London 1918, the Armistice and Regimental histories

The First Seven Divisions - Before Mons in 1914

Being a Detailed Account of the Fighting from Mons to Ypres

Author: Ernest W. Hamilton

When an entire continent has for eighteen months been convulsed by military operations on so vast a scale as almost to baffle imagination, the individual achievements of this division or of that division are apt to fade quickly out of recognition. Fresh scenes peopled by fresh actors hold the public eye, and, in the quick passage of events, the lustre of bygone deeds soon gets blurred. People forget. But when the deeds are such as to bring a thrill of national pride; when they set up an all but unique standard of valour for future generations to live up to, it is best not to forget.
On the outbreak of war with Germany on August 3rd, 1914, the British Army was so small as to be a mere drop in the ocean of armed men who were hurrying to confront one another on the plains of Belgium. It was derisively described as "contemptible." And yet, in the first three months of the war, this little army, varying in numbers from 80,000 to 130,000, may justly claim to have in some part moulded the history of Europe. It was the deciding factor in a struggle where the sides—at first—were none too equally matched. For this alone its deeds are worthy of record, and they are worthy of record too for another reason. They represent the supreme sacrifice in the interests of the national honour of what was familiarly known as our "regular army." Since the outbreak of the war, fresh armies have arisen, of new and unprecedented proportions. The members of these new armies are as familiar now to the public eye as the representatives of the old regular army are scarce. With the doings of these new armies the present pages have no concern. They are, it is true, the expression of a spirit of patriotism and duty so remarkable that their voluntary growth must for ever stand out as one of the grandest monuments in the history of Britain. But they form no part of the subject matter of these pages, which deal solely with the way in which the old regular army, led by the best in the land, saved the national honour in the acutest crisis in history, and practically ceased to exist in the doing of it.
The regular army, small as it was, did not lie under the hands of those who would use it. Much of it was far away across the seas, guarding the outposts of the Empire. A certain proportion, however, was at hand, and with a smoothness and expedition which silenced, no less than it amazed, the critics of our military administration, 50,000 infantry, with its artillery and five brigades of cavalry, were shipped off to France almost before the public had realized that we were at war. From Havre or Boulogne, as the case might be, these troops either marched or were trained northwards; shook themselves into shape; gradually assumed the form of two army corps of two divisions each, of which the 1st Division was on the right and the 5th on the left (the 4th Division having not yet arrived), and in this formation faced the Belgian frontier to meet and check the invaders.
The two advancing forces met at Mons, or, to be more accurate, the British force took up a defensive position at Mons—in conformity with the pre-arranged plan of extending the French line westwards—and there waited.
From this time on, the doings of the Expeditionary Force become historically interesting, and its movements are worthy of study in detail. In the first instance, however, in order to arrive at a proper understanding of the circumstances which governed the position of the British troops on the occasion of their first stand, and which afterwards dictated the line of retreat and the roads to be followed in that retreat, and the successive points at which the retreating army faced about and fought, it is desirable to get a general grasp of the geographical side of things. The Germans were advancing from the north-east on Paris; that was their avowed intention; there was no secret about it; the leaders openly proclaimed their intentions; the soldiers advertised the fact in chalk legends scribbled on the doors of the houses; and—as the fashion is with Germans in arms—they were taking the most direct route to their objective, their artillery and transport following the great main roads that shoot out north-eastward from Paris towards Brussels, with their infantry swarming in endless thousands along the smaller collateral roads. Here and there, at intervals of from twenty to thirty miles, this system of parallel roads running north-east from Paris is crossed by other main roads running at right angles and forming, as it were, a skeleton check with the point of the diamond to the north. These main cross-roads had, in anticipation, been selected for the lines of defence along which our troops should turn and fight if necessary, for though it is laid down in the text-books of the wise that a line of defence must not run along a main road, such a road has obvious value for purposes of correct alignment. As the German advance was from the north-east, it is self-evident that the line of resistance or defence had to extend from north-west to south-east.
When our troops, by forced marches, reached Mons on August 22nd, 1914, the primary business of the British Force was to prolong the French line of resistance in a north-westerly direction. The natural country feature which was geographically indicated for this purpose was the high road which runs from Charleroi through Binche to Mons, and this was the line for which our troops were originally destined. In effect, however, this line proved to be impracticable, for the simple reason that, when we reached it, the Germans were already in possession of Charleroi, and the French on our right had fallen back beyond the point of prolongation of this line. For the British Force in these circumstances to have occupied the Mons—Charleroi road would have laid it open to the very great risk—if not certainty—of being cut off and completely isolated. In these circumstances there was no alternative but to range our 1st Army Corp along the Mons—Beaumont road, in rear of the original position contemplated, while the 2nd Army Corp lined the canal between Mons and Condé. The position was not ideal, the formation being that of a broad arrow, with the two Army Corps practically at right angles to one another. However, it was the best that offered in the peculiar circumstances of the case. As it turned out in the end, the entire attack at Mons fell on the 2nd Army Corp, which lay back at an angle of forty-five degrees from the general line of defence. The battle of Mons may, therefore, in a sense be looked upon as an attempt at a flanking or enveloping movement on the part of the enemy, which was frustrated by the interposition of our troops.
In view of the fact that the scene of the first shock with the enemy was fixed by necessity and not by choice, the Mons canal may be considered as a fortunate feature in the landscape. It ran sufficiently true to the required line to offer an obvious line of defence, and an ideal one, except for the flagrant defect that, after running from Condé to Mons in a mathematically straight line, on reaching the town it flings off to the north in a loop some two miles long by one and a half miles across. This loop, as well as the straight reach to Condé, was occupied by our troops. The formation of the British army, then, was not only that of a broad arrow, but of a broad arrow with a loop two miles long by a mile and a half across projecting from the point. Such a position could obviously not be held for long, and Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, recognizing this, had prepared in advance a second and more defensible line running through Frameries, Paturages, Wasmes and Boussu. To this second line the troops were to fall back as soon as the salient became untenable. A glance at the map will serve to show that the effect of swinging back the right of the 2nd Army Corp to this new position would be to at once bring the whole British Army into line, with a frontage facing the advance of the enemy from the north-east. In view, however, of the preparedness of the Germans and the comparative unpreparedness of the Allies, time was a factor in the case of the very first importance, and therefore the passage of the canal had to be opposed, if only for purposes of delay. It is important, however, to keep in mind that the real line which it was intended to defend at Mons was this second line. The intention was never carried out, because it was anticipated by an unexpected and most unwelcome order to retire in conformity with French movements on the right, which upset all plans.
In the meanwhile, the enemy's entry into Mons itself had to be delayed as long as possible, which meant that the canal salient, bad as it was, had perforce to be defended. This dangerous but most responsible duty was entrusted to Sir Hubert Hamilton with his 3rd Division, and, as a matter of fact, the battle of Mons in the end proved to be practically confined to the three brigades of this division.

