On August 23, 1914, in their first confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF), commanded by Sir John French, struggle with the German 1st Army over the 60-foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium, near the French frontier.
The Battle of Mons was the last of four “Battles of the Frontiers” that took place over as many days on the Western Front between Allied and German forces in the opening month of World War I. The first three—at Lorraine, Ardennes and Charleroi—involved French forces under the central command of General Joseph Joffre. French’s BEF had been originally slated to assist the French 5th Army, commanded by General Charles Lanrezac, in their attempt to break through the center of the advancing German lines. A delayed start and poor relations between French and Lanrezac, however, meant that the 5th Army and the BEF would fight separate battles against the advancing Germans, at Charleroi and Mons.
At nine o’clock on the morning of August 23, German guns opened fire on the British positions at Mons, focusing on the northernmost point of a salient formed by a loop in the canal. Though Von Kluck and the 1st Army enjoyed two-to-one numerical superiority, they did not make effective use of it, and the British regiments at the salient admirably withstood six hours of shelling and infantry assault. Lanrezac’s decision, late in the day, to order a general retreat of the French 5th Army at Charleroi left the BEF in danger of envelopment by the Germans, and a decision was made to withdraw the troops as soon as possible. By the time the battle ended after nine hours, some 35,000 British soldiers had been involved, with a total of 1,600 casualties.
Thus the first day of British combat in World War I ended in retreat and bitter disappointment, although the steadfastness of the BEF had delayed Von Kluck’s advance by one day. Within weeks of the battle, however, British public imagination elevated Mons to mythic status and those who had died to heroes, until the British defeat came to seem more like a victory in retrospect. The most prevalent legend was that of the “Angel of Mons,” who had appeared on the battlefield carrying a flaming sword and faced the advancing Germans, impeding their progress. In reality, victory in the four Battles of the Frontiers imbued the Germans with a tremendous sense of confidence, as they continued their relentless advance through Belgium into northern France—eventually controlling the industrial power of both nations, including coal, iron ore, factories, railroads and rivers—and the Allies scrambled to ready their defenses.