery in action at Néry, in which all but one gun was put out of action and the battery won 3 Victoria Crosses.

References for the Battle of Mons (2 nd Day): Elouges:

Mons, The Retreat to Victory by John Terraine.

The First Seven Divisions by Lord Ernest Hamilton.

The Official History of the Great War by Brigadier Edmonds August-October 1914.

The previous battle in the First World War is the Battle of Mons

The next battle in the First World War is the Battle of Battle of Landrecies


“The Bowmen” goes viral in Victorian England

It wasn’t long before Machen was being asked for evidence of this event. He quickly admitted the story was fiction, but by then, the piece had gone viral in Victorian England.

The story was so popular that churches began asking to reprint “The Bowmen” in their parish magazines. One priest asked if he could publish the story as a pamphlet and asked for sources. When Machen again explained the story was something he’d thought up, the priest insisted he must be wrong.

Several versions of the story appeared in parish publications as well as occult magazines. The tale continued to become more elaborate. One account described corpses of German soldiers found on the battlefield who’d been struck down by arrows. Throughout the war, the myth continued to snowball into stories of divine intervention by heavenly forces and angels.


The Battle of Le Cateau

26 August 1914

The German First Army was close behind the retreating Second Corps. General Haig’s First Corps were several miles to the east. Smith-Dorrien did have the 4th Division which had only just arrived in France. It had been held back in Britain due to fears of a German invasion. However, the men of the Second Corps were exhausted and their units in disarray. It became obvious that the retreat could not continue in this manner as there was a strong possibility they would be overrun and defeated. On the night of the 25 August Smith-Dorrien decided to make a stand and fight.

Smith-Dorrien positioned Second Corps to the west of Le Cateau, with the 4th Division on their left flank. The terrain to the west was mainly open countryside and farmer’s fields with a handful of small villages.

Early on the morning of the 26 August the German artillery began shelling British positions. The British forces of around 40,000 men were outnumbered and outgunned. The fighting was intense but they held back the Germans for most of the morning, inflicting heavy losses.

Much of the British field artillery was lined up out in the open, up-front with the infantry, which made the gun batteries obvious targets. The field artillery played a significant role at Le Cateau, but casualties were high. Not only were the guns frequently shelled and fired upon, but when the order came to save the guns the gun teams had to dash in with the horses and limbers in full view of the enemy.

Four of the five Victoria Crosses awarded for the action at Le Cateau went to men who had helped save the guns. Drivers Job Drain and Frederick Luke of the 37th Battery Royal Field Artillery were each awarded the Victoria Cross for volunteering to help save the guns while “under fire from hostile infantry who were 100 yards away”.

During the afternoon the British troops began to retire and fall back. The intense shelling and the rifle and machine gun fire hindered their progress. Not all units received the order to withdraw, the messengers unable to reach them. A contingent of French cavalry and their 75mm guns (the famous French soixante-quinzes) under the command of General Sordet helped cover the British left flank. The fighting continued until nightfall by which time most of Second Corps had withdrawn from the battlefield.

Major Charles Yate of 2nd Battalion King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry was awarded the Victoria Cross. He “commanded one of the two companies that remained to the end…when all other officers were killed or wounded and ammunition exhausted, led his 19 survivors against the enemy in a charge in which he was severely wounded.”

British casualties were officially recorded as 7,812 – killed, wounded or missing. 38 field guns were lost.

Le Cateau is generally regarded as a tactical victory. It temporarily halted the German advance and most likely prevented the loss of the Second Army Corps. The Germans themselves were exhausted and had suffered many casualties. Although they fought a few rearguard actions the BEF were able to continue their retreat until a counter-offensive was launched 200km to the south at the Marne.


Watch the video: The War Room: Rifles at Mons, 1914