- from The War Illustrated Deluxe volume I page 92
- 'The Three Days' Battle of Mons'
The Great Episodes of the War
British troops resting after battlee
"I cannot close the brief account of this glorious stand of the British troops without putting on record my deep appreciation of the valuable services rendered by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien.
"I say without hesitation that the saving of the left wing of the army under my command on the morning of August 26th could never have been accomplished unless a commander of rare and unusual coolness, intrepidity, and determination had been present to personally conduct the operation.
"It is impossible for me to speak too highly of the skill evinced by the two general officers commanding army corps; the self-sacrificing and devoted exertions of their staffs; the direction of the troops by divisional, brigade, and regimental leaders; the command of the smaller units by their officers; and the magnificent fighting spirit displayed by non-commissioned officers and men."
Extract from Sir John French's Despatch of September 7th 1914, to Lord Kitchener.
On Saturday, August 22nd, amid the wooded slopes and watered valleys of the little Belgian mining city of Mons, the British army began its campaign for the defence of the peaceful, progressive civilisation of Europe. Three miles south of the long line of British entrenchments was the battlefield of Malplaquet, where, two hundred and five years since, the Duke of Marlborough won his last great victory in the struggle against Louis XIV. for the balance of power on the Continent, at a cost of 20,000 men. Sir John French was to win a more important battle against a far more powerful foe at a tenth of that cost.
Our men began to arrive early on Saturday morning, and the Belgian colliery folk living by the mines round Mons were filled with the wildest, maddest joy. At last the mysterious British army, about whose landing on the Continent rumours had been spreading for a week, had come to the help of the brave, overwhelmed Belgian nation.
Scarcely anything was needed by our troops from their own stores of food. The people pressed all they had upon them, and gladly dug the trenches running south to the French frontier, on the western flank where the main German attack was expected. Many women helped in the work, and it was not done too quickly, for, about four o'clock on Saturday afternoon, eight German aeroplanes came scouting over the British position. Our flying men soared, and tried to engage them in a skirmish in the sky, while the townspeople of Mons and the miners and mechanics of the outlying villages were, for safety, hurried away with their families to the French town of Valenciennes.
After a Thirty-Mile March
In the evening the guns spoke. The British artillery was well set on the hills surrounding Mons, commanding the canal of the town, over which the Germans had to pass. The German artillery opened fire at a considerable distance, but came nearer as night fell and veiled the operations.
In the meantime, additional bodies of British troops marched into the town after a long tramp. Some of them were tired after doing thirty miles in the day, with a heavy load on their backs; but they gallantly flung themselves into the fighting-line, and began to dig entrenchments, lying on their stomachs. Up to Monday morning, British brigades arrived at Mons, rushing at once to battle, and digging themselves in with cool, steady speed.
For when Sunday morning dawned, it was clear that Sir John French would need every available man within marching distance. An enormous force of Germans was collecting in the shelter of woods on the north and west of the town for a sledge- hammer stroke on the left flank of the allied armies. The Kaiser had publicly vowed he would at once annihilate or capture any British army acting against him on the Continent, if it cost him a million men to do so. He was now preparing to carry out his threat.
Facing Frightful Odds
The destruction of the British force would not only gratify his fierce desire for vengeance on our country, but turn the entire French battle-line, and ensure the swift, irretrievable overthrow of the military power of France.
Our comparatively small army, intended only to support a driving French attack against the Germans which failed, suddenly became the living shield of the whole of France. From the beginning of the fight our men were outnumbered by three to one, our guns were far less numerous than the enemy's, and so were our Maxims. In all material things the odds were heavily against us, and they grew still heavier as the battle went on, and the Germans brought up more troops to encompass and annihilate our force.
When the main attack opened on Sunday morning, the scene was like a Sabbath landscape in the Cotswolds. One British gunner, who had come from that part of England, said that the quiet, sunny beauty of the hilly country made him think of his father and sister going at that hour down the green, peaceful lanes to church. Suddenly a German aeroplane swept over the British entrenchments.
A Human Tidal Wave
The flying foe took the range with his instrument and apparently sent a message to his batteries. Anyhow, some German gunners got the range of our infantry positions with surprising quickness. The Sabbath calm was shattered by the thunder of guns and the shriek and explosion of shell and shrapnel. Massed in overwhelming power, in Napoleonic fashion, the German artillery fire swept our trenches.
Then, when the German commander reckoned that our men had been put out of action, bluish-grey masses came out of a distant wood and torea human tidal wavetowards the canal that moated the British position. The pick of German infantry, regiments famed for victories over Dane, Austrian, and Frenchman, were hastening alert, gay, and confident, to their first historic fight with British soldiers.
