RETREAT FROM MONS - AUGUST 1914
On 7th August 1914, bank notes of £1 and 10 shillings (commonly called ten bob) were issued to replace full and half sovereigns as the British government withdrew gold to pay for the war. Meanwhile queues up to two miles long formed at British army recruiting offices.
Say Hello to the Ten Bob Note
On August 5th 1914 the commanding officer of each unit of the B.E.F (British Expeditionary Force) was given documents indicating the station, platform or siding, train number and time of the train they must catch. These instructions came from the British government’s ‘War Book’. This book contained millions of words that set out precisely what steps had to be taken on the outbreak of war, by all concerned, from Cabinet ministers to ordinary soldiers and sailors. 87 pages applied to railways and, as instructed, railway directors scrapped normal timetables, as trains were relocated to serve the needs of the military.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 5th August 1914
The British Army Moves Out
On 6th August around 550 trains, each pulling around 60 carriages, carried German troops across the Rhine bridges. This would continue day after day to help rush west around 2.2 million soldiers. Timetables were set out in the Schlieffen Plan which –if it worked – would deliver a German victory within 6 weeks.
In Britain, parliament agreed to Lord Kitchener’s plan for a rapid expansion of the British army. The call went out for 100,000 volunteers.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 7th August 1914
THE GERMAN ARMY MAKE THEIR MOVE
At the Belgian city of Liege, the first two Big Bertha guns went into action. It had taken 200 men 6 hours to assemble each gun and make them ready to fire but when their 820 kg shells were launched, they cracked open the city’s concrete forts like eggs. A week earlier Liege became the first city to be subjected to an air raid when bombs were dropped by a German zeppelin.
Elsewhere, and little more than a week since mobilization, 80,000 men of the BEF had arrived in France complete with stores and equipment and without a single casualty. A remarkable achievement.
The Germans had by now around one million men in Belgium with a similar number moving into France. The French engaged the Germans in ‘The Battle of the Frontiers’, confident that they could repel the invaders with a combination of cold steel and elan (spirit). However the first clashes did not go well for them and in the first month of the war they suffered 260,000 casualties!
One Million Invaders
THE BATTLE OF MONS
Seventeen year old John Parr was the first British soldier killed on the Western Front. He was shot on 21st August 1914 when his two man cyclist reconnaissance unit encountered scouting German cavalry. The Germans were surprised to encounter British soldiers so soon - unlike the British they were not yet using planes to track enemy troop movements.
Meanwhile at German H.Q., General Ludendorff complained that his boss Field Marshall von Moltke had “completely lost his nerve”.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 21st August 1914
Underage Soldier is First to be Killed
At 06.30 on the 22nd August 1914 a troop of British cavalry became the first British soldiers to fight in Europe since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. They encountered a troop of enemy horsemen a mile or two north of Mons, drew their sabres and charged. This engagement resulted in two firsts.
Trooper Edward Thomas fired the first British bullet of the war (wounding a German cavalryman); and Captain Hornby recorded the first kill.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 22nd August 1914
Cavalryman Fires First British Bullet
On this day the Battle of Mons was fought along 25 miles of the Mons-Conde canal in southern Belgium. Here the B.E.F. (numbering around 73,000) engaged an estimated 160,000 Germans – a fraction of the massive force heading their way. Five V.C.’s were awarded to British soldiers for either destroying bridges across the canal or for attempting to prevent the Germans from crossing those still standing. A feature of this battle was the British use of
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 23rd August 1914
Battle of Mons
THE BRITISH ARMY IS PREPARED FOR WAR
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 6th August 1914
On this day 100 years ago advance parties of the B.E.F. began crossing the Channel. Behind them tens of thousands of horses and thousands of requisitioned vehicles began to arrive at the Channel ports. All of these had been identified before the war and most of the trucks still bore their company names. The removal van shown was photographed months later outside Ypres’ famous cloth hall.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 8th August 1914
British Troops Arrive in France
On 10th August 1914, 1000 special trains full of British troops arrived in the port of Southampton as the bulk of the B.E.F. embarked for France. The troops in this photo are Gordon Highlanders and Scots Guards.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 10th August 1914
Steaming to War
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 15th August 1914
One hundred years ago France took on Germany in a titanic struggle. The German attack was strong and swift and the French were soon on the back foot. The German troops took to the field in a non-descript field grey outfit while the French looked both splendid and conspicuous in their traditional kit of red and blue. The French philosophy was to attack and they believed that their elan (spirit) would help them secure a memorable victory. For France the outcome could not have been more disappointing. They were blown away by ‘the Bosche’ and in the first month of the war they suffered 260,000 casualties including 75,000 dead. In one day (22nd August) they had a staggering 27,000 men killed – one third more than the British losses on the first day of the Somme.
