On August 23, 1914, in their first confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Sir John French, struggle with the German 1st Army over the 60-foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium, near the French frontier.
The Battle of Mons was the last of four “Battles of the Frontiers” that took place over as many days on the Western Front between Allied and German forces in the opening month of World War I. The first three—at Lorraine, Ardennes and Charleroi—involved French forces under the central command of General Joseph Joffre. French’s BEF had been originally slated to assist the French 5th Army, commanded by General Charles Lanrezac, in their attempt to break through the center of the advancing German lines. A delayed start and poor relations between French and Lanrezac, however, meant that the 5th Army and the BEF would fight separate battles against the advancing Germans, at Charleroi and Mons.
At nine o’clock on the morning of August 23, German guns opened fire on the British positions at Mons, focusing on the northernmost point of a salient formed by a loop in the canal. Though Von Kluck and the 1st Army enjoyed two-to-one numerical superiority, they did not make effective use of it, and the British regiments at the salient admirably withstood six hours of shelling and infantry assault. Lanrezac’s decision, late in the day, to order a general retreat of the French 5th Army at Charleroi left the BEF in danger of envelopment by the Germans, and a decision was made to withdraw the troops as soon as possible. By the time the battle ended after nine hours, some 35,000 British soldiers had been involved, with a total of 1,600 casualties.
Thus the first day of British combat in World War I ended in retreat and bitter disappointment, although the steadfastness of the BEF had delayed Von Kluck’s advance by one day. Within weeks of the battle, however, British public imagination elevated Mons to mythic status and those who had died to heroes, until the British defeat came to seem more like a victory in retrospect. The most prevalent legend was that of the “Angel of Mons,” who had appeared on the battlefield carrying a flaming sword and faced the advancing Germans, impeding their progress. In reality, victory in the four Battles of the Frontiers imbued the Germans with a tremendous sense of confidence, as they continued their relentless advance through Belgium into northern France—eventually controlling the industrial power of both nations, including coal, iron ore, factories, railroads and rivers—and the Allies scrambled to ready their defenses.
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 &ndash 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&rsquos 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.Mons: The Retreat to Victory, John Terraine. A classic account of the first phase of the fighting on the Western Front as it affected the B.E.F., from their arrival in France, to the battle of Mons itself and on to the long retreat and the battle of the Marne, supported by a good account of the experience of the French and German armies and their commanders [read full review]
Challenge of Battle - The Real Story of the British Army in 1914, Adrian Gilbert . Looks at the early campaigns of the BEF, from its first battle at Mons to the costly fighting at Ypres, where the pre-war British army was almost destroyed. A good up-to-date campaign history covering this pivotal period of mobile warfare and the start of the stalemate of the Western Front. [read full review]
Mons, Anzac and Kut, by an MP, Lieutenant Colonel the Hon. Aubrey Herbert MP, ed. Edward Melotte. Three very different diaries from the same author that show how attitudes to the war changed in the first two years of the First World War as the promise of a short exciting war faded away. They also provide some valuable insights into the events they portray, illuminating the chaos of the early fighting in France and the hopelessness of the Allied position at Gallipoli. [read full review]
The Battle of Mons
The Battle of Mons was the first major battle of World War One, and was the only real ‘battle of movement’ to take place during the war before trench warfare took over.
The battle was prompted by the invasion of Belgium by German troops on 3rd August 1914, which led to British troops from the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) crossing to mainland Europe on 14th August. Led by Sir John French, the BEF were already behind schedule when they reached Belgium and forced the French to maintain a cautious approach until they met up with the French Fifth Army (led by General Lanrezac) at Charleroi.
On 22nd August, the BEF found cavalry patrols from the German First Army and engaged them, before making plans to attack the German forces that he assumed to be nearby. However, British intelligence suggested that French remain cautious as there was no evidence to suggest the German forces were small in numbers.
French responded by ordering his men to dig defensive positions near the Mons Canal, which surprised the nearby German First Army commander, Kluck. Having just engaged Lanrezac (the Battle of Sambre), Kluck was already pursuing the French army south and decided he would take on the BEF.
The battle commenced on 23rd August with French deploying his men across a 40km front. Initially, the odds seemed against the BEF as the British had just 70,000 men and 300 artillery guns, while the Germans had 160,000 men and 600 artillery guns.
However, the Germans got off to a poor start when they realised the men described as “contemptible” by Kaiser Wilhelm II were actually professional soldiers. In fact, the soldiers did so well with their standard Lee Enfield rifles that they convinced the Germans they were firing with machine guns. German intelligence decided they must have 28 machine guns were battalion at Mons, which was far removed from the two they actually possessed. As a result of this skill, Kluck redefined the BEF as an “incompatible army”.
