Mons and the Great Retreat

The Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat

The Battle of Mons took place on 23rd August 1914 at Mons, in Belgium when the British Expeditionary Forces (BEF) clashed with the German First Army on the outskirts of the city and along the Mons-Condé Canal. The Great Retreat, or Retreat from Mons as it is also known, took place in the days thereafter as the German Imperial Army swept the BEF and French Forces south-westwards towards Paris as they followed their modified Schlieffen Plan. The Great Retreat was to draw to a close almost at the gates of Paris along the River Marne in what we now call the First Battle of the Marne which took place between 5th and 12th September 1914.

Schlieffen Plan

The modified Schlieffen Plan.

Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914, and on 9th August the BEF began embarking for France. The relatively small British Army number some 80,000 men who were grouped together under the command of Field Marshal Sir John French in two Army Corps. Their numerically superior allies, the French, and foes, the Germans, each had large conscript armies with well over a million soldiers each. The BEF however was the better trained consisting as it did of professional volunteer soldiers that had seen service around the world in the countries of the British Empire. The British training paid special attention to marksmanship and the British soldier was expected to hit a man-sized target at least 15 times in a minute at a range of 300 yards.

As the German Imperial Army thrust westwards from the Belgium-German border the Belgium Army fought valiantly to hold them back. Indeed their efforts were such that they took the Germans by surprise with the ferocity of their resistance, which manifested itself in the defence of Liege and Namur. This bought time for the Allies allowing the BEF to deploy to Europe and the French to take up defensive lines along the Franco-Belgium border.

The leading elements of the BEF began arriving in the vicinity of Mons on Friday 21st August 1914 as the German Imperial Army approached from the east and north. General Charles Lanrezac's French Fifth Army, located on the immediate right of the BEF, was heavily engaged by the German Second and Third Armies in the vicinity of Charleroi and Field Marshal French agreed on the 22nd to hold the line of the Mons-Condé Canal for 24-hours to prevent the advancing German First Army commanded by Generaloberst Alexander von Kluck to threaten and turn the French left flank. The BEF thus spent the day of the 22nd creating hastily entrenched positions along the canal including around the northern edge of the city of Mons and then fighting to defend and hold these positions during the following day, Sunday 23rd August 1914.

Schlieffen Plan

The BEF dispositions along the Mons-Condé Canal on 23rd August 1914.

The British II Corps commanded by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was on the left of the British line and occupied defensive positions along the Mons-Condé Canal, while I Corps commanded by General Sir Douglas Haig was positioned almost at a right-angle away from the canal along the Mons-Beaumont road towards the French Fifth Army at Charleroi. General Haig's I Corps had been aligned in this manner to protect the right flank of the BEF as a precaution against a French withdrawal from Charleroi that would have left the British exposed. In the end it was against the General Smith-Dorrien's II Corps that Generaloberst von Kluck's German First Army advanced.

On 19th August 1914 the Kaiser's 'Order of the Day' stated "It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over General French's contemptible little Army." This statement was to be taken up by the British soldiers of the BEF who thereafter called themselves "The Old Contemptibles".

The BEF began its move forward on the morning of 21st August 1914 with the cavalry and cyclists advancing ahead of the main body. They were to deploy in a screen to detect and determine the strength of the enemy's approach on reaching Mons. On reaching Villers St Ghislain about six miles south-east of Mons they received reports that the German cavalry was in force about five miles to the north. Brigadier-General Henry de Beauvoir de Lisle's 2nd Cavalry Brigade continued north through Mons crossing the Mons Condé Canal east of the city. They took up positions on both banks along the canal between Maurage and Obourg.

In the early morning of Sunday, 23rd August 1914 the forward British companies defending along the Mons-Condé Canal were involved in minor exchanges with the German Cavalry. Then at about 10:00 hrs the attacks began against the 4th Royal Fusiliers begin at Nimy. Along the canal to their east and in the hamlet of Olbourg the 4th Middlesex huddled in their shallow trenches watched the fir trees on the far bank intently for signs of movement. About half an hour later the German infantrymen from the 31st Infantry Regiment, 1 Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment 31, appeared on the far bank and the desperate battle to hold the railway station and the hamlet began.

