August 23, 1914 - The Battle of Mons and the BEF in World War I
Updated: Jun 13, 2021
August 23, 1914. The German Army is bulldozing its way to Paris – or so they think. Near the Belgian city of Mons, they run into something that is not supposed to be there: the British Army. It’s the Kaiser’s men versus the King’s men for the first time as the “Old Contemptibles” of the British Expeditionary Force fight their first battle of World War I. Can they stop the Germans from reaching Paris?
This is Part 3 of my little “Guns of August” mini-series covering the first few battles of World War I. I’ve also been turning these into mini-featurettes on each of the major powers at the beginning of the war. On August 5 I covered the German Army during its invasion of Belgium, and on August 14 I discussed the French during the giant Battle of the Frontiers. Today it’s the turn of the British Army, the jolly good lads that marched off in August 1914 to fight the bloody Hun.
To make sure we’re all up to speed on the current situation, the opening weeks of the First World War see Germany committing almost its whole army on a lightning attack into Belgium. The goal: reach Paris and take France out of the war in record time before the Russians can jump on Germany’s back and crush them. The Germans have already run into a few issues, including unexpected Belgian resistance. The French haven’t been faring too well either; the planned grand French offensive grinds to a bloody halt in the teeth of German firepower and modern technology.
While the French were battering themselves into a brick wall in Lorraine and the Ardennes throughout the middle of August, though, they weren’t even touching the main German striking force. This sledgehammer of manpower was divided into three main armies: 1st, 2nd, and 3rd. The 1st Army was the very outside of the massive German wheel into France, the men whose sleeves were supposed to “brush the Channel” on their march towards Paris. It was commanded by a hard-driving, stubborn general named Alexander von Kluck. The 2nd Army was commanded by cautious, vacillating General Karl von Bulow.
These two armies were to form the point of the dagger aimed at France’s heart, with 3rd Army performing a supporting role on their left. It was their advance that had been held up by the determined Belgian resistance at Liege, and they were significantly behind schedule. By the third week of August, the 1st and 2nd Armies were approaching the French-Belgian border, well on their way to Paris.
So far as they knew, the French 5th Army was all that stood in their way. The 5th Army formed the extreme left of the long French line, and had advanced partway into Belgium as part of French General Joffre’s great planned offensive. Now, as every other French unit along the line from Belgium to Switzerland was smashing itself to pieces, the 5th Army’s commander General Charles Lanrezac came to realize that they were all alone – and that the German forces heading right for him were much, much bigger. He was sending frantic signals to Joffre, asking for permission to pull back since he was in danger of being overwhelmed. Joffre informed him that this was impossible; they were facing the main German forces in HIS front. Lanrezac was ordered to attack, and drive the Germans back!
As the Germans bore down on Lanrezac’s isolated 5th Army, they believed they had an opportunity to destroy it. But they had a surprise coming. For the French did not stand alone.
For several years before the First World War broke out, French and British staff officers had been communicating – hypothetically, of course – about what would happen if the Germans attacked France or Belgium. The secret agreement was that the British would send a small army to the continent to help the French out, while the bulk of their commitment would be naval, economic and overseas. The British high command never anticipated building up some sort of massive army on the continent, and they knew they could never sell this idea to the general public. The entire notion of sending ground troops to France was thus kept extremely quiet – so quiet that the Germans had no inkling of the fact that British troops were already on the European continent by mid-August.
The British Army before World War I was the smallest of the great powers by several orders of magnitude. When the war broke out, the Germans had 98 divisions, the French 72, the Austrians 48, and even the Belgians had 7. The British had 6. Not a typo…six. The vast majority of the British Army was scattered across their far-flung colonies; as an island and naval power, Queen Victoria and her successors had never needed a very large army. Alone among major European powers, the British had no conscription, no mass reserves, no enormous mobilization process.
What this DID mean was that the British Army was an all-regular force, composed of professional long-service soldiers, most of whom had seen combat in the various small wars of empire. Many of the senior sergeants and mid-rank officers had fought in the Boer War fifteen years earlier, against skilled marksmen who dug in and used camouflage, so they had learned some hard lessons that many other powers had not. The British, man-for-man, were probably the best army in Europe – but they were much, much smaller than the other nations’ forces, so they could afford the fewest losses. Every veteran soldier killed thus carried a much higher loss of experience and leadership than in the German or French Army.
