The arrival of the BEF in Mons


A Company, 4th Royal Fusiliers, resting in the square at Mons on 22 August 1914. They were to move up to the canal bank at Nimy.


The British began arriving on 22 August. Part of Brigadier-General Doran’s 8 Brigade (3rd Division) entered Mons itself and then moved on, 4/Middx (Middlesex) on the right, on the west bank of the Canal du Centre, whilst the other three battalions were close behind. 4/RF (Royal Fusiliers), of Brigadier-General Shaw’s 9 Brigade went through the town to the village of Nimy, which lay a mile to the north but was situated on the south bank of the Canal du Centre as it curved around to the south west. The three other battalions of the Brigade took up position to the west and south of the Condé Canal, which put them to the left rear of the Fusiliers.

Behind both brigades was Brigadier-General McCracken’s 7 Brigade; the 3rd Division was ready to move forward.

Major-General Fergusson’s 5th Division was spread out to the left of the 3rd, along the south bank of the remarkably straight Condé Canal. On the right was Brigadier-General Cuthbert’s 13 Brigade; Brigadier-General Count von Gleichen’s 15 Brigade in reserve and Brigadier-General Rolf’s 14th on the left, at its extremity some nine miles from Mons. By the evening the troops had all found billets in factories, schools and houses; and although they only anticipated staying until the following day, they dug in, helped by enthusiastic young Belgians. Similar scenes were taking place on I Corps front, off to the right. Intermingled amongst the infantry corps were elements of Allenby’s Cavalry Division, which had already got reconnaissance patrols on the far side of the canals. They were checking the way for the next move, which was to be an advance by II Corps to the north.

The 72 batteries of artillery had also been busily engaged in finding suitable positions, far from easy in the crowded country with its numerous mining villages. The majority had to be content with sites too far away from the canals to be effective, but a few did manage to get well forward. XL Brigade RFA managed to establish itself on the dominating hill a mile from Mons; 107 Field Battery established itself between the town and Nimy.

It was in the 5th Division area that there were the greatest problems. Major CS Holland, commanding 120 Field Battery of XXVII Brigade, managed to bring his four 18 pounders onto the canal towpath at Saint Ghislain.

Some of the Forward Observation Officers (FOO) thought they had found ideal places from which to view the enemy – when and if they came – from the top of the slag heaps. On the other hand, they were quick to discover the drawbacks: they were hot and smoking, with a thin crust that could break and through which a man could fall. Men from the coal mining areas were all too aware of this danger. Still, they were not going to be there for long.

The Royal Engineers were busy as well, examining the bridges to look at their load bearing capabilities and also how they might be destroyed if necessary. The CRE (Commander, Royal Engineers) of the two corps also discussed the recruiting of gangs of civilians to dig defences – in the light of what was soon to come they would be useful.

Early on the morning of 22 August Brigadier-General de Lisle’s 2 (Cavalry) Brigade had been out covering the approaches from Brussels, well to the front of the main bulk of the army. Major Tom Bridges (eventually to become a major-general), commanding C Squadron of 4/(Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, had his men in a wood just over the bridges at Nimy, about two miles up the road to Brussels [1]. This was in the village of Casteau, about four miles from Soignies, further up on the road to Brussels. At about 7am he saw four German cavalrymen trotting towards him. He would find out later that they were of the 4/Cuirassiers (Lancers) of the 9th (Cavalry) Division. They must have suspected something and began to turn back towards Soignies. Captain Hornby, followed by his Troop, gave chase along the pavéd road, alongside which a tram track ran. Corporal Thomas after a few moments dismounted and fired his rifle, hitting one of them [2]. The pursuit [3] continued for about a mile until, at a minor crossroads known as the Queen of Hungary [4], the enemy received reinforcements and a hand to hand battle of the thirty or forty cavalrymen took place. Some of the Cuirassiers were killed and a number captured – the Germans broke off the engagement and galloped off down the road.

Thomas was a regular soldier who had joined the army when he was fourteen; it is claimed that he was the first man to fire a shot in anger in the British army in the war. Hornby was awarded the DSO for his part in the skirmish. His men brought back a number of lances, helmets and other trophies; more importantly they had discovered the fact that the German cavalry were not up to their standard and that more significant numbers of Germans must be close by.

The German cavalry of the IIIrd and IXth Corps were engaged in scouting in front of the main bodies of their infantry, blissfully unaware of where the British actually were – an ignorance shared by their Army commander, von Kluck. This ignorance, and his concern about the vulnerability of his right flank, was to play an important part in the development of the Battle of Mons. At one stage he was convinced that large numbers of British troops were detraining at Tournai, well to the west, and this was to hold up the advance of vital elements of his army for several hours before it was ascertained that these troops were in fact only a brigade of French Territorials.

A Squadron of 19/Hussars, commanded by Major Parsons, accompanied by Captain JC Burnett and his 5th Cyclist Company (5th Division), were patrolling five miles north of the Condé Canal in the wooded area north of the village of Hautrage in front of 14 Brigade, when they met up with German cavalry. The engagement between the two small forces went on for most of the day. The Hussars were reluctant to retire as their Short Magazine Lee Enfield, with its long range, was causing so much damage; but the Cuirassiers received reinforcements. The Hussars’ efforts to prevent the enemy reaching the outposts of 1/DCLI (Duke of Cornwall’s Light Infantry), who only arrived at the canal in the afternoon, were gradually being overcome. They retired to Pommeroeul and then Le Petit Crepin; with the assistance of a troop of Life Guards from 4 (Cavalry) Brigade they came back over the canal.

Over on the right flank, in front of 4/Middx at the Canal du Centre, German cavalry were active in the late afternoon. They exchanged rifle fire with D Company from over the canal at Obourg. There were no casualties, but the Battalion was the first infantry to fire at the Germans in the Great War.

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