The British came to France to help their allies against the German invasion. After landing at the channel ports they march to Mons in Belgium where they will get their first taste of combat. The little British force, given the uninspiring name of British Expeditionary Force, is about to run into the full force of the German First Army.
Hello everyone and welcome to History of the Great War Episode 9. We are now in the 4th of week of August and it has been almost a month since the war started, and my what a month it has been. The Germans have invaded the captured most of Belgium, including Liege, after an 11 day siege. The French have launched their great attack to begin the war, an attack that was defeated along the entire length of the front. Not only was the French attack in Belgium unsuccessful but in fact that Germans had managed to dislodge the French from their positions and the French fifth army was in full retreat. Up until now we have focused strictly on the French and German actions that began the war in August 1914 and now it is time to catch up with the third player on the Western Front, the British. We will first take a bit to catch up on some of the political maneuvering in Britain that resulted in less troops being sent to France than expected and then we will follow the British Expeditionary Force to Mons and LeCateau. Finally, we will examine the effects that the German attacks were having across the entire northern front as the British and French armies retreated as fast as their feet could carry them.
Shortly after war was declared a Secretary of State of War was appointed to be a member of the British War Council. The man picked for the position was none other than Earl Kitchener, known in his time as Lord Kitchener of Khartoum. Kitchener was seen as the greatest war hero that the Empire possessed at the time of World War 1. He had seen service in several of the empires colonial wars of the previous decades, his most well known accomplishment was his victory at the Battle of Omdurman during the war of Sudan. He then went on to hold high postings in Egypt and India. He was extremely well liked by the British public, a contributing factor for his appointment. Kitchener was however quite skeptical about the role the British army would play in the war in France. He believed that the war would be much longer than several of his contemporaries and that it would require Britain to raise a massive army to match its continental opponents. He saw the 6 divisions that Britain had planned to send to France as too small to have any noticeable impact and preferred to keep all the troops at home to bolster and train a new army that would number in the millions. Kitchener, while he would have his faults that would become apparent in later years, was instrumental in the British war effort in the early years of the war. The Kitchener recruiting poster that shows him pointing at the reader with the text “Lord Kitchener Wants You” is one of the most famous recruiting posters of all time.
As for what planned Britain planned to do with the troops that would be sent to France, nobody knew exactly. The British were committed to helping the French, but as the troops were getting ready to leave nobody could seem to agree on where exactly they should be sent. Kitchener favored a western stopping point for the army, somewhere around Amiens. The military leaders of the country thought that the army should march as far east as Maubeuge in Belgium. Sir John French even threw out the idea of sending all the troops to Antwerp to help the Belgian army. This idea was vetoed by Churchill and the navy as impractical because they couldn’t guarantee the security of the transports. Kitchener would be successful in holding back two divisions of troops under the pretense of needing them to guard against the possibility of a German invasion of the British isles. The troops would finally set out on August 9th for France, there would only be 4 divisions of infantry and a division of cavalry instead of originally planned 6 infantry and 1 cavalry division. These 5 divisionsr numbered about 80,000 troops and 30,000 horses. The final decision for where the troops would be stationed had finally been made and the plan was to disembark at ports on the English Channel and then have the troops march to the Belgium border. The landing and movements of the troops was kept very quiet and hidden from the Germans to the point where the Germans at Mons on August 21st were surprised that the British were even in France. The British troops marching through France received a heroes welcome with several instances of it causing some discipline problems.
As a musical aside for the first few episodes of History of the Great War I used the song “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary” as the lead-in and lead-out song. This song would become associated with the British army in World War 1 when it was mentioned by a Daily Star reporter who heard the Connaught Rangers, a British Unit among those sent to France, singing it upon their arrival. This story was ran by the Daily Star, probably just looking for any interesting bit to publish about the troops in France, and the song gained huge popularity in Britain. Last week we discussed General Lanrezac and his French Fifth army as they dealt with the German attack at Charleroi. I would like to thank listener Steven Mitchell for pointing out I have been horrifically mispronouncing Charleroi in previous episodes. Several times last week I mentioned the presence of the British on the French left flank as they fought the German First Army at Mons. The British had arrived on the 22nd of August a day after the Battle of Charleroi started and they positioned themselves on the banks of the Mons canal. The French asked the British to attack across the canal in the hopes that it would relieve some of the pressure at Charleroi. Sir John French did not agree to attack with his reasoning for this being “feel my position to be as far forward as circumstances will allow, particularly in view of the fact that I am not properly prepared to take offensive action until tomorrow morning.” When it became apparent that it would be the Germans who would be attacking, Sir John French would tell Lanrezac that his goal was to hold Mons for 24 hours.
