Mons 1914

(Lecture given to The Western Front Association in 1990 by the then Honorary President John Terraine)

I didn’t have much choice about the title of  my first book, Mons, the Retreat to Victory, which came out thirty years ago, in 1960. Messrs B. T. Batsford were publishing a series overall title of Great British Battles. It was a good series, which produced some contributions; I can readily  call to mind Baring Pemberton's Battles of the Boer h seemed to me to contain more sense about a deceptive subject than a shelf-full essays; Michael Edwardes's The Battle of Plassey, which revealed the Indian participants as three dimensional human beings; and Donald Mcintyre's The Battle of the Atlantic on which I leaned with some weight when writing my last book, Business in Great Water (1989) . So I signed the contract, which rewarded me with a sum roughly equivalent to what four men with hearty appetites and thirsts might spend on one good blow-out in a fashionable restaurant today. But that was no problem; it was my first book  being paid to write it; I was honoured.

The problem came when I started thinking about the subject  - in fact, two Mons was the British Army's first engagement with the enemy in the Great War, and also  its first engagement on the European continent for 99 years.

(I  know the Crimea Peninsula is, strictly speaking, part of ‘Russia in Europe’, but it is hard to think of it as being anything but t part of the inscrutable East. Even the Russians regarded it more or colony; it took four times as long for a horse drawn wagon to reach the Crimea from Moscow in 1854 as a steamship from England.) Forgive the digression; the point is the link between Mons and Waterloo - as the crow flies, less than thirty miles away).

The link is conceptual and sentimental, and that is all. Waterloo was a devil of a battle, bitter, bloody and decisive in European history. As a 'British battle', Mons came being a non-event; only one of the two army corps comprising the BEF took part; its casualties, in twelve hours  of action, numbered about 1,600 out of approximately of all ranks. The other corps, Haig's I Corps, had forty casualties during the day, five cavalry brigades even fewer. Almost half the total of casualties were endured battalions: over 400 in the 4th Middlesex and over 300 in the 2nd Royal Irish. Sixteen hundred casualties  in a day was about what a single brigade might suffer at Loos in 1915, or consider itself lucky to get away with on the Somme in 1916. It is very close number of men left unwounded out of a contingent of 6,000 British soldiers present at Albuera in 1811, and a good deal less, proportionately as well as numerically, than the casualties out of 24,000 present at Waterloo in 1815.

So I realised fairly quickly that to call Mons a 'great' British battle would be to the meaning of words beyond what they could bear, although it was undoubtedly an nant battle. To try to indicate the importance, I threw in the Retreat, which includes which was real enough: Le Cateau, three days after Mons, on 26 August, when three divisions sustained 7,812 casualties and lost thirty-eight guns, and those were matters that left their mark indeed.

But what I also realised, and this did disturb me until my editor at  Basford's showed praiseworthy elasticity of mind and understanding, was that Mons was only to be comprehended, and its real importance assessed, by taking into account the Allied campaign into which it fitted and the reason for it being fought. And in due course it also dawned upon me that the Allied campaign was only comprehensible in terms  of the German campaign. In August 1914 the Germans seized an initiative which they did not lose until July 1918, and which meant, as I said to a Royal United Services Institute for Defence Studies seminar in 1981, that for most of that time

the French had to dance to the German tune, and the British danced at their coat-tails - an activity which is neither dignified nor rewarding.

This activity began at Mons. It was a defensive battle, mainly fought along the straight line of a canal (now a motorway) through a mining district of contiguous mining villages in the midst of slag-heaps (some of which are still there, some of  them beginning to look quite pretty). Heavily outnumbered, but well hidden, the BEF beat off all the German attempts to shift it; its carefully cultivated musketry skills shot flat the mass­ formations of the German infantry, and there was no very obvious reason to most of the troops present why they should not stay where they were. Yet the orders came, quite explicitly, to retreat. The reason for this was the decision of General Lanrezac,  commanding the French Fifth Army on the right of the BEF, to continue the retreat which his Army had been performing for the last two days. Since the BEF's arrival at Mons was believed to be simply the first stage of an advance side by side with Lanrezac's Ann y, this change of plan by the French commander, fortunately perceived and reported just in time by Lieutenant Spears of the 11th Hussars who was on liaison duty, was rather shattering. It was the first encounter of the BEF, High Command and troops alike, with the  hazards and disciplines of coalition war.

