Evaluation of British Effectiveness
Armies fight the way they have trained to fight. For a century, the British army trained for colonial war. The short duration of the Haldane reforms was not adequate to prepare the British army for continental warfare. Therefore, at Mons and Le Cateau II Corps attempted to fight colonial-warfare battles.
Due to lack of preparation, the BEF made grave errors at both the operational (army and corps) and tactical levels, the worst of which was ignorance of the enemy. The British were to engage the premier military force of the twentieth century, and should have been much more circumspect. By rights, the BEF should not have lived to tell the tale.
The BEF had to avoid casualties and fight only for a very good reason. Mons performed no useful operational purpose; it gave the Germans a day to close the distance with the BEF, and could have led to a disaster. During the retreat to Le Cateau the BEF failed to delay the Germans with rearguards. Combined with deficiencies in British staff work and traffic control, which by the morning of 26 August caused command and control to collapse, the German IV AK and HKK 2 were allowed to catch II Corps and force it to fight under extremely unfavourable circumstances. Motivated by the pounding it took at Le Cateau, II Corps finally got serious about retreating on the night of 26–27 August, and in two days of continuous movement broke contact.
BEF troop-leading was poor. The army and corps commanders did not issue clear, timely orders. Subordinate commanders did not understand the commander’s intent. Confused and uninformed battalion commanders failed to exercise their initiative.
There was no rhyme or reason to the distribution of forces for the defence at Mons and Le Cateau. The most exposed and most important sectors were weakly held. The salient north of Mons and the 5th Division right flank at Le Cateau were indefensible. The positions at Le Cateau offered the enemy covered and concealed avenues of approach and close-range firing positions. Most seriously, while the commander’s intent at Le Cateau was clearly to withdraw, most of the positions were on the forward slope, where withdrawal would lead to a massacre.
The British Cavalry Division was an operational liability. Before Mons it failed to perform its reconnaissance and counter-reconnaissance missions. On 24 August it left the II Corps left flank floating in the air. In the retreat to Le Cateau it failed to delay HKK 2 and IV AK; indeed, the cavalry division could provide no useful information concerning enemy strengths or locations. At Le Cateau, citing exhaustion, it did nothing.
The artillery failed to effectively support the infantry. At Mons it was unable to provide fire support at all. During the withdrawal there were no artillery rearguards. At Le Cateau the British artillery was completely dominated by equal or inferior numbers of German guns and was generally unable to put fire on the German infantry. Indeed, it drew German fire onto its own infantry by setting up in their immediate vicinity.
Individual physical fitness was inadequate: many of the troops, particularly the reservists, were not marching fit. From 24 August on, British commanders began ordering their men to abandon equipment in order to ‘march light’. On 25 August the British infantry was outmarched and overtaken by infantry of IV AK and the Jäger of HKK 2.
‘Rapid rifle fire’ was not the battle-winning wonder weapon that British historians have made it out to be. Repeatedly German infantry, supported by artillery and MG fire, was able to cross hundreds of metres of open ground in the face of ‘rapid rifle fire’, close with the British infantry and throw it out of its position or destroy it in place. The idea that ‘rapid rifle fire’ was so effective that the Germans took it for MG fire finds no support in German sources.
German Military Effectiveness
German tactical doctrine and troop training proved themselves unequivocally in combat. The BEF escaped destruction at Mons and Le Cateau solely due to egregious errors by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff.
The organisation of HKK 2, combining cavalry, large numbers of machine guns, artillery and high-quality infantry, was a resounding success and HKK 2 performed superbly, in spite of Marwitz’s command failures at Haelen. It screened the strength and movements of the 1st and 2nd Armies so effectively that they gained operational surprise over the BEF and the French 5th Army. The operational mobility HKK 2 displayed on 24 and 25 August is nothing short of astounding. At Le Cateau HKK 2, though heavily outnumbered, delivered a stinging defeat to the British 4th Division and the 7th Brigade of the 3rd Division.
The Germans fought as a combined-arms team, which allowed them repeatedly to successfully execute one of the most difficult missions in modern warfare: hasty attack over open terrain against a deployed enemy. At Mons the German artillery provided effective fire support, often moving to within a few hundred metres of the British positions to do so. At Le Cateau the German artillery engaged, suppressed or destroyed the British artillery, which was generally unable to fire effectively on the German infantry. The massing of six MGs under a company commander allowed a concentration of fire at the decisive place and time. Artillery and MG fire support gave the German infantry fire superiority and allowed it to move across large stretches of exposed ground to close with the enemy. German engineers brought the infantry and artillery across obstacles and assisted the infantry in street fighting.