Every man of them knew by heart the words written by their great Moltke: "Now that all Continental troops are armed with long-range rifles, the traditional supremacy of the British infantryman is over. They will have no opportunity to display their ability in hand-to-hand fighting."
"The Day" Had Arrived
So the Prussians came on, exultant and furious, to annul completely the ancient traditions of the last great nation in Western Europe with a military fame equal, at least, to theirs. " The Dav " had arrived! They would redress on land the power we won at sea. One man, watching them from the trenches, remarked that they seemed to think that taking our position would be a picnic.
There was no finesse or subtle skill about the German attack. It was just a plain, straight blow, delivered with terrific force, and the utmost swiftness. The blue-grey troops came in a moving wall towards our trenches in close formation, as soon as their guns cleared a path for them. Our men thought them mad, but there was method in their madness.
A creeping, Boer-like attack in open order, with the scattered troops slowly advancing from cover to cover, is disdained by the Germans. It is too slow, and it requires too much initiative from the individual infantryman. The German relies on his military machine, on his 110,000 non-commissioned officers, who keep the private soldiers in such firm control that a column will fall rather than break.
In tens of thousands were they sacrificed when our men opened fire. With a sureness and steadiness of aim unknown in Continental warfare, the British soldier taught the German the tragic lesson he had learned from the Boer. Our artillery, admirably handled, raked the advancing enemy, but he was in such numbers that our shells and shrapnel could not stop him. The gaps in the distant columns closed as soon, almost, as they were made.
The columns swept onwarda river of dim grey, almost invisible on the green, sunny landscape, and spreading in flood against the British trenches. By sheer numbers they defeated our artillery fire. They could not be killed quickly enough to hinder the advance. It was like the onset of the locked, disciplined, unshaken horde of a Zulu impi, that used to win by devoting more of its men to death than the defending army had time to slay before the position was stormed.
But, as the Boers long since proved, the brute force of a Zulu impi attack can be repulsed simply by the quality of the rifle fire of the defenders. This is what happened round the canal of Mons. When the German columns came within the range of our infantry, they met so steady, well-directed a storm of bullets that, for the first time in a hundred years, the wonderful Prussian war machine was broken up. The stricken troops halted, looked about in a dazed way, and ran like hares.
Our men were as cool and easy as if they were shooting at Bisley, though their rifles at times grew extremely hot with incessant firing. "Pick your man!" cried our officers. They picked himin hundredsin thousands. "We never expected anything like your rifle fire," said a wounded German captain afterwards. "It was staggering."
A French officer also marvelled at the extraordinary effect of the fire from our trenches, under which the grey masses beyond melted and scattered, leaving large, faint stains on the grass. In an interval between the onslaughts, he came down to look at our men. In the trench in which he settled himself to study the psychology of British soldiers in their deadliest hour in history, a furious discussion was going on. It was all about the merits or demerits of Gunboat Smith, the American prize-fighter who withdrew from his match with the young Englishman, Ahearn!
When the German advance was resumed, the quarrel about the departure of the Yankee heavy-weight dropped. The men turned coolly to the business on hand, and shot the Germans down like rabbits. At times they felt sorry for their enemies. It seemed to them they were not giving the foe fair play. For his rifle fire, aimed from the hip, was ridiculously bad. "Kaiser Bill's men," was the general saying, "couldn't hit a haystack at fifty yards."
The only thing from which our men as a whole seem seriously to have suffered was the shell fire from the Krupp guns. At night the enemy's searchlights flashed on our trenches, lighting the mark for the whistling shells. German shrapnel, it appears, did not do much damagethough it was more harmful than German rifle fire. The shrapnel with the rain of bullets, exploded in an ineffectual way. But the shrieking German shellsfired six at a time, so that one burst over the trench, if five wasted their missiles of death on empty groundwere sometimes calculated to disturb the British soldier.
But he was not disturbed. For thirty-six hours he held his ground. Six times the German commander hurried up vast masses of fresh troops, concentrated the overpowering fire of his artillery to cover their advance, and then hurled them on the British position. The invincible Iron Regiment was brought upthe irresistible Prussian Guard. One and all staggered back, shattered, stunned. The price our army paid by the waters of the Tugela and the Modder was recovered a hundred-fold by the canal of Mons.
Often our cavalry would finish what our infantry began the foot soldiers sending a volley into the hesitating enemy, and opening for the hussars. With a curdling yell the broken Germans fled. And none of the German horsemen stood against our cavalry.
Our gunners fought just as well as our infantry and cavalrymen. One by one the batteries stopped defending the position. The German leader, feeling sure at last of his ground, ordered an immense advance of fresh troops against the British trenches.