"Well entrenched and completely hidden, the enemy opened a murderous fire. the casualties increased. the rushes became shorter, and finally the whole advance stopped. with bloody losses, the attack gradually came to an end."
A German account of British troop fire at Mons
As a result of the swift and impressive attack, the XI Brandenburg Grenadiers lost 25 officers and 500 men when they attacked the 1st Battalion of the Royal West Kent Regiment, while the 75th Bremen Regiment lose five officers and 376 men in a single attack.
By the evening of the first day of battle, French realised that the German army was significantly bigger than they had expected, and Lanrezac had also quietly retreated from the battleground with his army. As a result, French ordered his army to retreat and left the Germans nursing their many wounds.
While it took Kluck a number of days to sort his injured soldiers, on 26th August he launched a further attack on the rearguard guarding the retreat of the BEF, which resulted in 8,000 casualties at the Battle of Le Chateau.
French hoped to withdraw his army to the coast but Lord Kitchener stated that this would not be possible, insisting instead that the British stayed in contact with the French army as they retreated to the Marne River.
In late July and August 1944, Allied forces broke out of the Normandy beachhead and rapidly advanced across France, liberating the country from German occupation.  The overriding goal of the Allied forces at this time was to advance quickly enough to reach the Rhine river before the Germans could man and reactivate the Siegfried Line defences which ran along the border between France and Germany. On 27 August General Omar Bradley, the commander of the main US Army force in northern France the Twelfth Army Group, ordered the armies under his command to "go as far as practicable" until they out-ran their supply lines. 
The German forces in France had suffered heavy losses during the fighting in Normandy, and attempted to fall back ahead of the Allied forces. Their ability to do so was limited by the rapid Allied advance, road congestion, destroyed bridges and Allied air attacks.  At the start of the Allied breakout the German dictator Adolf Hitler directed that defensive positions be prepared along the Somme and Marne rivers in northern France. These positions were intended to be used to fight a delaying action.  However, by the time the German forces reached the defensive positions along the Somme and Marne they were in no condition to offer serious resistance a US Army history of the campaign described the German units at this time as "exhausted, disorganized, and demoralized ".  By late August the German forces in northern France and Belgium were retreating in disarray. OB West was attempting to re-establish a coherent line along the Schelde river's estuary, the Albert Canal and the Meuse River. 
Allied advance Edit
In late August Bradley decided that the First Army should temporarily prioritise cutting off the retreat of German units in northern France and Belgium over reaching the Rhine. The Army's commander, Lieutenant general Courtney Hodges, was directed on 31 August to advance to the north to cut the highway between Lille and Brussels. The Army's main objective was the town of Tournai in Belgium, which it was ordered to liberate by midnight on 2 September this task was assigned to XIX Corps which was responsible for the northernmost element of the First Army's area of operations.  XIX Corps reached the town at 10 pm on 2 September. During this advance it captured 1300 German prisoners.  V Corps, which was in the center of the First Army's line, simultaneously advanced toward Landrecies and took it on 2 September few German units were encountered. 
German retreat Edit
In late August large numbers of German military personnel were moving through the area to the south west of Mons. They were mainly members of LVIII Panzer Corps, LXXIV Army Corps and II SS Panzer Corps. These corps included the badly battered remnants of five combat divisions, as well as smaller units and many support personnel. The Corps headquarters were out of contact with superior commands. 
On 31 August the three German corps commanders decided to group their forces as a provisional army to be led by the commander of LXXIV Army Corps, General der Infanterie Erich Straube. Straube had no sources of information on the broader conditions in the area, but was able to determine from Allied radio broadcasts and other sources of information that his command was in imminent danger of being encircled. In response, he decided to withdraw his forces to an area near Mons where canals and marshy conditions would aid defensive efforts. 
The VII Corps was responsible for the eastern sector of the First Army's area of operations. It was commanded by Major General J. Lawton Collins, and included the 3rd Armoured Division, 1st Infantry Division and 9th Infantry Division. 
Collins was ordered on 31 August to cease his corps' drive to the north-east, and turn north towards Avesnes-sur-Helpe, Maubeuge and Mons. The 3rd Armored Division led this advance, with the 1st Infantry Division on the corps' left and the 9th Infantry Division on the right of the line. The 4th Cavalry Group was assigned responsibility for maintaining contact with the Third Army to the south.  The corps initially encountered only German outposts.  The 3rd Armored Division advanced rapidly, and communications problems meant that Collins did not receive orders from Hodges on 2 September to stop short of Mons to conserve fuel supplies.  At this time, Collins did not appreciate the size of the German force approaching Mons.  The 3rd Armored Division liberated Mons on the morning of 3 September at this time the 1st Infantry Division was at Avesnes and the 9th Infantry Division at Charleroi. 
