The Battle of Mons
MONS: The BEF makes it’s stand on Sunday, 23rd August 1914: The German 1st Army’s remorseless advance is suddenly stopped near the small town of Mons. Blocking there way are four British divisions.
|ryderPRVT RYDER, A. P, WEST RIDING REGIMENT., 19 yrs, Killed in Action. France 23 Aug 1914 Regular Soldier, brother of Mrs J. T. Robinson of Low Mill Street Addingham.gerryinv“Keep the right flank strong” was the dying words of Von Schlieffen. His plan for the defeat of France was by drawing the main French army into a conflict on the Franco – German border, then invade through Belgium, encircling Paris and defeating the French against the German border fortifications. The only thing in there way was a small British Army defending the Belgium / French border. Schlieffen’s plan is dealt a severe blow on its first day, and as the advance slows down through the Summer and Autumn it degenerates into an appalling war of attrition that will last another 4 years.
The British Expeditionary Force of two infantry corps and a cavalry division under Major General Sir Edmund Allenby had begun to embark at Dublin and Southampton on 12th of August 1914. It crossed the English Channel that night, spent a few days in tented reception camps near Boulogne, Le Harve and Rouen, travelled by train as far as Le Cateau and then spent the next five days marching into Belgium along rough paved roads and in sweltering temperatures. It was a journey which had at first exacted a price in blistered feet and sweating exhaustion, (especially among the newly-recalled reservists) but which by the evening of 22nd of August had brought them to a satisfactory state of physical and morale fitness.
The British army was of course a joke, German comic papers had long portrayed its soldiers as figures of fun in their short scarlet tunics and small caps set at art angle on their heads, or with bearskins with thebritcav chin-straps under their lip. The first sight of them on that fateful morning did little to dispel the impression. Hauptmann Walter Bloem, commanding a fusilier company of the 12th Brandenburger Grenadiers and part of General Alexander Von Kluck’s First Army approached a group of farm buildings on the outskirts of Tertre, just north of the canal which runs from Conde’ sur l’Escaut eastwards to the small town of Mons, when he turned a corner and saw in front of him a group of fine looking horses, all saddled up. He had hardly given orders for there capture when a man appeared not five paces away from behind the horses – a man in a grey-brown uniform, no, in a grey-brown golfing-suit with a flat-topped cloth cap.
monsmpThe Quiet Sunday morning
The morning of 23rd August brought sites of ordinary small town and village life continuing unconcernedly among the narrow streets, between the numberless slag heaps and pit heads of this small coal-mining community. Church bells rang, sombre-coated villagers responded to their summons, a small train filled with holiday-makers chuffed away towards the coast, the scent of newly-ground coffee was everywhere; and the sudden explosion of a shell in the outskirts of Mons itself, among the Royal Fusiliers, was so unexpected that the whole world seemed to hold its breath in astonishment. But not for long. As the sound and smoke died away, the rifles came up and the appearance of a German cavalry patrol opposite caught no-one unawares except themselves; the first volley of the Fusiliers emptied all their saddles, and very shortly afterwards oberleutenant Arnim of the Death’s Head Hussars was brought in swearing profusely with a smashed knee. By now the whole of the British line was alert and waiting, though hardly for what happened next. Before their astonished eyes the woods, hedges and buildings stretching before them, 1.6 km (1 mile) away across the canal and the flat water-meadows beyond, began erupting solid columns of grey-uniformed men, moving unhurriedly towards them in a solid mass like a football crowd after a match.
Enemy in sight
Watching the grey ocean lapping across the fields, one British officer asked another to pinch him in case he was dreaming, and his wonder was palpable as along 26 km (16 miles) of dead straight canal the British infantry waited while thousands of men walked with apparent innocence and unconcern towards almost certain death. At least 12,000 Lee-Enfield rifles, each held by a soldier, expert in the famous British ‘rapid fire’, augmented by 24 Vickers machine-guns, waited behind the embankment of the canal; and it would seem that hardly one of them was fired until the German front ranks had come within 550 m (600 yards), the range over which the Lee-Enfield fired a flat trajectory. When fire was opened, the slaughter was immediate and horrific. Within minutes whole German battalions were wiped out, junior officers found themselves the only officers left to a regiment bereft of all warrant or non-commissioned ranks and the majority of the men.
But there were only 75,000 men in the BEF – and that number, however well trained, cannot hold up 200,000 men indefinitely except in circumstances of severe geographic confinement, which did not apply at Mons. German artillery was brought up during the late morning and blew gaps in the British line. The Royal Fusiliers and the 4th Middlesex, holding The sides of the narrow Mons salient, were in an especially dangerous situation once the guns registered on the town. And all the while more of Von Kluck’s battalions were flooding down the roads leading to the battle, widening the front until it overlapped the British line and threatened the flanks. The 5th French army withdrew in the early evening of the 23rd back towards the French border. Bygasmcgun 2100 it was evident that the British had been left on their own, and despite justifiable feelings of confidence throughout all the ranks in their ability to beat the enemy, they must now retreat. During that night the tired, frustrated and puzzled men of the BEF began the march back that would end on the Marne. Most of the disengagement went well with the 5th division. The German artillery played its part by effectively bombarding the Brandenburg Grenadiers. British artillery played cat and mouse in the slag heaps, and at one time the Dorset’s found themselves being supported by 3 howitzers from the 37th Battery giving close support like machine guns! Only one small disaster took place at Wasnes, when the 2nd battalion the Duke of Wellingtons (West Riding Regiment) did not get the order to withdraw and lost 400 casualties, but they held at bay a German brigade of six battalions. The BEF had fought the battle of Mons, and it would live in history for all time, as does the ‘Happy Few’ of Henry V and the ‘Few’ of 1940. They left behind them a confused and depressed enemy. That night Bloem wrote in his diary “the men are chilled to the bone, almost to exhausted to move and with the depressing consciousness of defeat weighing heavily upon them. A bad defeat there can be no gainsaying it…we had bean beaten and by the English…by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before”. A combination of British infantry training and the Short Magazine Lee-Enfield had shot them flat.
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