Out of the woods the Germans swung to victory. When they were well within range, the silent British guns encouraged them to come farther. More troops, therefore, were launched to make good the probable losses from the terrible British infantry fire. When the trap was full, the British guns spoke amid the crackle of the rifles and the racket of the hot, steaming Maxims. So again the moving grey mass disappeared.
Apparently there were not many bayonet charges at Mons. The Germans were usually unable to get near enough to our trenches. But the South Lancashires are said to have got home with terrible effect with the "white arm," against which no Germanthough brave to the point of death in some wayscares to stand. In the end our troops not only held their ground, but took one of the German positions. Mons was a greater Waterloo, but our new allies on this occasion were unable to carry out the great task of holding their line, so that our men had to begin to retire on Monday from the field of their victory.
- from the War Illustrated Deluxe volume I page 100
- 'The Wonderful Retreat from Mons'
- The Great Episodes of the War
from Mons to Maubeuge and southwards
The British Army has been in some perilous positions, but never has a large British force found itself in such terrible difficulties as faced Sir John French and his troops at Mons, in Belgium, on Monday, August 24th.
They were on the left edge of the Franco-British front, stretching down from Belgium. The northern part of this line was retiring to avoid being shattered by the victorious German host which had stormed Namur, repulsed the French at Charleroi, and made a successful counter attack.
So, although the British force was triumphantly holding Mons, its position was completely overthrown by the withdrawing movement of its Allies, which began on Sunday, August 23rd. The Germans took swift advantage of this condition of things. They pursued the French, but massed far more strongly against the British. Their tremendous efforts against our men were, as is reported, partly inspired by an extraordinary order issued from Aix-la-Chapelle by the Kaiser to his northern forces, commanding them to "exterminate French's contemptible little army."
General Kluck, with 200,000 men, began to encircle our troops on their left. Then on our right General Bulow advanced southward with another superior army, ready to swerve and hold our small force while Kluck smashed it.
What odds our men would have fought against had they got closed between Kluck the hammer and Bulow the anvil is hard to calculate. Perhaps six to oneperhaps more. But Sir John French saw to it that things did not fall out in this way. He had learnt round Ladysmith to conduct rearguard actions against better fighters than the Germans. Now he gave the world the supreme example in military history of the handling of troops in the most perilous of positions. What Sir John Moore did in the retreat to Corunna against Soult and Napoleon, when the odds were two to one against him, was excelled by Sir John French against the odds of three to one, and sometimes more.
Leaving a considerable body of troops near Mons to engage the attention of Bulow, he outspread a fan of cavalry westward to test the strength of Kluck's encircling movement. The main British force struck downwards towards the French fortress town of Maubeuge, and on Monday night, August 24th, it stretched from Maubeuge eastward to Kluck's army.
But Sir John French felt from the pressure Kluck was exerting on him that Maubeuge was a dangerous place to stay in, especially as the French armies were still retreating. The country was covered with standing crops, which would have limited the field of fire of our troops had they entrenched there.
So at dawn on Tuesday, August 25th, the British commander ordered a further retirement southward. By the evening most of our men were exhausted by marching and fighting. But the skill and audacity of their leader saved the situation.
French worked wonders with his men. He had an army of young athletes, trained by himself, and he called on them to fight as never men had fought before. For days they marched in battle manoeuvres, dug themselves in, shot, rose for a succession of bayonet charges. For nights they continued their southward retreat, tramping in the darkness, and fighting still, if necessary.
The Germans allowed our men no rest. Using their superiority in numbers to full advantage, they kept up a continuous fight in enormous masses. Here and there our men gained a respite by some trick. Knowing, for instance, that the Germans were becoming fearful of our deadly infantry fire, our troops would dig a trench in their rear, and leave their caps on it. When the German cavalry or foot soldiers saw the trench they kept at a distance.
They had learned by tragic experience what it would cost them to take a British position by a sudden charge. They waited till their guns came up and swept the ditch with shell and shrapnel in a thorough manner. In the meantime our army got away, and fed, and made another trench. Resolute not to be tricked again, the Uhlans rode up to the apparently empty ditch. But a row of capless heads appeared, and if all the horsemen were not shot the rest were bayoneted. The horses came in useful for our cavalrymen who were wearing out their mounts.
Oh, our marvellous cavalry! Cavalry fighting is a hand-to-hand affair, sabre against sabre, lance against bayonet, sword against machine-gun and cannon. On the individual skill, pluck, and dash of each cavalryman the issues of a continual series of hundreds of fights depended. By sheer strength of arm and horsemanship our outnumbered horsemen continually won the field.