The VII Corps' advance, and that of First Army's other two corps, trapped the German forces under Straube. The 3rd Armored Division set up roadblocks on the road between Mons and Avesnes, and the 1st Infantry Division attacked to the north-west from Avesnes into the German forces. XIX Corps was to the west of the pocket, V Corps to its south and British forces were advancing rapidly to block the Germans' escape to the north. The German forces were badly disorganised, and lacked fuel and ammunition.  Around 70,000 Germans were trapped in the pocket. 
There was some fighting between American and German forces on the night of 2/3 September. As part of this combat, a tank unit of the 3rd Armoured division destroyed a mile-long column of German vehicles.  American air units also attacked German forces in the Mons pocket, and inflicted heavy casualties.  During 3 September large numbers of German troops surrendered to the Americans, with the 1st Infantry and 3rd Armored Divisions taking between 7,500 and 9,000 prisoners. 
The 3rd Armored Division disengaged from the Mons pocket during 4 September in order to resume VII Corps advance to the east. The 1st Infantry Division continued to eliminate German positions with the assistance of Belgian Resistance fighters, and took large numbers of prisoners. This continued the next day, with the 26th Infantry Regiment taking a group of 3,000 Germans prisoner near Wasmes.  The battle concluded during the evening of 5 September. 
Overall, around 25,000 Germans were captured in the Mons area.  German casualties included approximately 3,500 killed. The remainder of the German troops, including the staffs of the three corps headquarters, managed to break out before the encirclement was complete.   The German forces also lost large quantities of equipment, including 40 armored fighting vehicles, 100 half-tracks, 120 artillery guns, 100 antitank and antiaircraft guns and almost 2000 vehicles. 
The VII Corps suffered few casualties. The 3rd Armored Division lost 57 men killed, and the 1st Infantry Division had 32 killed and 93 wounded. Losses of equipment were also light, and included two tanks, a tank destroyer and 20 other vehicles. 
The US Army's official historian Martin Blumenson later wrote that "The head-on encounter at Mons was, from the tactical point of view, a surprise for both sides. Neither Americans nor Germans had been aware of the approach of the other, and both had stumbled into an unforeseen meeting that resulted in a short, impromptu battle."  On 3 September the German High Commander in the West, Generalfeldmarschall Walter Model, decided it was impossible to hold positions in northern France and Belgium, and that his forces should withdraw to the Siegfried Line. By this time many German units were not putting up a fight when they encountered Allied forces. 
The number of Germans captured in the Mons pocket was the second highest of any engagement during the 1944 campaign in the west, exceeded only by the capture of some 45,000 in the Falaise pocket during August.  Had the Americans advanced more quickly or their commanders understood the size of the German forces and prioritised the engagement, many more could have been taken prisoner. 
The victory at Mons opened a 75-kilometer (47 mi)-wide gap in the German front line.  This cleared the path for the First Army's advance to the Siegfried Line, and aided the liberation of Belgium by British forces.   On 6 September Hodges hold his staff the war would be over within 10 days if the weather held.  This proved too optimistic: logistical problems, difficult terrain, and the recovery of the German Army as it neared the national border slowed the Allied advance.  Despite the loses at the Mons pocket, most of the German forces in Northern France and Belgium managed to reach Germany. By 10 September the German high command had managed to re-establish a continuous front line from the North Sea to Switzerland.  The Allies did not manage to cross the Rhine until March 1945. 
Despite the large numbers of Germans captured in the Mons pocket, the engagement received little press coverage at the time. Few historians have since covered it. 
Battle of Mons - HISTORY
Wounded Veterans of the Batltle of Mons
The Battle of the Mons was the first battle the British Expeditionary Force fought and in fact the first time British troops had fought in Europe since 1854 and the Crimean War. The goal of the British forces was to stop or slow down the German advance. The British forces were small. Both the Germans and French had armies of one million men while the British Expeditionary Force was made up of only 80,000. They did have one advantage they were all professional soldiers who were exceedingly well trained. The British troops consisted of a Cavalry Division and Cavalry Brigade and two infantry divisions. Advancing on the British was the Germany 1st Army. The 1st army consisted of four active corps and three reserve corps each with two divisions.
