from the book ‘At the Front with Three Armies’
'The Battle of Mons'
by American journalist, Granville Fortescue 1915

The British in France

illustration of British soldiers on the firing-line at Mons


In this chapter I am going to criticize freely.I know I lay myself open to the charge of squaring a grudge, but I must take that chance.


To make my position clear it must be remembered that I had traversed the Belgian-French advanced posts from Warve Gembleaux, Namur, down the valley of the Meuse to Dinant. As I have stated elsewhere I have had ten years' service in the United States, and I think I may say that I am not an untrained observer.

From the first I had been astounded at the smallness of the French force in this zone. I knew that from a strategical point of view the military occupation of Belgium by the French had its drawback, but as long as the occupation was a fact I could not understand why it was not complete. Coming down the Meuse all the signs pointed to a strong force of Germans advancing from the east. I surmise that they crossed the Meuse near Huy; but more than this, it was evident, at date of which I write, that an overwhelming German army was moving across central Belgium. The German cavalry was everywhere brushing aside the small groups of Belgian cavalry which attempted to oppose it. It cannot be said that after Liege the Belgian army offered any serious objection to the advancing Germans before they reached Louvain. Not that the home troops could be expected to do much in face of the enormous numerical superiority which the enemy had developed in their country. The Belgian line was too extended. Either the Belgian forces should have been brought back to the positions selected by the French to offer battle—Charleroi, Mons—or enough troops should have been sent forward from the allied armies to check at least the German advance through Belgium. As it was, the Belgian army was driven off the line it had selected without having caused any serious inconvenience to the advancing Germans. It was at this time that the crime against Louvain was committed.

The Belgian army having been eliminated, the enemy could now devote his whole attention to the other armies. By the way, I may mention that the fact that an English army had arrived in Belgium was not known in Germany until the news was published in the English papers. This I have on high German authority.

When it was known that the Expeditionary Force was in their front it became the ambition of the Germans to capture or annihilate it.

General French found himself opposed by an enormously superior force. When the Germans heard that the English were in front, they had determined to concentrate their main attack against them. There are three splendid ways of coming down on Mons from the north. Grey-coated columns were soon marching at full speed along these roads.

After spending the night at Onhaye, as described in my last chapter, I marched back to Athenée, where I was told I should find French head- quarters. I had been up to that time scrupulously careful in all my moving from point to point with the advance troops, to comply strictly with the rules governing correspondents. I had my passes stamped at every post I passed, and in the expectation that I should eventually meet the French forces, I had been careful to provide myself with a special letter from the French Minister in Brussels, recommending me to the courteous treatment of the officers of the French army.

Besides this letter I had first my passport as an American citizen. Second, I had a personal letter from the American Minister, Mr. Brand Whitlock, which he had given me in Brussels as an extra certificate of identification to the Belgian staff. I had next the pass issued by the Belgian Minister of War. This had my portrait in the corner and had so far taken me safely all over Belgium. Next I had my laissez-fiasser from the commandant at Namur permitting me to go to Dinant; and last, I had a pass to the Belgian General Staff at Louvain. Despite all these papers of identification General P----- made me a prisoner. The French have a most exaggerated fear of correspondents. They attribute their defeat by the Germans in 1870 to a correspondent. It was, they say, the correspondent of the Standard who made known the position of General MacMahon's army in one of his dispatches, a piece of information which permitted the Germans to cut this general and his army off from Bazaine, who was besieged. I think the story is told in von Moltke's memoirs. If I have heard that story once, I have heard it a dozen times in my wanderings in the war zone. General P-----, in his order for my arrest, said I was held because I had seen operations of his army of an important character.

I will not go into the indignities incident to my detention. I am a great admirer of the French people as a whole, and I have many friends in France.

My place of confinement was Givet. I must say that my jailers treated me with the greatest consideration as far as their orders permitted. M. Lefort was my favourite sentry; he was a notary from Revin, which is on the line to Rheims. As for the hostess of the hotel of Le Cheval Blanc, whose name I have not in my notebook, her rum omelettes almost made me ask to have my prison period lengthened.

At last I was released and sent back to Paris. All during my confinement I had been wondering what had happened to the army of the British at Mons. The thought of their position was still with me when I crossed the Channel on my way to London. When I arrived in that city I was so astonished at the apparent indifference, or at any rate ignorance of the real condition of affairs in the war zone, that I wrote the following :—

"Solemnly I warn the people of England that this is the beginning of a time of great trial. For Englishmen must be the bone of the army of the Allies. We have a Corps d'Elite here ready for the word of fire, but more must come. The enemy is advancing like a tidal wave towards the valley of the Meuse. Many lives must be sacrificed to dam this engulfing flood. A gigantic battle may open on the morrow. Whatever its result, let England be ready."

This appeared in the Daily Telegraph of August 22, 1914. Wherever I told the story of what I had seen along the front of the contending armies I was greeted with surprised protests.

I must exaggerate. The French must know where the main German blow was coming. They must be preparing for it. Mr. Harry Lawson, the Proprietor Manager of the Daily Telegraph, however, understood at once the seriousness of the situation.

