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Mons and the Great Retreat

Follow in the footsteps of the British Expeditionary Force as they struggle to halt the German advaqnce at the beginning of the First World War.

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.

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.

Battle of Mons Locations

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.

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 Condé - Mons Canal east of the city. They took up positions on both banks along the canal between Maurage and Obourg.

Some Tour Locations

Our In the footsteps tour of The Battle of Mons and the Great Retreat begins where the first shots by a British soldier of the 1914-18 Great War were fired at Casteau and typically takes in the following locations: -

Casteau — The site of the first engagement of the 1914-18 Great War where the cavalrymen of Major Tom Bridges' C Squadron 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards made the first contact between with the German Imperial Army and the BEF at approximately 07:00 hrs on Saturday, 22nd August 1914. Incidentally across the road from the First Shot Memorial is a plaque on the wall indicating that this was also the site of the Last Shot fired just before the Armistice on 11th November 1918.

Nimy — The Railway Bridge over the Mons-Condé Canal at Nimy was heroically defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers on Sunday, 23rd August 1914 and a plaque under the bridge records the action that took place. It was during the defence here that two of the first Victoria Crosses to be awarded in the 1914-18 Great War were won.

Obourg — On Sunday, 23rd August 1914 the hamlet of Obourg and its railway station were defended by men of the 4th Battalion, the Middlesex Regiment. In the early morning the forward companies were involved in minor exchanges with the German Cavalry. Then at about 10:00 hrs they heard the attack against the 4th Royal Fusiliers begin at Nimy. All along the canal the men of 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 after later infantrymen from the German 31st Infantry Regiment, 1 Thüringisches Infanterie-Regiment 31, appeared on the far bank and so began the desparate battle to hold the railway station and the hamlet.

Mons — The main square in the centre of Mons was where the BEF had gathered when they initially arrived. There are several memorials in the archway of the entrance to the Town Hall commemorating the events that took place here. A monumnet commeorating the Battle of Mons stands at the La Bascule Crossroads.

Saint-Symphorien — St Symphorien Military Cemetery was started by the Germans in August 1914, after the Battle of Mons. It remained in their hands until November 1918, and has the distinction of containing the graves of some of the first and last casualties of the First World War. It is popularly believed that the graves of the first (Pte. J. Parr, Middlesex Regt., 21 August 1914) and the last British soldier (Pte. G. E. Ellison, 5th Lancers, 11 November 1918) to be killed in the 1914-18 Great War are in this cemetery. Also in the cemetery is the grave of Private J L PRICE, of the Canadian 3rd Division, who was killed while holding flowers given by the grateful Belgians at 10:58 hrs on 11th November 1918, just 2 minutes before the cease-fire. It was his misfortune to go down in history as the last soldier killed in the 1914-18 Great War.

Mons-Condé Canal — At various sites along the canal the BEF set up defensive positions to hold the canal bank and the men of the Royal Engineers worked heroically to deny the enemy the bridges. It was whilst attempting to destroy the bridges over the canal that Captain Theodore Wright and Lance Corporal Charles A Jarvis of the Royal Engineers were both awarded the Victoria Cross for bravery; Private Heron of the 1st Battalion, the Royal Scots Fusiliers was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal for his efforts in assisting Lance Corporal Jarvis at the Lock No 2 Bridge.

Audregnies and Elouges — It was in the vicinity of Audregnies and Elouges on the morning of Monday, 24th August 1914 the 1st Norfolks and 1st Cheshires were on the left flank of General Smith-Dorrien's British II Corps when it started to withdraw. Some accounts say that they failed to receive the order to retire, but my research has led me to believe that they were ordered to counterattack against the advancing Germans which 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 this vicinity that the famous cavalry charge of the 9th Lancers and 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards took place. It was here that Major Ernest Wright Alexander RFA and Captain Francis Grenfell 9th Lancers won their Victoria Crosses.

Maroilles and Landrecies — Tuesday, 25th August 1914 was a hot and glaring summer's day. as the weary men of the BEF trudged south westwards towards Paris. General Sir Douglas Haig's British I Corps withdrew to the east of Forest of Mormal towards Landrecies whilst General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien's British II Corps were to the west of the forest heading for 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 the 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 Coldstreams 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 Coldstreams 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.

Le Cateau — When they arrived in the vicinity of Le Cateau General Smith-Dorrien's men were exhausted, his Divisions and Brigades were mixed up and the Battalions in various states of readiness to fight. His British II Corps had become separated from General Allenby's cavalry and thus could not count on any useful cavalry screen to cover its retreat. The situation was critical and Sir Horacecalled in his Divisional Commanders and discussed the situation in hand. Following these discussions he decided that any further retreat would be futile and the order was given for the II Corps to stand and fight the following day at Le Cateau against Field Marshal Sir John French's orders to withdraw.

