World War 1 History: The Battle of Mons—The BEF's First Major Action
Before the Battle
Britain declared war on Germany on August 4, 1914 and, five days later, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), led by Field Marshal Sir John French, began crossing the English Channel to France. The BEF consisted of four divisions of infantry and one of cavalry. With 75,000 men and 300 artillery, the BEF was minuscule in comparison to the continental armies, whose conscripts numbered in the millions, but it was made up of well-trained, professional soldiers. Moreover, the BEF had learned valuable lessons during the Second Boer War in South Africa 12 years earlier, when it had been bloodied by the Boers who had fired accurately from dug-in positions.
By August 22, the BEF arrived at Mons, Belgium, near the French border, and took up positions along 20 miles of the canal that ran east-west through Mons. They protected the French Fifth Army's left flank, which was fighting the German Second and Third Armies at Charleroi. During the night, Sir John French was requested to counter-attack what the French generals thought to be the right flank of the German line, but somewhere to the north was General Kluck's First Army, the largest of the German armies, with 160,00 men and 600 artillery. A day earlier, the first British soldier of the war, Private John Parr, had been killed when his bicycle reconnaissance team had run into Germans. Earlier in the day, elements of British and German cavalry had skirmished several miles north of Mons. With this knowledge, Field Marshal French only agreed to hold for 24 hours and ordered his men to dig trenches on the south side of the canal. If they couldn't hold, the plan was to withdraw south to the pit villages and slag heaps and form another defensive line.
WW1: Eve of Battle
The Battle of Mons
The next morning, August 23, the Germans opened up an artillery barrage on the British positions. At first, the Germans were not aware of the British strength and attacked as they arrived, marching in columns toward the enemy. The British riflemen, trained to fire fifteen times a minute and hit man-sized targets at 300 yards, poured so much accurate fire on them that the Germans thought they were being raked by batteries of machine guns. Indeed, some riflemen were hitting the Germans at 1,000 yards. Combined rifle, machine gun and artillery fire devastated the German columns who took heavy losses (though later battles would redefine "heavy").
The Germans quickly adopted open, looser formations and came on again. As the battle progressed they were able to bring to bear their superior numbers. They broadened their attack further west along the canal where fir trees allowed them to advance under cover from the murderous fire and, in turn, rake the British line with machine gun and rifle fire.
By the afternoon, the British position was becoming untenable. The battalions in the thick of the fighting had taken heavy casualties and the Germans had begun crossing the canal in force. By 6 PM, in a coordinated withdrawal, new positions were taken a few miles south of Mons as the British prepared their second line of defense. At dusk, the Germans paused, but then Sir John received the news that the French Fifth Army was retreating, exposing the British right flank.
Faced with overwhelming German superiority and with both flanks exposed, at 2 AM, August 24, Sir John French ordered a general withdrawal.
The Germans Force a Withdrawal
The Long Retreat
The withdrawal, in the direction of Cambrai, was meant to re-connect with the French and establish a new line of defense. It required disciplined rear-guard actions to slow the German advance and cover exposed flanks, but the German First Army continued to pursue them relentlessly. Sir John wanted to withdraw to the coast but Lord Kitchener, the Secretary of State for War, demanded that he stay in contact with the French. The retreat continued... and continued. It would be two weeks and 250 miles before the BEF was able to finally establish positions near the outskirts of Paris (imagine walking from Boston to Philadelphia or London to Newcastle-- in between stopping to fight off a numerically superior foe). They would suffer more casualties during the withdrawal than they had suffered at Mons. On August 26, in a single rearguard action at the Battle of Le Chateau, 8,000 British were killed, missing or captured.
British casualties in the Battle of Mons were 1638; German casualties were estimated to be 5,000. While a setback for the Germans, who didn't expect many problems with the British, they were able to continue their drive into France, albeit more slowly than they'd hoped and on a slightly different trajectory. The British, who hadn't fought a European army for 60 years, had achieved their main objective, which was to protect the French left flank. The British infantry also felt they'd passed the test by fire with flying colors, though, by the end of the year nearly all the soldiers making up the BEF at Mons would be dead.
The BEF, by slowing the German right and drawing it after them in their retreat, contributed to the failure of the Schlieffen Plan, the German blueprint for the invasion of France. Basically, the plan called for engaging the French armies in the center while the German armies in the north swept around the French left flank and enveloped Paris from the north as shown in the map below. However, alterations to the plan removed the northernmost arrow, meaning the new northernmost arrow went through Mons. General Kluck's decision to press the attack against the British meant the flanking maneuver around Paris did not occur. By the time the Germans got reinforcements and tried to outflank the Allies, the Allies had regrouped and brought in their own reinforcements and were trying their own flanking maneuvers. The armies clashed, extended their lines and clashed again until they ran into the English Channel. The armies dug in and a system of trenches soon stretched 450 miles from the Channel to the Alps and the war of maneuver on the Western Front was over.
Addendum: The First and Last British Soldiers Were Both Killed at Mons
The first British soldier killed in the war was 16-year-old Private John Parr, who had lied about his age to join the Middlesex Regiment well before the war started. He was killed while doing reconnaissance on his bicycle near Mons on August 21, 1914.
40-year-old Private George Edward Ellison also fought at Mons and went on to fight in the First Battle of Ypres, the Battle of Armentiers, the Battle of La Bassee, the Battle of Lens, the Battle of Loos and the Battle of Cambrai, among others. On the last day of the war, November 11, 1918 at 9:30 AM, 90 minutes before the fighting stopped, Ellison was shot and killed while on patrol on the outskirts of Mons.
Their gravestones face each other and are mere yards apart.
WW1: Original Schlieffen Plan
Battle of Mons 1914 Trailer
© 2011 David Hunt