100 years since the Battle of Mons

‘The morning of Sunday the 23rd broke in mist and rain, which about 10 a.m. cleared off and gave place to fair weather. Church bells rang, and inhabitants of the villages near the canal were seen in their best attire going to worship as if war was utterly distant from them’.  1

And so opens the account of the Battle of Mons, on 23 August 1914 from the Official History of the War, the first time the British and German armies clashed in Europe during the First World War.

Map of Mons and canal line heading west (WO 153/114)

Map of Mons and canal line heading west (WO 153/114)

The German First Army was advancing on Mons, a town just inside the Belgian border from France. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was split into two corps.  II Corps, mostly consisting of the 3rd and 5th Divisions, were positioned along the Mons-Conde Canal, running due west from Obourg, past Mons and on towards Conde. The I Corps came to take up a position on the right of Mons, running in a more southerly direction towards the River Sambre and the French Fifth Army.  2

Using the draft chapters, narratives and correspondence used to form the Official Histories from CAB 44 and CAB 45, researchers can piece together the experiences and subsequent movements of the BEF before, during and after the Mons fighting. Some of the evidence compiled from individuals, including officers, reveal some fairly frank views, including resentment of what happened during and after Mons, raising concerns about the readiness of the BEF to face the advancing German troops.

In CAB 45/129, for example we find an account by British officers subsequently held prisoner at the Torgau-Am-Elbe prisoner of war camp, which includes the following statement about conditions at Mons:

‘Two notable impressions were made on the minds of, at any rate, Regimental Officers; the first was their entire lack of information of the enemy, and the second their absolute ignorance of the British dispositions. Those belonging to one Brigade did not even know in most cases where the next Brigade was. In short, no one appeared to know anything.’ (CAB 45/129)

The unit war diary of the 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment, positioned at St. Ghislain to the west of Mons also hints at a lack of clear information. It records for 22 August that it was information received ‘from natives that German patrols had been seen in the neighbourhood of Tertre’, just to the north of St. Ghislain, rather than confirmed reports from Brigade or Division Headquarters (WO 95/1553/1). As Lyn Macdonald has outlined, however, this was the first time many of the British Expeditionary Force had fired their weapons in anger ‘despite their years of hard professional training’.  3 It was perhaps inevitable therefore, that problems would be encountered when the initial fighting took place.

With the majority of the British forces defending positions along the canal, the protection of the canal crossings became a focal point to the day’s fighting. The unit war diaries from WO 95, available to view online, provide researchers with additional information about the experiences of these British units fighting along the canal.

For the 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers, the entries for 23 August confirm that a numerically superior German force of four infantry battalions with supporting cavalry and artillery were attacking their position at Nimy, just north of Mons, with severe casualties suffered defending the canal bridge (WO 95/1431/1). Further to the west, the units of the 13th Infantry Brigade were also defending against superior German numbers, including artillery. The Brigade Headquarters war diary details that the enemy moved 18 field guns to within 1200 yards of the canal at St. Ghislain, which ‘soon silenced our one battery. The lack of any adequate artillery assistance on our side was very seriously felt’ (WO 95/1548/1).

Despite the BEF being forced onto the retreat at Mons, the fighting slowed the German advance and highlighted both the discipline and gallantry of the British troops. Writing in 1916, Walter Bloem, a Captain in the Brandenburg Grenadiers who were attacking the 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment at St Ghislain, claimed that his German troops ‘were opposed only by machine guns, but they were numerous, fired brilliantly, and were so well placed as to defy detection’ (CAB 45/129).  In fact, the West Kents relied mostly upon disciplined rifle fire of 15 rounds per minute, returning us to Macdonald’s reference to many years of pre-war professional training.