The disposition of the division was as follows:
General Shaw, with the 9th Brigade, was posted along the western face of the canal loop, his right-hand battalion being the 4th R. Fusiliers, who held the line from the Nimy bridge, at Lock 6, to the Ghlin bridge. To the left of the R. Fusiliers, were the R. Scots Fusiliers, and beyond them again half the Northumberland Fusiliers reaching as far as Jemappes. The Lincolns and the rest of the Northumberland Fusiliers formed the reserve to the brigade and were at Cuesmes in rear of the canal.
On the right of the 9th Brigade was the 8th Brigade, occupying the north-east face of the canal salient. Of this brigade the 4th Middlesex on the left took up the line from the R. Fusiliers east of the Nimy bridge, and carried it on as far as the bridge and railway station at Obourg. Between Obourg and St. Symphorien were the 1st Gordon Highlanders, and on their right, thrown back so as to link up with the left of the 1st Army Corp, were the 2nd Royal Scots. The Royal Irish Regiment formed the brigade reserve at Hyon, and the 7th Brigade the divisional reserve at Cipley. So much then for the salient itself on which, as it turned out, the enemy's attack was mainly focussed. On the left of the 3rd Division, along the straight reach of the canal which runs to Condé, was Sir Charles Fergusson's 5th Division. Of this division we need only concern ourselves with the 13th Brigade, which continued the line of defence on the left of the 9th Brigade, the R. West Kents holding the ground from Mariette to Lock 5 at St. Ghislain, with the King's Own Scottish Borderers extended beyond them as far as Lock 4 at Les Herbières. The King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and Duke of Wellington's Regiment were in reserve. On the left of the King's Own Scottish Borderers was the E. Surrey Regiment and beyond again the 14th and 15th Brigades. Later on the line was still further extended to the west by the 19th Brigade, which arrived during the afternoon of the 23rd.

Such then was the disposition of the 2nd Army Corp The 1st Army Corp lay back, as has been explained, almost at right angles to the line of the canal, along the two roads that branch off from Mons to Beaumont and Maubeuge respectively. On the first-named road was the 1st Division reaching as far as Grand Reng. This division, however, as events turned out, was merely a spectator of the operations of August 23rd. The 2nd Division was very much scattered, the 6th Brigade being at Givry, and the 5th at Bougnies, while of the 4th Brigade the two Coldstream Battalions were at Harveng and the rest of the brigade at Quévy.
The gap between the 1st and 2nd Army Corp was patrolled by the 2nd C.B., an operation which brought about the first actual collision between British and German troops. This was on the 22nd near Villers St. Ghislain, when Captain Hornby with a squadron of the 4th Dragoon Guards fell in with a column of Uhlans, which he promptly charged and very completely routed, capturing a number of prisoners.
The rest of our cavalry was spread along the Binche road as a covering screen for the 1st Army Corp, with the exception of the 4th C.B. which was at Haulchin cross-roads, guarding the approach to that place from the direction of Binche, and at the same time keeping up a communication between the 1st and 2nd Divisions.

Such then was, generally speaking, the position on August 22nd. During that night, however, all the cavalry was withdrawn from the Binche road and moved across to the left of our line, where they took up a position guarding that flank along the two roads running north and south through Thulin and Eloges to Andregnies. The 4th C.B., having the shortest journey to make, went four miles further west again to Quiverain. This change of position meant a twenty mile night march for the cavalry on the top of a hard day's patrol work, and the journey took them from six o'clock in the evening till two o'clock the following morning.