The British - Government, Army and people - had not endured these disciplines since 1855, the end of the Crimean War. At that time they were so unfamiliar that Lord Raglan, who had been one of the Duke of Wellington's staff officers, habitually called the enemy 'the French', although the French were actually his allies and his enemies were Russian. When it was all over, everyone concerned was only too glad to forget this experience as soon as possible. From the day of the Battle of Mons until the end of the Great War, the disciplines of coalition were the running refrain of the new British experience. Their impact is well summed up, I think, in three  contemporary sayings. Firstly, on 29 January 1915 Lloyd George (then Chancellor of the Exchequer) wrote to Winston Churchill:

Are we really bound to hand over the ordering of our troops to France as if we were her vassal?

In the same year Lord Kitchener (Secretary of State for War) remarked, after  what Churchill called a 'heart-shaking discussion' with the French Commander-in-Chief, General Joffre:

We cannot make war as we ought: we can only make it as we can.

On 1 January 1916 General Sir Douglas Haig, who had been Commander-in-Chief of the BEF for just over a fortnight, showed the Head of the French Mission at GHQ his orders Kitchener:

I pointed out that I am not under General Joffre's orders, but that would make no difference, as my intention was to do my utmost to carry out General Joffre's wishes on strategical matters as if they were orders.

Coalition war: the circumstance which governed every strategical conception from first to last; different conceptions. It was an experience that threw  long shadows. Brian Bond ores them in his studies of British and French military policies between the wars.

Coalition war or otherwise, there were disciplines that were even more powerful these, also, made themselves felt from the very  earliest days. This war that broke out in July 1914 (it was on 29 July that the Austrians bombarded Belgrade : the first shots) was unlike anything that had ever happened before. Wars, of course, are like equality; we all know that men are created equal, but it is well established that some are much more equal others; wars have fundamental resemblances - but above, below and surrounding resemblances there are differences which also possess fundamentals. 1914 displayed this fact in unmistakable fashion.

The First World War was the second of the three great wars of the First Industrial olution, the period when steam and steel provided the basic motive power and the material of the economies of the great powers. Since it is the national economy that does the sinews of war, the significance of this is inescapable. The American Civil bad already revealed the potential of the industrial age at war; it has been well said that the two factors which robbed the great battles of that war of decisive effect were the telegraph which carried the news instantly to where remedies for defeat and replacements could be set in motion, and steam-power, expressed in 30,000 miles of  railway and some 2,000 river-steamers which could bring into play new armies before the victors could clinch success. So the war dragged on for four years - only a few months less than 1914-1918.

The Civil War also displayed a factor  which had not really been experienced  inpe since the 17th century: it became a total war, what Walter Millis called

war against civilians and resources as well as against the uniformed soldiery of the enemy, the war of conscripted peoples rather than volunteer armies.

This had already happened in 1864 and 1865, the period of Sherman's great marches  of destruction through the South, while Grant pinned his main army down in the attrition battles of Virginia.

Wars of conscripted peoples are wars of masses; in modem times, with  modem weaponry, the masses at war would require industrial mass production to clothe, equip and feed them, and elaborate transportation systems to move them about. Thus war was becoming  a matter of organisation and specialist skills in all the complex areas of logistics - in 1861 the United States Army's Quartermaster-General's office employed thirteen clerks; in 1865 it had nearly 600 civilian employees.   It was a sign of the times.

But now forty-nine years had passed since 1865, and the speed of industrial growth  had been steadily accelerating. Everything had multiplied - people not least. War of masses in the Civil War meant hundreds of thousands; in 1914 it meant millions.

I would suggest that for every belligerent state except Britain, this sense  of millions of men (and hundreds of thousands of horses) on the move must have been the first awareness of the great catastrophe. Right across Europe, in France, in Germany, in Austria-Hungary and deep into Russia, there would be reservists pouring into the depots to fill the ranks for war: a tidal wave of young men. To reach the depots, and then emerge as formed military units, they called on Europe's railway network, 180,000 miles of  track, about a third of it German. Germany had to move about four million men to the depots and assembly points called for by the Schlieffen Plan. The German First Army, on the extreme right flank of the Schlieffen offensive, alone numbered some 320,000 men and 84,000 horses; the whole deployment amounted to about one and a half million men; the strategic railway system would carry them to the frontiers - after that they would depend on the legs of men and horses. This is a consideration that seems to me  to constitute a grave blemish upon that famous plan; even German flesh and blood has its limits. But one thing is certain: the great numbers of men that Schlieffen demanded could only be provided by including Reserve formations in the attacking armies. Their appearance alongside the Active army (the men actually in uniform when war broke out) would create the condition for 'the sudden immediate maximum' at which the General Staff aimed. And this came as a great shock to the French, because it seemed to negate the simple and comforting belief that the Germans could not be strong everywhere.  Yet that is exactly what they appeared to be.