France V Germany
German soldiers passed through Ypres on 16th August 1914 heading in the direction of Mons. Further south British troops crossed another area that would become highly significant in later years – the Somme. Compared to the enemy the British army in France was very small but more men were following as the Channel had its busiest day with troop ships making 137 crossings.
On this day, Second Lieutenant Evelyn Perry became the first British officer to die on active service on the Western Front. The 23 year old Londoner was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps (RFC) – often referred to as ‘the Suicide Club’.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 16th August 1914
The B.E.F. Has Arrived in France
On 18th August 1914, the British press reported that that the B.E.F. (British Expeditionary Force) had disembarked in France. It was a remarkable achievement that 100,000 men plus horses, vehicles and equipment had crossed the Channel without incident. Massive camps sprang up around ports such as Le Havre and everywhere the French civilians greeted them warmly. One old lady hung a homemade union jack from her window and little boys kindly offered the services of their sisters for a few francs. Children ran alongside the marching men asking for souvenirs such as tunic buttons, cap badges and even the caps themselves. The soldiers gave too generously and when they arrived at camp some units had to find string to fasten their tunics or to hold up their trousers!
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 18th August 1914
First Soldiers Arrive at Ypres and the Somme
Hornby was so delighted at his achievement that it was only with great reluctance that he cleaned the blood from his sword.
Images: Above British cavalry near Mons, August 1914. Right the junction where the first British shots of the war were fired. Ironically (on 11th November 1918) the last shots were fired a few yards away - close to the large building on the right.
rapid rifle fire into the massed ranks of their foe. With their superb Lee Enfield Mk3 rifles, the professional soldiers of the B.E.F. were able to shoot around 15 bullets per minute. Lieutenant Maurice Dease (25) was the first British soldier to earn a V.C. but he was killed in the battle attempting to hold Nimy rail bridge (shown above). So chaotic was the situation in the aftermath of the battle that it was 23 days after his death that the army informed his parents of his injuries. By that time they had heard the news of his death second hand.
On the 24th August the British army began its retreat from Mons with units leap-frogging one another to prepare defences and fight. Their manoeuvres were handicapped by columns of terrified refugees who jammed the narrow country roads, dragging or pushing their belongings. The British soldiers - who had been cheered by the local inhabitants as they marched towards the foe - were now jeered and spat upon as they fell back.
Image: Belgian dog drawn carts were a familiar site on the roads that led from Mons
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 24th August 1914
British Army in Retreat
By the 29th August the B.E.F. was 6 days march from Mons and heaps of discarded kit burned at the roadsides. The British army had not been defeated in battle but to the footsore soldiers that’s how it felt. In oppressive heat and utterly exhausted, the B.E.F. trudged towards Paris. Dust and sweat stung their eyes, and uniforms chafed their skin. The roads they followed were very straight with occasional stiff climbs to break the monotony. Those who suffered most were the reservists who had been summoned from civilian life only three weeks before. They were less fit than their regular army colleagues and their new boots were heavy (weighing 2.5 kg each), stiff and often ill-fitting. In the rush to send them overseas, reservists were sometimes issued with boots approximately the size they required and there was no opportunity to break them in. Furthermore the boots were often poor quality and after covering a hundred miles, heels and soles began to detach themselves. Sometimes the hobnails caused great suffering as they began to press through the leather and into the men’s feet. Some oozed blood at each step while at least one man was seen trudging along wearing on his feet only blood soaked socks.
On This Day - 100 Years Ago - 29th August 1914
'They Limped On, Blood-Shod'
Image: ‘The Angels of Mons’ by Marcel Gillis
On 29th September 1914, the London Evening News published a story that almost certainly gave rise to one of the greatest myths of the Great War – ‘The Angels of Mons’. The story was originally called ‘The Bowmen’ and was written by a Welsh writer of horror fiction whose pen name was Arthur Machen. The backdrop to this supernatural tale was the British defeat and retreat from Mons on 23rd / 24th August and the motivation to write it came from newspaper headlines reporting the shattered remnants of the B.E.F. retreating towards Paris. In Machen’s story a desperate British soldier called to St. George for help and suddenly ghostly figures appeared to put the enemy to flight. The story was not an instant hit but it was paraphrased in other publications and the legend was born. The British Government, which was keen to censor news from the front, made no attempt to control this story. Whether or not they also had a hand in creating or promoting it, is still disputed.