When the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) landed on the French coast on August 12 and began marching to the front, it consisted only of those troops Britain had on hand – 4 infantry divisions and a cavalry division. Compared to the 14-division steamroller that was Von Kluck’s 1st Army *alone*, this wasn’t exactly intimidating. To General John French, the commander of the BEF, it was downright anxiety-inducing. In numeric terms, the little BEF made up half the entire strength of the British Army, and all the troops in Europe (since half the Army was in India or another colonial post). For all intents and purposes, his little drop in the water – 80,000 men - WAS the British Army. If he lost it, there was no other.
As the British landed in France, they received a rapturous welcome and were showered with food, flowers and kisses from local ladies. An infantry officer recorded feeling “like a king.” As the BEF plunged forward into France, French made contact with General Joffre’s headquarters. Joffre asked him to support the 5th Army’s left flank, dangling exposed to the “exaggerated” threat of a German attack. General French and his troops made haste to the battlefront to support their ally, just as the swinging hammer was about to come crashing down on Lanrezac’s lonely army in southern Belgium.
On August 22, 1914, Bulow’s German 2nd Army smashed into Lanrezac’s French 5th Army along the Sambre river in Belgium. This tough, dreadful fight was still going on as the 4th Dragoon Guards, the advance element of the BEF, made contact with the German 4th Cuirassiers at Casteau north of Mons. The BEF had arrived just in time, because Kluck was homing in on their very position. It was like that moment in Lord of the Rings when Aragorn comes crashing in to save Boromir from the Uruk-Hai archer (nerd moment.)
This was an unpleasant surprise for Kluck. The Germans had gotten wind of a British force somewhere on the continent – they just had no idea where. They believed the British might land in Belgium itself to support the Belgian Army, which was rapidly retreating towards Antwerp, or farther up on the coast to pose a threat to the German flank. Either way, Kluck was surprised to find British cavalry in southern Belgium, and had no idea what this meant.
Without modern aerial recon or satellite imagery, he didn’t know if this was just a squadron of horsemen or the whole British Army. Either way, Kluck was determined that on August 23 he would pass through Mons, fall on Lanrezac’s exposed left flank while Bulow hammered the French from the front, and destroy the last obstacle on the road to Paris. But the Germans would not make it into Mons on August 23.
Small note of interest: allegedly, upon hearing Kluck’s report of British troops unexpectedly on the ground in Belgium, Kaiser Wilhelm ordered Kluck to "exterminate the treacherous English and walk over General French's contemptible little army". Whether it’s true or not (no record of the message exists) the BEF loved the insult and started calling themselves the “Old Contemptibles.” The British have never let facts get in the way of a good story.
The BEF had trickled into Mons on August 22, and when General French got wind of the fact that Kluck’s advance units were bearing down on his new position, he ordered his men to dig in along the Mons-Conde canal to the north. By the morning of August 23, the BEF’s four infantry divisions were well-placed along the high ground beyond the canal, with buildings providing strong points and the high spoil heaps of the local coal mines providing observation posts for artillery spotters. Even though the BEF’s last elements were straggling in at 3am on the 23rd, saddled with eighty pounds of equipment apiece in thick woolen uniforms surrounded by the heat of August, they were ready for the fight when the Germans came.
One fact often gets lost in these narratives of campaigning as an army: that foot marches suck, suck ENORMOUSLY, believe me, I know. By August 23, 1914, both the Germans and British had marched continually for many days, and in the Germans’ case they had been fighting constant skirmishes and some serious battles along the way. For both sides, especially the reservist bulk of the German 1st Army, this had to have been a physical test of monumental proportions. These battles do not devolve down to moving the red and blue pieces around on the map. Those red and blue pieces make up thousands of men who get blisters, heatstroke, drop out of the ranks for water, or even just sneak off to grab a quick smoke. After almost three weeks at war in the heat of summer, these guys were now asked to go into the first battle most of them had ever seen. Compare, say, First Bull Run.
