London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Battle of Mons in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

THE BATTLE OF MONS

The morning of the 23rd opened sunny and bright. The weather was set fair with a breeze from the east, a cloudless sky, and the promise of great heat at midday. A pale blue haze rounded off the distance, and softened the outlines of the tall, gaunt chimney stacks with which the entire country is dotted.
With the first streak of dawn came the first German shell. It was evident from the outset that the canal loop had been singled out as the object of the enemy's special attentions. Its weakness from the defensive point of view was clearly as well known to them as it was to our own Generals. It was also fairly obvious to both sides that, if the enemy succeeded in crossing the canal in the neighbourhood of the salient, the line of defence along the straight reach to Condé would have to be abandoned. The straight reach of the canal was therefore, for the time being, neglected, and all efforts confined to the salient. The bombardment increased in volume as the morning advanced and as fresh German batteries arrived on the scene, and at 8 a.m. came the first infantry attack.
This first attack was launched against the north-west corner of the canal loop, the focus-point being—as had been anticipated—the Nimy bridge, on which the two main roads from Lens and Soignies converge. The attack, however, soon became more general and the pressure quickly extended for a good mile and a half to either side of the Nimy bridge, embracing the railway bridge and the Ghlin bridge to the left of it, and the long reach to the Obourg bridge on the right.
The northern side of the canal is here dotted, throughout the entire length of the attacked position, with a number of small fir plantations which proved of inestimable value to the enemy for the purpose of masking their machine-gun fire, as well as for massing their infantry preparatory to an attack.
About nine o'clock the German infantry attack, which had been threatening for some time past, took definite shape and four battalions were suddenly launched upon the head of the Nimy bridge. The bridge was defended by a single company of the R. Fusiliers under Captain Ashburner and a machine-gun in charge of Lieut. Dease.

The Germans attacked in close column, an experiment which, in this case proved a conspicuous failure, the leading sections going down as one man before the concentrated machine-gun and rifle fire from the bridge. The survivors retreated with some haste behind the shelter of one of the plantations, where they remained for half an hour. Then the attack was renewed, this time in extended order. The alteration in the formation at once made itself felt on the defenders. This time the attack was checked but not stopped. Captain Ashburner's company on the Nimy bridge began to be hard pressed and 2nd Lieut. Mead was sent up with a platoon to its support. Mead was at once wounded—badly wounded in the head. He had it dressed in rear and returned to the firing line, to be again almost immediately shot through the head and killed. Captain Bowdon-Smith and Lieut. Smith then went up to the bridge with another platoon. Within ten minutes both had fallen badly wounded. Lieut. Dease who was working the machine-gun had already been hit three times. Captain Ashburner was wounded in the head, and Captain Forster, in the trench to the right of him, had been shot through the right arm and stomach. The position on the Nimy bridge was growing very desperate, and it was equally bad further to the left, where Captain Byng's company on the Ghlin bridge was going through a very similar experience. Here again the pressure was tremendous and the Germans made considerable headway, but could not gain the bridges, Pte. Godley with his machine-gun sticking to his post to the very end, and doing tremendous execution. The defenders too had most effective support from the 107th Battery R.F.A. entrenched behind them, the Artillery Observer in the firing line communicating the enemy's range with great accuracy.

