The first British shot of the First World War was fired by Corporal Drummer Thomas of the 4 Dragoon Guards on August 21, 1914.
He’d been scouting north of the Belgian town of Mons at Casteau and his target was very likely a member of the German 4 Cuirassiers, who were armoured cavalry.
The first British death also occurred that day. Private John Parr was on bicycle reconnaissance when he and a comrade spotted Germans marching into Belgium near Obourg, north east of Mons. Each battalion had, by this point, small companies first of 100 and then 200 men designated to act as bicycle scouts.
While his comrade fled to inform their unit commander, Parr elected to stay and hold off the enemy. He was killed in the ensuring gun battle, the first of 888,246 troops who would die under British command in the next four-and-a-half years.
BRINGERS OF BAD TIDINGS
There was also a third type of scout active that day, this one in the skies above. Aeroplanes of the nascent RFC, Royal Flying Corps, hummed overhead, and those flying them were in a better position than anybody to see what was going on. When we talk about ‘Mons’, there’s a reason the battle encompassed not just the fight for the town on August 23, 1914, but also the large-scale retreat that would follow (which ran through the rest of August and into September). One veteran pilot, soaring over the old battlefield of Waterloo at the time and later interviewed in the landmark 1964 BBC series ‘The Great War’, makes it clear exactly what that reason was:
“We found the whole area completely covered with hordes of field-grey uniforms and heavy stuff – transport, guns and what have you – coming towards us, and it looked as though the place was alive with Germans.”
Bumping back down to earth, the pilot rushed to get the information to his superiors. He was hurried to none other than Field Marshal Sir John Denton Pinkstone French, commander of the BEF – British Expeditionary Force – that had been dispatched to the continent about two weeks before. The pilot said of his meeting with French:
“I showed him a map all marked, and he said ‘Have you been over that area?’ And I said ‘Yes sir’. And I explained what I’d seen and they (French and his staff) were enormously interested, and then they began reading the figures that I’d estimated whereupon I seem to feel that their interest faded. They seemed to look at each other and shrug their shoulders. And then French turned round to me and said ‘Now, yes my boy, this is terribly interesting but tell me all about an aeroplane, what can you do when you’re in these machines, aren’t they very dangerous? Aren’t they very cold? Can you see anything? What do you do if your engine stops?’ And all that sort of stuff.”
Unfortunately, ‘all that sort of stuff’ was the last thing French should have been worried about, because a ‘human tidal wave’, as the London Times later put it, was headed right for him. But the Field Marshal was in denial:
“I couldn’t bring him back to earth because obviously, he wasn’t interested. And then I again tried and he looked at me and he said, ‘Yes, this is very interesting what you’ve got but you know our information, which of course is correct, proves that you really – I don’t think, you could really have seen as much as you think. Of course, I quite understand you may image you have, but it’s not the case’.”
Part of the problem – besides what was very likely a suspicion of such a huge challenge to official assumptions coming from someone in a new ‘flying contraption’ – was that French was in an awkward position politically.
After much handwringing, Downing Street had decided to go to war ostensibly because of the German violation of Belgium neutral territory. But still uneasy about the decision, War Minister Lord Kitchener wrote to French to instruct him on how precisely to use the Army now that they’d been dispatched:
“(You are) to support and co-operate with the French Army… in preventing or repelling the invasion by Germany of French and Belgian territory and eventually to restore the neutrality of Belgium.”
But there was a catch:
“It must (also) be recognised from the outset that the numerical strength of the British Force… is strictly limited… the greatest care must be exercised towards a minimum of losses and wastage. Therefore, while every effort must be made to coincide most sympathetically with the plans and wishes of our Ally, the gravest consideration will devolve upon you as to participation in forward movements where large bodies of French troops are not engaged and where your Force may be unduly exposed to attack. In this connection I wish you distinctly to understand that your command is an entirely independent one, and that you will in no case come in any sense under the orders of any Allied General.”
As David Lomas points out in ‘Mons 1914: The BEF’s Tactical Triumph’, this was a difficult set of instructions to reconcile. Field Marshal French was being asked to cooperate intimately with his continental allies whilst simultaneously remaining independent and preserving British lives.
It may have been this diplomatic sensitivity about supporting his ‘Ally’ that made French reluctant to accept what he was hearing from RFC scouts. But unlike French, the French knew exactly what was happening and they were going into full-scale retreat.
Lieutenant Spears, who liaised between both allies, spent four hours fighting his way through roads stuffed full of refugees and transport vehicles to get to GHQ with his news:
“The position of the British Army was extremely dangerous because we believed that a couple of German army corps were moving, quite unopposed, round the back of the BEF, which was on the extreme left of the whole Allied line. Well I, a young officer, had come to tell, on my own responsibility, come to tell Sir John French that he couldn’t rely on the French advance. And indeed, that if he continued advancing, as he was planning to do, it (would be) the destruction of the whole of the British Army. We were walking straight into the mouth of a trap, an enormous trap.”
This time, the field marshal was brought to his senses. Fulfilling the second part of his mission, he stopped the British advance - at Mons. Here they would make a stand against the onslaught of enemy troops while a plan to fall back was devised.
The odds may have been stacked against the British, but they had good reason to be confident that they could, in fact, delay the German advance.
In ‘The British Expeditionary Force 1914-15’, Bruce Gudmundsson describes BEF soldiers as the period’s “military equivalent of (finely-crafted) Rolls-Royce motorcars”. In other words, it was a very well-trained army.
Yet, for all it possessed in quality, the BEF lacked in quantity. Britain’s senior service had, after all, always been the Royal Navy – the largest in the world at that point. So at the start of the war, it was the maritime component that Britain was expected to contribute most heavily to.
