08/18/2014 10:41 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

This Week in World War I, August 15-21, 1914 Part 1


The British Engage: The First Battle of Mons

News of the German attack on "poor little Belgium" had inflamed public anger in Great Britain, uniting the country in favor of war. No doubt propaganda stories in the popular press about "the rape of Belgium" and alleged German atrocities there had done their part to rally public support. By August 16, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) comprised of 80,000 regular and territorial troops under the command of Sir John French, had landed in France. Using commandeered double-decker London buses the BEF's six divisions were moved towards the front in Belgium. There they took positions to the left off the French 5th army near Mons. Faulty intelligence had led the British to conclude they were facing seventeen German divisions in this sector. In fact it was thirty.

Kaiser Wilhelm had, according to rumors circulating at the time, scorned the capabilities of the BEF and had ordered his armies to exterminate the "treacherous" English and "walk over General French's contemptible little army." It is not known whether this order was ever truly made or whether it was an invention of the British propaganda machine, but in years to come those regular soldiers who survived the Great War would call themselves the "Old Contemptibles."

The first engagements that ensued came to be known as the Battle of the Frontiers. On August 20, 1914, the French Fifth Army under General Charles Lanrezac was beginning to occupy a 24 mile front along the Sambre River. The Belgian city of Charleroi was at its center and the fortified Namur at its eastern extremity. To the west were the Cavalry Corps of General André Sordet and the BEF at Mons. Lanrezac faced 38 German divisions from von Bülow's 2nd and 3rd Armies.

Joffre ordered Lanrezac to attack, notwithstanding the fact that the transfer of troops to Lorraine had weakened his forces. In any event, before Lanrezac could launch an assault, on August 21 he found himself under attack from von Bulow in what came to be known as the Battle of Charleroi. Attacks across the river led to the establishment of two bridgeheads that the French, without artillery, were powerless to dislodge. A further attack ensued the following day, and on August 23 the French forces around Charleroi began to fall back.

To the east, the German 3rd Army had crossed the Meuse River. General Louis Franchet d'Espèrey and his forces stopped the advance and then mounted a successful counter-attack. But Lanrezac was forced to order a withdrawal when Namur was evacuated and news of the French Fourth Army's retreat from the Ardennes came through.

The BEF found trouble to the west of Lanrezac's retreat, when it encountered a cavalry screen of von Kluck's 1st Army southwest of Brussels. Field Marshal French, believing his men were facing an inferior German force, ordered an attack. The truth was that French's army of 80,000 men, one cavalry unit and four infantry divisions, was faced by double that number of German troops, although the British were reinforced by the arrival of French forces along the Mons-Condé Canal the night before.

On August 23 von Kluck launched the Battle of Mons with an assault on General Horace Smith-Dorrien's British II Corps. Attacking over open ground, the Germans found themselves vulnerable to the rifle fire of the outnumbered British defenders and suffered heavy casualties. The advance was held up until the evening, when the real strength of the enemy became apparent to Smith-Dorrien. As Sordet's cavalry retreated, leaving the right flank exposed, the British in turn fell back to a second defensive line. Von Kluck made no immediate attempt to pursue them. The German advance had been held up for another day.

Back in Britain, in the years that followed the Battle of Mons, accounts began to circulate of the miraculous appearance of a host of angels, or, in some versions, phantom archers from the fifteenth century Battle of Agincourt, aiding the British cause on the battlefield. Inspired by a short story written by the Welsh author Arthur Machen, who vehemently insisted that his work was fiction, the legend of the Angels of Mons grew until it gained a significant following. Needless to say, no concrete evidence of an angelic intervention at the battle of Mons has ever been found.