To the right of the Nimy bridge the 4th Middlesex were in the meanwhile putting up a no less stubborn defence, and against equally desperate odds. Major Davey, whose company was on the left, in touch with the right of the R. Fusiliers, had fallen wounded early in the day, and the position at that point finally became so serious that Major Abell's company was rushed up from reserve to its support. During this advance Major Abell himself, Captain Knowles and 2nd Lieut. Henstock were killed, and a third of the rank and file fell, but the balance succeeded in reaching the firing line trenches and—with this stiffening added—the position was successfully held for the time being.
Captain Oliver's company, in the centre of the Middlesex line, was also very hard pressed, and Col. Cox sent up two companies of the R. Irish Regiment (who were in reserve at Hyon) to its support, another half company of the same regiment being at the same time sent to strengthen the right of the Middlesex line at the Obourg bridge, where Captain Roy had already been killed and Captain Glass wounded. The Gordons, on the right of the Middlesex, also suffered severely, but the Royal Scots beyond them were just outside of the zone of pressure, and their casualties were few.
The attack along the straight reach of the canal towards Condé was less violent, and was not pressed till much later in the day. Here, lining the canal towards the west, was the 5th Division (13th, 14th and 15th Brigades). On the right of this division and in touch with the Northumberland Fusiliers, who were the left-hand battalion of the 9th Brigade (in the 3rd Division) were the 1st R. West Kents. This battalion had on the previous day, in its capacity as advance guard to the brigade, been thrown forward as a screen some distance to the north of the canal, where it sustained some fifty casualties, Lieuts. Anderson and Lister being killed and 2nd Lieut. Chitty wounded. Eventually, as the enemy advanced, the battalion was withdrawn to the south side of the canal, and on the 23rd it occupied the reach from Mariette on the east to the Pommeroeul—St. Ghislain road on the west, where two companies held the bridge at the lock. This position, however, was not seriously pressed, and the battalion had few further casualties during the day, though Captain Buchanon-Dunlop had the misfortune to be wounded by a shell at the outset of the attack.

Towards midday the attack against the straight reach of the canal became general. The whole line was shelled, and the German infantry, taking advantage of the cover afforded by the numerous fir plantations—which here, as at Nimy, dotted the north side of the canal—worked up to within a few hundred yards of the water, and from the cover of the trees maintained a constant rifle and machine-gun fire on the defenders.
About 3 o'clock in the afternoon the 19th Brigade under General Drummond arrived from Valenciennes and took up a position on the extreme left of our front, extending the line of the 5th Division as far as Condé itself, on the outskirts of which town were the 1st Cameronians, with the 2nd Middlesex on their right, and the 2nd R. Welsh Fusiliers again beyond.
They were hardly in position before the action became general all along the line of the canal.

The most serious attack in this quarter was on the bridge at Les Herbières, held by the 2nd King's Own Scottish Borderers This regiment had thrown one company forward on the north side, along the Pommeroeul road, with the remaining companies lining the south bank of the canal, and the machine-guns dominating the situation on the north side of the canal from the top storey of the highest house on the south side. The dispositions for defence were good, but on the other hand the King's Own Scottish Borderers were throughout the action a good deal harassed by a thick wood running up close to the north bank, in which the Germans were able to concentrate without coming under observation. Several times their infantry were seen massing on the edge of this wood with a view to a charge, but on each occasion the attack died away under the rifle fire from the Pommeroeul road and canal bank, and the machine-gun fire from the tall house beyond.

In the meanwhile, though undoubtedly inflicting very heavy losses on the enemy, the King's Own Scottish Borderers were losing men all the time, Captain Spencer, Captain Kennedy and Major Chandos-Leigh being early among the casualties. Curiously enough, the machine-gun position, though sufficiently conspicuous, was not located by the enemy for some considerable time, but eventually it became the object of much attention. In the end, however, it was luckily able to withdraw without loss, being more fortunate in this respect than the machine-gun section of the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry on the right under Lieut. Pepys, that officer being the first man killed in action in the battalion, if not in the whole division.
The Germans, in spite of all efforts, were able to make no material headway along the straight canal, nor was the advantage of the fighting in that quarter by any means on their side, but with the abandonment of the Nimy salient the withdrawal of the troops to the left of it became imperative, for reasons already explained, and in the evening the 5th Division received the order to retire. This was not till long after the 3rd Division had abandoned the Nimy salient. The three brigades of this latter division, after putting up a heroic defence and suffering very severe casualties, got the order to retire at 3 p.m., whereupon the R. Fusiliers fell slowly back through Mons to Hyon, and the R. Scots Fusiliers, who had put up a great fight at Jemappes, through Flénu. The blowing up of the Jemappes bridge gave a lot of trouble. Corpl. Jarvis, R.E., worked at it for one and a half hours, continuously under fire, before he eventually managed to get it destroyed under the very noses of the Germans. He got a private of the R. Scots Fusiliers, named Heron, to help him, who got the D.C.M. Jarvis got the Victoria Cross.