Indeed, in some ways the Entente ‘Cordiale’ wasn’t really all that cordial, at least where the army was concerned. When French general Ferdinand Foch was asked before the war just how many British troops the French expected to come to their aid, he’d replied ‘just one’, and that ‘we will see to it that he is killed’. His point was that political commitment was more important than any troop contribution. The French seem to have believed that the British Army would prove insignificant on the battlefield. (How wrong they would turn out to be).
A huge part of what lay behind its small army was that Britain was firmly committed to liberalism and individuality - the idea of a conscripted military was simply anathema to the pre-war government.
The all-volunteer fulltime army raised was therefore only 249,000-men strong, from a population base of just under 40 million. (Today’s British Army has just under 80,000 fulltime personnel, drawn from a population of roughly 65 million).
Like the French, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm is said to have dubbed the BEF ‘a contemptible little army’, leading British soldiers who participated in the early stages of World War 1 to later brand themselves ‘the old contemptibles’. (Allan Mallinson points out in ‘Too Important for the Generals’ that the Kaiser may in fact have simply described the British Army as ‘contemptibly small’, which isn’t quite as bad an insult).
By contrast, with its conscript army, France had over one million front-line soldiers and three million men all told when reservists and Territorials were accounted for. (France also had a population of just under 40 million).
Britain, of course, also had reserves, two types in fact – the Army Reserve and the Special Reserve. The former were composed of troops who’d completed at least two years, and more like seven years, of fulltime service before spending the remainder of their 12-year contract as civilians with a commitment to train periodically and mobilise in war time. The latter were much the same except that they’d only completed basic training and so were a less reliable pool.
There were also Territorials – part-time soldiers committed to defence of the homeland. They would eventually end up in wartime service, but as it stood in 1914 they could not be relied upon nor expected to mobilise for a continental war. The fact that they eventually were dragged in testifies to just how much of a manpower crisis Britain faced, something that was being exacerbated by her pride and joy: The Empire.
In 1914, Britain’s overseas territories covered roughly 25 percent of global land surface, and even with locally raised troops, British soldiers were always going to be needed to garrison it. Indeed, one of the BEF’s founding missions was being shipped out to deal with some military flare-up or other within the empire (the other two being to help defend Britain from attack and to take part, as required by any defence commitments, in a war in Europe).
To give an indication of just how much of a drain on military resources the British Empire was, it’s worth looking at the regimental recruiting system. Regiments were administrative bodies associated with a given place (ie the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry) that were required to raise a set number of infantry battalions – units of around 1,000 men each. All 73 of these regiments are listed below:
The four guards regiments, the Grenadier, Coldstream, Scots and Irish Guards; then the Royal Scots, the Royal Sussex, the Queen’s Royal West Surrey, the Hampshires, the Buffs, the South Staffordshires, the Royal Lancasters, the Dorsetshire Regiment, the Northumberland Fusiliers, the South Lancashire Fusiliers, the Royal Warwickshires, the Welsh Regiment, the Royal Fusiliers, the Black Watch, the Liverpool Regiment, the Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry, the Norfolk Regiment, the Essex Regiment, the Lincolnshires, the Sherwood Forresters, the Devonshires, the Loyal North Lancashires, the Suffolk Regiment, the Northhamptonshire Regiment, the Somerset Light Infantry, the Royal Berkshires, the West Yorkshires, the Royal West Kents, the East Yorkshires, the King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the Bedfordshires, the King’s Shropshire Light Infantry, the Leicestershire Regiment, the Middlesex Regiment, the Royal Irish, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Yorkshire Regiment, the Wiltshires, the Lancashire Fusiliers, the Manchester Regiment, the Royal Scots Fusiliers, the North Staffordshires, the Cheshires, the York and Lancasters, the Royal Welch Fusiliers, the Durham Light Infantry, the South Wales Borderers, the Highland Light Infantry, the King’s Own Scottish Borderers, The Seaforth Highlanders, the Cameronians, the Gordan Highlanders, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers, the Queen’s Own Cameron Highlanders, the Gloucestershire Regiment, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Worcestershire Regiment, the Connaught Rangers, the East Lancashire Regiment, the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, the East Surry Regiment, the Leinster Regiment, the Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the West Riding Regiment, the Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Border Regiment, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers and the Rifle Brigade.
The Regiments of Foot Guards listed at the top were meant to be composed of the most elite, and usually, the physically biggest, troops – ideally 6’0” or more – and they tended to be stationed at home. This, however, was not a hard and fast rule, and they could be deployed abroad to the empire if required.
Guards Regiments were somewhat unusual in that they did not have a uniform number of battalions. The Grenadier and Coldstream Guards had three battalions each while the Scots Guards had two battalions and the Irish Guards one. (So there were nine fulltime Guards battalions in total)
Of the remaining 69 infantry regiments, 64 of these had two battalions each (numbered first and second, such as the 1 Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry and the 2 Oxford and Bucks Light Infantry) while five regiments on the list – the Rifle Brigade, the King’s Royal Rifle Corps, the Worcestershire Regiment, the Middlesex Regiment and the Royal Fusiliers – each had four battalions. (Because they had more populated recruiting grounds).
That gave the British Army a total of 157 fulltime infantry battalions.
Of these, a whopping 74 – almost half - were stationed in the empire in August 1914. What’s more, because overseas service was more likely to entail action, the units abroad were kept at full strength, often at the expense of those at home.
Thus, when war came, in order to get the battalions at home up to full capacity, all those Army and Special Reserves were called up - roughly 60 percent of those who went to war in 1914 were reservists. That meant that Britain, unlike France – and Germany – had no additional reserve pool to draw upon.
