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 from a much larger German force.
The BEF fought fiercely but were eventually pushed back. During this important battle the first Victoria Cross and the first Iron Cross of World War One were awarded.
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.
2. The Battle of Mons was part of the Battle of the Frontiers
The Battle of the Frontiers was a series of engagements between Allied and German forces at the start of the First World War. It was fought along the eastern borders of France and in 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.
3. The British Army was outnumbered three to one
In August 1914, the British Expeditionary Force consisted of only 80,000 men. 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 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.
4. The British and French were defending a canal
The British and the French were drawn up along the Mons-Condé Canal. 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.
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.
6. The Germans attacked in parade-ground formation
When the German attack began, 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, the first German 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 eventually forced to retreat after 48 hours holding back the German army.
8. The British saw it as a victory
To this day, the British view the Battle of Mons as a victory. The BEF 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.
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. He later died of his wounds.
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.
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.
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.
Featured Image: British soldiers at the Battle of Mons. Ryry33 / Commons