The retirement of the R. Fusiliers from their dangerous position along the western boundary of the salient was not an easy matter. Before cover could be got they had to cross 250 yards of flat open ground swept at very close range by shrapnel and machine-gun fire. Dease had now been hit five times and was quite unable to move. Lieut. Steele, who was the only man in the whole section who had not been killed or wounded, caught him up in his arms and carried him across the fire zone to a place of safety beyond, where however he later on succumbed to his wounds. Dease was posthumously awarded the Victoria Cross, as also was Pte. Godley for his machine-gun work on the Ghlin bridge.
The 9th Brigade after abandoning the salient remained in the open fields near the Mons hospital till two o'clock in the morning, when it continued its retirement towards Frameries. The wounded were left in the Mons hospital. At Flénu the R. Scots Fusiliers lingered rather too long, and were caught near the railway junction by some very mobile machine-guns, which caused a number of casualties, Captain Rose being killed, and several other officers wounded.
By dusk the new line running through Montreuil, Boussu, Wasmes, Paturages and Frameries had been taken up by the greater part of the 2nd Army Corp, but the two extremities, i.e., the 14th, 15th and 19th Brigades on the left and the 8th Brigade on the right, remained in their original positions till the middle of the night. The latter brigade then retired through Nouvelles and Quévy to Amfroipret, just beyond Bavai, where it bivouacked. This brigade in common with the 9th Brigade had suffered very severely, the Middlesex alone having lost 15 officers and 353 rank and file.
By night the Germans had completed their pontoon bridges across the canal, and it became evident that they were advancing in great force in the direction of Frameries, Paturages and Wasmes. Sir Horace realized that the 3rd Division had been too severely knocked about during the day to hold the position unaided for long against the weight of troops known to be advancing. He accordingly motored over to the Commander in Chief to ask for the loan of the 5th Brigade which was at Bougnies, four miles off, and on the main road to Frameries. This was readily granted him, and without delay the 5th Brigade set out, half of it remaining in Frameries, and the other half passing on to Paturages.

In the meanwhile, however, came a most unwelcome change of programme. The first line in the Mons salient had been obviously untenable for long, and had been recognized as such by our commanders, but the line now held was a different matter altogether, and there was every reasonable expectation that it could be successfully defended, at any rate for a very considerable time. At 2 a.m., however, Sir Horace received the order to abandon it and retire without delay to the Valenciennes to Maubeuge road, as the French on our right were retreating. Not only was this unexpected order highly distasteful to the soldier-spirit of the corps, but it involved difficulties of a grave nature with regard to the clearance of the transport and impedimenta generally, and severe and costly rear-guard actions seemed inevitable. At Paturages the Oxfordshire L.I. from the newly-arrived 5th Brigade was detailed for this duty, and dug itself in in rear of the town, while the 3rd Division continued its retirement to Bermeries. The Germans, however, contented themselves with shelling and then occupying the town, and made no attempt to follow through on the far side—a matter for pronounced congratulation, the position of the 5th Brigade being very bad and its line of retreat worse. It is to be supposed that the attractions of the town were for the moment stronger than the lust of battle. There also can be no question but that the Germans lost very heavily in their advance on Frameries and Paturages, the British shrapnel being beautifully timed, and knocking the attacking columns to pieces.

At noon the 5th Brigade returned to its own division at Bavai, the 23rd Brigade R.F.A. remaining behind at Paturages to give all the exits from the town an hour's bombardment, in case the German pursuit might become too pressing.
In the cobbled streets of Bavai a fine confusion was found to reign—companies without regiments and officers without companies, and various units mixed up anyhow. The Staff officers had their hands very full.
In the meantime, while Frameries and Paturages were being occupied by the enemy with little or no infantry opposition, and with little attempt on the part of the enemy at further pursuit, the market square at Wasmes presented a very different scene. This town had been shelled from daybreak, the enemy's fire being replied to with magnificent courage and with the most conspicuous success by a single howitzer battery standing out by itself half a mile from the town. An officer, perched on the top of one of the huge slag heaps with which the country is dotted, was able to direct operations with the highest degree of accuracy, and rendered services to the retreating force which are beyond estimation.