As if that wasn’t bad enough, Britain’s ‘internal empire’ would also peel off troops.
Again, to get a sense of the scale of this problem, it is instructive to look at how the battalions that were available to the Army at home were organised.
Originally, the entire BEF was conceived as a flat organisation in which six infantry divisions of 12 battalions each and one cavalry division would all report to a single GHQ – General Headquarters.
But in the summer of 1914, war on the continent was not the only issue the British government had to contend with. As well as planning for a feared German invasion, Downing Street was facing the prospect of an uprising in Ireland (which would eventually come in 1916). As a result, two of the six infantry divisions, 4 and 6, were kept at home.
That left John French with only 48 infantry battalions packed into four divisions, backed up by one cavalry division (under the command of Major General Allenby) and an independent cavalry brigade. (Infantry divisions had three brigades of four battalions each whereas there were four brigades in a cavalry division).
All told, about 80,000 men made up the force that would go to France and ultimately fight in and around Mons. The problem was, as the RFC pilots had reported, there weren’t divisions of Germans coming at them but entire armies – three, in fact, consisting of 750,000 men in total.
But the blame for this intelligence mess actually lay not with French, but with the French. Their ‘Plan XVII’ anticipated a re-run of the 1870 Franco-Prussian War, with the bulk of the fighting taking place on the Franco-German frontier. They’d arrayed their armies accordingly, with British troops bolstering their left wing.
But the Germans wouldn’t play ball. Instead, to deal with the problem of having to fight on two fronts, Chief of the Imperial German General Staff Count Alfred Graf von Schlieffen had devised a surprise knock-out blow in the west followed by a more protracted war with the numerically-superior but less-modernised (and therefore slower-moving) Russia.
Railroads were the major component of any mobilisation scheme on the continent as rushing troops to the front was made a lot faster by them. While Russia had few at this point, German railways and timetables were so well calibrated that it would ultimately prove impossible to stop the war once it had begun.
Like the French, German society was also organised around the expectation that another major war was coming at some point. Unlike the French, the Germans were able to field, with reserves included, an enormous 5 million men (from a population base of 70 million).
That’s because their entire adult male population was essentially under arms in one way or another for much of their lives, starting out at 17 with a three-year spell in the Landsturm, which, like the British Territorials, existed for home defence. After that it was two years of active full-time service in the regular army (or three in the cavalry) followed by two levels of reserve service, the first lasting four or five years, the next, known as the ‘Landwehr’, lasting 11.
At around age 39, they’d then return to the Territorial force, the Landsturm, and serve several more years with the young boys who were just starting out. At each level of reserve service, two annual training exercises were the norm. This, however, was not always what happened in practice. The reality was that only about one third of the soldiers who reported for service were needed each year – the rest were moved into the Ersatz (substitute) Reserve. This body would provide one million reinforcements in the war’s first three months.
‘The Schlieffen Plan’ allotted only 10 divisions of these troops to hold off the first Russian attacks in the east and only about 40 days to replicate the rapid success of the Franco-Prussian War in the west. The main driver of victory would be plugging the other 62 divisions* into seven armies. Two of these would stand firm on the Franco-German border, two more would be placed further north while the remaining three armies – the 750,000** men the BEF had almost run right into – would plunge through Belgium, bypass the enemy and encircle Paris.
(*As a point of comparison with the four infantry and one cavalry division Britain would go to war with, and the 83 she’d eventually form over the course of the whole war, the title of a book put together from US intelligence reports at the end of the war illustrates just how large the German Army became: ‘Histories of 251 Divisions of the German Army which Participated in the War (1914-1918)’).
(**Mons took place within a larger engagement that saw, in actual fact, many of the Germans fighting the French further south, and some being kept busy by the Belgians further north at Antwerp. However, although Mons was not a case of the BEF alone fighting off all the enemy in the region, before Sir John French received Lt Spears' message, his army was in serious danger of advancing right into these German armies whilst the Belgians fought a defensive battle and the French began to pull back).
Lomas describes Mons as having been at “the centre of the Belgian coal mining area” which consisted of “a string of dreary villages, interspersed with slag heaps, factories and coal tips” that “ran along the 16 mile length of the canal”. Although they’d form defensive positions behind the canal, it was hardly an obstacle for the Germans, being only 20 metres wide, two deep, and criss-crossed by 18 bridges:
“The view to the north, from which the attack would come, was obscured by grim terraces of cottages, factories and slag heaps. The higher ground was fringed with trees which made both movement and vision difficult for the defenders.”
Without knowing the magnitude of the danger they were in, it must have been a relief for many soldiers to actually stop and fight. Many were close to collapse after days of tough marching on cobbled streets in new boots and in oppressive August heat. Despite this, they wasted no time digging in with picks and shovels, and constructing make-shift defences from whatever they could find.
When the first attacks came, it must have also been encouraging that they went well for the Tommies, at least initially.
The two corps of the BEF may have been facing a force many times their number, but in some ways that worked in their favour at first. When, after an artillery bombardment, the whole of the German 18 Division (12 battalions) attacked four companies from the British 4 Middlesex and 4 Royal Fusiliers battalions, the attackers were so tightly packed that it proved a turkey shoot. One soldier told his wife in a letter that:
“They went down like a regular lot of Charlie Chaplins… every bullet hitting home, sometimes taking two men at a time.”
It’s generally acknowledged that German tactical doctrine was far ahead of the French. After the shame of the 1870 defeat, the dominant view had been that elan, or the offensive spirit, was what would win wars. It might have, if the French hadn’t done so in the wrong place. Compounding the error further was political pressure that saw French soldiers kept in bright red trousers, making them conspicuous targets for the German marksmen they were running towards. (In actual fact, some, such as Henri Philippe Petain, knew that, actually, ‘firepower kills’. Unfortunately, his was a minority voice at the time).