The British set up defensive position along the Mons-Conde Canal and at a right angle along the Mons-Beaumont road. On August 21, 1914 the first contact took place between the British troops and the advancing German troop. On August 23 the Germans began a sustained attack on the British lines. The initial assault failed and the German were forced to withdraw. Their second assault was more successful, eventually forcing back the British troops from their advanced positions. The British withdrew to their secondary positions, only to discover that the French Fifth army was retreating. The British forces were forced to retreat in an orderly manner while engaging the Germans, the most difficult of all military maneuvers. The British army despite heavy casualties managed to disengage from the line and begin what became known at the Great Retreat. The British coast 1,800 men in the battle while the German had 2,145 dead and 4000 plus wounded. The British army which was outnumbered 3 to one had managed to hold off the Germans for 48 hours and then orderly withdrew. Of course the tactical results of the battle was a German victory as their forces advanced deep into France after the battle. However the Germans did not advance as quickly as their plans called for thanks to the fighting withdrawal of the British troops.
Were the Angels of Mons an Angelic Army, or Mass Hysteria?
The parish magazine of All Saints, Clifton, reported that two officers had seen a troop of angels between their men and the enemy. The same magazine told the story of another soldier who had seen the same troop of angels standing between him and onrushing German cavalry. The Germans’ horses had panicked and run uncontrollably, allowing the British soldiers to reach safety. A soldier of the Cheshire Regiment saw the angels too, and watched the German cavalry horses panic and bolt before their terrifying presence.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1915 more stories surfaced. The “luminous cloud” between Germans and British appeared again, and the Bath Society Paper quoted an extract from an officer’s letter: “I myself saw the angels who saved our left wing from the Germans during the retreat from Mons. We heard the German cavalry tearing after us and ran for a place where we thought a stand could be made. We saw between us and the enemy a whole troop of Angels.”
A soldier of the West Riding Regiment told a group of Canadians that he had actually seen the angel, and a wounded soldier described to a young woman the same thing: an angel, wings spread, standing between his unit and the Germans. The woman, unconvinced, repeated the story later, and a British colonel told her simply: “Young lady, the thing happened. You need not be incredulous. I saw it myself.”
Captain Hayward, an intelligence officer with British I Corps, referred to the Angels of Mons as “four or five wonderful beings,” robed in white, who faced the German lines in brilliant sunlight with hands upraised to halt the advancing enemy. He referred to another occasion on which “the sky opened with a bright shining light and figures of luminous beings appeared.”
A Weymouth clergyman read a letter from a soldier who had slogged through the Mons retreat. The man said he and his comrades had been trapped in a quarry by German cavalry, when suddenly angels lined the edge of the quarry and the Germans broke into panicked flight.
Those who scoffed at tales of St. George, angels, and phantom bowmen were quick to point out that it was difficult to obtain firsthand, authenticated evidence, which was certainly true.
So what inspired the stories of angels, spectral archers, the mighty figure of St. George? Was it hysteria, fatigue, fear, wishful thinking? Perhaps. But it is worth remembering that the men who told these stories, however exhausted, were tough, experienced soldiers used to such hardships. And a great many of them saw identical sights at different times and in different places. Maybe some of the stories were invented. Maybe all those who said they saw a miracle were simply hallucinating, as the scoffers said. Maybe it was, after all, merely mass hysteria.
I believe the soldiers did see something supernatural and heavenly There are stories of people who pray in desperate situation get help from God. The lord will send his army of angels to help the poor souls.
And what of the German soldiers who saw these angels or apparitions and turned and fled. Were any of them interviewed? Was there any reporting by any of them of what they saw? Are there any historical documents on the German side about this?
Jul 12 Angels of Mons
Imagine this, you’re a British soldier at the outset of the Great War and you’re in the middle of your first major engagement. All day you have been repelling German assaults but there are just too many and they’re breaking through. Concentrated artillery fire and the unrelenting charges have taken their toll and your commander has issued a full retreat. However it isn’t that simple, the German barrages keep hammering your position and there is no safe way to escape. Then you look up, all across the battlefield you see them. Gleaming figures from a time long forgotten. As they draw back their bows and release you watch as thousands upon thousands of Germans fall. These angels may have just saved your life.
The Battle of Mons
At the start of World War One Germany marched through Belgium in accordance with their modified Schlieffen Plan, violating Belgian neutrality in the process. This violation of neutrality forced the British, who promised to enforce Belgium’s neutrality, to send an expeditionary force to stop the German forces. Once the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed in mainland Europe they coordinated with the French Army who was already mobilized against the Kaiser's forces. The BEF would take up position in the town of Mons, Belgium to help prevent the German Army from flanking the French.
Courtesy of the World Atlas
On August 22 as the Germans made their way through Belgium, unaware that the BEF had even landed in mainland Europe, the British marched across the French border into Belgium and began constructing defenses. They found that their best position would be along the Canal du Centre on the edge of town, where the German Army would have to cross deep water in order to reach them. The BEF had limited time before the Germans were set to arrive so they hastily set about digging trenches, blowing up bridges, and sinking barges in order to deter the Germans canal crossing. Machine gun nests were set up on roofs of buildings and artillery was sighted in. High above in the sky German and British airplanes ran reconnaissance missions while on the ground both sides’ cavalry fought small skirmishes with each other, the battle was about to begin.