At ten o'clock the German infantry attacked the town with the utmost confidence, advancing through the narrow streets in close column. A certain surprise, however, awaited them. In the town, lining the market square and the streets to either side, were the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry, the R. West Kents, the Bedfords and the Duke of Wellington's Regiment, these regiments having been detailed for rear-guard work and having successfully withstood the bombardment. The heads of the German columns, the moment they appeared in sight, were met by a concentrated rifle and machine-gun fire and were literally mown down like grass. Their losses were enormous. Time after time they were driven back, and time after time they advanced again with splendid but useless courage. After two hours' fighting in the streets, during which the enemy was able to make no headway, our troops, having fulfilled their duty as rear-guard, were able to withdraw in good order to St. Vaast, which was reached at dusk. The losses on our side were heavy. The R. West Kents alone had Major Pack-Beresford, Captain Philips, and Lieuts. Sewell and Broadwood killed, and several other officers wounded. The Duke of Wellington's also lost heavily. Sergt. Spence of that regiment distinguished himself very greatly. During one of the German advances he was badly wounded, but ignoring his wounds he charged with a platoon down one of the narrow streets to the right of the square, and drove the enemy clean out of the town with great loss. He was awarded the D.C.M. as was also Sergt. Hunt of the Bedfords.

Further west, at the extreme left of our line, the retirement was effected with even greater difficulty than at Wasmes. The second line of defence through Montreuil, Boussu, Wasmes, Paturages and Frameries—which in effect merely constituted a change of front with the right thrown half back—of necessity left the western end of our line in close proximity to the enemy's advance. In other words, the further west the greater the difficulty of retiring on account of the closer presence of the enemy. The 14th, 15th and 19th Brigades, with a view to conforming to the general direction of the second line of defence, had remained north of the Valenciennes—Mons road and railway throughout the night of the 23rd. In the morning, when the order to retire to the Valenciennes road came, the 15th and 19th Brigades crossed the railway at Quiverain, and the 14th at Thulin, but by this time the enemy was close upon their heels. The 1st Cavalry Division was able to help their retirement to a certain extent by dismounting and lining the railway embankment, from which position they got the advancing Germans in half flank, and did considerable execution. By 11.30, however, they too had been forced to retire to Andregnies. An urgent message now arrived from Sir Charles Fergusson, commanding the 5th Division, saying that he could not possibly extricate his division unless prompt and effective help was given by the cavalry. On receiving this message, General de Lisle, who was at Andregnies, sent off the 18th Hussars to the high ground along the Quiverain to Eloges road with orders to there dismount and make the most of the ground. The 119th Battery R.F.A. was at this time just south-west of Eloges, and L Battery R.H.A. just north-east of Andregnies, both being on the main road to Angre and about three miles apart. The 4th Dragoon Guards and 9th Lancers were in Andregnies itself.