Meanwhile, beyond its size, the strength of the German Army lay in its training and organisation. Each arm of service was required to work independently. A German cavalry division, for instance, had its own infantry support units (Jager, or light infantry, battalions) as well as horse artillery and machine guns.
Infantry were likewise well-supported by machine guns and artillery and were trained to advance in bounds of 500 metres along a crescent-shaped axis so they could outflank and encircle the enemy.
The major weakness was that, despite having a well-trained officer corps, the strict hierarchy of the German Army discouraged delegation and initiative.
Without this, local commanders were hamstrung in responding to what was happening at Mons. And what was happening was that vast numbers of their troops – tightly packed together so they could intimidate the enemy by their sheer weight of numbers – were being slaughtered.
That’s because the British, dressed in eminently practical green/brown uniforms and taught to take advantage of cover, were trained to deliver rapid fire.
The ‘mad minute’, as it was dubbed, was a benchmark that required every soldier to learn to put down at least 15 aimed shots per minute, or one every four seconds. (Some could manage 25 or 30 shots, or one every two seconds).
The Army had requested four machine guns per battalion, but the government had been unable to deliver this – it was prohibitively expensive – and so they’d been stuck with two. In order to ensure a maximum rate of fire was still achieved, the mad minute had come to predominate infantry training doctrine.
Of course, 15 aimed shots would never be fired in a single go because the standard arm of the British soldier, the Mark III SMLE, or Short Magazine Lee Enfield, only had a magazine capacity of 10 rounds. Still, this was better than the German 1898 Mauser rifles, which could only carry five rounds, and the French 1886 Lebels, which carried eight.
This also led to techniques to enable quick reloading times, not least because at the time magazines were internal and could not simply be ejected and then replaced with new ones. Instead, weapons had to be topped up by pulling the bolt of a rifle back and pressing bullets down into the magazine.
Shooters also had the option to reload several rounds at a time by using stripper clips, clusters of five bullets held in place by a metal strip. A demonstration of how to use one is demonstrated in a Lee Enfield rifle in the video below:
The result of all this frantic shooting and reloading was that, when concentrating rifle fire in volleys, as sections and platoons and companies would do, the enemy were absolutely devastated. In fact, many believed they were encountering machine gun fire.
Still, this didn’t dissuade them. Thirty minutes later the Germans of 18 Division, supported by comrades in 17 Division, left the safety of the tree line and attacked again, this time on a wider frontage. This too was largely repelled, but only at first.
Before long, isolated and enterprising groups of the enemy infiltrated part of the line being held by men of the Middlesex Regiment. Despite being supported by machine guns from the nearby 2 Royal Irish, the British line began to buckle under the onslaught of infantry attacks and enemy artillery.
The story was unfolding in a similar fashion to the right of the Middlesex. On the higher ground of Bois Haut, 1 Gordons and 2 Royal Scots were also being pummelled by artillery and pressed by the infantry of the German 17 Division, who made it over the canal by noon.
By 2:00 pm, the British had to fall back which meant, in many instances for those on the far side of the canal, retreating across bridges while exposed to enemy fire.
In one incident, Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley from the Royal Fusiliers both manned a single machine gun while their comrades pulled back. Dease kept firing the weapon until he was shot dead, at which point Godley took over, keeping the bridge clear until everyone else had made it across.
Once they’d done so, Godley took the machine gun apart and flung it into the canal so that it wouldn’t be used on British troops. Wounded, he crawled back along the main road and was placed in hospital by Belgian civilians. He was later captured when the Germans swept through the town. Both Dease and Godley would receive the Victoria Cross, though Godley would survive the war and go on to be a school caretaker before dying at the age of 67 in 1957.
What’s interesting about the heroics of Dease and Godley is that they utterly defy the class divisions on which British society was built, and that were often reflected in the British Army.
Most rankers like Godley were from poor (working class) backgrounds, many of the men from this strata of society struggling to meet the physical requirements of being 5’3” and 112 lbs (eight stone) with a 33-inch chest.
Upon arrival, conditions in barracks were often rather meagre, with men having to eat where they slept. But then that was the point of joining – at least they got three square meals a day. Many, even those who weren’t unskilled labourers, had been unemployed when they’d joined up.
Once they’d got in, marching, marksmanship and physical exercise were required, something that helped toughen them up. They’d drill in individual and platoon skills in winter (each platoon had four sections of 10 men and one NCO each, and there were four platoons in a company and four companies in a battalion).
The following spring, men would move on to company and battalion-level practice before doing brigade and divisional manoeuvres in summertime and then finishing with army-level exercises in the autumn (where the entire professional Army would participate). The whole process would repeat itself the following year.
Unlike the recruits, officers would have been middle or upper class. There were good reasons for this, partially because education was required to read orders*, and partially because living the life of an officer was quite expensive.
(*When the Army was expanded later on it became common for very young men of 19, 20 or 21 years of age to command platoons and even companies. This was because there was a shortage of people who were well-educated enough to even read orders).
Counterintuitively, officers’ pay was rather poor and required some level of private income – read, family fortunes – to essentially fund an ‘adventurous’ military life (it was, after all, a good way to impress the ladies).
Officers had to pay for their own cases and uniforms and furniture, their servants’ outfits, as well as chipping into the mess, social events and sports. Lomas lists the Cameronians (Scottish Rifles) as requiring about £250 annually (£26,472 in today’s money) to cover this, while those in the Guards’ regiments would have had to stump up £400 pounds a year (£42,355).