Up to his command in 1914 Sir John French had a great career in the British army with the high point being as a cavalry leader in the Boer War. He was asked in July 1914 to command the British Expeditionary force, which he accepted. When he brought his 4 divisions to France he divided them into 2 corps the First Corps under the command of General Haig and the Second Corps under the command of General Smith-Dorrien. They commanded a small force, so small that the Germans thought they would be a non-issue. The British army had the distinction of being the only army in World War 1 made up entire of volunteers. This reliance on volunteers was not shared by any other army in the conflict and would not be something that Britain would not be able to maintain for very long once the war started. When the troops volunteered they served for seven years, in comparison to the 2-3 year conscriptions of France and Germany. This resulted in an army that was on the whole better trained and with more experience. When these men arrived at Mons the First Corps was placed on the right with the goal of maintaining contact with the French Cavalry that bridged the gap between the British and the French Fifth Army. The Second Corps was placed along the Mons canal but was stretched too thin to man a continuous line along its length. This forced the defenders to focus their strength around the bridges over the canal.
The German First Army was to face the British at Mons and it was commanded by General von Kluck. We will be following von Kluck’s men from this moment all the way until they are stopped at the Marne river outside of Paris. The First Army was the largest of the German armies and they had the furthest to march in the advance, being the German troops on the furthest right of the great wheel through Belgium.
It would be early on the 22nd of August 1914 that the first British shots of the war were fired by some cavalry troopers around Mons. The battle of Mons proper would being at 6AM on August 23rd. It was a nice Sunday and the local civilians were out in their Sunday best for services and to do a bit of sightseeing with the troops around. The German attacks were focused on the Second Corps troops that were guarding the bridges over the canal. The British had failed to properly rig the bridges for destruction which would come back to haunt them very soon. The Germans attacked in several waves but where stopped by the concentrated rifle and artillery fire from the British troops. The Germans suffered many casualties in these assaults on the bridges but they continued to attack with their focal point becoming the British troops to the northeast of Mons. The Germans were attacking in close order at the beginning of the battle, much like other attacks in the war so far, but as the day wore on they began to switch to more open order attacks with small groups of soldiers quickly rushing from cover to cover as they approached the British troops.
The German’s superiority in artillery also began to take its toll on the British defenders. While some of the British troops had managed to scrape out some defensive trenches in the time since their arrival they could not protect them from all of the artillery raining down upon them. The British and German artillery operated under two different tactical paradigms early in the war. The German artillery emphasized indirect fire with the artillery as far back from the front as possible, often out of sight of the enemy. The British on the other hand did not emphasize the use of indirect fire and this resulted in the British artillery being placed close to the battle lines, often within view of the German infantry. The British artillery would take quite the mauling over the coming weeks as they dealt with both counter battery fire from the German guns and also the masses of advancing German infantry.
One of the common misconceptions about the battle of Mons is that the Germans massively outnumbered the British troops that they were attacking, which was not really the case. The troops who began the assault on August 23rd, while still outnumbering the British, did so only by a small margin. Most of the German troops that were in the First Army were still marching towards Mons as the line of march stretched out for many miles. The German troops showed great courage in forcing their way across the canal when the odds were not as stacked in their favor as the British reports of the battle made it sound. By midday the battle had been going for hours and the British finally decided that they needed to destroy the bridges. It wouldn’t be until 1PM that the front line troops would receive this order and by that time it impossible to quickly destroy them all. In fact only one of the bridges over the canal would actually get destroyed. It took the almost super human efforts of one Captain Theodore Wright and his men to get to the bridge, get the explosives ready and detonated, all under close German fire. For his actions in destroying the bridge Captain Wright would receive the Victoria’s Cross. By the time the bridge was destroyed British troops across the front had began to fall back from the canal and by nightfall French ordered a general retreat of all the British forces. The plan was to retire just a few miles south of Mons but during the night the orders changed, the British would just keep retreating.