The French themselves, between 2 August and 18 August, were in process of moving 3,781,000 men - at times their 7,000 military trains were running at a rate of one every eight minutes. It must have been quite a sight. These trains, like the German Army, were full of Reservists; there were Reserve formations on both sides, up to divisional level in the French and up to corps organisation in the German. But the French staff did not place as much confidence in their Reserve units as the Germans - probably quite rightly, because the training, staffing and equipment of the French reserves had been badly neglected before the war.

It was, I am sure, the French who sustained the deepest shock from the impact of war in August 1914. For about ten years, Radical and other left-wing forms of administration had concentrated their attention on the internal social  role of the Army at the expense of its efficiency as a defender of French society. There had been some improvement in the last two or three years, but not enough time had passed to make good the damage done. There was, beyond doubt, a great deal of dead wood in the High Command: by the eve of the Battle of the Marne (6 September), General Joffre had dismissed over 140 generals; over ninety of them were brigadiers, thirty-eight were divisional commanders (out of eighty-two in the field), nine were corps commanders (out  of twenty-one) plus a cavalry corps commander, and two were Army commanders out of the original five. A purge of that dimension can be a fairly seismic experience in its own right. One recalls that when General Franchet d'Esperey replaced General Lanrezac as commander of the Fifth Army he interviewed certain officers; Sir Edward Spears* tells us that one lieutenant-colonel emerged from his interview 'looking as though he had fallen down several flights of stairs' - and he had only been rebuked, not dismissed. One feels  that the rebuke might have been worth hearing.

But the truth is that the faults of the French Army in 1914 went far beyond the High Command. Above all there was the doctrine of the offensive which permeated the whole Army at every level. Marshal Foch tells us:

there had been deduced from our Autumn manoeuvres and Colonial wars a single formula for success, a single combative doctrine, namely the decisive power of offensive action undertaken with the resolute determination to march on the enemy, reach and destroy him.

And Foch comments,

A doctrine as restricted as this was sure to bring surprises during the first contacts with the enemy.

it did indeed.

After over forty years of unbroken peace in Europe, the French went into war like an excursion of the blind. Parsimonious governments were content to send the soldiers into battle looking astonishingly like the soldiers of Napoleon I and Napoleon III. Financial stringency plus normal peacetime lethargy together with false doctrine combined to send the Army to war virtually without heavy artillery - according to Foch, precisely 308 heavy guns, compared with some 2,000 in the German Army. No study had been made of the power of modern weapons - though the French themselves had contributed to it with their smokeless powder (Poudre B) and their 75 mm quick-firing field guns. And so they made a series of shocking discoveries, which Foch described well. They found

that the battle developed rapidly and in force, but often blindly, without sufficient preparation by fire action and notably by artillery, since the latter took more time to get into position. In this way too many troops were put into action at once; they were feebly supported by artillery fire, and being preoccupied chiefly with the idea of getting forward quickly and together, they soon found themselves exposed and impotent in the face of a fire poured upon them from every direction by invisible weapons, so that, in spite of all their efforts, they could not reach the enemy.

The French Army, in August 1914, suffered a series of defeats which should, by all ordinary reckoning, have been fatal: the Battles of Sarrebourg and Morhange, opening disastrously for the First and Second Armies on 20 August, the Battles of Virton and the Semoy in the Ardennes), a similar story for the Third and Fourth Armies, on 21 August, and on the same day the opening of the Battle of Charleroi which drove the Fifth Army also into confusion and retreat by 23 August. These were the Battles of the Frontiers. The must to the French Army by the end of August (twelve days) was 4,478 officers and no fewer than 206,515 other ranks - roughly twice the strength of the BEF. As Churchill said, 

nothing comparable to this concentrated slaughter was sustained by any combatant in so short a time, not even excluding the first Russian disasters, nor the final phase on the Western Front in 1918.

The wounds inflicted on the French Army were, he said, 'nearly fatal and  never curable', and he adds, the gravest was the loss of regular regimental officers, who sacrificed themselves with unbounded devotion.

The result, says Sir Edward Spears, was 'one of the greatest disabilities from  which an army can suffer' and he describes how General d'Esperey,

watching a long infantry column march by, company after company led by a second lieutenant or an NCO, seemed for once to lose control, and lifting his arms, exclaimed - 'Mais ou sont mes officiers, ou sont mes officiers?' *

1,041 of them were already known to be killed in the frontier battles. The total loss of officers amounted to between ten iffid eleven percent of the whole officer corps. This was the wound that was 'never curable' - and shortly the affliction would extend to every other army in the field.

