The Battle of Mons
On August 23, 1914, the British Expeditionary Force made its World War I combat debut against German troops over the 60 foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium. This was the first confrontation on European soil for British soldiers since the Battle of Waterloo nearly 99 years earlier in 1815.
At the Battle of Mons, four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force, commanded by Sir John French relentlessly fought against the German 1st Army. French's BEF was originally meant to assist the French 5th Army, who were attempting to break through the center of the German advance. Due to poor communication by Sir John French and General Charles Lanrezac of the French 5th Army, British and French troops were forced to fight separate battles against the advancing Germans at Charleroi and Mons.
British troops preparing to advance in the Mons area prior to the battle. (Photo: britishbattles.com)
The BEF was outnumbered two-to-one against the German 1st Army at Mons. Despite being outnumbered, British troops withstood six hours of artillery shelling and infantry assaults. Late in the day, French General Lanrezac ordered a retreat of his forces at Charleroi and this put the BEF in danger of being enveloped by the Germans at Mons. Under the threat of envelopment, a decision was made to withdraw British forces.
A succesful withdrawal at Mons would not have been possible without the heroism of men like Lieutenant Maurice Dease and Private Sidney Godley of the Royal Fusiliers. Lieutenant Dease commanded two machine guns along the Mons Canal on Nimy Bridge. He was shot and wounded several times while dragging injured men to safety. Dease eventually fell unconscious and his machine gun position fell silent. With German troops threatening to overrun the position, Private Godley rushed onto the bridge to take command of one of the guns. He was struck in the back by German shell fragments, but was unfazed and manned the machine gun emplacement for two hours while under heavy fire.
This clip from BBC's Our World War depicts Lieutenant Dease and Private Godley defending their position during the Battle of Mons. Skip to 3:41 to see Dease as he falls unconscious. Soon after, Godley takes his position on the gun. (YouTube: shaz fish)
Godley also volunteered to stay behind to cover the rest of his outfit as they began to withdraw. When ammo ran low and everyone had escaped, Private Godley took both machine guns apart and threw the pieces into the river, denying the enemy from using them. He was shot in the head as he threw the last piece into the river, but miraculously survived. Dease succumbed to his wounds on that day while Godley survived and was eventually captured. They were each awarded Great Britain’s highest military honor, the Victoria Cross for their actions at Mons.
Lieutenant Dease (Top) and Private Godley (Bottom).
The Battle of Mons lasted for nine hours and involved some 35,000 British soldiers. Casualties for the BEF are estimated to have been around 1,600. While the battle ended in retreat, history.com writes that the British public "imagination elevated Mons to mythic status and those who died to heroes." There is even a legend about the "Angels of Mons" who are said to have protected soldiers of the BEF during the battle.
An illustration of angels putting up a protective curtain to safeguard men from the Lincolnshire Regiment at Mons. Illustration by Alfred Pearse. (Photo: militaryhistoryonline.com)
Mons was the beginning of what would be one of the most challenging periods in British military history. Pain and loss would be common, but courage and heroism were never in doubt. That much was evident in the British Expeditionary Force's opening battle of WWI from men like Maurice Dease and Sidney Godley.
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