from ‘The War Illustrated’, 16th November, 1918
'Mons After Four Years'
Men and Cities of the War
by Hamilton Fyfe

There and Back Again

British cavalry marching through Mons in November 1918 - illustration by R. Caton Woodville


Mons after Four Years!

Back to Mons ! What memories the name calls up ! Sad memories and glorious memories, too. How hopeful we were when we went up to Mons in August, 1914, and what a bitter disappointment was in store for us ! It was the Battle of Mons which made us begin to understand what a stiff and stubborn struggle we were to have.

No finer force than the small but well-trained Regular British Army of 1914 ever took the field in any British campaign. I remember falling in with a battalion of the Scottish Rifles near le Cateau on its way to the front. Splendid men ; officers keen and capable. All were vigorous and confident. The same was true of all our troops. A few days later, broken and pitifully reduced in number, they were retreating, fighting gallant rearguard actions, saving themselves and the rest of our earliest divisions from catastrophe only by their dogged determination to hold on to every position as long as they could.

The story of the retreat after Mons has not been fully told yet. Maybe it never will be told. No one single man knows all details of more than a little piece of it. To collect all the details is impossible, since by far the greater number of those who retreated sleep in "some corner of a foreign field that is forever England." I knew a good deal about it at the time from running across so many of the stragglers. For weeks afterwards they were drifting into Amiens, and they all had surprising adventures to relate.

Adventurous Stragglers

Really the adaptability of the human animal is marvellous when we consider bow sheltered and artificial is the life of civilised people. Here were men who had never been out of the range of city streets; never eaten any food that had not been bought in shops; always had roofs to cover them and beds to sleep in. Suddenly they were flung upon their own resources in a foreign land where they could not speak a word of the language; a land swarming with enemies whom to encounter meant death or at best capture; a land of whose geography they were ignorant, in which they scarcely knew even the names of any places. If by chance they did know one or two names they pronounced them in a manner unintelligible to the natives.

Yet somehow, they kept themselves alive and out of harm's way. Somehow they managed to find friends among the French or the Belgian populations and to converse with them. Somehow they made their way back to the British lines. And, most strange of all, they took all their adventures as a matter of course. They spoke of all they had. been through in a plain, straightforward, unemotional way. They did not regard themselves as heroes of exciting hairbreadth escapes, of moving accidents by flood and field. Not a bit of it.

I recollect two of them telling me of a day when they were made desperate by hunger. They were crouching in a field by the side of a road along which Germans were passing. As a motor-car filled with Staff officers rushed by, one of the men in hiding loosed off his rifle from sheer dare- devilry. The car did not stop, but they felt after that that their hiding-place was insecure. German troopers might be sent back to clear out snipers, so they cautiously made their way into a little wood. Here they stayed until one of them announced that he could not bear his emptiness any longer, and that he was going into the village down the road to get something to eat.

"Why, good Lord, it's full of Germans !" the other said.

"I don't care if it's full of devils !" the hungry man replied. "So long, old sport ! If I don't come back you'll know they've got me ! But I'll give the blighters a run for their- money !"

Unquestioned Audacity

He went off down the road, entered the village, found a baker's shop, and went in. He saw German soldiers, but he said they paid no attention to him, "And you can lay your life I didn't trouble them. Bread was what I. was after, and I got two loaves of it, hot out o{ the oven. Then 1 asked if the baker had got any beer. He grinned and brought a bottle out. I paid him, put the stuff under my arms, and went back to my pal. He wasn't sorry to see the grub, I can tell you, not 'arf he wasn't."

It sounds unlikely, but you must remember that in war conditions men often pass unnoticed who in ordinary circumstances would be challenged at once. In those days I heard of two German cyclist scouts who got far ahead of their unit and rode through several French villages just as if they were touring in holiday-time. When they discovered that they were alone in enemy territory they rode back. They were looked at doubtfully, but no one knew exactly what they were, and they rejoined their comrades unharmed.

More lately, during this past summer, there was another case of the same kind in Picardy. Two German airmen were compelled to land and to leave their machines. They went about for two days without arousing suspicion. They were supposed, I believe, to be Portuguese officers, whose grey uniforms are not unlike the German field-grey. They took their meals in estaminets, and talked passable French. Eventually a Canadian sergeant spotted them, and they were arrested as prisoners of war. But for two days they went about openly, and no one asked them who they were.

Men Who Never Complained

Another feature of the soldiers' stories of their wanderings after the Battle of Mons was the absence of any complaining. They might have grumbled, poor fellows, about the vastly superior numbers of the enemy, about having had nothing in the nature of prepared positions to fall back upon, about being detrained right on the battlefield and finding themselves in the thick of the fighting at once. One young officer I knew detrained with his platoon at noon, on the Monday, the second day of the battle, and by three o'clock he was a prisoner. He had only been in France three days. Many were equally unfortunate.

But never a grumble did the soldiers indulge in. They seemed to consider the faulty information and the miscalculations of the allied commanders as all a matter of course too. Or perhaps they did not think about them. They all agreed that they had had "a hell of a time," but they thought they had given the Germans "something to think about," and they were quite ready to take them on again. They were not like the little Frenchman to whom I gave a lift in my car during the retreat after Charleroi. He sat with his head in his hands, saying at intervals; "Ah, monsieur, la guerre, comme c'est triste," or " Que c'est triste, la guerre."

Wonderful men those British soldiers of 1914, They set the standard for the men who came after them, the men of '15, and '16, and '17, and '18 ; and the standard has been magnificently maintained.

Mons is a dry, uninspiring little town. I was there first in the year of the Belgian general strike. I went with Percival Phillips to attend a huge demonstration of miners who had stopped work. In this part of Belgium the people are Walloons, not Flemings. They speak French, not Flemish, and are more French in character, than their more Teutonic fellow-countrymen in the North and East of Belgium. Some of the speeches at that miners' demonstration were in a most impassioned vein. Little thought had Phillips or I that spring Sunday of a day when Mons would be world-famous as the scene of the opening battle in the world-war. Students of the wars of the Low Countries knew Mons as a frequent centre of fighting, but to the rest it was merely a name, or probably not even that.

The Great Break-Through

And now it will stand for ever in British history as a symbol of the steadfastness of the old Regular Army of the British Isles. Not only because it gave its name to the first battle of the war, but also because the approach to Mons in the fifth year of the war .was made possible by the British troops who broke through the fortified positions which we call the Hindenburg while the Germans call them the Siegfried—line, and so spoiled the plan which the German High Command cherished up to that moment of resisting on this line during .the winter.

Only once has this famous line been, breached, between Cambrai and St. Quentin, in the direction of Bohain, on October 9th, and the breach was made by British troops.

The war correspondents, it seems to me, did not make enough of this. Few people realise what it means. Our official despatches have not yet told us what troops broke through these positions which the Germans certainly believed to be impregnable. In the flood of news which has poured through the newspapers during the past few months the grandeur of this feat of gallantry by British troops has been overlooked. But history will put things in their right perspective. Many of the "great battles" will be dismissed as small affairs. The really big achievements will stand out as they should. Among them will assuredly be the break-through on October 9th which caused the immediate fall of Cambrai and opened up the road to Mons.


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