On 22 August 1914, 5 divisions of the BEF, a force of 80,000 men, moved into positions in southeast Belgium along a 25-mile front. Mons, a town just 80 miles from Brussels, was at the center of the line. The weather was beautiful, warm, and sunny. The setting was deceptively peaceful. Even the French Walloons who populated Mons and its surroundings were reportedly relaxed about the British soldiers camped in their vicinity. Given that Europe had not experienced a large-scale war since the Franco-Prussian War in 1871, like most Europeans in 1914, the Belgian people were oblivious to the storm that was about to break upon them.
Three weeks earlier, Kitchener, Britain’s newly appointed war minister, had no thought of committing the BEF to defend so far forward in Belgium. In fact, on 5 August, Kitchener urged the concentration of the BEF at Amiens, France, where he thought it could deliver a vigorous counterstrike once the true axis of the German advance was known. Field Marshal Lord Roberts, a former commander of the British army, disagreed. Roberts wanted to deploy the BEF to Antwerp, behind the advancing German armies, where it could cooperate closely with the Belgian army.
Prime Minister Asquith overruled both recommendations. Nevertheless, the wily Kitchener was able to secure the prime minister’s permission to retain two of the BEF’s six divisions in France, a decision that would prove prescient. Thus, when the BEF marched into Belgium, it consisted of two corps, each with two infantry divisions, plus five brigades of cavalry. Each infantry division had three brigades, each with four battalions armed with two Vickers machine guns apiece.
Kitchener did not reveal his reasons for holding back the two infantry divisions. He may have assumed the Belgian army would be unable to hold its ground against the Germans. If this was the case, he may have worried that if the BEF advanced too far into Belgium, it might be cut off or would have to retreat and abandon much of its equipment and supplies. If he was correct, Amiens was simply too far from the leading edge of the French armies already facing the Germans.
Unfortunately, Kitchener left no detailed record of his thinking. Whatever his specific reasons were, he ordered Field Marshal Sir John French, the BEF commander, to move his force of approximately 80,000 men to Maubeuge on the French-Belgian border, a fortress town on the main road to Mons and Brussels.
The BEF commander was a familiar figure in British military affairs. French began military life in the Royal Navy but later transferred to the army for health reasons. The gregarious, hot-tempered French was first and foremost a cavalry officer—a true believer in the efficacy of the sword and lance with the uncanny ability to inspire men, something he demonstrated during his service in South Africa, the Sudan, and India. A year after becoming chief of the new Imperial General Staff, French was promoted to the rank of field marshal. From the beginning of his tenure as BEF commander, however, many British senior military and political leaders questioned his grasp of strategy and tactics. Some British observers even regarded him as weak-willed.
Sir Douglas Haig commanded the BEF’s I Corps, which comprised the 1st and 2nd Infantry Divisions. Haig’s prewar career benefited from his close friendship with French, thanks to which Haig was permitted to enter the British Staff College in 1896 despite having repeatedly failed the entrance exam. Haig saw action in the Omdurman campaign of 1897–98. Like most of his cavalry contemporaries, he also served in the Second Boer War of 1899–1902, where he worked closely with French.
Haig’s wife Dorothy Maud Haig was an important political asset to him. As the daughter of wealthy British aristocrat Hussey, Cresigny Vivian, 3rd Baron Vivian, Dorothy was a lady-in-waiting at the court of King Edward VII. Thanks to her position at court, Haig enjoyed “behind-the-scenes” access to the king, who continued to influence senior appointments in the British army and navy. The combinations of friendships and connections rather than any demonstrated competence, character, or intelligence seem to have elevated Haig to the senior ranks of the British army.
Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien was assigned to command II Corps when its designated commander, the highly regarded Sir James Grierson, suddenly died of a heart aneurism on 17 August. II Corps, which would bear the brunt of the fighting, comprised the 3rd and 5th Infantry Divisions and was reinforced with 3 brigades of artillery. Smith-Dorrien was an apolitical officer with a solid reputation in the army for integrity and courage. He gained notoriety as one of only 50 officers and soldiers who survived the destruction of 1,300 British troops by Zulu tribesmen at the Battle of Isandlwana in January 1879. Smith-Dorrien’s military exploits inside the empire were, thus, no less distinguished than Haig’s. However, unlike Haig, Smith-Dorrien’s relationship with French was marked by mutual dislike and distrust, which would complicate Smith-Dorrien’s operational wartime task.
On 22 August, General Charles Lanrezac, commander of the French Fifth Army, was conducting a difficult retreat under pressure from the advancing German armies on the BEF’s immediate right. In this hour of crisis, he asked Field Marshal French to hold the line of the Mons-Condé canal for twenty-four hours. His goal was to prevent the advancing German First Army from threatening the French Fifth Army’s left flank.
French had been instructed by Kitchener to “cooperate with the French, but not to take orders from them.” When French complied with his ally’s request, he was in his headquarters near Le Cateau, twenty-six miles from the forward edge of the battle. Neither French nor his corps commanders were aware that the French Fifth Army had already been driven back ten miles from its initial defensive positions around Namur.