British soldiers firing at German soldiers across the canal
On the morning of August 23 German forces marched into Mons. Forming close ranks they attempted to march on the British positions but were easily repelled. Regrouping they marched again in more spread out ranks but were once again forced to retreat. This pattern continued for the rest of the morning as the Germans could not contend with the machine guns and the rapid fire from the British Lee Enfield rifle.
Somewhat accurate artist depiction of the battle, Courtesy of British Battles
Using planes as spotters the Germans began raining down accurate artillery fire on the British positions. Covered by the artillery the Germans made their way across the canal on one of the few remaining bridges, and with the threat of being outflanked the British were forced to retreat.
It was during this retreat that the British soldiers witnessed something miraculous. They were having a difficult time retreating as the German artillery continued to rain down upon them and enemy soldiers kept pushing forward when the soldiers saw something strange. Glowing figures clad in armor and carrying longbows appeared before them. They drew back their strings and let their arrows fly, piercing the lines of oncoming Germans. Thousands upon thousands of enemy soldiers began to fall and the British were able to make a safe retreat. At least that is how the myth goes.
Artist rendition of the angels in Machen’s story, Courtesy of St. Margaret
In late September 1914, a month after the Battle of Mons, author and reporter Arthur Machen wrote a short story called The Bowmen and was subsequently published in The Evening Post. The story told of a British soldier witnessing angels from the Battle of Agincourt in 1415 being sent by Saint George to protect them. An excerpt from the story reads, “And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.” The story was a work of fiction but Machen was a well renowned reporter and many believed his story to be a true eyewitness account. It did not help matters that the story was on the front page of the paper either and that multiple other publications presented the story as fact. Even Catholic publications picked it up, using it to show that angels are real. Machen was distressed and tried to dispel the claims and tell people it was a story he made up. What made it worse was that since people believed it was a first hand account and not a story Machen did not even see any money from it.
Despite the story being made up it did help people at home who lost loved ones in the battle and was a morale boost for the British populace. At the time the Battle of Mons was one of the worst British defeats in recent history. The British government was more than content to let people believe the story as they needed as much of a morale boost as possible. Soldiers on the frontlines even believed the story and started telling of their own supposed supernatural experiences.
Another artist rendition of the angels, Courtesy of Visit Mons
There was some truth to the story however as some soldiers at the battle did claim to have seen angels hovering above them in the sky and some even claimed to have seen angels directly beside them. These claims however can be attributed to a lack of sleep and battle fatigue as many of the British soldiers had not slept in several days and were performing strenuous labor, and adding to that was the fact that this was the first major British battle of the war and tensions were high. There are other versions of the story that align more with these claims by the soldiers, such as them seeing a single angel appearing in the sky and protecting them during the retreat. However the story of the bowmen remains the most popular and widely believed.
The rest of this is pure conjecture on my part but I felt it should be included. There’s a Doctor by the name of Richard Pearce who has written a book called Miracles and Angels. In the book he talks about the Angels of Mons and says that he interviewed numerous soldiers who did witness the angels. He collected numerous newspaper clippings about it and even found two French nurses from the time who said it was a true story. Most incredible of all he found a signed legal affidavit from a German soldier who said he saw the angels firing at them. If all this is true it’s either a case of mass hysteria or there could actually be more to it. I personally believe in the former but I have not read his book and was unable to obtain a copy before writing this article. What is presented in this section is what I found online so it goes without saying, take it with a pinch of salt. I do have the book ordered so when it arrives and I have a chance to read through it I may update this article later on. For now though I can only say that the Angels of Mons is a work of fiction that people mistakenly believed.
British soldiers waiting in their hastily dug trench, Courtesy of British Battles
I had only heard about the Angels of Mons a few weeks ago and upon learning about it I knew I had to write an article about it. With World War One being my favorite war to learn about I’m always excited to find something that I had not known previously. I find it an entertaining story and the battle itself was incredibly interesting to learn about. I believe the battle kind of gets rid of some preconceived notions about the First World War. Usually we think of the Germans as the first to start trench warfare and to use machine guns to much of an effect but this battle shows that the British really had it in mind early on in the war. Of course they did not have an idea of how big trench warfare would become and they did believe it would be a quick war as most did during the first few months, but I think the battle shows the defensive mindedness of the British and how well they knew their enemy. I also found it interesting to read about the cavalry being used as not long after the war started horses were mostly shifted to carrying supplies rather than actual fighting.