Cavalry regiments were the worst. Winston Churchill’s father is said to have been extremely angry when his son got accepted into Sandhurst because he only managed to do so as a trainee cavalry officer. Academic standards were lowered for them precisely because it was difficult to find recruits with families rich enough to support such a life. Despite impressive pedigree, Randolph Churchill was in serious debt at that point and in no mood to support young Winston to such an extent. Men in these units had to meet the regular expenses as well as providing a horse for warfare (‘a charger’), two more for hunting, as well as three ponies for polo matches. Is it any wonder the cavalry was composed almost entirely of the upper classes?
On the other end of the scale, Martin Pegler points out in ‘British Tommy 1914-18’ that many of the enlisted men were rather badly mistreated by their superiors:
“Even for the best behaved soldier, it was difficult to avoid some form of punishment, albeit for a trivial offence. During the retreat from Mons in 1914, it was declared a punishable offence to ‘steal fruit from the trees of a friendly nation’.”
It’s worth noting that this would have been egregious precisely because the intense combat left many men without resupply and fresh rations, and fighting was, of course, hungry work.
Beyond stealing fruit, there were 27 punishable offences listed in Army regulations, from War Treason to False Answering, and men often detested the ‘Red Caps’, the military police who might enforce these rules. One soldier, Private Wood, gave some insight into just how maddening Army discipline could be:
“Thieving was common, and if you had your cap or shirt pinched, well, you had to pinch another or get crimed for it.”
In practice, many officers and senior NCOs stuck up for their men, and their testimony as to a man’s character had a big impact on his punishment being reduced. They’d also take on paternal roles, doing what they could to help troopers, especially young and inexperienced ones, from getting into trouble. An example given is a company sergeant major shaking an 18-year-old sentry awake and giving him rum to keep him that way. Men could be court-marshalled and shot for falling asleep on duty. This happened to two guardsmen during the retreat from the Mons. The fact that neither one of them had slept for five days did not seem to concern their superiors.
Less extreme punishments were extra duties, and might presumably involve stress positions and thoroughly exhausting work. In some more serious cases certain ‘field punishments’ were applied, which might involve a soldier being tied to a gunwheel and having to remain there for a set number of hours. (Later on in the war, one group of Australian soldiers freed a Tommy who was in this position, and threatened to beat up his guard).
As noted though, these class divisions didn’t stop Dease and Godley working intimately together to save what was left of their battalion.
Nor did the limited education of many recruits prevent them utilising their natural intelligence and initiative after their officers had been killed. In one instance, one such unit, the Royal Irish, finding Germans behind them, figured out a way through while they frantically retreated in good order.
West of the bulge in the British line (made up of the 4 Middlesex’s position), the 1 Northumberland Fusiliers were holding the line against a flanking manoeuvre by the German 6 Division. Like their comrades further east, the Germans were soon beaten back by the same ‘mad minute firing’.
But at some point, Belgian school girls came running down the road and the Germans, seeing their opportunity, dashed in behind them, knowing the British wouldn’t fire now. Whether it was planned or a random occurrence the Germans took advantage of made no difference - it forced the British to retire either way, lest they be overwhelmed.
At St Ghislaine, also west of Mons, a similar scenario was playing out between the 1 Royal West Kents and the 12 Brandenburg Grenadiers from the German 5 Division:
“British soldiers watched as the German troops advanced, firing from the hip. It was, one considered, ‘like watching a military tattoo’, but it was also remarkably ineffective, the bullets flying high above Kentish heads. The British battalion had advanced north of the canal and occupied a glass factory. From its cover, they massacred the first attacks without loss to themselves. Faced with increasing odds as the Brandenburg Grenadiers were reinforced, the Kents slipped away as dusk came and took up new positions on the embankment. The final German attacks were stopped some 300 yards north of the canal.”
As noted, the Germans weren’t helping themselves by being packed so closely together. Lomas describes one unit that was “cut down in droves” as it emerged from a tree line. Though, for their part, the British were almost caught out by the enemy having got so close, shooting high by mistake out of the habit of usually lifting their rifles to hit targets at a greater distance. One officer walked along a line of his men whacking backsides with his sword and reminding each one to instead fire low on this occasion.
By the end of the day, Lomas points out that, essentially, “Nine-and-a-half British battalions (the frontline of the more than 40 divisions in France) had held up four German divisions (a force perhaps four times their number)”.
Before they fell back properly, there were several attempts to blow up the canal bridges. Unfortunately, there wasn’t enough explosive to demolish all of them, and even for those that were targeted, the pressure of German fire would be a major obstacle.
In one such instance, Lance Corporal Charles Jarvis of the Royal Scots Fusiliers spent 90 minutes placing 22 charges on the legs of the Nimy bridge, contenting with what must have been a rocking row boat as well as German fire. As enemy gunfire got more and more intense, Jarvis sent assistants back to their unit, to keep them safe. It must have been a nail-biting moment as he furiously worked to finish with the prospect of German troops overrunning him at any moment.
But they did not come, and Jarvis slipped away before setting off the charges, demolishing the bridge. He was also awarded the VC.
The day’s casualty roster reveals just how punishing the British fire had been. The British had sustained 1,642 casualties and the Germans somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000.
It was time to fall back. A fighting withdrawal was staged with units that hadn’t been involved in any fighting at a given point being sent to hold the line while their more exhausted comrades peeled away. It was as ordered a retreat as could be expected:
“The conflict developed rapidly into a confused series of running fire-fights among the slag-heaps and cottages. The individual training given to the British soldier again showed its worth as personal ingenuity and courage came into their own. 37th Battery of the Royal Field Artillery at Hornu fired its howitzers ‘as if they were machine guns’, while the infantry, in small groups, repeatedly drove back the German attacks.”