Overall the British lost about 1,600 casualties at Mons. Half of these casualties came from just two units who had been the hardest hit by the Germans the 4th Middlesex and the 2nd Royal Irish. By battles that would come later this is an almost insignificant number, a rounding error, but for the tiny British army in France it was a pretty significant. The British reports of the battle frame the battle as a great defense against overwhelming odds, with the British only retreating when it became clear that Lanrezac and his army was retreating on their right. This was not precisely true, although it made for a great morale boost back home, the battle only delayed the Germans for a bit and did not drastically slow their advance into northern France. Mons was an important battle, but a small one. In fact it would be dwarfed just a few days later by the Battle of Le Cateau fought once again by the men of Smith-Dorrians Second Corps and von Klucks first army.
On their retreat from Mons the two British army Corps were seperated on their lines of march. This was due to the lack of roads in the area which forced them to take two diverging roads on opposite sides of the Forest of Mormal. The situation was not helped by the masses of Belgian refugees that were clogging the roads as they tried, just like the British, to get away from the Germans. The British had continuous rear actions along the roads over the next few days as the Germans were in hot pursuit. General Smith-Dorrien was concerned that his men were two exhausted to continue the retreat with the Germans right on their heels. The British were in a tough spot because while they couldn’t retreat fast enough to stay ahead of the advancing Germans if they were to stand and fight it was likely that the Battle would not go at all in their favor, especially with the two halves of the army separated. On August 26th however Smith-Dorrien decided to stop and fight around the French town of Le Cateau. This was a big risk for the Smith-Dorrien but Sir John French did support the order to stop and fight, even if he wouldn’t admit to it after the war.
The British took up positions to the west of le Cateau and waited for the Germans. Some of these positions were in very questionable locations as they could be easily overlooked by the Germans when they began their attack. The Germans however were the same troops that the British had faced at Mons and for the most part were just as exhausted as the British troops they were attacking. While the British waited for the Germans they frantically dug entrenchments for their positions, a task that they were aided in by local civilians. When the firing began at 6AM on August 26th the battle would unfurl up the British line from the right to the left. On their right the British did not defend the actual city of Le Cateau, preferring instead to cede it to the Germans to make retreat a more feasible concept should it be required. The German fire began intensifying at 9AM, especially on the British Right closest to Le Cateau. By noon the Germans were able to surround the far right of the British line and fire on the troops there from 3 directions. At about 10AM German troops on the British left began attacking as well. The Germans were attacking in piecemeal units instead of all at once because they believed that the British were still retreating and didn’t know until well into the day that the entire British force had stopped to fight.
The British artillery units were often under heavy artillery fire at Le Cateau which limited their usefulness as offensive weapons against the Germans. One of the largest causes for casualties amongst the artillery was when the British began to retreat. Since the invention of artillery pieces for use during warfare it had always been the job of the artillerymen to make sure that their guns didn’t fall into enemy hands if the battle went poorly. At Le Cateau the British troopers tried valiantly to save their guns from the advancing Germans often suffering casualties in the process. To move the artillery pieces would require a team of horses that would have to be taken up to the guns, limbered up, the galloped back to safety. When some of the guns end up right in the front line such an action almost becomes a suicide run. When the guns as a whole could not be saved it was customary for the troops to remove the breech block of the gun, making it impossible for the Germans to commandeer the guns and turn them against their former owners.
Throughout the battle the Germans continued to attack against strong British resistance. Around noon the Germans threw their full weight against the middle of the British line. By the middle of the afternoon this attack was beginning to cause some British units to retreat as the Germans began pushing through them. Smith-Dorrien tried several times to send reinforcements to his men on the right and in the center but they had to advance through withering German fire. Most reserves were unable to even make it to the front line. As some British units began to disengage from the battle they were unable to get the message to the units to their left and right. This led to a few unfortunate instances of units being left behind. The Yorkshire Light Infantry Regiment was one such unit. After being completely surrounded by Germans they fought on for hours while refusing to surrender. By the time they finally did give themselves up almost the entire regiment was killed or wounded. One fact that often gets forgotten in all the talk of the British at Le Cateau is the role the few scratched together French territorial divisions played in guarding the left flank of the British. These French divisions were all that prevented von Kluck from completely surrounding the entirety of the British units at Le Cateau.