The Battle of Mons
Contestants: The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) against the German First Army.
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 BEF comprised 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 1st Army comprised 4 corps and 3 cavalry divisions (160,000 men) and 550 guns.
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.
Armies, uniforms and equipment:
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 19th and beginning of the 20th 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 BritishGovernment 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. 4 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.
The German Army:
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.
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 28th 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.
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 6th August 1914.
Russia began its mobilisation on 29th July 1914. France and Germany began their mobilisation on 1st 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 3rd 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.
On 6th 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 1st and 2nd Divisions. II Corps commanded by Lieutenant-General Sir John Grierson comprised 3rd and 5th Divisions. The Cavalry Division was commanded by Major-General Allenby. 4th Division would remain in Britain and the 6th 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 7th August 1914 and the BEF itself crossed to the French ports of Le Havre, Rouen and Boulogne between 12th and 17th August and moved forward to its concentration area between Mauberge and Le Cateau, near the Belgian border, where it was assembled by 20th August.
On 16th August 1914 the Germans captured Liége after an heroic defence by the Belgian Army.
On 19th 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 19th 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: 1st Army, 2nd Army, 3rd Army, 4th Army and 5th 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.
On 17th 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 22nd August.
On 20th 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 1st and 2nd 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 22nd 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.
22nd August 1914:
The British cavalry covered the gap between the 2 British infantry corps to the east of Mons. A squadron of the 4th Dragoon Guards commanded by Major Tom Bridges was the first British unit into action. Bridges’ men encountered German cavalry of the 4th 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 4th 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 19th Hussars, the divisional cavalry of the 5th 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 22nd 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 5th Cavalry Brigade remained with Haig’s I Corps on the right of the BEF.
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.
During 22nd August 1914 the British II Corps moved up to the section of the Mons Canal between Obourg and Condé, 3rd Division taking the right flank with 5th Division on its left.
Of the 3rd Division the 8th Brigade occupied the area on the east side of the canal salient and to its south, with the battalions from the right: 2nd Royal Scots, 1st 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 4th Middlesex lined the canal in the area of Obourg, with 2nd Royal Irish in reserve.
The 9th Brigade lined the canal salient through Mons with the battalions in line from the right: 4th Royal Fusiliers, 1st Royal Scots Fusiliers (1st RSF) and 1st Northumberland Fusiliers with 1st Lincolns in reserve.
The 13th and 14th Brigades of the 5th Division lined the Mons Canal extending the BEF’s position to the west. From the left flank of 3rd Division: 13th Brigade comprising 1st Royal West Kents (1st RWK) and 2nd King’s Own Scottish Borderers (2nd KOSB) with 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry (2nd KOYLI) and 2nd Duke of Wellington’s Regiment (2nd DWK) in reserve. 14th Brigade: 1st East Surreys positioned north of the canal, 2nd Manchesters and 1st Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry (1st DCLI) along the canal with 2nd Suffolks in reserve.
On the left of 5th Division the independent 19th Brigade came up to the Mons Canal during the 23rd August with, in line from the right 2nd Royal Welch Fusiliers (2nd RWF), 2nd Middlesex and 1st Cameronians with 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders (2nd ASH) in reserve. This brigade joined the 6th Dragoon Guards, Carabineers, on the canal.
The 7th 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 2nd Division held positions at Harveng (4th Brigade), Bougnies (5th Brigade) and Harmignies (6th 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.
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.
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.
A curious and sad feature was that the Belgian population was largely unaware that their home was about to be turned into a battlefield. 23rd 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.
23rd 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 23rd 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 I Army appear to have been discounted by Sir John French.
The German forces advancing on the Mons Canal line comprised the German 3rd, 4th and 9th Corps with the 9th Cavalry Division from the German 2nd 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 23rd August the 17th Division of von Kluck’s 9th 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 9th 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 23rd August 1914 a German cavalry officer with 4 troopers rode up to an outpost of 1st 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 18th Division of the 9th Corps, fell on the canal salient north-east of the city of Mons the point defended by the 4th Middlesex, the 4th Royal Fusiliers and the 1st 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.
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 4th Middlesex and the Nimy Bridge and the Ghlin Railway Bridge held by Captain Ashburner’s company of the 4th 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 4th 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.
The initial German advance to the canal was in close company formations of the German 18th 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 4th 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 107th Battery, Royal Field Artillery.
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 6th Division launched an attack against 1st RSF and the positions of the 1st 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.
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 1st RWKs, were engaged north of the Mons Canal, from where they were providing support to the divisional cavalry squadron of the 19th Hussars. The 1st 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 120th 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 2nd 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 2nd KOSB was the German 52nd 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 1st 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.