Amongst the confusion of one of these battles, the 12 Brandenburg Grenadiers, mentioned above as having been hit hard by the Royal West Kents at Mons, now suffered again at the hands of the British as well as from friendly fire. Pummelled accidentally by their own artillery, “the regiment seems effectively to have been wiped out”.
But the Germans drove on. The logic of the Schlieffen Plan demanded it, and it was the pressure of knowing they needed a quick victory in order to the wheel and tackle the ‘Russian bear’ in the east that no doubt motivated soldiers to commit atrocities against Belgian civilians. These were, of course, nowhere near as widespread nor as sadistic as Allied propaganda suggested, but war crimes were committed nonetheless. Scores of men, women and children were, on some occasions, rounded up and shot en masse as payback for guerrilla sniping of German troops while they marched through Belgian towns and villages.
The Schlieffen Plan also dictated the relentlessness of the German assault. One particularly heavy hammer blow would fall on the BEF at Elouges (about 10 miles south east of Mons) on August 24.
Here, four infantry battalions, without having had time to dig in, utilised what natural cover they could and awaited the support of number 119 (artillery) Battery and elements of 2 Cavalry Brigade.
Brigades, like divisions, were numbered. That way, units could be uncoupled or reattached to larger bodies as needed. While there were three infantry brigades within an infantry division, and each one contained four infantry battalions, 1 Cavalry Division had four cavalry brigades. Each one of these had three cavalry regiments.
Unlike the infantry and artillery, cavalry regiments were not merely administrative units. Rather, they took a battlefield form, being roughly the equivalent of a small infantry battalion, consisting of 543 officers and fighting men, plus horses. Each one was further subdivided into three squadrons, each one of those containing four troops of 34 men.
The men at Elouges were soon attacked by six German infantry battalions with the support of six artillery batteries (36 field guns).
When the Germans attacked, their line of advance bisected the frontage of the British cavalry, who, seizing the opportunity to attack them in the flank, charged.
Men of the 9 Lancers and 4 Dragoons galloped the 2,000 yards (1.8 km/1.13 miles), closing the distance as quickly as they could.
It was not to be a glorious surprise assault though, as the Germans spun to meet the attack, firing their rifles, helped, as it turned out, by a wire fence that bordered a sugar factory that lay between the two sides.
The riders swung their mounts, breaking up and scrambling for cover behind the sugar factory or nearby slag heaps, while some tried to gallop away and re-form. Many of these – 250 men and 300 horses – were cut down as they did so.
Further out, skirmishes continued to take place as the massive German force kept closing in. Eventually, those manning 119 Battery at Elouges were also surrounded. While under fire, and with the help of men from the 9 Lancers who swooped in on horseback to assist them, they managed to extract all the guns just as the entire position folded. They’d fired 450 rounds from each gun, caused immense havoc in the German lines and, in the case of battery commander Major Alexander and Captain Grenfell of the Lancers, won two VCs in the process.
The last to leave would be the infantry.
The bulk of the line at this point was made up of the 1 Battalion of the 22 (Cheshire) Regiment as well as 1 Battalion, Norfolk Regiment. (Regiments, like the Cheshires, were sometimes referred to numerically).
These men had held off the German advance, a force roughly six times their size, for four hours.
Unfortunately, when they were finally given the order to retire, it only got through to the Norfolks. Despite being sent three times, the Cheshires never received it. Instead, they doggedly held their positions as the Germans closed in around them.
According to the Cheshire Military Museum, after four German Regiments of three battalions each finally closed in around them, it was only then that the single British battalion, alone and cut off, finally saw some of its members escape. (In 1914, German infantry divisions contained 12 battalions arranged in three regiments and two brigades, and supported by machine guns and artillery, just like the British).
Those survivors who managed to slip away consisted of seven officers and 200 other ranks… out of a total of 977 men who’d made up the battalion at the start of the battle. The remainder ended up either killed, wounded or missing.
By the end of August 24, total British casualties amounted to more than 2,000; the Germans again suffered somewhere between 6,000 and 10,000. The BEF may have been losing, but they were giving the Germans an incredibly bloody nose in the process.
Not that the British soldiers on the ground felt triumphant in any way, as Lomas reminds us:
“Hungry, exhausted, the British troops stumbled into their rest areas. New orders had already arrived from GHQ: ‘The Army will move tomorrow, 25th inst,’ began Operation Order No 7, ‘to a position in the neighbourhood of Le Cateau, exact positions will be pointed out on the ground tomorrow.’ The Retreat continued.”
NEW FACES FROM OVER THE CHANNEL
The retreat was also being reinforced. 4 Division had been sent over the Channel from England to assist, although the rapidity with which it had come meant that it lacked any cavalry, cyclists, signallers, field ambulances*, engineers, heavy artillery or any columns of ammunition to support the artillery that it did have.
(*See the images below for depictions of medical personnel during the battle).
And that was the point – a division was far more than just the 12,000 fighting men that made up its front line. As well as those additional elements mentioned, there were stretcher bearers (whose normal role was that of bandsmen), doctors, quartermasters to keep track of equipment, vets for the unit’s horses and pioneers, troops who provided technical assistance but were less qualified than engineers. 4 Division would ultimately form its own corps.
The others, according to J E Edmonds in ‘Military Operations France and Belgium, 1914: Mons, the Retreat to the Seine, the Marne and the Aisne August-October 1914’, George Gordon in ‘The Retreat from Mons’ and Ernest Hamilton in ‘The First Seven Divisions: a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres During the Great War, 1914-1918’, were set up as follows: I Corps was commanded by Sir Douglas Haig and he had under him 1 and 2 Divisions. II Corps was headed by Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and had within it 3 and 5 Divisions. As mentioned, there was also a Cavalry division and brigade.
