10 Facts About the Battle of Mons | History Hit

10 Facts About the Battle of Mons

Tom Ames

12 Jan 2021
British soldiers at the Battle of Mons. Wikimedia Commons / Ryry33

On 23 August 1914 the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) clashed with the German army for the first time in World War One.

At the Battle of Mons the British defended the Mons-Condé Canal in Belgium from a much larger German force. The BEF fought fiercely but were eventually pushed back.

Here are 10 facts about the Battle of Mons.

1. It was Britain’s first battle in western Europe for 100 years

The last time the British had fought in western Europe was at the famous Battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815.

Although the French army had been fighting the Germans at Lorraine, Ardennes and Charleroi, it was in Mons that the first shots were fired by the British.

Mons was also where the first British soldier to be killed in the war, Private John Parr, died, on 21 August 1914, in an ambush by German troops whilst out on a bicycle reconnaissance patrol.

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2. The Battle of Mons was part of the ‘Battle of the Frontiers’

The Battle of the Frontiers is the collective name for the first series of engagements between Allied and German forces on the Western Front in the opening month of the First World War. It was fought along the eastern borders of France and in southern Belgium.

During the Battle of the Frontiers, British and French troops attempted to stop the German advance and prevent them out-flanking the French army, yet it resulted in a series of stunning German victories and Allied retreats.

The Battle of Mons was the last of four Battles of the Frontiers that took place.

4th Batallion Roya Fusiliers - 22 August 1914, Mons

British soldiers before the Battle of Mons. (Image Credit: Public Domain).

3. The British Army was outnumbered three to one

In August 1914, the British Army was pitifully small. Two-thirds of it, merely 80,000 men, had crossed the channel as the British Expeditionary Force. It was made up of professional soldiers who were well-trained and disciplined. In contrast, the Germans and the French fielded armies of conscripts which were each over 1,000,000 strong.

As a result, the British were significantly out-numbered during the early battles of the First World War. At Mons, the Germans had three times more soldiers than the British.

Wounded heroes of the Battle of Mons.

Wounded heroes of the Battle of Mons.

4. The British and French were defending a canal

The British and the French had approached the town of Mons (which had mostly been abandoned by the locals) with little of idea of the numbers or location of the German Army. The British took up position along the Mons-Condé Canal to the north of the town.

It was agreed that the BEF would hold the canal for 24 hours and dig trenches on the south side of the canal. If they couldn’t hold the line, the plan was to withdraw south to form another defensive line.

The British did not have enough men to defend the length of the canal, so protected the areas by its bridges. The British made a mistake in neither destroying the bridges nor preparing them for detonation – they were over-confident in the first few days of the war.

5. British troops were uniquely skilful

Unlike the conscripts of the European armies, the men of the BEF were skilful and well-practiced marksmen. Armed with his Lee-Enfield rifle, a British soldier could hit a man-sized target 15 times per minute, at a range of 300 yards. This would be extremely useful when the Germans began their attack.

Diagram of the Battle of Mons

6. The Germans attacked in parade-ground formation

When the German attack began in the early hours of 23 August, the Germans advanced as if across a parade-ground. They marched towards the British in formations 15 ranks deep. One British infantryman said that any bullet which they fired would find its target.

The British were able to fire so quickly against these huge German formations that the Germans believed they were facing machine-gun fire. Consequently, despite the Germans targeting bridges, their first attacks were repulsed.

7. The British retreated after 48 hours

The Germans made several more attacks in looser formations. These were more successful, so the Germans pressed on the weakest parts of the British lines, even swimming across the canal to try gain a foothold.

Despite the valiant efforts of the BEF, the British were increasingly becoming surrounded, facing total annihilation, and were eventually forced to retreat after 48 hours holding back the German army. They managed to blow-up one bridge, but it was too little, too late).

Persued by the Germans, they pulled-back over 200 miles into France.

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8. The British saw it as a victory

Government censorship prevented the defeat being reported immediately, and it took until 30 August for the news to emerge. The Times newspaper wrote a frank account of the battle, with the reporter stating how many, many, more men were needed by the army.

However, to this day, the British view the Battle of Mons as a victory. The BEF had been outnumbered by about 3:1 but had held off a much larger enemy force for 48 crucial hours. The battle also prevented the Germans from out-flanking the French army, and the British inflicted around 5,000 German casualties at a cost of only 1,600 men.

Mons did also prove to contribute to the German failure to manoeuvre around Paris (the Schlieffen Plan), because it bought the allies time.

9. The first Victoria Cross and Iron Cross of World War One were awarded

The Victoria Cross and the Iron Cross were the highest awards for bravery which could be awarded to British and German forces. The first Victoria Cross of World War One was awarded to Lieutenant Maurice Dease, who took control of a machine-gun station by the Nimy Bridge despite being shot several times, fighting up until the last moment to allow his section to escape. He later died of his wounds.

When Lieutenant Dease had been mortally wounded, Private Sidney Godley offered to defend the Railway Bridge while the rest of the section retreated and was also awarded the VC.

The first Iron Cross of World War One was awarded to Musketier Oskar Niemeyer, who swam across the canal and opened a swing-bridge. This allowed German troops to cross the canal, and Niemeyer was killed soon after.

Maurice James Dease (left), recipient of the first Victoria Cross of World War One, and right: Sidney Godley (right), the first Private to be awarded the VC in World War One – both at the Battle of Mons. (Image Credits: left – photograph Q 70451, right – photograph Q 80449 – both from from the collections of the Imperial War Museums / Public Domain).

10. The battle gave rise to several myths

The Battle of Mons came to be seen as a British victory against insurmountable odds, like the Battle of Agincourt. The battle produced several myths about how the troops fought so well. One legend was that the British had been protected by angels – blocking the Germans’ path and guiding the British to safety. This myth of the Angel of Mons is attributed to the utter exhaustion of the men, following the fighting and their lengthy retreat into France.

Another popular story was that the longbowmen of Agincourt’s ghosts had guarded against the Germans. Rumours even circulated that German corpses had been found with arrow wounds.

Nov 29 1915 – Illustrated London News The Ghostly Bowmen of Mons fight the Germans (Image Credit: Illustrated London News / Public Domain).

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Tom Ames