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 19th 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, 6th 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 5th 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 17th 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 1st Gordons and the 2nd Royal Scots positioned to the south of the canal and facing east. The attack was driven back but the increasing threat was clear.
The Germans, now over the canal in strength, were threatening the flank and rear of the 4th Middlesex. The 2nd 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 V 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 1st 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 5th 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.
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 19th 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.
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 23rd 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 8th 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 24th 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).
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 5th 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 5th September 1914.
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 3rd Division in particular. The 4th Middlesex and the 2nd Royal Irish 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.
The BEF retreated in compliance with Lanrezac’s 5th French Army on their right. The retreat continued until 5th 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.
Decorations and campaign medals:
The 1914 Star was issued to all ranks who served in France or Belgium between 5th August 1914, the date of Britain’s declaration of war against Germany and Austria-Hungary, and midnight on 22nd/23rd 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’.
Battle of MonsNational War Memorial, Ottawa - Confederation Square (courtesy Parks Canada/photo by B. Morin).
Since the summer of 1918, Canadian and other Allied forces had been pursuing the Hundred Days Campaign (see Battle of Amiens and Battle of Cambrai) — an aggressive series of offensives that routed the German armies from their strongholds on the Western Front. The campaign forced the Germans into full retreat eastward out of France and Belgium, fighting as they gave back territory to their pursuers.
In the final weeks of the Hundred Days Campaign, the Canadian Corps (see Canadian Expeditionary Force) took the French town of Valenciennes after a vicious, two-day battle. By 9 November they were on the outskirts of Mons.
In the early days of the war in 1914, British forces had put up a fierce resistance around Mons against the invading German armies, in an effort to hold up the German drive towards Paris. After pushing the British out, the Germans had occupied the town for four years.
Mons was a bastion of coal mining, whose resources had been used throughout the war to fuel Germany's war effort. Recapturing Mons now, at the end of the war, was of huge symbolic importance to the Allies. Lieutenant General Arthur Currie and his Canadian Corps were ordered to take the town.
The Canadians wanted to capture Mons without destroying it. Given the deadly and tricky challenges of fighting urban warfare, taking Mons was no small feat. Rumors also filled the ranks of a possible peace treaty, but until there was an official armistice, the war would continue.
Currie planned an encircling maneuver. The Canadians then entered the town, fighting against stiff German resistance. Enemy prisoners informed them that the Germans were planning a retreat, but German machine-gun fire remained constant.
The Canadians pressed on, and by the early morning of 11 November, they had subdued most of Mons without the use of heavy shelling. Bagpipes played and the town’s inhabitants welcomed the Canadians as liberators.
At 6:30 a.m. that day, Currie’s headquarters received notice that hostilities would cease at 11:00 a.m. Word spread among the troops that a ceasefire had finally been achieved, although most fighting had already ended after the clearing of Mons.
Canada is traditionally assigned the tragic distinction of losing the last casualty among British Commonwealth forces during the First World War. Private George Price was hit in the chest from a sniper shot in the town of Ville-sur-Haine, near Mons. He died at 10:58 a.m., two minutes before the armistice went into effect, officially ending the First World War (see Remembrance Day).
Overall Canadian casualties in the Battle of Mons were slight compared to other engagements of the war, but no less poignant: 280 men killed, wounded or missing during the last two days of operations.
Some of the troops serving under Currie at Mons questioned the decision to push through and capture the town — and sacrifice lives — on the last days of the war. This was especially difficult for those who lost comrades or relatives in Mons, knowing that the armistice was imminent. Throughout his leadership of the Canadian Corps, Currie had been a conscientious commander, deeply aware of the human costs of warfare and working wherever possible to minimize the sacrifices of his men, while at the same time driving hard to defeat the enemy. (See also: Canadian Command During the Great War.)
Even so, the losses at Mons and especially during the Hundred Days campaign fueled the notion among some Canadians that Currie had been a cold-hearted general. In 1919, Sir Sam Hughes , the former defence minister, denounced him in the House of Commons for “needlessly sacrificing the lives of Canadian soldiers,” and suggesting that Currie should be court-martialled for leading the assault on Mons. Prime Minister Robert Borden later defended Currie, saying, “No criticism could be more unjust.”
Years later, in 1927, the same charges were repeated in the Evening Guide, a newspaper in the small town of Port Hope, Ontario, which called Currie a butcher for the “shocking” and “useless” assault on Mons. Currie sued the paper for libel. After a widely-publicized trial, in which little evidence was produced to support the accusation against him, Currie won his case along with a small damage award.