By the end of the battle, Le Cateau proved to be much more costly for the British than Mons. They had suffered 7,500 casualties, 2,600 of them as prisoners. This was roughly the same number of casualties the British would suffer on D-Day in 1944 on the beaches of Normandy. The Germans in comparison had suffered the light number of 2,900. While the battle was costly for the British it did cause the Germans to delay their pursuit of the British for 12 hours. This was due partly to the exhaustion of the German troops but also due to how disorganized the German Army was at this point after fighting two battles in quick succession. So while it wasn’t the perfect victory the British were hoping for it did provide Smith-Dorrien and his beleaguered British Second Corps some breathing room.
Le Cateau would be the last large battle for the British for 11 days. During those 11 days they would be retreating in the face of the German advance. During this time the British high command was on a hair trigger when it came to panicking. At one point retreating straight to the channel ports, and to the boats to take them home, was strongly considered. This point of view obviously didn’t help British-French relations very much. The British believed that the French had not given them proper support and had abandoned them in their retreat from Charleroi. The French believed that all the British wanted to do was tuck tail and run. While their commanders were on very different pages about what should be done the regular British troops didn’t even really know why the army was retreating. They had been in two battles so far where they believed they had given the Germans a bit of a bloody nose. At this point Haig’s First Corps hadn’t even really been involved in the fighting. It was a widely held belief among the troops that they should turn around and have another go at those pesky Germans. While the army was retreating they became very disorganized with men becoming separated from their units and getting lost. A special mention should go out to Sir William Robertson who was the Quartermaster-General of the BEF. It was Robertson’s idea to organize supply dumps along the road of both ammunition and food. These dumps were invaluable in maintaining some ability for the British troops to fight and to keep moving.
While the British were running away in front of them the Germans made a strategic mistake that would haunt them for the rest of the war. On the 27th of August Bulow and Kluck agreed that Kluck should turn more south instead of continuing southwest. The purpose of this change was to allow Kluck to attack the French Fifth Army to help out Bulow. The reason for this was that the commanders believed that the British and French armies were already beaten and that all they had to do was pursue them until they ran out of land or energy. The movement was decided upon without Moltke’s approval but when he got the order he did not countermand it. So why does it matter so much that he turned a bit more to the south? Well, the whole Schlieffen plan revolved around the German army capturing Paris, as the heart of France it would be both a symbolic and strategic victory. Kluck’s new course led him to the east of Paris instead of two the West. This meant that Paris would stay in French hands and it also meant that Kluck was exposing his right flank to the French and British troops. To compound this problem the French were able to intercept the order detailing Kluck’s intention which allowed them to properly take advantage of the new open flank at the battle of the marne.
While his left flank was completely falling apart Joffre recognized that he had to redeploy troops from the south to the north as quickly as possible. While this movement was happening Joffre was also attempting to throw together any available French troops into the newly created Sixth army that stood before Paris. He also knew that he had to find somewhere to stop the Germans, and soon. On August 28th the French would attack near Saint-Quentin in an effort to slow the German advance. They were supposed to be joined by Haig and his British troops but after the attack was delayed a day Sir John French would no longer allow Haig’s troops to be used in the attack. Even without British assistance the French were able to attack and with some success. In response to these attacks Bulow requested that Kluck change his course to point even further to the south to shorten their lines. On the 30th of August, after the attack at Saint-Quentin, Sir John French sent a letter to Joffre saying “I feel it very necessary to impress on you that the British Army cannot under any circumstances take its place in the front line for at least ten days. I require men and guns to make good casualties…” With Germans marching through France and half of his armies retreating this is probably not exactly the message Joffre wanted.
And with that, we will end this episode. Next week we will jump to the other side of Europe and see just what those Russians are doing over in Prussia. We will also look at one of the biggest defeats that the Russian army would be subjected to for the entire war at Tannenberg. Don’t worry though, in two weeks we will come back to the western front to see exactly how the French manage to stop the German advance and even throw them back in the direction they had come from.
If you are enjoying this podcast I would ask you to jump on iTunes and leave us a review. It goes a long way in the show finding more listeners. I would also like to mention a few cool sites that I have found around the net that I thought were interesting. The first was thefirstwarwarin261weeks.com where Tom Tacken gives an overview of one individual every week, if you want a few spoilers for next episode you can check out their excellent article on Alexander Samsonov. I also enjoy the site BreakthroughAssault.co.uk, they cover military miniatures, and let me tell you I am a sucker for miniatures. They have been doing a series of articles about recently released World War 1 miniatures and I think it is interesting to see the men, weapons, and equipment of August 1914 in miniature form.