VC citation for Private Godley (WO 98/8/110)

Citation of VC awarded to Private Sidney Godley, 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers (WO 98/8/110)

Lieutenant Maurice James Dease and Private Sidney Frank Godley of the 4th Royal Fusiliers are recorded in their unit’s war diary as having ‘displayed the most conspicuous gallantry’ in maintaining their machine gun fire, despite the rest of their machine gun detachment having been killed or wounded (WO 95/1431/1).  Lieutenant Dease died of his wounds but he and Private Godley were subsequently awarded the Victoria Cross for their gallantry, the citations of which can be seen online via our Victoria Cross registers (WO 95/1431/1WO 98/8/102: Victoria Cross register entry for Lieutenant Dease, WO 98/8/110: Victoria Cross register entry for Private Godley). Also recorded in these registers are the VC citations for Captain Theodore Wright and Lance Corporal Charles Alfred Jarvis, both Royal Engineers, and Corporal Charles Edward Garforth, 15th Hussars, who were also awarded VC’s for acts of gallantry at Mons. (WO 98/8)

The service record of Lieutenant Dease can be found within our WO 339 collection and heartbreakingly contains three telegrams sent to Maurice’s father from the War Office, dated 22, 26 and 30 September. The first states that his son had been ‘dangerously wounded’, the second ‘reported killed in action’ and then the third ‘wounded and missing’ (WO 339/7579).

Telegram from War Office (WO 339/7579)

Service record of Lieutenant Maurice Dease, 4th Battalion, Royal Fusiliers. Telegram sent to his father (WO 339/7579)

Thanks to three years of work by volunteers and staff at The National Archives, the data from nearly 140,000 surviving paper records within the WO 339 collection can now be searched by full name, rank and regiment. This extensive cataloguing project will now make it even easier for people to uncover the stories of Officers who served in the war. Find out more about volunteering at The National Archives.

This blog does not have the scope to analyse the significance of the fighting at Mons or to cover the actions of the many battalions and units involved, but there are plenty of published accounts that can be called upon to help with that. By highlighting just a few records accessible via The National Archives, we can begin to see just a few of the many, many themes which will be explored again and again during the centenary.

The Official History notes the social and local impact of the fighting at Mons, with local civilians seeing their normal way of life dramatically changed. As the war of movement became entrenched, some villages and towns would remain drastically transformed for many years. There is evidence of communication problems, not just for the military units in the field but also the challenge for the military authorities of accurately and efficiently notifying the families at home of the loss or known status of their loved ones. The increasing importance of artillery firepower is evident at Mons, an aspect of war which would develop enormously during the rest of the conflict, but also the difficulty for the attacking infantry overcoming disciplined rifle and machine gun fire. And we also see, when analysing the personal experiences of those fighting at Mons, the beginning of what would prove to be the countless acts of courage and bravery of troops of all ranks across all theatres of war.

Notes:

  1.  Sir James Edwards Edmonds, Official History of the War: Military Operations, France and Belgium, 1914 (MacMillan and Co. Ltd, London, 1919), p. 76.
  2. 2. Edmonds, Official History, pp. 74-95. See also www.1914-1918.net for review of Mons battle, with attached maps.
  3. Lyn Macdonald, 1914: The days of hope (Penguin, London, 1989), p. 97.

29 comments

  1. Valerie davies arends says:

    My grandfather Richard Davies was at the “retreat of Mons” as he called it.
    He was with the Princess Louise City of London regiment then the Royal Army Medical Corps. He had joined the army in 1910 and ended up a Sergeant. How can I find details of him? Born 1890 and died 1970.

    1. David Langrish says:

      Thank you for your comment, Valerie.

      Surviving service records for the First World War are available to search and view online. Please see our research guide on Soldiers after 1913 for links to begin your search:

      http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/britisharmysoldierafter1913.htm

      Additionally, you may wish to search for a unit war diary of the units he served with during the conflict, to see what was happening on a day-by-day basis. Please see our guide on British Army operational records for further help:

      http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/research-guides/british-army-war-diaries-1914-1918.htm

      Best wishes

      David Langrish

  2. David John Butler says:

    My Grandfather Joseph Gardner was also in the early stages of the War,having before served in the Boar War,and a few years later in India round the North West Frontier,He remembers seeing the French troops being cut down by enemy fire,before they changed there uniform to a more Neutral Blue Colour,from the bright uniform they had before.