Although some war veterans remained angry with Currie over Mons, the vast majority regarded their former general as a hero. In 1928 he was elected dominion president of the Canadian Legion. Currie spent the final years of his life championing pension reform and other veterans causes.
Criticisms of Tacitus's account [ edit | edit source ]
As has already been suggested, in the absence of any archaeological evidence and with the very low estimate of Roman casualties, the decisive victory reported by Tacitus may be an exaggeration or even an invention, either by Tacitus himself, or by Agricola, for political reasons. This view is not held by the majority of historians, however, who believe an engagement of some description did occur, noting it would be dangerous for an aspiring rhetorician and historian such as Tacitus to have completely fabricated such events. Agricola had been a governor for an unusually long period and his recall to Rome was perhaps overdue, therefore little can be read into this. One author has suggested that Domitian may have been informed of the fraudulence of his claims to have won a significant victory. Ε] Ζ] Despite these claims, it should be noted that Agricola was awarded triumphal honours and was offered another governorship in a different part of the empire, so it would seem unlikely Domitian doubted he had achieved substantial successes. Suggestions that he invented the entire episode and was thereafter shunned by the emperor do not seem likely, given that he was awarded honours on his return.
Whilst there may be no other accounts of the battle apart from Tacitus's account, this is not unusual, given the scanty nature of sources in general for this period of history. It has been stated there are no references in histories pertaining to the legions that supposedly took part and no legends or traditions inherited by Scottish descendants describing such a battle or Calgacus the supposed leader, but there are no complete 'regimental histories' for legions of the period. and we have no legends or traditions whatsoever from the native inhabitants of Caledonia. Whilst Agricola was Tacitus's father-in-law and therefore was undeniably biased towards the subject of his history, he is generally regarded as one of the most reliable historians of the period.
It has been alleged that the account of the battle is a complete contradiction to Caledonian warfare experienced by later Roman expeditions, which was almost exclusively guerrilla warfare, including fort raids, ambushes and other hit-and-run tactics. The Romans found these tactics very frustrating to deal with because they had to spread their forces out, which conflicted with Roman military doctrine. The lightly armoured and fast-moving Caledonian skirmishers and horsemen with their knowledge of the terrain could easily outrun and outmanoeuvre marching Roman columns, ambushing isolated elements and then disappearing again before reinforcements could arrive. But Tacitus, in fact, describes the frustrations experienced by the Romans during their campaign, noting the Caledonian preference for ambush tactics and their reluctance to offer a pitched battle. Clearly the Caledonians understood they had little chance of winning such an engagement and sought to avoid one until Agricola had penetrated deep into their territory and reduced them to the necessity of risking such a dangerous gambit. As noted above, Agricola had advanced far enough to threaten their vital interests. Indeed, his strategy was no doubt formulated with the end in mind of forcing just such an engagement as Mons Graupius.
If we are to accept Tacitus's account, the victory, though impressive, was not comprehensive, and occurring late in the campaigning season gave Agricola little chance to exploit his success. Contrary to his account, archaeological evidence indicates that Domitian did not immediately abandon all efforts to subjugate the remainder of Britain. The construction of a series of forts beyond the Forth, in particular the legionary fortress of Inchtuthil were perhaps intended to act as a springboard for further advance, and at the very least were intended to control the territory over which Agricola had advanced. Despite this within the next few decades the Romans conducted a staged withdrawal towards the eventual frontier demarcated by Hadrian's Wall. Although it is probable that Agricola's campaign was a severe shock and setback for the British tribes inhabiting the area that would become Scotland, it did not ultimately achieve the aim of incorporating them into the empire, nor was this ever achieved.
BATTLE IS JOINED
THE FIRST V.C.s OF THE WAR
The initial German action led by the German commander,von Kluck, against the BEF, began on 23rd August 1914 and went disastrously for the Germans, the British riflemen exacting heavy losses from the advancing German infantry. The efficiency of the British riflemen was such that von Kluck assumed that the enemy were using machine-guns.
Von Kluck then paused the attack in order to draft in reserves. The French Armies to the BEF’s right began a retreat so the British then began a strategic retreat to a second line of defence.
Von Kluck did not at first give chase, choosing instead to address the heavy casualties inflicted earlier in the day. Ultimately however he inflicted almost 8,000 casualties upon the British rear-guard at the Battle of Le Cateau on 26 August.
The BEF then began an exhausting retreat back to the River Marne some 250 miles away where the allies would turn and face down the German juggernaut, save Paris and push the German invaders back.
During the retreat the tiny BEF remained in contact with both the French Armies and enemy forces. Discipline and courage saved the BEF from total annihilation. Like Dunkirk 26 years later this was not a victory but a deliverance brought about by the pluck and courage of the British Tommy.