The Germans outnumbered the British heavily, but they were attacking across mainly open ground and trying to breach a canal. They were also unprepared for the British style of fighting. The dominant German impression was of fighting an invisible enemy; the British had learned their lessons from the Boer War and were fighting from deep, camouflaged trenches. At the Tugela River and Magersfontein, the British had learned how difficult it was to assault skilled riflemen in well-prepared earthworks, and the British were the best riflemen in Europe in 1914. One German officer remembered that the British “had converted every house, every wall into a little fortress.” He described the British fire as so fast and devastating that it could only be some sort of new machine gun. In fact, the British had only a few machine guns at the front; what he was seeing was the result of accurate, quick, deadly British rifle fire.
The Brandenburg Grenadiers lost 500 men out of their first attack – a staggering cost for a single day’s action. All along the line, the British held their ground all day at Mons. The British infantry did not lose a foot, and their supporting artillery kept up a steady supporting fire. The field north of Mons was littered with German corpses. All day, the Germans sent wave after wave of infantry to try and wipe the British out, but despite being desperately outnumbered, they could not dislodge their contemptible foe. The British tactical skill and superior marksmanship won the day at Mons. The BEF had lost 1,600 casualties, while the German 1st Army’s toll must have reached about 5,000.
The Battle of Mons gained a mythic status for the British people. In British historical writing and cultural memory, it was amped up as a heroic victory against an overwhelming enemy, and comparisons were made directly to Henry V’s victory at Agincourt. Only a month after the battle, a story appeared in a London newspaper about an angelic entity appearing at Mons. Supposedly, phantom bowmen from Agincourt had been summoned by a soldier calling on St. George to help destroy the demonic German host. The story was fictional, but soon variation sprung up alleging to be true. The “Angel of Mons” became an article of British myth about World War I, and the tales only grew in the telling.
Angel or no, it is far likelier that good tactics, German overconfidence, and the normal problems of 1914 reasserted themselves at Mons. The Germans found themselves in a 20th-Century situation and responded with 19th-Century strategies. The same tragedy was being repeated all over Europe, of course, and the Germans were just as susceptible as any nation to the notion of “scare them off with the bayonet.” At Mons, the Germans learned what the French had learned a few days before on the Frontiers: the bravest heart can be pierced by the most cowardly bullet. Flesh cannot conquer metal.
The British went to sleep on the night of August 23 convinced they had won a victory, and they probably had. So it was a rude shock when they woke up in the morning and were informed they had to retreat. While they had gotten lucky and won a tactical victory over the Germans, the French to their right had been knocked down and dragged by the German 2nd Army. Worse still, Kluck’s 1st Army had gotten its head straight and, instead of coming at the British over the canal again like idiots, was flanking to either side. The French were retreating – and if General French didn’t retreat too, he was going to be facing almost 700,000 Germans with his 80,000 British. The BEF had gotten lucky at Mons. They might not get lucky again.
General French, though, was freaking out. The fact that his little army was suddenly in real danger of being wiped out seems to have made him more anxious than ever. He ordered the BEF to retreat south and then…they just kinda kept going. As the French conducted their fighting retreat, the BEF just kept marching south, trying to get clear of the incoming German spearhead. There was serious talk about pulling the BEF out of France entirely, to save the British Army from the disaster while there was still a chance. Even the pleading of French authorities did not seem to change General French’s mind. Screw you guys, I’m outta here.
All along the line, General Joffre’s French armies were ordered to retreat. Joffre had suddenly come very, very alive to the threat posed by that massive German juggernaut aimed at Paris. Forget his attack plan; if he didn’t shift some troops to the left to stop Kluck and Bulow, the French were going to lose this war in a matter of days. This was what would become known as the “Great Retreat”, where the French pulled back all along the line from Belgium to Switzerland to reorganize, rest, and prepare for the counterblow that could or could not decide the war. Joffre was already thinking about where the main battle would have to take place. There was just one problem: he would need the BEF. Could he convince General French to stay and fight?
To save Paris, the British would have to fight, and they would have to fight on the Marne. Tune in on September 6 for the most important battle of the First World War.