    1. David Langrish says:

      Thank you for your comment, David. I hope you enjoyed reading the blog.

      Yes, the uniforms used at this early stage would have varied somewhat from the uniforms being used in the latter years of the conflict.

      Utilising the different collections available from the various archives will also help build up our perspectives of the different stages of the war but also the differences (and similarities) of the other theatres of war fought in.

      Best wishes

      David Langrish

  3. David Matthew says:

    My Grandfather’s eldest half-brother (William Center) served in the First Battalion Gordon Highlanders who were captured (all 500 except their Commanding Officer) on the retreat from Mons two weeks later and spent his war in as a POW. The two subsequent inquiries over what happened are in TNA and make interesting reading.

    1. Joe Center says:

      Hello David Mathew
      I would be very interested to hear from you reference our relative William Center
      Yours Aye
      Joe Center

    2. Dave McKenzie says:

      I would also appreciate any additional information regarding William Center ( Pte 8677 1st Btn Gordon Highlanders) as I my grandmother Alexina Stott (who lived most of her life in Portsoy, Banffshire), previously Innes (married to Alexander Innes who died in France & Flanders 22/12/16), nee Benzies, was his sister as I understand.

      My understanding (from an article I found here http://1914-1918.invisionzone.com/forums/index.php?showtopic=144046&page=2), is that William was born William Center Benzies in Strichen, Aberdeenshire, which is also where my grandmother was born.

      As a child, I visited Willie and his wife Aggie, many times with my family in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s when they lived in Blair Cottage near Udny, Aberdeenshire. He was a tough old character and they lived in the cottage with no electricity or central heating and with an outside loo. They had a wood burning open range and paraffin tilly lamps for lighting and Willie cut all his own wood well beyond retirement age.

      I can still remember Willie showing myself and my sister the many things he had collected from his travels in the Army as a young man but there was never any mention of WW1 or his time as a POW, my guess (now) being that this was not something to be discussed. There were many pictures from S Africa and memorabilia from India, including an impressive model of the Taj Mahal and I always remember him lending me a copy of a book entitled “Kitchener of Khartoum” after he found out I had joined the Gordon’s Army Cadet unit in Portsoy !

      I also clearly remember the pictures on either side of the open range, which served for cooking and heating, there was a portrait of Queen Victoria on one side and on the other a picture of a NCO in the Gordon Highlanders, which I always assumed was Willie himself but may actually have been the relative, referred to on page 1 of the web page quoted above (L/Cpl A Center), as I cannot as yet find any evidence of Willie being an NCO.

      It was only as I searched for family history that I realised that Willie had been a POW for the greater part of WW1 ( his medal card from the National archives states POW and a date of 13/8/14, when he entered the theatre of war, in this case F&F) and then I found the few additional details attached to the web page quoted above.

      If only we had the opportunity to go back and ask the questions we might have today, I’m sure the story would be fascinating ……..

  4. David Langrish says:

    Thank you for your comment, David.

    The accounts used to form the chapters of the Official History do contain some quick frank comments about the fighting at Mons and during the retreat, esepcially with regards to the way in which some units were taken prisoner.

    I’ll take a look at those inquiries.

    Thank you again for your comment.

    David Langrish

  5. PamelaBrider says:

    My Grandfather, John Rudge was with the 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers, missing presumed dead, on 23rd August 1914 and has no known grave. He was married with six children. I have often wondered what happened to my Grandfather and all those other dead soldiers. I recently read an article by Maurice Dease’s great nephew that states that his body, with a few others, were kept by a local family in their vault and buried at St. Symphorien after the war but what about all the others? This was the very beginning of the war, not trench warfare. Would the local people not have buried the bodies, or parts of bodies out of respect, if not for health reasons at least?

