Men of the 4th Royal Fusileers in the town of Mons the day before the battle (Source- Wikipedia)
The august sun began to rise, slowly burning off the early morning mist and drizzle that had had plagued the British troops. The 4th Battalion Royal Fusileers had spent most of the night trying to dig in, scraping shallow trenches along the banks of the Conde Canal, outside the small Belgium village of Nimy. It was the 23rd August 1914 and the British Expeditionary Force was about to fight it’s first major engagement of the First World War.
The 4th RF (9th Brigade, 3rd Division) were commanded by Lt. Colonel McMahon and consisted of twenty-six officers and nine hundred and eighty three other ranks, of these seven hundred and thirty four were reservists, recalled from civilian life in the last few weeks. These were the “Old contemptibles”who despite their small numbers had a level of training and cohesion that other armies envied. There motto was, “We’ll do it, what is it?”
They had been given a tough assignment. The battalion was to defend the “loop” position which is where the canal curved northwards and then back again, creating a salient that would make life difficult for the defenders. There were two bridges in their sector, a road bridge (which was a swing bridge) and a metal railway bridge to it’s left, that dominated the battlefield. The canal was sixty foot wide, covered in black slime and reeking of chemicals. Smoking black slag heaps dotted the landscape, too hot and dangerous to use as observation posts.
Map showing disposition of troops at the battle of Mons. Approximate scale 2 miles to an inch. (Source: THE FIRST SEVEN DIVISIONS – McCLELLAND, GOODCHILD & STEWART, Ltd.)
At nine am the first German shells began to land amongst the British defenders. They pounded the canal for an hour with no reply from the british artillery which had handicapped itself with a poor choice of firing position. As the bombardment ceased the grey clad ranks of six German infantry battalions emerged from cover (lead by the 84th Regt.), advancing slowly. The British used their Short Magazine Lee Enfield Rifle’s and their excellent marksmanship and rapid firing ability to decimate the German ranks, forcing them to fall back. At the time the German’s believed that the British defenders had many Machine-gun’s, in fact they had just two water-cooled Vickers, which were dug in around the Railway bridge under the command of Lieutenant Maurice James Dease.
As the morning wore on the incoming artillery and machine-gun fire from the German’s began to take a terrible toll amongst the defenders. The civilian villagers who had stayed behind in Nimy now began to run for their lives, escaping with the few possessions they could carry. It was clearly only a matter of time before the thin British line was broken.
By 13.00 the 4th RF were in a desperate situation. C (also known as Y) Company had suffered almost eighty casualties and both machine-guns had ceased firing. Lt. Dease, who had already been wounded twice (including a round in the neck) crawled forward to discover nobody alive to operate the right hand Vickers. In spite of his severe injuries he began to fire the weapon himself keeping the German’s at bay. He quickly attracted a murderous amount of gunfire until eventually he was hit again. Lieutenant Steele ran forward and carried him back to the rear but he died from his wounds around 15.30 (he was subsequently awarded a posthumous Victoria Cross, the first of the war). Dease lies in St Symphorien cemetery outside Mons, along with many men of his comrades.
The sun was now high and blisteringly hot. At 13.40 Lt.Colonel McMahon received the order to withdraw his battalion. Utilising years of training and parade ground discipline the troops began to retire as best they could.
Sidney Godley VC, source: Wikipedia
On the Railways bridge Private Sidney Frank Godley took over the Machine-gun that Dease had been firing. He was also wounded but managed to single-handedly keep the German’s at bay for two hours while the rest of the battalion got away. Eventually, after running out of ammunition he dismantled the Vickers and tossed the pieces into the canal. Struggling to walk, he crawled back to the main road and was helped to hospital by two Belgian civilians. Soon after he arrived it was taken over by the German’s and he was taken prisoner. He was later awarded the Victoria Cross and received the good news from the senior German Officer at his POW camp at Doberitz.
The battle of Nimy was over but it marked the start of a gruelling retreat that saw the Old contemptibles battered and virtually wiped out over the following weeks. The British had suffered a defeat, but had inflicted a bloody nose on the Germans and done themselves proud against a vast, determined and well trained foe.
For a concise overview of the battle of Mons then you may wish to follow this link – http://www.1914-1918.net/bat1.htm
If you have enjoyed this article then you may also enjoy a short story I wrote about the battle featuring Harry Blake and the fictional Royal North Leicestershire Regiment – click here to read.
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1914 : The Days of Hope
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The Guns of August
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