from ‘the War Illustrated’ 23rd November, 1918
'Star of Mons in the Ascendant'


The Closing Battles of Britain's Victorious Armies

British troops back in Mons


In the last week of August, 1914, five British divisions retreated from Mons. In the first week of November, 1918, five British armies marched back to Mons. It was the most tremendous recoil in history. From the blood of the men who had fallen in the first retreat there had grown, by slow, gigantic effort and terrible sacrifice, a power in war wielded by free peoples which the strongest military, State ever existing on earth had grown impotent to resist. Teutonic craft, after triumphing in Russia, had become as powerless as Teutonic force to stay the triumphal return of the soldiers of freedom.

October 1918, had been a month of continual British victories, in which 49,000 German prisoners were taken, together with nearly a thousand guns, bringing the British captures, since the opening of the British offensive by Amiens in August, to 172,659 prisoners and 2,378 guns. On the last day of .October the Germans stood to battle in the old city of Valenciennes. They tried to break the British flank, but were broken by the Canadians, who, under cover of a great smoke- screen, fought into machine-gunners' nests in the houses.

Valenciennes, when entered in the morning of November 1st, had a strange, nightmarch-like atmosphere. The streets were completely empty, no faces looked out from the windows, shells screamed through the air, and from the eastern side, on the road to Mons, still sounded the deadly rattle of machine-guns.


British parade in Mons

Hun Fear of Reprisals

Twenty thousand of the inhabitants had been deported to Mons, and those who remained were sheltering in cellars, fearful of the savage storm of high-explosive and poison-gas shell with which the new barbarians were used to avenge a defeat. The Germans had poisoned thousands of non-combatants in this manner in the neighbourhood of Valenciennes, and this was the reason why the Canadians found no happy multitude in the city rejoicing in liberation.

At last, however, the Teuton was becoming anxious about the matter of reprisals. He suddenly abandoned his device of placing, delayed-action mines in towns and villages from which he was driven for fear the soldiers of Marshal Foch might cross the Rhine. Yet the warlike spirit of the German soldier was not as broken as that of the German sailor.

The enemy Fleet had been ordered to steam out for final battle against the squadrons of Sir David Beatty, but the men were shooting their officers and seizing control of ships and ports to save themselves from facing the gun fire of the British and United States Navies. They had had enough fighting in the Jutland Bank action and in submarine operations. Like the Russian peasant, they preferred the easy rough-and-tumble of civil strife.

In the German Army, however, there were many good fighting men still remaining. Some of them were, like enemy submarine commanders, reckless, because of the things they had done, and, as human tigers, were game to the end, These men made machine-gunners of a high order, and the German commander was in a situation in which he could use his machine-gun power to great advantage. Between the British troops and Mons could be seen from the air an enormous green- brown tract stretching from the edge of Le Cateau to Landrecies towards Maubeuge. This was the Forest of Mormal, famous in the history of Sir Douglas Haig's old command of the First British Army Corps. The forest is some forty square miles, and its northern approaches were guarded by the old fortress town of Le Quesnoy, against which the New Zealand Division was violently battling.


reviewing British troops in Mons

Great Forest Obstacle

The German armies were lined out on a series of naturally strong positions, formed by the Ghent Canal and the flooded Scheldt River, as far as Valenciennes. The water-line was broken between the Scheldt at Valenciennes and the Sambre at Le Gateau, but the enemy had the great Mormal Forest, overgrown with brushwood by four years of neglect, to fill the dry gap in his moated front.

Nearly everybody expected that so vast and dense an obstacle as the rolling Mormal woodland, in which machine-gun defence would probably be murderous, would have slowly to be turned along the open country north and south, as the French and American armies had turned, by gradual operations, the similar obstacle of .the Argonne Forest.

But that was not the British way. The goal of Mons was becoming a high object of passionate desire to the national armies o£ the British Commonwealth. The enemy was urgently seeking for an armistice, but he had not yet lost his warlike pride, and he still hoped to win, by diplomatic treaty, better terms than he could obtain on the field of battle. The new British soldiers wished to stand victorious in the Flemish colliery city where their old Regular little Expeditionary Force of 86,000 men had opened the war against overwhelming odds.

Instead, therefore, of working round the forest in the ordinary way, three British armies — the First, Third, and Fourth — opened the Second Battle for Mons at dawn on November 4th, 1918, by a direct frontal attack upon the great wooded ambush between Le Cateau and Maubeuge. On a front of some thirty miles the men under General Home, General Byng, and General Rawlinson went straight and hard against the concealed and desperate Teutonic forces.

N.Z.'s Task at Le Quesnoy

The New Zealanders of the Third Army at Le Quesnoy had the hardest task and most brilliant success. Gallantly they tried with scaling-ladders to storm the high ramparts and bastions strengthened by Vauban, but being held up by machine-gun fire and curtains of shell, they worked round the old fortifications and .completely surprised the German gunners, taking more than a hundred guns and reaching the enemy's waggon lines.

While the garrison of Le Quesnoy was wondering why their own gun fire had ceased, parley was made with the besieged, encircled force, two New Zealand parties calling upon the enemy to submit and avoid useless bloodshed. As the German commander refused to surrender, the New Zealanders broke into the town, carrying barricade after barricade and chasing the remnant of a thousand Germans into the cellars.

Meanwhile the Fourth British Army forced the passage of the Sambre between Le Cateau and the forest. In spite of crossing fires of hostile machine-guns and shrapnel barrage from the enemy's batteries, Cameron Highlanders of the 1st Division — a unit with special memories of Mormal Forest — fought across the Sambre in six minutes.

The men of the 32rd Division also stormed over the river, and the southern side of the forest was .entered by the famous Cheshires and other fine battalions of the memorable 25th Division who, with combined skill and gallantry, shot, hacked, and manoeuvred their way to Landrecies, where the Coldstream Guards, on August 25th, 1914, had strewn the street with Germans that tried to surprise the Guards Brigade by an advance in motor-lorries.

At the end of the war it was the British who possessed the better machinery of battle. Their light, fast storming cars transformed forest fighting from the most difficult into one of the most rapid forms of warfare. The German front was completely smothered in dense, white smoke, and while the enemy forces were thus blinded the "whippet" Tanks drove through their defences and swerved round them, and by the time the smoke barrage cleared the Germans found themselves being shot down from the flank and rear, both by Tank gunners and by infantry accompanying the mechanical monsters of battle.

The Final Phase

All day the forest combat went on. When night fell it still continued, the 18th, 50th, 38th, 17th, and 62nd Divisions fighting over wire entanglements, pits and log barricades by the old Roman road running towards Bavai. At daybreak the British troops emerged from the great-woodland and moved towards the fortress camp of Maubeuge, by which General von Kluck had hoped to encircle and capture the British Expeditionary Force, publishing his vain boast that he would do it.

While the Third and Fourth Armies closed towards the Mons line from the south, the First Army advanced on Condé, from which a canal," once lined with anxious Britons, stretched to Mons. Here the enemy retreated rather than stand to battle, but in and around the Mormal Forest, where he strongly attempted to resist, the invader was broken with terrible completeness, losing in one day more than ten thousand prisoners and two hundred guns.

Then against his rearguards of machine-gunners the final phase of the return to Mons began. Tournai fell to the British, and Guards and Yorkshire men carried Maubeuge, and on Monday, November 11th, before the "cease fire" sounded the mighty successors of "the contemptible little army" were in Mons, a spot that was consecrated ground to them. By the most remarkable coincidence in history the war on the British side ended where it began.

Edward Wright


two pages from a British magazine


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