In this guest blog post, Paul Bourton shares the latest instalment of his series revealing stories through the pre-war photograph pictured above. In this post, Paul details the Battle of Mons and its impact on 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery (RFA).
On the morning of Sunday 23 August 1914, the French Fifth Army under General Lanrezac was already in retreat. The two corps of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), stretched out along a twenty mile defensive line along the Mons-Conde canal, were left to face alone the might of the German First Army approaching the city of Mons from the north.
The British Commander, Sir John French, had decided to fight a holding action to buy time for the retreating French, and his troops were deployed and ready to meet the German onslaught. The east of the line between Mons and Bray was held by I Corps under the command of Lieutenant-General Douglas Haig. II Corps under Horace Smith-Dorrien held the line west of the city, and it was this Corps, which included the men of 27 Brigade Royal Field Artillery, that was to bear the brunt of the fighting that day.
The Germans, unaware of the proximity of the BEF, and continuing their seemingly inexorable advance south through Belgium, somewhat stumbled into the defences along the canal. At 9.00am the first German artillery rounds began to rain down upon the British troops along the canal and the Battle of Mons had begun. An hour later the German infantry began its advance.
The British infantry opened up a withering and deadly rifle fire on the closely formed columns of the approaching enemy and the Germans were cut down in their hundreds. The German advance was temporarily halted and, after regrouping and organising themselves into wider formations, the attack resumed with close artillery support. Despite fierce resistance from the heavily outnumbered defenders of 3 Division, the Germans crossed the canal bridge at Obourg at noon and captured the two adjacent bridges. Meanwhile, the men of 4 Battalion Royal Fusiliers gallantly held on to the railway bridge a little further west at Nimy. This defence was to earn the Battalion two Victoria Crosses; the first of the war, awarded to Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley.
The 5th Division was positioned to the west of its sister division and formed the left of the II Corps line. At the bridge just east of St. Ghislain, the infantrymen of the Royal West Kent and King’s Own Scottish Borderers regiments of 13 Brigade held back the famous Brandenburg Grenadiers with a tremendous hail of rifle fire supported by sustained and lethally accurate artillery from the gunners of 120 Battery Royal Field Artillery. In a deadly duel with the guns of the enemy artillery, however, the Battery was to lose two of its six guns and its commanding officer, Charles Stewart Holland, who was killed in the heat of the battle.
Further west along the canal at Les Herbieres, the troops of 14 Brigade, supported by 121 Battery RFA, held their positions throughout the afternoon. The 27th Brigade Royal Field Artillery was being blooded and it was a baptism of fire in every sense.
By the afternoon, the overwhelming German pressure on his line and the threat of being encircled from his exposed right flank forced Sir John French to withdraw his troops from the canal. The British withdrawal was executed, not as one movement, but as a series of independent actions. The men of 3 Division began their piecemeal withdrawal in the middle of the afternoon and this was followed by the battalions of 5 Division falling back, battalion by battalion, from the line of the canal. The Germans launched a frontal attack on the remaining positions of 3 Division along the Mons-Harmignies road and were stopped in their tracks by the men of the Gordon Highlanders and Royal Scots who had been held in reserve. Hundreds of attackers were killed in a few minutes by volleys of British rifle bullets, causing the German commanders to re-evaluate their opinion of the ‘contemptible little army’ from Britain and to cease the advance temporarily.
As the battle raged and unfolded, the majority of the day for eleven of the men of the photograph and their comrades in 119 Battery was spent waiting in the divisional reserve with 15 Brigade. The headquarters of 5 Division was located at the railway station at Dour, some three miles south of St. Ghislain and the Mons-Conde canal, while 15 Brigade itself was entrenched in a reserve line between the villages of Boussu and Wasmes, about halfway between the Divisional HQ and the front line. The ground here was far from ideal for defence and was broken up with slag heaps and detritus from the local mining industry. It meant that a continual line of defence with an uninterrupted field of fire was impossible for both infantry and artillery alike. It was along this broken reserve line that 119 Battery RFA spent the day of 23 August desperately searching for suitable locations for gun emplacements with the sounds of the battle all around them.
119 Battery RFA spent the day of 23 August desperately searching for suitable locations for gun emplacements with the sounds of the battle all around them.
The 15th Brigade commander, Brigadier Edward Gleichen, hurried to and fro along the line between the mining villages and settlements, busily organising his defences. He reported later in his memoirs observing the men of 119 Battery, ‘disconsolately wending their way through the narrow streets, and with their reconnoitring officers out in all directions looking for positions; but they found none and the artillery did but little in the way of shooting that night.’ A little further south of 15 Brigade positions, between Boussu-Bois and Wasmes, was 27 Brigade headquarters at a place called Champ des Arts.
The BEF withdrew some three miles south of the Mons-Conde canal to its reserve lines that evening. Early the following morning, with the intention of facing and holding the Germans on those lines later that day, the exhausted troops began to dig in to these new positions to await the arrival of the renewed German advance. The 5th Division, having fought a tactical withdrawal to its reserve line, dug in between Wasmes to the east and some distance beyond Dour to the west.
Meanwhile, with news having reached Sir John French that Lanzerac was in full retreat with his Fifth Army to the south, the decision was taken to withdraw the BEF completely and maintain contact with the French to avoid being isolated and ultimately engulfed by the German advance. So it was that on the morning of Monday 24 August, the retreat from Mons began. If the men of 119 Battery had enjoyed a relatively quiet and untroubled Sunday in comparison to their two sister batteries from 27 Brigade RFA, then Monday was going to prove to be very different indeed. It would become known as ‘Shrapnel Monday’ and the men in the photograph were going to be in the very thick of it.
- Look out for future Lives of the First World War blog posts by Paul