Each division had a total of 18,073 men at full capacity, as well as 5,592 horses, 24 heavy (Vickers) machine guns (two per battalion, in one section, as noted), and supporting artillery.
This consisted of three brigades of field artillery that had, in total, 54 18-pounder field guns (the name being derived from the weight of the shells they fired).
An infantry division also had one brigade of 18 4.5-inch howitzers (while some shells were denoted by their weight, others were named according to their diameters). Field artillery brigades were subdivided into three batteries of six guns each. (German field batteries also had six guns and French ones four guns).
In addition, a single heavy battery of just four 60-pounder guns was also included in a division’s armaments. That meant that every division had 76 artillery guns in total to support its infantry.
There were, as shown on tables and diagrams above, several different kinds of batteries and brigades into which artillery pieces were organised. These came under two main branches of the artillery: Field and heavy.
Field artillery, which was lighter and more mobile, was divided into the RFA (Royal Field Artillery), which would support the infantry, and the RHA (Royal Horse Artillery), which supported the cavalry.
As shown in the diagram below, horse artillery brigades were groupings of two horse artillery batteries, each one containing the lighter 13-pounder field guns. They were designated by letters – for example, ‘L’ Battery (featured below).
Field artillery brigades contained three batteries of either six 18-pounder field guns or six 4.5 inch howitzers. These were cannons that had their barrels angled so that they could fire on a steeper trajectory, over obstacles and onto targets with flat surfaces (like trenches). Thus, early on in the more mobile stages of the war, howitzers were less useful but became infinitely more so once trench warfare commenced. Field batteries were numbered, with howitzer batteries labelled as just that.
As well as field artillery, there was also heavy artillery, known as the RGA (Royal Garrison Artillery). This included coastal and railroad guns that would eventually find their way to France, but in this early stage of the war siege artillery brigades consisted of four batteries of four guns – either 6 inch howitzers, or more so at this stage, 60 pounder field guns, as mentioned. These batteries would be broken up and parcelled out individually to infantry divisions and they were also numbered, but in the following style: No. 22, for example.
A typical field artillery battery consisted of about 200 men to supervise, operate and support the operation of the guns. Only a portion of these soldiers would actually man the guns – the rest would manage the huge ammunition column that the guns chewed through, as well as the horses or other beasts of burden required to manoeuvre all of this equipment onto, and off of, the battlefield.
The picture below, from the ‘Times History of the War’, shows an 18-pounder field gun being operated by its crew.
Each gun, according to Philip J Haythornthwaite in ‘The World War One Source Book’, was often crewed in the following manner:
“For an ordinary field gun (those that were small enough to be towed into battle by horses) six men was a typical team: an NCO in command, who received and transmitted orders; a layer, responsible for a gun’s alignment and elevation; a gunner who opened and closed the breech (shell-cases were ejected automatically upon the opening of the breech after firing), and three men to set fuzes and handle shells.”
The second and third pictures below that are of a howitzer and a 60-pounder heavy gun of the Royal Garrison Artillery.
Guns of course, while useful in battle, became a bit of burden while on the retreat.
At this point, the BEF were instructed by Field Marshal French to proceed down roads on either side of the Mormal Forest. This feature was 10 miles long and four wide with only mud tracks running through it – hence the decision to use the roads on either side.
It was the best way to get past it quickly, though the manoeuvre was not without risks. Splitting one’s forces is never ideal and at one point Douglas Haig’s I Corps was almost caught out, exposed as it traversed down the wood’s eastern edge. This left him, already hampered by diarrhoea, frantically burning his papers. In any event, he, his staff, and much of his corps managed to escape intact from the attacking Germans.
On the other side of Mormal Forest, II Corps also fought a series of running battles with the Germans as General von Kluck’s First Army tried to outflank them.
Refugees and the weather hampered progress further, with the oppressive heat of summer now being followed by thunderstorms that thoroughly drenched the troops as they ground on.
But they too made it, reunited with I Corps at Le Cateau, where the next big battle would commence.
In this case, the British would benefit from proximate action between French and German forces, which pulled the German II Corps away from them.
But that didn’t stop four divisions from III and IV Corps and three from II Cavalry Corps from smashing into the British, all of whom were meant to fulfil von Kluck’s plan of sweeping in from either side and then making sure the BEF were, according to Lomas, “crushed like a walnut between a pair of crackers”.
In the wide-open country around Le Cateau, artillery would dominate, and, as Duncan Anderson of the Royal Military Academy, Sandhurst has pointed out, here, the Germans had an advantage:
“In 1914, the major difference between German and British artillery is that the Germans just had more. They brought up something like 550 guns versus 228 British guns. So the Battle of le Cateau, at least the first part of it, develops into what is essentially an artillery duel.”
As the battle wore on, the Germans began knocking out more and more of the British guns. 11 Battery was one of the ones hit particularly hard, with only one gun and no officers still in the fight by 10:00 am.
This gave way to infantry assaults (after Mons, the Germans had resolved to do a better job of taking out British artillery before sending their infantry in). Lomas describes what happened next:
“The 2nd Suffolks and the 2nd King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, together with two companies of the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders endured a hail of artillery and machine gun fire but, with an intense and desperate courage, they drove back every German assault.”
But not all batteries had been obliterated. One, 112 Battery, fired off one salvo at a platoon of German infantry that came over the ridge at their comrades and wiped out the entire lot in one go.
