Saturday 23 August 2014

The Battle of Mons

The Place Leopold in Mons [Z1247/5]

Sunday 23rd August 1914: Today the first major battle of the war involving British troops took place in and around the Belgian town of Mons. Reports are still a little sketchy but it looks as if hordes of Germans descended on our gallant forces and, by sheer weight of numbers, drove them south out of the town. The Bedfords seem to have taken a minor role in the action so far though they have suffered their first casualty, a man from Henlow.

Having spoken to our contacts with the 1st Bedfords we hear that about midday half the battalion (A and B Companies) proceeded to Wasmes south-west of Mons. No immediate fighting was expected and the men began to dig trenches. Then the enemy shelled the area. One of our contacts with the battalion told us: “We later heard that A and B Companies were under fire and having a hot time and shells were starting to fly about. Everyone turned out to see the fun and we heard that quite a large number of civilians were hit. Excitement rose higher and parties of civilians were collected to go off and dig. They were wandering about in their Sunday clothes and looking at things with much interest”.

“At 5 pm we were ordered out to go off and help the other two companies who, we heard, were having a desperate time. After a pathetic farewell of our hostess we marched for a solid two hours through various villages being greeted with “Vive L’Angleterre” and finally reached the railway station at Paturages. Here we halted and lay down at the side of the road and tried to get some sleep. We did not know in the least what was happening, the whole situation being very obscure”.

The two halves of the battalion were still separated from each other and not reunited until after dark as those at Wasmes made for Paturages. The enemy was reported by inhabitants to be approaching in force on a road on the battalion’s right flank. A patrol was sent out in which our informant took part. His is an exciting narrative: “After saying good-bye to everyone as we did not expect ever to return, we started off at 9 pm with our party and interpreters. All of the latter however soon got the wind up and faded away!”

“The night was very dark and the road was fenced on both sides by rows of houses, some of which were burning as a result of the day’s bombardment. Civilians in the houses soon spotted us and kept jumping out and shouting “Vive L’Angleterre” and made an awful noise. I had to run ahead and tell them to be quiet and shut and lock them in their houses”.

“We had no maps and so could only hope we were going right. When we had done about one kilometre I heard someone running up the road in front away from us. We halted and thought it over but expected it was only some civilians. We went on and came up to a gasworks on the left of the road which was on fire and burning hard”.

“In front it was pitch dark and I was just going to give the halt to my party so that I could explore by the light of the fire when we were suddenly challenged out of the darkness ahead in English. It gave us an awful start and we at once answered and stood still. A party then came out of the darkness dressed in khaki consisting of an officer and about twenty men. The officer came up to me in the middle of the road and placed his loaded revolver to my head asking me questions while each of his men placed his bayonet at the stomach of my men”.

“He asked me such questions as – who are you? What Regiment? When did you land in France? Where were you stationed in England? And then said “Thank God, we nearly shot you!" We said “Thank God you didn’t!” They were the Northumberland Fusiliers of 3rd Division and had placed a barrier across the road and had orders to shoot anyone coming up the road we came along without challenge!”

“They told us that they had had very heavy fighting all day and a lot of casualties and that the Germans had drawn up field guns to within 50 yards of them over the bodies of their own dead and fired point blank at them”. The situation was reported to divisional headquarters by breaking into the railway station and using the telegraph and telephone!

Sources: X550/2/5; X550/2/7.

1 comment:

  1. Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

    Your article is very well done, a good read.