Monday, 2 May 2011

British infantry at Mons

At dawn on Saturday 22 August 1914, C Squadron of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards, commanded by Major Tom Bridges, pushed out two patrols north from Mons towards Soignies and met the Germans for the first time. There is a memorial near the spot today. C Squadron commenced a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières. Four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop under Captain Hornby and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood. There were other cavalry encounters with the enemy in the areas of La Louvière and Binche.
Mons today

In the centre of the picture is a memorial to the first encounter with the enemy between the British cavalry units and the advancing German patrols, which happened here in August 1914. The sign board in front of it is modern, one of several marking a tourist route.The hamlet of Maisières lies between Casteau and Nimy. A plaque on the church wall records the exploits of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, 4th Middlesex, 2nd Royal Irish Regiment and 56th Field Company, Royal Engineers on 23rd August 1914, and the fact that a number of men of these units fell here.

During the day and in rear of the cavalry screen, the British infantry took up a thin line of roughly entrenched positions along the Mons-Conde canal, following it round the pronounced salient to the north of the town, with the I Corps to the east echeloned back and facing north-east. It was decided that, if pressure grew on the outposts along the canal, then the II Corps would evacuate Mons and take up a defensive position among the pit villages and slag heaps a little way to the south. The Germans were apparently unaware of the presence of the BEF in this area until the skirmishes on the 22nd, and even then they did not know the British strength.

The fight on the canal banks, morning 23 August 1914
At 5.30am, Sir John French met with Haig, Allenby and Smith-Dorrien at his advanced HQ at a chateau in Sars-la-Bruyère, where he ordered the outpost line on the canal to be strengthened and the bridges prepared for demolition. They recognised that the British position was not good, for the canal turn was very exposed on three sides.
'the selection of positions by the 5th Division was a matter of the greatest difficulty, the ground being a wilderness of deep ditches, straggling buildings, casual roads and tracks, and high slag heaps. Fortunately on the enemy side the conditions were almost identical.' (Official History)
The morning of Sunday, 23rd August broke in mist and rain, which cleared around 10am. There were some early exchanges between German cavalry and British infantry outposts around 6.30am, near Obourg, Nimy and Ville Pommeroeul. But there could be little doubt where the main blow would fall - it would concentrate on the units of II Corps, thinly spread along the canal.
Before 9am, German heavy guns were in a position on high ground north of the canal, and opened fire on the positions of the 4th Middlesex and 4th Royal Fusiliers. German infantry attacks - units of the IX Korps - began from across the canal and increased in strength all round the salient from Obourg to Nimy. It was the 84th Regiment, from Schleswig, who made the first attacks on the Nimy positions. The British infantry shot down the feldgrau in masses as they advanced towards the canal in dense lines.
The first Victoria Crosses of the war
The bridges at Nimy were defended by the 4th Royal Fusiliers, the forward Company under Captain Ashburner. Two machine guns were under Lieutenant Maurice Dease. As the German attacks increased, all men of his sections were killed or wounded and he took over a gun himself. He was wounded five times, and eventually taken to the dressing station, where he succumbed. Private Sidney Godley took over the gun, and kept it firing. He covered the withdrawal despite being wounded, and eventually dismantled and threw the gun into the canal as he was taken prisoner. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross. Godley died shortly after the Second War; Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery, along with many men and officers of his battalion.
Mons today

The Mons-Conde canal runs through the northern outskirts of the town. Although altered somewhat in recent times, the general layout is much as it was in 1914. The infantry of II Corps of the BEF took up defensive positions along the canal bank (left in this picture) on 22nd August 1914, and were attacked from across the canal the next day.

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