The Battle of Mons was the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in World War I.
Following the surrender of the LiÃ¨ge forts by the Belgian Army on 16 August 1914, the Germans continued advancing towards Paris in accordance with the Schlieffen Plan. The remainder of the Belgian army began to retreat towards the BEF, which was advancing to attack the German forces. Meanwhile the French were being pushed back on the southern end of the front and were unable to assist the Belgians. The weight of the German army fell on the small British force, eventually pushing it back in what became known as the Great Retreat. The BEF had advanced into Belgium on the left of the French Fifth Army and took up position on a 20 mile (32 km) front along the Mons-CondÃ© Canal on 22 August 1914. When the Fifth Army was defeated in the Battle of Charleroi, the BEF commander, Field Marshal Sir John French, agreed to hold his position for 24 hours.
At 6 am, on 23 August 1914, the advance guard of General Alexander von Kluck's German First Army, arrived at Casteau, a small village along the ChausÃ©e de Bruxelles on the edge of Mons. Major Thomas Bridges was in command of C Squadron, 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards and he gave the order to open fire on the German cavalry, after a brief chase, causing them to fall back. Drummer Edward Thomas fired the first British rifle shot of the war, while Captain Hornby, who led the charge, killed the first German by sword. Thomas, who survived the war, later transferred to the Machine Gun Corps and was awarded the Military Medal.
The BEF comprised four regular army divisions arranged as I Corps (Douglas Haig) and II Corps (Horace Smith-Dorrien). The British were experienced and professional soldiers, capable of rapid, accurate fire with their Lee-Enfield rifles, the average infantryman being capable of hitting a man-sized target at 300 yards at the rate of at least 15 aimed shots a minute; many could fire more. Consequently, after-battle reports on the German side repeated the belief that their soldiers were being subjected to massed machine gun fire. This was a rate of small-arms fire the conscription-based armies of Germany could not hope to achieve given their skill and equipment. Hurriedly they prepared shallow defensive positions.
At 9 am, eight German battalions, aided by artillery fire, advanced against two battalions of the 3rd Infantry Division in the "parade ground formation" and suffered great losses. So intense and continuous was the shooting that the Germans believed they were facing batteries of machine guns but at the time the British had only two machine guns per battalionâ€”nearly all the casualties were inflicted by riflemen.
Soon afterwards, the rest of the German First Army arrived. Artillery fire forced the British from their positions and a German advance loomed, yet they still put up strong resistance. The British suffered 1,600 casualties but morale remained high and the troops believed they could continue to hold off the German advance.
The 4th Royal Fusiliers defended the northern approaches to Mons. The battalion defended a swing bridge located at this point and a railroad bridge further west. This bridge was opened, cutting the Mons-Brussels road. At the swing bridge the British held the Germans. A German soldier, August Neiemeier, swam the canal under British rifle fire and operated the machinery to close the bridge. While he died after closing the bridge, his efforts enabled the Germans to cross the bridge.
A few hundred yards west, the battalion's machine gun section provided support. The section took heavy losses from German rifle fire. Lt. Dease (the only unwounded member of the section) began firing one of the machine guns. He was soon wounded five times and evacuated to the battalion aid station, where he died. A wounded gunner, Private Sidney Godley, operated the other gun, covering the battalion's withdrawal. Before he was overwhelmed and taken prisoner, Private Godley dismantled the section's guns before throwing the pieces into the canal. For their actions, Lt. Dease and Pvt. Godley were awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest award for valour in the British Army and the first awarded during the war. The original railway bridge that they defended was demolished; near its replacement there is a memorial commemorating the Fusiliers' gallant deeds.
D Company of the 4th Middlesex Regiment came under German fire from the village of Obourg. Their attackers, the 31st Infantry Regiment, suffered huge losses but were soon reinforced by the 85th Infantry and 86th Fusilier Regiments. These three regiments comprised the German 18th Division, a unit made up of divisions from northern Germany. The 18th Division engaged the British front while using the unguarded canal lock, located about 1 km east of the Gare, to get cavalry across. By midday, the British began a withdrawal. To assist them, they requested reinforcement from the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish. Reinforcements arrived under fire. By that time the German 17th Division had crossed the canal in strength at Havre and moved along the Havre-Mons road folding up the British right flank. At the Obourg Gare, an unknown soldier sacrificed himself to cover the retreat of his unit. Remaining in the burning station building, the soldier engaged the advancing German troops with rifle fire. His defence allowed the remainder of D and B Companies of the 4th Middlesex to retreat to St Symphorien cemetery on the outskirts of Mons.
At 1400, the British began to see they were being overwhelmed. After hearing of the French army's retreat to the south and seeing the Belgian army had retreated, they realised their right flank was exposed. The BEF followed its allies and retreated from Mons; the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Munster Fusiliers in a classic rearguard action held nine German battalions while suffering severe casualties until being cut off and overwhelmed on the 27 August at Etreux, only 240 men surviving. They secured the unmolested withdrawal of their division, II Corps falling back to Le Cateau and I Corps to Landrecies. The retreat continued for 14 days, taking the BEF close to the outskirts of Paris.
Newspaper accounts of the battle and retreat resulted in a rapid rise in army recruitment in Britain. By April 1915, rumours were circulating which claimed a "miracle" or the intervention of the "Angels of Mons" had aided British troops.
The German novelist and Captain Walter Bloem wrote in his diary after the battle:
â€œâ€¦the men all chilled to the bone, almost too exhausted to move and with the depressing consciousness of defeat weighing heavily upon them. A bad defeat, there can be no gainsaying itâ€¦ we had been badly beaten, and by the English â€“ by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before.â€
Soldiers of the BEF who fought at Mons later became eligible for a campaign medal, the Mons Star. On 19 August 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly issued an Order of the Day which read in part: "my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over Field Marshal French's contemptible little Army." This led to the British "Tommies" of the BEF proudly labelling themselves "The Old Contemptibles". However, no evidence of the famous Order of the Day was ever found in the German archives after the war, and the ex-Kaiser denied having given it. An investigation conducted by General Frederick Maurice traced the origins of the Order to the British GHQ, where it had been concocted for propaganda purposes.
After the Battle of Mons the Germans made the St Symphorien military cemetery. The site was an existing cemetery but they created an artificial mound in the centre of the circular burial ground. On the highest point of the mound, they erected a grey granite obelisk, 23 metres high, with a German inscription "In memory of the German and English soldiers who fell in the actions near Mons on the 23rd and 24 August 1914". They originally buried 245 German and 188 British soldiers there. Another 27 British graves were brought after the Armistice. Subsequently additional British, Canadian and German graves were moved here from other burial grounds. There are now over 200, 1914â€“18 war casualties commemorated in this site. Of these, over 60 are unidentified and special memorials are erected to five soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment, believed to be buried in unnamed graves. Other special memorials record the names of four British soldiers, buried by the enemy in Obourg Churchyard, whose graves could not be found. This cemetery contains the graves of two soldiers deemed to be the first (Pte. J. Parr, 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regt., 21 August 1914) and the last (Pte. G. L. Price, Canadian Infantry, 11 November 1918) Commonwealth soldiers to be killed during the 1914â€“18 War. A tablet in the cemetery sets out the gift of the land by Jean Houzeau de Lehaie.
The 1914 Star was a British medal given to those who served in France or Belgium at the start of the war. Because many of the recipients had been members of the expeditionary force in Belgium, it became popularly known as the Mons Star.
The commune of Mons has created a battlefield tour. Maps and guidebooks can be obtained from the Tourist Office in the Grand Place.