Etreux — The 2nd Royal Munster Fusiliers, in their very first action in France, achieved a military feat unparalleled in modern warfare. A Brigade may occasionally have the task of trying to delay a whole enemy Division. A Division may perhaps be deployed in an attempt to turn aside or halt an advancing Army Corps - but for a single Battalion to stem the advance of an entire Army by their sole action was unprecedented.

St Quentin — The retreating columns of the BEF continued to flow southwards and during Wednesday 27th August 1914 they had reached St Quentin. Many of the retreating Battalions passed straight thrown flowing out of the southern exits. By the time that the 1st Royal Warwicks commanded by Lt-Col Elkington and the 2nd Royal Dublin Fusiliers commanded by Lt- Col Mainwaring entered the main square it was getting late and they were among the last of British Battalions. With their officers and men totally exhausted the two Colonels were persuaded by the Mayor to give a written undertaking not to endanger the city's inhabitants. They undertook that if the Germans entered they would not resist and surrender.

In the early afternoon Brigadier H de B Lisle commanding the 2nd Cavalry Brigade had called his remaining officers together and to then that the BEF was in a very tight corner, but that they must right it out and die like gentlemen. He appointed Major G T M Bridges commanding C Squadron 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, the same Squadron that had fired the first British shot of the war at Casteau, as rearguard commander. His orders were to hold the Germans off and retire through St Quentin at 18:00 hrs. Major Bridges sent Lt Harrison (4th Hussars), who was acting as his interpreter, into St Quentin to find out if the infantry were clear. On his return he reported the place swarming with stragglers. He could find no officers, and the men were going into the houses and lying down to sleep. Major Bridges withdrew his men into the town, leaving two troops and machine-guns to hold the bridge over the river. Entering the main square Tom Bridges was astonished by what he found.

Néry — On Monday, 31st August 1914 L Battery the Royal Horse Artillery had followed in the wake of the rest of the 1st Cavalry Brigade as it continued the retreat south and had reached the village of Néry after the other units had begun to settle down into their allotted positions. L Battery was allocated a field to the south of the village in which to bivouac and assigned the sugar factory to serve as its headquarters.

When the Cavalry Brigade readied itself the cool and very misty morning orders were issued to delay the march until 05:00 hrs due to the poor visibility which was less than 200 yards. The battery, which was standing halted in mass with the teams hooked in, took advantage of this delay to let down the poles and water the horses by sections at the sugar factory.

The mist had hardly begun to lift and was as thick as ever when, just before 05:00 hrs Major Sclater-Booth and his officers walked down from the sugar factory towards haystacks at the northwest corner of the battery field. Leaving the other officers by the haystacks, the Battery Commander walked on up the main street to Brigade Headquarters in order to get the latest instructions as to the resumption of the march. At the same moment Second-Lieutenant Tailby of the 11th Hussars, who had been sent out with a patrol to reconnoitre the high ground north of Néry, reached Brigade Headquarters. Dismounting he entered and reported that his patrol had ridden into a body of German cavalry in the mist and had been chased back to the village.

When the battle began, Captain Bradbury and the other officers of the battery were standing near the haystacks. Suddenly, with no previous warning, a shell burst over the battery, and immediately afterwards the bivouac area came under very heavy rifle fire from the ridge. Captain Bradbury was the first to react shouting 'Come on! Who's for the guns?', as he ran from the cover of the haystacks towards the limbered guns. Followed closely by the other officers he dashed across the field to the waiting guns.

L Battery's casualties amounted to 45 officers and men killed and wounded, out of a strength of 170. Among the dead was Captain Edward Kinder Bradbury who was awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross. Sergeant Nelson and Battery-Sergeant Major Dorrell were also awarded the Victoria Cross for their actions that day.

Villers-Côtterets — The Guards' Grave was made originally by the people of Villers-Côtterets. Lord Killanin, the Irish Guards, returned to the site of the battle in November 1914 to locate and exhume all those buried in a pit after the action of 1st September. The CWGC burial report confirms the facts: Lord Killanin's party found 94 men, recorded their details where possible and re-buried them under a cross on this spot. This later became the Guards' Cemetery. The four officers that they found were identified by their clothing and personal effects. Second-Lieutenant Cecil being identified by the initials on his vest. The officers were originally buried in a hastily purchased plot in the cemetery at Villers-Cotterets, but after the War their remains were brought back to join their men. The Guards' Grave contains 98 Commonwealth burials of the First World War, 20 of which are unidentified.

On the corner of the bend just above the cemetery is the private monument to Second-Lieutenant George Edward Cecil, Grenadier Guards. This was erected by his mother and it also honours those Guardsmen that fell here on 1 September 1914. George Cecil was just 18 when he died and was one of the four officers brought in from the local Communal Cemetery. In 1916 Lady Edward Cecil gave the 'Cecil Range' to Winchester College in memory of her son and this is still in use. Later she erected this stone memorial to commemorate the action of 1st September 1914.

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