They attacked against impossible oddsa hundred German troops to every single Briton. The huge mass of blue-grey men advanced to destroy its insignificant prey. The British cavalry suddenly became aware of the destruction that threatened it. It retired, with the Germans in headlong pursuit. Then there was a crash of artillery from an unexpected position, and the blue-grey mass was blown apart by shell, shrapnel, or even case-shot. The British cavalry squadron had been dangled as a bait to lead the German troops up for slaughter by our gunners!
Our gunners risked themselves, their horses, and their guns with the same daring adroitness. At need, one man did the work of a whole gun's crew, and did it steadily and wellwith all his comrades dead or disabled around him until he, too, fell. Then the nearest body of cavalry had to save the guns, as Captain Grenfell of the 9th Lancers did, just after he had been wounded in both legs and lost two fingers. But there were times when our guns were put out of action by the death of all the gunners and the horses, and no cavalry was near enough to ride out and recover the guns from the hostile horsemen sweeping down on them.
It was on one of these occasions that our infantryman showed what he will do for the guns that protect and support him. Two companies of Munsters recovered one of our batteries by a bayonet attack on German cavalry and against a terrific fire from the German artillery. The Irishmen were ordered to abandon the guns they had saved, for there were no horses available to move the battery. But the Munsters shot more German riders, took their horses, and harnessed them to the guns. Then, as there were still insufficient horses to do the work, the men made themselves beasts of burden, and dragged the battery about till nightfall. It must be remembered that this was done by men already weary with long marches, trench-digging, and fighting.
It is, however, almost unfair to distinguish any regiment of the British force by mentioning the deeds it did in the retreat from Mons to Cambrai and Le Cateau from Monday, August 24th, to Wednesday, August 26th. What Captain Grenfell performed every man in the army did in his measure. Many of our wounded mastered their bodily weakness and pain, and battled on to the death. All fought against heavy odds, and what is much more important and inspiring, they struggled against utter weariness of body and the numbing effect of fatigue on the brain.
At the critical moment many of our men were too tired to move. This happened on Wednesday, August 26th, when Kluck was encircling our troops near Cambrai. There was a strong French cavalry corps under General Sorbet eastward of our position. Sir John French asked the French horsemen for help. But their horses were too tired to carry them to the assistance of our outworn, outnumbered, hard - pressed troops.
Westward, at Arras, there was a much fresher French force under General d'Amade; but Kluck seems to have driven a strong wedge between these French reserves and his immediate preyour wearied army.
Then, with the immense force under his command, Kluck, at dawn on August 26th, hooked part of our army round at Le Cateau, near the town of Cambrai. So certain was Kluck of the annihilation or surrender of our men, that he reported his victory to the Kaiser, and the wireless station at Berlin announced it to the world.
But then was seen with what force and majesty the British fight. Sir Horace Smith- Dorrien was in command of the Second Corps and Fourth Division at Le Cateau, against which the Germans began their movement. It was impossible to send him any reinforcements, as our First Corps was utterly fatigued, after hacking its way to Landrecies and beating off an attack by 40,000 Germans, who swept on them at night from a forest.
Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and his small, battered force had therefore to face alone the full force of Kluck's attack. The odds were more than four to one in guns and men. There was no time for our tired soldiers to entrench themselves properly, and they had to lie exposed to the dreadful fire of the overpowering German artillery of 650 guns.
There were battles in the sky as well as in the fields. The men of our Royal Flying Corps wheeled above the armies, shot at by friend and foe, and, drawing their revolvers, they chased the German aviators, who were directing the fire of the Krupp guns below. By superior airmanship and marksmanship our airmen brought down five of the enemy's machines.
Meanwhile, the decisive attack opened. In avalanche after avalanche the German troops swept against our men, lying in open order with shell and shrapnel bursting over them i n extraordinary quantities. W hen the German artilleryman-ceased their deadly work, for fear of blowing away their own advancing troops, the moment arrived on which the fate of our Expeditionary Force and the French armies depended.
The Germans had to be stopped. If their advance continued, they would capture the rest of our troops and swoop on the retiring French lines to the east. The French were fighting bravely in a series of rearguard actions against other German armies. The arrival of Kluck on their left flank would probably convert their retreat into a rout. France would be lost.
Such was the awful position of affairs that Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien and his men rose with high, steady courage to meet. The masses of German infantrymen came onfive deep and shoulder to shoulderto deliver the mortal blow. But our troops gave them "the mad minute." This is fifteen rounds of well-aimed fire from each magazine rifle, with less than four seconds between each shot.
The Germans wavered, broke, and fled. Our cavalrymen and intrepid gunners then covered the retirement of their infantry. But Kluck's two hundred thousand had suffered too much to undertake a vigorous pursuit. The German general withdrew to reorganise his four battered army corps. The flanking movement was stopped, and the situation saved. A few days later the positions were reversed and our great advance began.
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