    1. David Langrish says:

      Hello Pamela, thank you for your comment.

      The documents I used for the blog, including the Officers service records, do contain letters from local residents close to Mons who were writing to the War Office to arrange for the return of personal belongings found on the battlefield. The wounded were also treated at local Belgian hospitals in and around Mons, which were taken over by the German Army in the subsequent days after August 23rd.

      Unfortunately, many soldiers have no known grave. Local civilians, opposing forces and where possible, the British Army before retreating, may have taken on responsibility for the burials but the names of soldiers may not have been known to them when this was done. This obviously makes it very difficult to trace the final resting place of so many soldiers.

      Thank you again for sharing your story.

      David Langrish

  6. jonathan Joy says:

    My Great Uncle Patrick Joy served with 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers and was killed in action at Nimy / Mons on the 23rd of August 1914, he was 21 years old. 100 years tomorrow !

    He was in the same Battalion as Sgt Godley and Lt Dease

    Kind regards Jonathan

    I have a photograph of him just before he left for Mons

    1. David Langrish says:

      Thank you for your comment, Jonathan.

      Having photographs from that period is a great record to have. Very few of our Officer service records contain photos and largely survive in private family papers.

      Thank you again for sharing your story.

      David Langrish

  7. Cherry McDonald says:

    My grandfather Arthur Lester Wake was taken prisoner at Mons and spent the rest of the war as a farm labourer producing vegetables for the Germans. He was allowed to send letters home to Portsmouth and they were marked Scheveningen. Are there any records with lists or info about POWs?

    1. David Langrish says:

      Thank you for your comment, Cherry.

      Yes, please see our research guide on Prisoner of War records, which includes a link to recently released lists held by the Red Cross:

      http://www.nationalarchives.gov.uk/records/looking-for-person/britishpowfirstworldwar.htm

      I hope this helps.

      David Langrish

  8. mark whyman says:

    Lt JBW Pennyman 2nd battalion KOSB wrote and susequently published a diary which included Mons and what I am told is the only photograph of KOSB in action at the canal there. A copy of the diary is held at Teesside Archives.
    Mark

  9. Colin Robson says:

    My Great Uncle Joseph William Banner served with the 2nd Bn Worcestershire Regt and was awarded a DCM at Mons for “Gallantry in rendering valuable assistance to his unit at a critical period under heavy fire”. He never received his medal as he was killed on the 16th November 1914.

  10. Kim Capes says:

    My husbands grandfather Clifford Capes was 3rd Field Ambulance RAMC and was part of the expeditionary force and awarded 1914 Star, I cant find his actually record but have his medal card, which says he was M.I.D and the medal roll. He was there until 1919 but thankfully survived, I have not been able to find out much more about what he did, I do have one photograph of him in uniform.
    Kim

  11. Jim Fitzpatrick says:

    My Great Grand Father fought in Mons 100 years ago today, below is an account.
    How Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas William Fitzpatrick, Of The 2nd Battalion, Royal Irish Regiment, Won The D.C.M. At Mons

    Towards noon on Sunday, August 23rd 1914-the day of the Battle of Mons- Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas William Fitzpatrick, of the 2nd Battalion Royal Irish, which, with the other three battalions composing the 8th Brigade-the 1st Gordon’s, the 2nd Royal Scots Fusiliers and the 4th Middlesex-held that part of the British line which lay between the western suburbs of Mons and St. Ghislain, reached the trenches with supplies and reported himself to the adjutant of his regiment. In the course of conversation that officer told Fitzpatrick that a “brush” with the Germans was expected that afternoon, as our cavalry patrols had brought in reports of masses of the enemy moving into the woods in front of our centre, and of columns on the march eastward towards Binche, and westward towards the Conde canal; and he ordered him to send all the commissariat wagons, which he had just brought back out of the firing line. Fitzpatrick gave instructions to that effect, but asked permission to remain himself with the battalion, which was granted.

