The initial German assault on Mons consisted of five divisions attacking the British II Corps of two divisions commanded by Lieutenant General Horace Smith-Dorrien, an old India hand. The German attack must have seemed quite familiar to him; they advanced in tight ranks across open ground, as ignorant of the effect of concentrated firepower as any tribesman he had faced on the Northwest Frontier. Von Kluck’s men suffered heavy casualties and the first assault was thrown back. They regrouped and a more extended order of attack advanced on the British line a half-hour later. This probe managed to find and dislodge the exposed flank of the British 3rd Division and turn the previously defensible perimeter of the British force into a dangerous salient.
Despite the tremendous casualties inflicted by the defenders, the sheer weight of numbers worked against them; what had initially resembled Omdurman was rapidly turning into something more akin to Isandlwana. The point companies holding the bridge approaches suffered what for this early stage of the war were heavy losses, but still managed to hold on. There at the Nimy Bridge Lieutenant Maurice Dease, machine gun officer of the Royal Fusiliers, won the first Great War Victoria Cross. `The gun fire was intense, and the casualties very heavy, but the lieutenant went on firing despite his wounds, until he was hit the fifth time and was carried away to a place of safety where he died.’ The second VC followed in short order, as Private Sidney Frank Godley took Dease’s place at the gun and kept it firing until the position was overrun. In a final gesture of defiance, Godley smashed the firing mechanism and tipped the gun into the canal just before retiring:
We carried on until towards evening when the order was given for the line to retire. I was asked by Lieut. Steele to remain and hold the position while the retirement took place, which I did do, although I was very badly wounded several times, but I managed to carry on. I was on my own at the latter end of the action. Of course, Lieut. Dease lay dead by the side of me, and Lieut. Steele, he retired with his platoon. I remained on the bridge and held the position, but when it was time for me to get away I smashed the machine gun up, threw it in the Canal, and then crawled back on the main road where I was picked up by a couple of Belgian civilians and was then taken to hospital in Mons…I was being attended by the doctors…when the Germans came in and took the hospital.
In a phenomenal act of courage, German private August Niemeyer swam across the canal under intense British fire and brought back a boat so that his patrol could cross. The German patrol then crossed the canal and engaged the defending British soldiers. Then, Niemeyer set the swing mechanism in motion that moved the bridge back into position across the canal and reopened the bridge to road traffic. In its closed position, the Nimy swing bridge allowed traffic to cross the canal. When a water vessel needed to pass, motors rotated the bridge horizontally about its pivot point out of the way. The British troops rotated the Nimy bridge away from the banks but did not disable the mechanism. As a result, even after Niemeyer was killed, German troops were able to charge across and secure the bridge. By 1:40 p.m., the British infantry was falling back under fire from the Germans advancing through Mons to Ciply. Had the machine guns been placed at an angle in a protected position from which they could have swept the bridge, the British might have held it much longer.