Day after day the German infantry marched hard. This operational mobility allowed it to appear where the enemy did not expect, and in force. German marches were well-organised: the troops always got some rest at night, even if it was a wet bivouac, and the field kitchens ensured that they got a hot meal.
At Mons the IV AK commander concentrated his Schwerpunkt, his main point of effort, against the weakest point in the British line, as did the 7th Division commander at Le Cateau. Tactical leaders of all grades were aggressive and exercised their initiative to utilise covered and concealed avenues of approach and firepower to close with the enemy.
Taken together, these factors produced superior combat power. At Mons all three engaged German corps were able to establish bridgeheads over the Canal du Centre at the cost of casualties that were little higher than those of the defenders. In two days of pursuit III AK caught up with I Corps and forced it to retreat away from II Corps, splitting the BEF in half, while IV AK and HKK 2 were able to overhaul II Corps and force it to fight. At Le Cateau the German troops, although significantly outnumbered, inflicted disproportional casualties on the British and drove them from their position.
Superior German operational mobility and tactical combat power was negated by unforced errors made by the 1st Army commander and his chief of staff. The real culprit was Hermann von Kuhl, the chief of staff; for the army commander, Kluck, was not a General Staff officer and operational decisions were clearly Kuhl’s responsibility. All Kuhl had to do was make the obvious staff-school solution to the operational problems at hand and the BEF would have been destroyed. Instead, Kuhl was too clever by half.
Cavalry reconnaissance reports made it clear on 22 August that a large British force was west of Mons. Nevertheless, Kuhl retained the notion that the British would concentrate at Lille for so long that the 1st Army missed its chance to inflict a truly serious defeat on II Corps on 23 August.
The BEF was now in range, only a day’s march ahead of the 1st Army or even less. The only correct solution to the operational problem facing the 1st Army on 24–25 August was to continue the march south-west. With HKK 2 coming up on the right, there was every prospect of turning the BEF left flank and forcing the British to fight. Instead, Kuhl decided that on 25 August the British were withdrawing to Maubeuge and turned the entire 1st Army and HKK 2 south-east. This was the wrong solution. Even if the British were moving to Maubeuge, the correct solution would be to continue the march south-west to allow the 1st Army to conduct a deep envelopment of the Anglo-French left.
Kuhl had been one of Schlieffen’s star pupils, one of the officers closest to the old master strategist. Schlieffen had continually warned against shallow envelopments, which the enemy could avoid. Kuhl was breaking Schlieffen’s cardinal rule.
Throughout the campaign, Kuhl would display a consistent inability to make operationally sound decisions. His mistakes from 5–9 September would be the reason for the failure of the German campaign and the loss of the Battle of the Marne. He would offer the French the 1st Army’s unprotected right flank. He then disregarded orders to fall back and defend the German flank in favour of a pointless offensive which allowed the French to pry open the German front.
Had the 1st Army merely continued the march south-west on 25 August, it would not have required Hindenburg and Ludendorff to produce a western Tannenburg on 26 August. Three brigades of IV AK alone had inflicted a severe defeat on II Corps. Had III AK been attacking the II Corps right and IV AK the left, the British would have been facing eight brigades and the result would have been a British disaster. The British left was guarded only by Sordet’s cavalry and French Territorials: HKK 2 had already convincingly demonstrated an ability to summarily deal with these and advance rapidly into the British rear, turning disaster into catastrophe.
The destruction of II Corps would not have ended the war, as Tannenberg did not end the war with Russia. The German advance into France was going to run out of momentum and come to a halt on 5 September in any case. But the removal of three divisions would have been a serious blow to the British army.
The Significance of Mons and Le Cateau
The Mons Myth encourages soldiers, policymakers and citizens to believe that doctrine and years of tactical training are unimportant: war is simple and all that an army needs is patriotism, ‘field sports’, personal heroism and rifle marksmanship. Such a belief, widespread in the British army and British society before the First World War, resulted in the death or maiming of an entire generation of young Britons.
This is what happens when an army that has neglected doctrine and tactical training meets up with an army that made a religion of both. The denouement came at Le Cateau, where the German army showed that it knew how to attack a numerically superior enemy force and win.
Reaching such a pinnacle is complex and difficult. Most armies never do. It requires realistic doctrine, combined-arms cooperation, mobility, security and intelligence, troop-leading procedures, and individual initiative, all perfected in long, hard training. There must be an institutional commitment to tactical excellence. These qualities, developed in forty years of peacetime work, were the reasons for German success at Mons and Le Cateau.