On the British left flank, the mad minute came into its own again, dropping 47 attacking German troops amongst ripened corn for not a single casualty inflicted upon the shooters – the Inniskilling Fusiliers.
But the crumbling of the British line was inevitable, especially on the right flank, where four British infantry battalions and three RFA (Royal Field Artillery) brigades were facing 12 German infantry battalions and artillery from three divisions.
5 Division commander Major General Ferguson faced a stark choice: Retire, but try to do so without risking a rout, or stand firm and inevitably fight to the very end.
He lobbied II Corps commander General Smith-Dorrien to approve the former, which he did in due course.
There were, much to the frustrations of those on the ground, specific reasons for all the delays:
“It was one thing to issue the order; it was another for it to reach the troops involved. With the very few available field telephone wires cut, orders had to be delivered personally. Messengers died as they tried to get forward through a torrent of shrapnel and bullets. It took 20 minutes for the retirement order to travel less than two miles, the distance between headquarters of II Corps and 5th Division. It was another hour before it reached the front-line units, and some never received it at all.”
Infantry, of course, were only one consideration. So far, the BEF had been able to keep up such a good fight because they’d kept their artillery from falling into German hands. As the British line threatened to collapse, particularly on the right, this track record looked like it might be broken.
Sensing a lull in the fighting, teams for 11 Battery raced in, secured five of their their six guns and limbers (carriages containing ammunition) to horses, and fled the field. The final team though were shot down by Germans as they scrambled to stop them.
The exact same thing played out with 80 Battery, though 52 Battery lost all their guns as every team that went in to get them was shot down.
There were mixed blessings elsewhere:
“Shortly afterwards, 122 Battery gathered their guns in a dashing action which ‘brought the infantry cheering to their feet’. As the gun teams were sighted by the enemy, they were engulfed by shrapnel and bullets. The officer was killed and one team went down in a tangle of shrieking horses. Three guns were limbered up, two of them rattling away under a hail of fire. The third was shot to pieces, the horses being machine-gunned from German positions north of the Cambrai road. Four guns were abandoned, surrounded by dead and wounded artillerymen and horses.”
Elsewhere, other guns were saved, though those too far forward to be retrieved had to be frantically vandalised before they fell into enemy hands.
Bravery was also, of course, shown by the infantry, who were at the tip of the spear. One unit that, unfortunately, didn’t get the order to retreat, was 2 KOYLI (King’s Own Yorkshire Light Infantry). They’d been almost surrounded and waited for German infantry to get well within rifle range before obliterating them with the mad minute. At that point, B Company, which had been reduced to 19 men (a company normally would have been close 250), were ordered by their commander, Major Yate, to charge at the enemy. The result was obviously slaughter.
Again though, the majority of II Corps had still managed to slip away. This stage of the Mons retreat had cost the British 7,812 men and 38 artillery pieces. German casualties are estimated to have been between 15,000 and 30,000.
What’s counterintuitive to us is that many soldiers wanted to fight. The alternative was continuous marching on cobblestone roads in footwear that was likely nowhere near as comfortable as what we are accustomed to today. Fighting was therefore often less exhausting than continuous retreat. Lloyd Clark of the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst has said of the withdrawal from the Mons:
“The Germans were falling on them, this great grey machine that was causing the British troops so many casualties and they were literally, they felt, running away from the Germans. They didn’t exactly know where the French were, they didn’t know where the enemy were. They didn’t know when they were going to next eat, or next sleep. They were wearing very heavy uniforms in very hot conditions – this was one of the finest summers of the 20th Century. They were getting, if they were lucky, four hours sleep a night and exhaustion, fatigue, just takes over your life.”
THE END OF THE BEGINNING
Fatigue or not, the retreat went on.
On August 27, with support from only two field guns, troops from 2 Royal Munster Fusiliers and two troops of horsemen from C Squadron of 15 Hussars slammed into a German force attacking the rear of the British 1 Division.
The British were up against at least nine German infantry battalions and four artillery batteries, another huge mismatch in strength, but managed to keep the battle going for 12 hours, though they paid dearly. The 2 Royal Munster Fusiliers were reduced to a mere two shredded platoons (a platoon at this point consisted of about 50 men when full strength).
Likewise, at Nery (a commune), more heroics, this time by three members of ‘L’ Battery, helped hold the Germans back with a single field gun.
And in the forests north of Villers-Cotterets on September 1, the 4 Guards Brigade fought a brave rear-guard action to keep the Germans at bay. According to Lomas:
“On the northern edge of a forest crisscrossed by wide tracks which provided natural fields of fire… (a) hard and confused battle ensued as the Guards struggled free.”
Ultimately, what would finally turn around the retreat from Mons would be a daring counter-attack later in September.
A gap opening up between the two northern-most German armies was closed but this prevented the planned encirclement of Paris. It also left the Germans exposed and vulnerable to a flank attack. The French assault that followed would be called the First Battle of the Marne.
As for the BEF, they’d fight on, many more of them being killed later that year at the Battle of First Ypres.
After that the ‘Rolls-Royce soldiers’ would be in short supply, and the Army they at first defined would be completely altered by waves of Empire troops, Territorials, New Army volunteers and finally conscripts.
Despite losing the battle, the determined defiance and professionalism shown at Mons would help turn it into one of the early BEF’s finest hours.
Information in this article came from ‘The World War One Source Book’ by Philip J Haythornthwaite, ‘Mons 1914: The BEF’s Tactical Triumph’ by D Lomas, ‘British Tommy 1914-18’ by Martin Pegler and ‘The British Expeditionary Force 1914-15’ by Bruce Gudmundsson. For more military history, visit Osprey Publishing.