To the west of Mons other Battalions of General Smith-Dorrien's British II Corps also held the line of the Mons-Condé Canal and they too were soon in the thick of the battle. As the infantrymen fought to hold the German advance back the Royal Engineers worked furiously in an effort to destroy the bridges. For 24-hours the struggle continued until eventually the British were forced to withdraw as their right flank became exposed by the withdrawal of the French Fifth Army.

On Monday, 24th August 1914 the 1st Norfolks and 1st Cheshires were on the left flank of General Smith-Dorrien's Corps in the vicinity of Audregnies and Elouges when it started to withdraw. Some accounts say that they failed to receive the order to retire, other accounts record that they were ordered to counterattack against the advancing Germans who posed such a threat to the orderly withdrawal of the British 5th Division. Whatever the case they were up against very heavy odds and made their stand between Audregnies and Elouges.

It was also in the vicinity Audregnies and Elouges that the famous first cavalry charge of the First World War by the 9th Lancers and 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards took place. They charged across the battlefield towards the advancing enemy only to get caught up in the wire fences of the farmers' fields. Here they were heavily engaged by the rifles and machine guns of the German infantry and paid a heavy price.

The nearby guns of the RFA were also inaction and it was here that Major Ernest Wright Alexander RFA and Captain Francis Grenfell 9th Lancers won their Victoria Crosses for their valiant attempts to save the guns.

The Great Retreat

The Great Retreat.

The BEF withdrew from Mons on Tuesday, 25th August 1914 heading southwest with General Haig's British I Corps to the east of Forest of Mormal and General Smith-Dorrien's British II Corps to the west. As the weary men of the BEF trudged onwards in the heat and glare of a summer's day they headed towards Solesmes and Le Cateau. To protect the crossings over the River Sambre the 15th Hussars had been despatched ahead of I Corps to the bridges and locks in the area of Maroilles and Landrecies.

Throughout the day General Haig's infantrymen marched south to arriving in the vicinity of Maroilles and Landrecies during the afternoon. Shortly after 17:30 hrs there was a false alarm at Landrecies and two Companies of the 3rd Coldstream Guards stood-too at the railway junction about half a mile to the northwest of the town. Mounted patrols were sent out, but the enemy were not seen.

Within the hour however, the two Troops of the 15th Hussars guarding the bridge and lock near Maroilles were engaged by the forward elements of General von Kluck's German First Army. The Hussars kept the Germans at bay for about half an hour, but the Germans brought up a field gun under cover of some buildings at the road bridge and forced them to withdraw. As they pulled back they were met by a Company from the 1st Royal Berkshires that was on its way to relieve them. The infantrymen took up hasty defence positions about a mile to the southeast of the bridge.

At Landrecies following the earlier false alarm the cavalry patrol returned with the all clear. No 3 Company 3rd Coldstream Guards was deployed along the road with a machine gun to each flank. They strung out a hasty wire entanglement a short distant to their front and settled into their task.

At 19:30 hrs the sound of approaching wheels and horses was heard and the Guardsmen quickly became alert. The forward sentry challenged and was answered in French. The large body of troops on the road edged forward and the officer in command of the Guardsmen advanced to question them. In the course of the parley the supposed Frenchmen lowered their bayonets and charged.

Meanwhile, General Smith-Dorrien's men had withdrawn as far as the high ground near Le Cateau. They were exhausted, the Battalions had become mixed up and they had lost liaison with General Alenby's Cavalry Corps. In short they not fit to go on. Realising that he could not rely on support from the cavalry General Smith-Dorrien called together his Divisional commanders. In contravention to General French's orders to continue the retreat, General Smith-Dorrien decided to set up a defensive position on the high ground where they would rest the following day before continuing on towards Paris.