    About forty minutes after midday the first shots of the battle were fired, and soon between five and six hundred German guns were in action all along the front of twenty-five miles, and shells of every description were falling upon the British lines in an unceasing stream. Presently, the grey masses of the German infantry began to advance, and though, as they approached our trenches, they were mowed down in swathes by rifle and machine gun fire, supports were at once hurried up, and the grey lines pushed resolutely on.

    Since a quartermaster sergeant is not allotted to the firing line, Fitzpatrick had remained on the road in front of which the Royal Irish were entrenched, watching the progress of the attack through his field glasses. Towards 1.30 p.m. he saw that the Germans seemed to be enveloping his battalion on both flanks, and that the Irishmen, who were falling fast, must soon be forced to retire. He immediately collected all the cooks, drivers, and so forth whom he could find, and taking up a position at a point where the road to Mons was intersected by another running north and south, caused rapid to be opened over the heads of his comrades in the trenches on the advancing Germans. This had the effect of checking the enemy immediately in front of him, but the trenches of the Royal Irish continued to be shelled very heavily, while their parapet was being gradually wiped away by machine gun fire. About 2.30 the enemy came on again-this time in extended order and half an hour later Fitzpatrick was informed that his comrades had been obliged to retire from the trenches on his left, and that the position he now occupied was an exposed salient. At the same moment he saw the Germans working round his right flank.

    Hastily collecting about fifty men, for by this time most of his original party had been either killed or wounded, he took up a position a little to the rear of the first one, and recommended rapid fire, with such excellent results that the German attack again failed, and they fell back to the shelter of a wood. Fitzpatrick was then told that one of our machine guns was on the road abandoned, all its team having been killed. He at once went and got it repaired, and only just in time, as directly afterwards the enemy advanced once more, in greatly increased numbers. He had the gun laid on them, and they retreated with considerable loss, though not before his little party had sustained a number of casualties, and the owner of an adjoining house had been shot dead while in the act of giving one of the wounded a drink of water. Fitzpatrick then advanced to another position on the farther side of the Mons road, which afforded better cover.

    Between 3 and 4 p.m. the Germans made a desperate flank attack on the Gordon Highlanders, who were posted on the right rear of the Irish. But they were driven back in disorder, and retired to about seven hundred yards from Fitzpatrick’s party to redress their shattered ranks. Towards dusk they again advanced against the gallant little band of Irishmen, which, though sadly reduced in numbers, still contrived to hold them in check, thanks to the well-directed fire of the machine gun, which did great execution.

    After this last attack Fitzpatrick found that of the fifty men he had rallied at 3 p.m., twenty had been killed outright, while of the survivors only about a dozen were unwounded. Nevertheless, he maintained his ground, in anticipation of yet another onslaught from the enemy, until about an hour before midnight, when the General retreat began, and he received orders to retire. He had been fighting almost continuously for more than nine hours, and that night he marched seventeen miles.

    It is pleasant to record that the splendid services of this gallant Irishman on that memorable day received full recognition. For not only was the Distinguished Conduct Medal awarded him by his own Sovereign, but he also received the Medaille Militaire from the French President and the Cross of St. George (Third Class) from the Czar, and was besides, promoted to the rank of lieutenant and appointed adjutant of his battalion. He is thirty-six years of age, and like so many other brave men who have distinguished themselves during the present war, hails from County Cork.

  12. David Langrish says:

    Thanks you for sharing all your stories, Mark, Colin, Kim and Jim.

    Drawing together so many personal stories can only help to build up the bigger picture of the fighting at Mons. A process that we all hope will continiue throughout the Centenary commemorations.

    Local archives can be a good place to look for Regimental material which can add to our perspectives of what was happening at different times during the conflict.

    Thank you again for sharing, best wishes

    David Langrish

  13. George Cook says:

    My dad, Cpl. George Cook, reg. No. 447, was at Mons in 1914 with 1/5 Northumberland Fusiliers. I have not been able to find any military records of his service, so I assume they were lost on 31 December, 1940, in the bombing of the P.R.C.

