Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat August 1914

One hundred years ago, on this day, the British forces defended against the German army at Mons. I will be discussing the army sizes, the plans, the heroic actions taken by two machine gunners of the British army, asking the question who won Mons?, as well as discussing the Great Retreat and the aftermath. I hope that what you read will be of great help and above all, will be interesting. So without further delay, let me introduce you to the first battle the British faced in WW1.

The Battle of Mons was the first major conflict that the British Expeditionary force faced in 1914 (The British army had encountered the German army in small skirmishes a few days before). Common knowledge of WWI, recognises that it was a war fought in trenches, in mud and fixed positions. However in early 1914 and late 1918, warfare was mobile, armies moved to outflank each other, hold bridges and fought in towns. Armies used bicycles to quickly manoeuvre around each other or cavalry to destroy a flank. Trench Warfare as we know it did not appear until after the counter attack of the British and French armies after the Great Retreat. Therefore when knowing that the British force was only 4 battalions strong, roughly equating to 70,000 men, very similar to what the modern British army is today, and that the German army was one four times the size of that alone at Mons, shows what the British had to face. The whole point of the BEF was to secure the French left flank. The French army was similar to the size of the German army, and therefore the small British force should have able to tip the balance of battle.

As you may know, Germany was initiating its Schlieffen Plan, where the push through Belgium would be a decisive blow to the French. All that stood in the way of the plan succeeding was the BEF, a small, but very well-trained professional army, led by Sir John French. The first contact between the German army and British army is said to be on the 21 August 1914, when a reconnaissance team ran into a German unit near Obourg. Sadly or luckily Private John Parr became the first British soldier to be killed in action; at least he wouldn’t have to go through the horrors that were to face the British army in the months and years to come. The push at Mons was to ensure the French army would be encircled and Paris reached. This could have ensured a surrender of French forces. However Mons is a canal and the battle was fought with great resistance from the British defenders.

The Battle started at 0900 Hours on the 23rd August 1914, with German artillery hitting British lines, this was then followed by an infantry assault. The main place for the attack was at Nimy Bridge. There were four German battalions attacking, compared to the British’s one. This one regiment (Royal Fusiliers) managed to hold, meaning that the German army attacked on a wider scale, hitting most of the defensive line. The German army marched towards the British in column parade ground formation. This was an idiotic move, and one that seems to show that people do not learn from history (The Russians did something similar at Sebastopol in the Crimean war), the German army moved towards the British, being mowed down by machine gun fire and extraordinary British skill with a rifle. It is said that at Mons, the British fired from fifteen to twenty rounds a minute, cutting the enemy down. The Prussian Guard, the elite of the German army were searching for the machine gun emplacements, when there weren’t any.

It was at the Mons, where the first two Victoria Crosses were awarded. Both were Machine gunners, and kept firing at their positions under exceptional circumstances. Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley. Dease fired his weapon when the rest of the machine gun crew had been killed or injured, and although hit four times, he held off the German attack at the Nimy bridge. Godley stayed behind, covering the retreat of his fellow-men of the fusiliers, and fired his gun until it had run out of ammo, eventually surrendering to the Germans, after he had destroyed his gun.

It was here where, the Angel of the Mons appeared to the troops, or so the legend says. These angels were said to have helped the British army retreat. A host of phantoms with bows and arrows who were led by a heroic figure on a gleaming white horse encouraged the British fighting men, and drove the German army back, allowing more men to retreat. Now I am not going to say if this really happened or not, I wasn’t there, but this could have been a result of British propaganda, showing the populace that God was on their side. That God was helping them bring down the evil imperialistic German foe, who funnily enough also thought God was on their side. Nonetheless, maybe Angels of the Mons really did appear and brought the British army out from the claws of defeat. Whatever you make of the Angels on the Mons, it shows the importance of religion to the men serving and to those back at home. When you read the poems of the soldiers, you notice this faith, either anger at God or praise. The Angel of the Mons certainly improved morale, and has become a famous myth of WW1.

The reason the British army retreated wasn’t because they were overrun, but because the French had fallen back and left the British army isolated. The British flanks were left dangerously unsecure and therefore holding the line would have been pointless. This meant the British commanding officer, John French, had no option that to initiate a fighting retreat back to Parris. In this time a 5th Battalion had reached France to help with the BEF.

The Great Retreat lasted two whole weeks, the army had to march their way back to the Marne with the German army right on their heels. It meant that the army had to do a fighting retreat, falling back, fighting, and then falling back again. The British army suffered 8,000 casualties at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August.

Who won Mons? Well both sides did, the British did their job, protect the French fifth armies flank. They had inflicted more casualties on the Germans and the battle increased morale, giving a vast superior enemy a bloody nose. However the German army got so close to Paris, they pushed the French and British armies back, and they caused heavy casualties on the British army. Nonetheless, the ground won by the German army was soon recaptured by the British and colonial forces, with the push at Marne proving to be fruitful. Therefore it could be easily said that no one had one Mons, it was just another action in the war that cost thousands of lives. Haig always said it was a war of attrition, if by the end of it there were more British alive than Germans then they had won. Land did not matter as much; it was just a matter of wearing the other side down.

The BEF had suffered heavy casualties, the modern professional army was heavily down on numbers, even with the arrival of the final 6th Battalion at Marne. The army would from this point rely more and more on a volunteer army. The Marne was a successful counter attack, but if it was not for the British resistance at Mons, the German army could have defeated France quickly. 70-80000 men went to France with the BEF, by the end of the war, most of those soldiers did not come back. Only a few survived the entire war, and only a few saw the battle of the Mons. It is hard to find a first-hand account of the battle because of this. It is easy to find statistics and battle strategies, but it is hard to find what the men felt. It is also the reason why it is hard to explain the Angel at the Mons. As we remember the war, the sacrifice of the men must not be forgotten. They weren’t stupid or idiotic to want to fight this war; it’s what the government’s propaganda had been throwing at them for their entire lives; the glory of war, the glory of fighting. Let us not criticise them for that. Let’s learn from our History and not repeat the same mistakes, let us not be numb to violence or death, but avoid it like the plague. The men at the Mons thought it would all be over by Christmas, the war lasted another 4 years. The Mons was just the start.

If you have any questions, please don’t hesitate to ask! Thanks for reading.

8 thoughts on “Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat August 1914

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.


    1. Lillian C.G

      Thank you Gerald. Michael is one of our warfare specialists around here, he knows his stuff well, So thanks for the thumbs up.


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