On the morning of Wednesday, 26th August 1914 the German First Army arrived at Le Cateau and heavily engaged General Smith-Dorrien's weary men. Unlike the Battle of Mons where the majority of casualties inflicted by the British were from rifle fire, Le Cateau was an artilleryman's battle. It was here that the devastating results that modern quick-firing artillery using shrapnel shells could have on infantry advancing in the open became so very apparent.

The British had deployed their infantry along the ridge with their artillery in the open about 50-200 yards to their rear in direct support. The Germans deployed their guns back from their infantry in indirect fire positions. The British infantry produced intensive and accurate rifle fire, while their field artillery fired air-bursting shrapnel rounds on the unprotected advancing German infantrymen. Many of the British field guns were fired at point-blank range over open sights. The British artillery was, however, exposed in their positions in the open and came in for heavy punishment from the German guns. The German artillery fire also took a heavy toll on the British infantrymen as some of the counter-battery fire fell on their positions nearby. The battle raged and many fell on both sides before General Smith-Dorrien gave the order to withdraw just as the German infantry closed in. For the second time in three days, the British had withdrawn just in the nick of time.

Almost miraculously, the exhausted British II Corps disengaged and withdrew during the afternoon. General Smith-Dorrien's decision to stand against the German advance at Le Cateau had paid off handsomely. His II Corps has inflicted heavy casualties on the Germans and, perhaps more importantly, General Smith-Dorrien had imposed yet another delay on the timetable of the Helmuth von Moltke's modified Schlieffen. It had also allowed General Haig's I Corps to move further away from the advancing German Army and bought them a little respite as well.

General Smith-Dorrien's decision to stand did, however, have a negative side as it caused a rift between General French and General Smith-Dorrien.

Over the course of the few next weeks the BEF continued its long and weary trudge southwards, often fighting sharp rearguard actions along the way. These 'Affairs' as they are often called included the actions at Le Grand Fayt on 26th August, the Affair of Etreux the following day, the Affair of Cerizy on 28th and the Affair of Nery, rearguard action at Crepy en Valois and the rearguard actions at Villers-Cotterets on 1st September 1914.

By the beginning of September 1914 the German Imperial Army was approaching the River Marne and events were shaping up for a decisive battle. General Joffre ordered the French Sixth Army to attack eastwards over the Ourcq towards Château Thierry, the BEF to advance towards Montmirail and the French Fifth Army attacked northwards, with its right flank protected by the French Ninth Army along the St Gond marshes. The French First, Second, Third and Fourth Armies to the east were to resist the attacks of the German Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Armies between Verdun and Toul and repulse an enveloping attack on the defences south of Nancy from the north. The German Sixth and Seventh Armies were reinforced by heavy artillery from Metz and attacked again on 4th September 1914 along the River Moselle.

Further east the French Third Army was forced back to the west of Verdun as German attacks were made on the Meuse Heights to the south-east but managed to maintain contact with Verdun and the French Fourth Army to the west. German attacks against the French Second Army south of Verdun from 5th September almost forced the French to retreat but on the 8th the crisis eased. By 10th September 1914 the German Armies west of Verdun were retreating towards the Aisne and the Franco-British were following-up, collecting stragglers and equipment. On 12th September, General Joffre ordered an outflanking move to the west and an attack northwards by the French Third Army to cut off the German retreat. The pursuit was too slow and on 14th September the German armies had dug in north of the Aisne and the Allies met trench lines rather than rearguards. Frontal attacks by the French Ninth, Fifth and Sixth Armies were repulsed on 15th–16th September, which led Joffre to begin the transfer of the French Second Army west to the left flank of the French Sixth Army, the first phase of the operations to outflank the German Armies, which from 17th September to 19th October 1914 moved the opposing Armies through Picardy and Flanders to the North Sea coast in what we now call the Race to the Sea.

Enquire About Your IN THE FOOTSTEPS Tour

Last updated: 14th December 2018