In fact, by the time the first British troops reached Mons on the afternoon of 22 August, the French Fifth Army on the BEF’s right flank was fighting the German Second and Third Armies less than twenty-five miles away, near Charleroi, the town where Napoleon spent the night of 15 June 1815 on his journey to Waterloo. The German First Army, temporarily under command of the Second Army commander, was simultaneously moving southwest instead of due west. If the First Army had followed its original axis of advance, it might well have surprised and annihilated the unsuspecting BEF centered on Mons, with serious consequences for the Anglo-French alliance. As it turned out, the First Army’s requirement to adjust its movement in order to closely support the Second Army’s advance ensured that the First Army would collide head-on with the BEF II Corps at Mons. The action drew General Alexander von Kluck and his First Army away from his original assigned axis of advance.
General von Kluck was a man who obeyed orders even if he disliked them. He aligned his movement with the Second Army, but he also kept one eye on the First Army’s original purpose in Count Alfred von Schlieffen’s plan of attack: to make the main attack with the powerful First Army to the north of Paris.
In his book The March on Paris and the Battle of the Marne, 1914, General von Kluck says that on 20 August, both he and the Second Army commander, General Karl von Bülow, were told by German army headquarters in Louvain, Belgium, that the BEF was still disembarking in Lille, France, far south of Belgium. This intelligence was wrong, but it reflected the German expectation that the British army was unchanged from its condition at the time of the Boer War.
Mons lies in Belgium’s French-speaking region of Wallonia. In 1914, Mons was a prosperous (though rather dreary) commercial center of roughly 28,000 people. Its position along the Mons-Condé canal meant that the opening battle of World War I would be, at least, partially urban in character. Smith-Dorrien describes the importance of Mons to the II Corps defense in his autobiography:
The morning of the 22nd saw us moving, and some twelve to fifteen miles took us to the line of the Canal, where in accordance with orders we took up a line of outposts extending from Pommeroeul (five miles east of Condé) round the north side of Mons to Nimy and thence to Givry, twenty-one miles in all. The 3rd Division went into billets round Mons in the area of Nimy-Ghlin—Frameries-Spiennes, and were there by 1 p.m., whilst the 5th Division rather later occupied the Canal on their left from Jemappes to Pommeroeul. Sir Douglas Haig’s I Corps, which had moved on our right, took up a position facing north-east, prolonging our line by some seven miles, i.e. about a quarter of the B.E.F. front. As we were facing north except on the east of Mons, where we faced north-east, it will be appreciated that the British line formed a considerable salient with the town of Mons at the apex.
Smith-Dorrien’s description highlights the difficult position his corps was assigned to defend. In fact, Mons was open to fire from the north, east, and west. Smith-Dorrien saw the problem but still spread his forces thinly across his front—a dangerous move, since there was no time to adequately prepare the British reserve to lunge forward to blunt potential German penetrations.
It should be noted, however, that Smith-Dorrien was reassured by the most recent intelligence suggesting the German forces to his front were not particularly strong. This perception was definitely shared by his commander, Sir John French. According to Smith-Dorrien, French had actually expressed his intention to resume forward movement toward the advancing Germans on 23 August.
How could these two officers have been so misinformed? One obvious reason is that the front in August 1914 was very fluid. Telephone lines had not been installed, and aircraft were not yet truly integrated into British intelligence collection. In addition, the substantial cavalry formations at the BEF’s disposal had not been sent forward of the canal in strength to reconnoiter, gain, and maintain contact with the advancing Germans. The British cavalry skirmished with German troops on 21 and 22 August, then broke contact and retired. In armies that relied on telephone wires, signal flags, and messengers, this break in contact with the Germans created an information deficit that plagued the British command structure and its intelligence officers throughout the campaign.
With a dearth of hard intelligence at his disposal and limited time to reconnoiter the new ground II Corps was assigned to defend, Smith-Dorrien made some assumptions about how and where the Germans would strike. Since he committed ten thousand British troops in and around Mons, he clearly assigned primary importance to the defense of the town and II Corps’ connectivity to Haig’s I Corps. The plan of battle Smith-Dorrien adopted is illustrative.
On the right, Smith-Dorrien deployed the 3rd Division with its 8th Brigade in close contact with Haig’s I Corps. This was a “doctrinally correct” decision, since 3rd Division’s defensive positions stretched from a prominent hill called Bois la Haut, just southeast of Mons, to Obourg, northeast of Mons. Without maintaining close contact with I Corps, an effective defense was impossible. Smith-Dorrien assigned the 9th Infantry Brigade to man the outpost line on the canal to the bridge of Mariette, a distance of roughly six miles. The 7th Brigade was designated as the division reserve and was concentrated around Ciply, two miles south of Mons.
On the left, II Corps’ 5th Division covered a much wider, more open area along the canal with 13th Brigade defending the three miles to Les Herbieres. The 14th Brigade covered the rest of the distance along the canal to the extreme left of the corps at Pommeroeul bridge. The 15th Brigade was designated the divisional reserve and was concentrated around Dour.