At the start of WW1, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was a small professional unit consisting of little over 150,000 soldiers. More accustomed to fighting smaller, colonial battles, nothing could prepare them for what they were about to experience. the early stages of British involvement in the war were harsh, with the BEF being pushed back to the French/Belgian border by the end of August. From the start of the war, the BEF was heavily outnumbered by the Germans.
On 23rd August, the BEF set up to defend a position at the village of Mons. It was the first major battle of the war, and an example of the open fighting which took place before the conflict sunk into the mechanised slaughter of trench warfare.
At dawn, German artillery bombardment began and concentrated on the British salient around the canal. Four bridges intersected the canal and it was over these bridges that the first German infantry attack attempted to cross. Four German Battalions attacked the Nimy Bride, which was defended by a company of the Royal Fusiliers.
The attacking Germans made for easy targets as they advanced in showground formation. Rifle, artillery and fire from a machine gun grew led by Lieutenant Maurice Dease, made light work of the attack.
It was a failure on the Germans part. This prompted a change in tactics, the Germans changed to attacking more loosely. This made it harder for British defences to hit their target, allowing the Germans to put more pressure on the diminishing BEF. Throughout the afternoon, the defending British were picked off.
Dease took sole control of a machine gun post after the rest of his men had been killed or wounded. He was shot five times before being evacuated to a dressing station where he died shortly after arriving.
In order to allow the retreat to continue, Private Sidney Godley took over the machine gun. Once the wounded were cleared, he threw the gun into the canal and surrendered. Both men were awarded the Victoria Cross for their efforts in protecting the retreat of the BEF from Mons.
The battle was seen as a failure for the Germans had they had been unsuccessful in overrunning the much smaller BEF. It was a perfect opportunity to push through to Paris whilst the British forces were still small. Overwhelming the defences in Mons could have resulted in a swift German victory across the open French countryside, as it was the BEF were able to hold off the vast German 1st Army long enough to stage a complete and successful surrender.
It was the professionalism and skill set of the British soldier which helped the BEF to hold off the Germans. Unlike the less well-trained Germans, the BEF were skilled marksman and took advantage of the naive approach by their enemy. The first battle involving British forces in Western Europe in almost a century may have ended in retreat, but the significance of the defensive role of the BEF would become clearer as the war raged on and beyond.
The Battle of Mons was relatively small scale and fought much differently than battles later in the war. It was a reality check for the British, they had discovered the hard way that WW1 was going to be very different to the colonial wars the BEF was more accustomed to fighting. The worst moments of the conflict were still to come, but the Battle of Mons had highlighted the determination of the BEF and the underestimation of the German army when coming up against the British.
In terms of casualties, the BEF lost 1600 men whilst Germany had any number between 3000 and 5000 men killed or wounded. The main difference was that at this stage in the war, Germany could afford this number whereas the BEF could not. Further down the line, after the First Battle of Ypres in November 1914, almost the entirety of the BEF which had originally landed in France in August had been wiped out.
In the British High Command, the retreat of Mons was clinical. The attempt to rally volunteers to join up. the BEF was short in numbers before war broke out, by the end of August it had grown even smaller. The overseas adventure for many young men and women, from Britain and her colonies, was about to truly begin. life would never be the same for the vast majority.