No sooner were his dispositions made than the German columns were seen advancing from the direction of Quiverain towards Andregnies. De Lisle told the two regiments in the village that they had got to stop the advance at all costs, even if it entailed a charge. The very suggestion of a charge never fails to act as a tonic to any British cavalry regiment, and in great elation of spirits the two cavalry regiments debouched from the village, the 4th Dragoon Guards making their exit from the left, and the two squadrons of the 9th Lancers from the right.
The enemy were now seen some 2,000 yards away, the intervening ground being mainly stubble fields in which the corn stooks were still standing. The Germans no sooner saw the cavalry advancing with the evident intention of charging than they scattered in every direction, taking shelter behind the corn stooks and any other cover that presented itself, and opening fire from these positions. The cavalry advanced in the most perfect order, and was on the point of making a final charge when it became evident that this was impossible owing to a wire fence which divided two of the stubble fields.
With great coolness and presence of mind, the two C.O.'s, Col. Mullens of the 4th Dragoon Guards, and Col. Campbell of the 9th Lancers, without pausing, wheeled their troops to the right, and took cover behind some big slag heaps, where they dismounted under shelter. From this position the cavalry opened a galling fire on the advancing Germans, the two batteries on the Angre road joining in. The original scheme of charging the enemy having been frustrated, it now became necessary to get fresh orders from Head Quarters, and Col. Campbell accordingly galloped back across the open, in full view of the enemy and under a salute of bullets, to see the Brigadier, leaving Captain Lucas-Tooth in command of the two squadrons of the 9th Lancers.
For four hours the fight was kept up, the led horses being gradually withdrawn into safety, while the dismounted cavalry with their two attendant batteries held the enemy in check. During the whole of this period the Germans were quite unable to advance beyond the wire fence which had so suddenly changed a proposed charge into a dismounted attack. Captain Lucas-Tooth was awarded the D.S.O. for the gallantry with which he conducted this defence, and for the great coolness and skill with which he withdrew his men and horses.

General de Lisle's object having now been achieved, the dismounted men were gradually withdrawn. During the course of one of these withdrawals, Captain Francis Grenfell, 9th Lancers, noticed Major Alexander of the 119th Battery in difficulties with regard to the withdrawal of his guns. All his horses had been killed, and almost every man in the detachment was either killed or wounded. Captain Grenfell offered assistance which was gladly accepted, and presently he returned with eleven officers of his regiment and some forty men. The ground was very heavy and the guns had to be run back by hand under a ceaseless fire, but they were all saved, Major Alexander, Captain Grenfell and the rest of the officers working as hard as the men. Captain Grenfell was already wounded when he arrived, and was again hit while manhandling one of the guns, but he declined to retire till they were all saved. For this fine performance, Major Alexander and Captain Grenfell [1] were each awarded the Victoria Cross, Sergts. Turner and Davids getting the D.C.M. Others no doubt merited it too, but where so many were deserving it was hard to discriminate.

We may now consider the retirement of the 2nd Army Corp to the Valenciennes to Maubeuge road to have been successfully effected; and the fall of night saw this corps dotted at intervals along this road between Jerlain and Bavai.
While they are there, enjoying their few hours' respite from marching and fighting, it may be well to cast a retrospective glance at the doings of the 1st Army Corp This corps had so far had little serious fighting, but it had been very far from inactive, and in point of fact, it had probably covered more ground in the way of marching and counter-marching than its partner, owing to repeated scares of enemy attacks which did not materialize. At daybreak on the 24th, the 2nd Division was ordered to make a demonstration in the direction of Binche with a view to diverting attention from the retirement of the 2nd Army Corp The 2nd Division now consisted of the 4th and 6th Brigades only, the 5th Brigade having, as we know, gone to Frameries and Paturages to help the 3rd Division. These two brigades, then, advanced at daybreak in the direction of Binche to the accompaniment of a tremendous cannonade, in which the artillery of the 1st Division joined from the neighbourhood of Pleissant. There was a great noise and a vigorous artillery response from the enemy, but not much else, and after an hour or so the 2nd Division returned to the Mons—Maubeuge road, where it entrenched. Here it remained for some four hours, when it retired to the Quévy road and again entrenched. Nothing, however, in the way of a serious attack occurred, and at five o'clock in the evening it fell back to its appointed place just east of Bavai. The 1st Division shortly afterwards arrived at Feignies and Longueville, and the whole British Army was once more in line between Jerlain and Maubeuge, with Bavai as the dividing point between the two Army Corp's.


Footnotes

[1] Of this famous fighting family the twins Captain Rivy and Captain Francis Grenfell have both been killed during the present war. Their elder brother, R. S. Grenfell, was killed at Omdurman during the Egyptian campaign, and their cousin Claud Grenfell at Spion Kop, in the Boer war. Two other cousins, the Honourable J. Grenfell and Honourable G. Grenfell, have also fallen in the present war. Lieut.-Col. Cecil Grenfell, a brother of the twins, is at the moment of writing fighting in the Dardanelles.