The Battle of Mons

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It was the opening battle of the First World War for the British Expeditionary Force: massed German infantry encountered the regulars and reservists of the British Army and received an unpleasant shock.

 

  • Date: 23 August 1914
  • Allies:
    • Belligerents: United Kingdom
    • Commanders: Sir John French, Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien
    •  Strength:
      • 2 corps
      • 1 cavalry division
      • 1 cavalry brigade
        total: 80,000 men and 300 guns
  • Central Powers:
    • Belligerents: Germany
    • Commanders: Alexander von Kluck
    • Strength:
      • 4 corps
      • 3 cavalry divisions
      • total: 160,000 men and 600 guns
  • Result:
    • British troops retreated, but achieved own strategic objective
    • For the Germans the Battle of Mons was a tactical repulse and a strategic success.
  • Casualties and losses
    • Allies: 1,638
    • Central Powers: 2145 up to 5000

 

Inception

The first battle fought by the British Army against the Germans on the Western Front in the Great War came about simply because pre-war plans had placed the British Expeditionary Force in the way of the German advance towards Paris. This position had been agreed during pre-war discussions between the British and French Armies.

German troops entered Luxemburg on 2 August and moved into Belgium near Liege next day. The British Government declared war late on 4 August 1914, and by 22 August the four infantry divisions and one cavalry division of the British Expeditionary Force had disembarked in France and taken up their positions near the fortress town of Maubeuge, some miles south of Mons on the extreme left of the Allied line. General Lanrezac’s French Fifth Army was on the right of the British.

By this time the German armies were moving en masse towards the west. Their plan had placed much strength on their right flank, which was by now streaming through Belgium with the First Army under von Kluck – the largest of their armies – wheeling round past Brussels to Ath and Mons. The British command quickly became convinced by cavalry reports, together with those by aerial observation, that German troops were closing in on Mons.

battle-of-mons-2Picture 1: Soldiers of 1st Northumberland Fusiliers preparing street barricades in the Mons

 

First clash

At dawn on Saturday 22 August 1914, “C” Squadron of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, commanded by Major Tom Bridges, pushed out two patrols north from Mons towards Soignies and met the Germans for the first time. There is a memorial near the spot today. “C” Squadron commenced a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières. Four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop (under Captain Hornby) and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood. There were other cavalry encounters with the enemy in the areas of La Louvière and Binche.

battle-of-mons-1Picture 2: British infantry waiting to advance in the Mons area prior to the battle

During the day and in rear of the cavalry screen, the British infantry took up a thin line of roughly entrenched positions along the Mons-Conde canal, following it round the pronounced salient to the north of the town, with the I Corps to the east echeloned back and facing north-east. 19th Infantry Brigade took up a position on the left of the British line. It was decided that, if pressure grew on the outposts along the canal, then the II Corps would evacuate Mons and take up a defensive position among the pit villages and slag heaps a little way to the south. The Germans were apparently unaware of the presence of the BEF in this area until the skirmishes on the 22nd. By 9am on 23rd German artillery had been placed on high ground north of the canal.

 

Timeline

5.30am: Sir John French met with Haig (I Corps), Allenby (Cavalry Division) and Smith-Dorrien (II Corps) at his advanced HQ at a chateau in Sars-la-Bruyère, where he ordered the outpost line on the canal to be strengthened and the bridges prepared for demolition.
6am – 7am: German cavalry patrols encounter British forces in area of Nimy and Pommereuil; British cavalry patrols also go out and met with opposition at Obourg; shots are exchanged. 5th Division pushes its mounted troops and two battalions across to north side of canal at Tertre (1st Royal West Kent and 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers of 13th Infantry Brigade);
9am: German guns are now shelling the canal bend line held by 8th and 9th Brigades; German infantry of IX Korps have advanced and are now closely engaged with 4th Middlesex at Obourg; attack against canal bend intensifies and Germans take heavy casualties

battle-of-mons-3Picture 3: Map of the Battle of Mons 23rd August 1914 by John Fawkes

11am: attack is spreading westwards; German III Korps now also attacking canal line at Jemappes but also take heavy casualties; Germans also close on canal at Mariette and Tertre: 1st Royal West Kents at Tertre forced to withdraw across canal;
Noon: German attack frontage has now broadened to St Ghislain and Les Herbieres and now stretches some 7 miles from Mons; soon after noon the Germans cross the canal at Obourg and reach the line of the railway: the 4th Middlesex, now supported by 2nd Royal Irish Regiment, are now in a precarious position and under heavy attack;
2pm: German artillery begins to come into action against British 3rd Infantry Brigade of 1st Division; German cavalry is seen moving towards St Symphorien; 4th Royal Fusiliers is ordered to withdraw from Nimy (see “First VCs”, below) and Germans cross canal
3pm: British 3rd Division is now signalling that it is under heavy attack; Haig orders two battalions of 4th (Guards) Brigade to take over defence of Hill 93 (SE of Mons) from 3rd Division; reports arrive stating that French cavalry on the British right is also under attack and falling back;
3pm: 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers of 9th Infantry Brigade ordered to withdraw from Jemappes to Frameries; Germans cross canal here too;
3.15pm: German infantry is working around both sides of the 2nd Royal Irish Regiment near Obourg: a decision is taken to withdraw the battalion to hold a new line at Bois la Haut; the 4th Middlesex also withdraws;

battle-of-mons-5Picture 4: The crossing of the Mons-Conde canal by the German Pontoon companies

7-8pm: renewed German attack against 8th Brigade: after an hour the brigade is ordered to withdraw to Nouvelles;
The Germans did not exploit their success in the canal salient as dusk fell. Instead, their buglers were heard to sound the ‘cease fire’;
8.40pm: Sir John French orders II Corps to hold fast and strengthen positions during the night;
Late: news arrives that the French Fifth Army is going to begin a general withdrawal at 3am on 24 August; this is officially confirmed by French Conmander in Chief Joffre at 1am; it now appeared that Tournai had fallen to the enemy; that long columns of the enemy had broken through; and that a wide gap had opened up on the right between the BEF and Lanrezac’s Army. Sir John French had little option but to order a general withdrawal in the direction of Cambrai, and to try to re-establish contact with his allies. The great retreat from Mons is set to begin. The men of the “Old Contemptibles” were mystified by the orders to withdraw – they fervently believed that they had fought the Germans to a standstill at Mons and simply could not understand why they were marching away. Not one of them could have guessed just how much marching they would do over the next two weeks.