It was in order to take part in the great French offensive that the BEF marched to Mons, and it was because of the great French retreat that it came back out of Mons on the evening of 23 August. Its strategy, and even its tactics at times, would be similarly decided by French plans and French actions virtually to the end of the war. It fell to Sir Edward Spears to report the circumstances dictating this first experience of coalition warfare to the British Commander-in-Chief, Field Marshal Sir John French, on the evening of 22 August. While Sir John French was deciding what to do, a number of staff officers were completing the details for a general advance from Mons the following day:

Round the table keenness, suppressed excitement , joy and confidence sparkled through the ordinary technical conversation of these men who already saw themselves marching to victory on the morrow.....

And then French's Chief of Staff, General Murray, came back into the room and said:

You are to come in now and see the Chief. He is going to tell you that there will be no advance. But remember that there are to  be no questions. Don't ask why. There is no time and it would be useless. You are to take your orders, that's all. Come on in now! *

That moment, also, marked an impact of war.

Before I come to the BEF's further experience, we must take a look at the prime movers of all this - the Genn ans. The German Anny was dealing out impacts and shocks with a lavish hand, and was also receiving them. On the frontiers, as the French attempted to advance in dense formations, conspicuous in red trousers and red ke pis, from their very first engagements they gained a disturbing acquaintance with Gennan machine-gun fire. Lieutenant-General Sir Douglas Haig, on 20 August, the day of the French attack on Morhange and three days before the first engagement of the BEF, held a I Corps conference and raised the subject of the German machine-guns. He told his officers that these were said to be 'well commanded ·... The French have lost considerably in attacking them with infantry.' He prescribed bringing artillery to bear on them and avoiding thick firing lines. But the French infantry were learning the hard way.

They were also learning the hard way about the German heavy artillery. Every German army corps contained a regiment of what they called 'Foot Artillery', each regiment having two battalions and each battalion four batteries. The weapons were either 210mm 'mortars' (all pieces of 210mm and above were known as 'mortars') or 150mm field howitzers. A battery of 210s contained three mortars, but a battalion would only have two batteries; a battery of 150s contained four pieces, so the battalion would have sixteen. There were also 150mm guns (these were what the British called 5.9s, corresponding to our 6-inch while the 210s matched our 8-inch); but in the German Foot Artillery howitzers predominated by three to one. No other army put heavy artillery into battle on this scale, and the first meetings with them were shocking experiences for one and all. The Great War was an artillery war and declared itself as such from the very beginning.

Nowhere was the declaration more dramatically expressed than in the attacks on the Belgian fortresses of Liége and Namur. The word 'fortress', in 1914 parlance, denotes a fortified system, a group of individual forts containing artillery, all well sunk into the ground to offer very little profile. At Liége there were thirteen forts, designed by a once famous engineer, Général de Brialmont. They were considered to be very strong defensive works, capable of holding up an attacker for a considerable time - but they had not met modern siege artillery. The Germans declared war on and entered Belgium on 4 August, and marched immediately upon Liége, which they tried to take by storm the next day. Since they had only begun the immense work of their mobilisation on 1 August, this immediate attack was obviously carefully prepared; it was carried out by a special detachment of six brigades drawn from their First, Second and Third Armies with a cavalry corps and artillery.

Advancing full of confidence against what they considered a trifling enemy, the German infantry sustained a shock closely matching what the French would shortly endure in Lorraine and the Ardennes. As they flung themselves on the Belgian trenches linking the forts, a Belgian officer described the scene:

They made no attempt at deploying, but came on, line after line, almost shoulder to shoulder until, as we shot them down, the fallen were heaped one on top of the other in an awful barricade of dead and wounded men that threatened to mask our guns and cause us trouble. I thought of the French saying, 'C'est magnifique, mais ce n'est pas la guerre'. No, it was slaughter - just slaughter.

This was to be the first of the War's many slaughters. It served to check the webold initial German rush, but on 6 August General Ludendorff, then Deputy Chief of Staff of the Second Army, was successful with another bold stroke which captured the town and citadel of Liége with almost no loss.

There remained the ring of forts, and their fate was quickly sealed. On 12 August the Germans brought into action a battery (i.e. two pieces) of their 420mm (16.5-inch) mortars, firing shells weighing 1,800 pounds (816 kg). By 8.30 am on 16 August every one of the Liége forts had fallen. The German siege train then dealt with Namur, where there were nine Brialmont forts. It was now augmented by a two-piece battery of Austrian 305mm mortars (12-inch) firing shells weighing 980 pounds. The bombardment opened on 21 August and by 25 August Namur had also fallen. Needless to day,  the impact of these events was very great; Churchill says:

We were evidently in the presence of new facts and of a new standard of value. If strong fortresses were to melt like wisps  of vapour in a morning sun, many judgements would have to be revised. The foundations of thought were quaking ....