It was the policy of the English newspapers at that time—a policy dictated by the War Office— to avoid publishing disquieting news. The facts of the battle of ,Mons were not entirely known to the public until the publication of General French's stinging report. Personally I think that this concealing the facts in the earlier days of the war has had a prejudicial effect on the present state of England's preparedness. If the whole story of the fighting at Mons had been made public, if the stories of the heroism of the different regiments had been written, recruits would not have been so slow in coming forward at the beginning of the war. It seems that England needs the stimulus of defeat to arouse her real fighting blood. In the beginning this stimulus was suppressed. The volunteer army would be far more advanced to-day—I write in the first weeks of November—in numbers and effectiveness, if the story of Mons had been read in the homes of the British the day after it occurred.

I understand perfectly the necessity for the suppression of news which will give information to the enemy. Incidentally, why was the. news of the wonderful transportation of the British troops across the Channel ever published at all until after the war? What I contend is that the description of feats of bravery, even with heavy loss, instead of hurting a cause, helps it. The matter is beyond argument.

In accordance with this policy some papers went so far as to make statements which were not in accordance with the facts. It was at the time of the fall of Namur. This news came from an independent source that was reliable. While first admitted, it was afterwards vigorously denied. I was especially interested in the capture of this important point, as I had considered it as the real point d'appui of the best line of defence the war zone offered. It was the key of the situation. It stands at the junction of the Meuse and Sambre rivers. It was on one of the most important lines of communication of the enemy. The actual fighting lasted hardly more than two hours, when the place capitulated. After the tremendous struggle which the Belgians had given the Germans at Liege, I must say I was disappointed in their showing here. I had no opportunity of making a detailed inspection of the forts at the time of my visit, but on paper they were stronger even than those at Liege. But I have since come to the conclusion that any fortress constructed over ten years ago is outdated in a military sense.

The railway led directly into the city and the Germans had no difficulty in bringing as many men and as many guns to Namur as they wished. Here it was that the famous seventeen inch howitzers first made their appearance. It is certain that no gun in any of the Namur forts could approach the German mastodon pieces. What force the enemy had here is not yet certain. At least, it was two corps, perhaps more. Under the circumstances there seems, after all, some reason for the Belgian defeat. What would have been the issue if a corps of French troops had been thrown into this region, can now only be a matter of academic discussion. Yet I think the triumphal march of the Germans might have been halted again, at least as long as it had been at Liege, if this plan had been adopted.

When Namur fell, the carefully chosen battleground of the French and English became untenable. If the Allies had not already been in full retreat, they would have been compelled to retire as soon as Namur was in the hands of the enemy.

Wherever he met the Allies he was numerically superior. Add to this the high standard of morale created among his troops by their first victories, and you have an army that nothing could stop. Kluck, the victorious, was coming down on Paris like an invading Juggernaut. He crushed all before him.

It is said that General Joffre plays the game of war as if it were chess. A contoured map of the whole war zone, some five metres square, has been modelled in papier maché, and on this map the corps and divisions of friend and foe are represented by wooden blocks. Every feature of the terrain, hills, valleys, railroads, rivers, wagon road, forest and plain is marked to scale on the model. Thus the master sees at a glance the disposition of his own and the enemies' forces. In an adjoining room sits an adjutant who receives an average of five hundred telegrams a day. These all bear on the movements of the troops. Each new bit of information as it is received is at once communicated to the Generalissimo. He reflects alone in the map-room. He moves the blocks. The order is given, and the change is immediately effected in the theatre of operations.

On the other hand, the Germans were confident and settled in their plan. No historical record can show anything superior to the marching of the Germans during the first weeks of the war; at that time their organization was working without a hitch. As a united force, a homogeneous military establishment, the world has never seen its equal. Do not think I am partial to the Germans. I hope I shall write with an unprejudiced mind; but from a military point of view I cannot help admiring the German machine. Out of the gloom of the first weeks of war the retreat of the English army shines resplendent. . . . The greatest test of generalship is a retreat. In comparison a victory is simply organized. Remember that the plans for a retreat must be drawn up under the most difficult circumstances. Decision must be prompt, orders are immediate, and every precaution must be taken to prevent the retreat becoming a rout. For officer and private it is the most nerve-testing experience of war. I think when the scores are all added, the withdrawal of General French from Mons will count more than the victory of Kluck. With the German superiority of numbers it was no extraordinary feat to drive the English back, especially as this superiority of force was quite unexpected. General French had made no error in the disposal of his command. His cavalry which was covering his front as far forward as Waterloo sent back reports. It was only when he was in danger of being completely surrounded that he gave the command for retreat. All during this struggle the British soldier hung on with national tenacity. As usual he did not realize when he was licked.

The British Expeditionary Force, for its size, was perhaps the finest army the world has seen. Man for man no other organization could produce their physical superiors. In training they were all veterans. They were enthusiastic marksmen. The infantry was of the famous English brand which sticks till the last round. The cavalry was the best that hunting officers could make it. The artillery, while hardly up to the French standard, fulfilled its difficult role. The officers were the best type of English gentleman. From Mons to Le Cateau they contested every inch of the ground. The Germans were on all sides. One officer has told me that for hours his battalion marched parallel with a force of Germans. They were so far within the lines that by chance they were sometimes mistaken for friends. From Le Cateau to St. Quentin and beyond, the retirement was even more difficult. It seemed to be without end, no reinforcements appeared, and all day and night they were harried by their pursuers, yet panic never appeared in their ranks. The great retreat was a masterly performance.



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