The Battle of Mons saw the British Expeditionary Force’s (BEF) first major involvement in the First World War, as it took part in what is commonly known as the Battle of the Frontiers, where the British and French armies engaged the German forces along the french border.
The BEF was stationed on the left flank of the French Fifth Army, in Southern Belgium, which meant that it stood directly in the path of the German First Army, whose objective was to push on to Paris at all costs. As a result of heavy fighting between the French Fifth Army and the German 2nd and 3rd armies near Charleroi, the BEF was ordered to hold the line on the Mons-Conde canal for 24 hours so as to protect the Fifth Army’s left flank from attack and encirclement.
On the 21st of August, the BEF prepared for defensive action by digging in along the canal and reinforcing their defences at the crucial handful of bridges crossing it. The British put particular emphasis on the 4 bridges which were situated in a salient, formed by a loop in the canal, as they were the most exposed to an attack given how they protruded a few miles out of the British line.
At dawn on the 23rd August, German artillery bombardments commenced all along the canal, as a prelude to the infantry offensive which began at 9.00 am with the Germans attempting to force their way across the four bridges in the salient. Four German battalions attacked Nimy Bridge, defended by only one company of the 4th battalion, the Royal Fusiliers. However, despite outnumbering the defenders 2 to 1, the initial German attack was decimated as they advanced in grouped, parade-like formation, thereby presenting easy targets for the British machine gun and expert riflemen.
At this point, and after the disastrous first wave of attacks, the Germans switched up their tactics to a more open and flexible formation which proved far more effective as the scattered troops presented much harder targets for the British machine gunners. As the day wore on, the outnumbered British troops saw increasingly ferocious fighting and only a thin trickle of reinforcements and the exceptional bravery of their soldiers allowed them to hold off the Germans.
It was during this heroic defence that the first two Victoria Crosses of the war were awarded, the first to Lieutenant Maurice Dease at Nimy bridge, who took control of his machine gun after every other man of his section had been killed, and despite being wounded 5 times, kept the Germans pinned down on the other bank with constant and unrelenting fire, before being evacuated to the rear where he died of his injuries. The second was awarded to Private Sidney Godley, who took over Lieutenant Dease’s machine gun and stayed behind to cover his company’s retreat from the advancing Germans, before being captured.
Elsewhere, the 4th battalion Middlesex Regiment, who suffered 368 casualties in the first few hours of the battle, and 1st battalion Gordon Highlanders, were equally hard-pressed but with support from the Royal Irish Regiment managed to repeatedly resist the Germans throughout the day. On the right flank, the 1st battalion Royal West Kent Regiment and 2nd battalion King’s Own Scottish Borderers suffered extremely heavy casualties but also managed to hold their position.
preventing the French Fifth Army from being outflanked and crushed. Not only that, but they inflicted very heavy casualties on the Germans, around 5000 according to some sources; whilst also proving that the British could stand their own against a numerically superior enemy.