We need to be somewhat careful about the fall of the Belgian forts. The thunders  of the 420 and 305mm super-heavy mortars tended to drown all other sounds. But among those sounds were the reverberations of the 210mm howitzers already mentioned, and the even more formidable 280mms (11-inch - a much favoured German calibre) firing 750- pound shells. General Michel, the Belgian commander at Namur, insisted  that it was the fire of the 280s which crushed his forts; three batteries of these (six pieces) opened fire on one of the forts on the morning of the 23rd (the day of Mons); they fired 600 shells into it on that day, 1,300 on the 24th and 1,400 on the 25th, by which time the whole massive concrete structure was destroyed and all the armoured gun positions were wrecked; the fort fell at 5 o'clock that afternoon. The super-heavies were not much heard-of after 1914,  but the 21Os and 280s were a feature of every German battle, and this massive, crushing weight of artillery fire, backed by the great numbers of troops which the Germans put into the field, provided for Belgians, French and British in tum the main ferocious impact of modem war.

There is a footnote which should not be neglected. On 20 August, as the French ordeal was beginning, the Germans themselves suffered a very rude shock in East Prussia - the Russian victory at Gumbinnen, which produced some far-reaching consequences. Two of them demand mention: fu st, although von Schlieffen had been prepared to contemplate abandoning East Prussia if necessary, when an actual Russian invasion happened the German High Command became greatly alarmed. The German Eastern  commander, General von Prittwitz, was removed (the first of the fallen generals) and replaced by the Hindenburg/Ludendorff combination which would later put its dark mark on the whole war, and secondly, two army corps were shortly detached from the Western Front to strengthen the Eighth Army in the East, although victory at Tannenburg had already extinguished the crisis. The weaknesses of the Schlieffen Plan, psychological as well as material, were becoming very apparent very quickly. And while  the Germans quivered, their Austrian allies positively shook to their toes: their attack on Serbia - a small, backward state - collapsed at once in humiliating fashion, and their advance in Galicia ended in absolute disaster at Lemberg before the month was out.

Such was the context of 23 August, the day which, by comparison, takes on the look of a quiet day for the BEF at Mons. Virtually invisible among the slag-heaps and the miners' cottages, the highly trained British infantry (about 60 percent of them Reservists) found unbelievable targets as the Germans came at them in deep, solid formations.  A Gordon Highlander spoke for many when he recalled:

Poor devils of infantry! They advanced ... in files five  deep, and our rifle has a flat trajectory up to 600 yards. Guess the result. We could steady our rifles on the trench and take deliberate  aim. The first company were simply blasted away to Heaven by a volley at 700 yards, and in their insane formation every bullet was almost sure to find two billets ... they bad absolutely no chance ...

The Germans were convinced that they had run into nests of machine-guns. German commanders and German troops do not give up easily, but as dusk fell the British were amazed to hear German bugles sounding the 'Cease Fire' - the nineteenth century was still not still not far away. Hauptmann Bloem of the Brandenburg Grenadiers, who had  been enjoying a good laugh at these dubious soldiers in 'grey-brown golfing suits with flat­ topped cloth caps', wrote:

we had been badly beaten, and by the English - by the English we had so laughed at a few hours before.

So the BEF came away from Mons with no sense whatever of having  been defeated but a very strong sense of the great weight and mass of the German Army and the brutal force of its firepower. Sadly, many also came away  with a sense of the weakness and unreliability of their allies, which haunted Anglo-French relations for the whole of the war. For all, the terrible novelty of the new war seems to me to be best expressed by Sir Edward Spears, sitting on a hill with a French officer staring out towards the enemy and wondering by what sign they would first recognise the German presence:

The evening was still and wonderfully peaceful. The ominous rumble of guns from the direction of Namur ... had ceased. A dog was barking at some sheep. A girl was singing as she walked down the lane behind us. From a little farm away on the right came the voices and laughter of  some soldiers cooking their evening meal. Darkness grew in the far distance as the light began to fail.

Then, without a moment's warning, with a suddenness that made us start and strain our eyes to see what our minds could not realise, we saw the whole horizon burst into flames. To the north, outlined against the sky, countless fires were burning. It was as if hordes of fiends had suddenly been released, and dropping on the distant plain, were burning every  town and every village. A chill of horror came over us. War seemed suddenly to have assumed a merciless, ruthless aspect that we had not realised till then. *

This was the twentieth century, the Industrial Revolution waging total war.


Spears, Major General Sir Edward: Liaison 1914 (1968)