    Do you know of any records pertinent to his regiment at Mons or in the 1914 ?

    Your articles about the 1914 actions are very interesting. Thank you for all your hard work!

    George Cook.
    R.C.E.M.E. 1944 – 46; 2 P.P.C.L.I. Korea, 1950 – 1951.

    1. David Langrish says:

      Thank you for your comment George, I’m very pleased that you are enjoying the series of blogs we are posting.

      For further advice regarding the records of the 1/5th Northumberland Fusiliers, please use our contact form:

      http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/Contact/contactform.asp?id=1

      Thanks again for you comment.

      Best wishes

      David Langrish

  14. Alan Paterson says:

    Just came across this Blog and its good to see.

    Many historians narrate quite correctly the RWK action at St Ghislane and lock gate 4 , but they often , forget to mention 2nd KOSB who were next in the line , and who also suffered losses including my Grandfather CSM Charles Wilson 6532 , of A company.

    I have visited the site of the action on 3 occasions and read many books on the battle including Walter Bloems “The advance from Mons” and am of the opinion that as well as the RWK Regiment , much of Bloems attack also fell onto the 2nd KOSB .

    I last visited on the 23rd august 2014 , the centenerary of the battle along with 6 other of his descendents and their families, to pay our respects to my Grandfather.

    It was quite moving to be at the site of the battle 100 years to the hour after the event, then to move on to Hautrage military cemetery where he is buried and lay flowers on his grave.

    1. JAMES WILSON says:

      Well done Alan my cousin.
      I am the last of my family to have served in the KOSB.
      ‘Once a Borderer!’

    2. Ros Huntley says:

      My grandfather Charles Harding was with 2KOSB from 4th August 1914 having been a reservist. Captain Pennyman recommended him for the Medal of St George for twice returning under fire on 26th August 1914 with Captain Pennyman to retrieve ammunition and a machine gun having volunteered for this. Author Jerry Murland has managed to piece together a lot of 2KOSB’s part in 1914 drawing on the Pennyman archive and this can be found in his book Retreat and Rearguard.

  15. Alan Paterson says:

    PS in the Walter Bloem writes in his book how one of his officers Lt Fritz Graser is shot, he is buried just a few yards away from my Grandfather in Hautrage military cemetery.

  16. Paddy Jackson says:

    My Dad, Captain E A Jackson D company 1st Battalion Cheshire Regiment fought in the Battle of Mons in particular at the action at Audregnies on the 24th August 1914 where he was dangerously wounded when the Cheshires were all but wipeout. He survived the war as A pow despite the horrific conditions in various concentration camps. I learnt recently that along with a comrade he swam the Conde canal at night to reccy the German positions where their fires and bivouac had been noted. I assume this was either the night of the 22nd or 23rd but am keen to find out more details of this exploit and whether a report of this exists and where best to look?
    Paddy

  17. David Langrish says:

    Thank you for your comment, Paddy.

    I am not sure that the War Diaries would record that level of detail but they would be the best place to try, either at Battalion, Brigade or Divisional level.

    Please use our Contact Us form for General Enquiries, and one of our staff can send a more detailed response:

    http://apps.nationalarchives.gov.uk/Contact/contactform.asp?id=1

    Thank you again for your comment.

    David Langrish

  18. Tony Cosgrave says:

    My grandfather James Cummins 2nd RIR fought at Mons, He was badly wounded and taken prisoner, His treatment was atrocious, He was punched and kicked by guards on his way to Recklinghausen hospital, they invited locals to mistreat him and his fellow wounded prisoners whilst at the train stops. James spent time at Limburg POW camp and then Zerbst. In his statement about his treatment he said he saw a Red Cross station being burnt by germans but didn’t say which units. He saw germans set dogs on POW’s for the smallest infraction. He saw men tied to posts for not saluting german officers. He was repatriated in Nov 1917 by the Red Cross and came back to Ireland via Switzerland, We were lucky to have his statement from the National Archives.

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