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A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The defeat that turned into a rallying legend

The Battle of Mons was a shocking setback for the British Expeditionary Force. Yet somehow, like Dunkirk 26 years later, the defeat and subsequent retreat became a cherished symbol of heroism and hope. John Lichfield examines the making of a military myth
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Mons was the Dunkirk of 1914. In both cases, British defeat and retreat has entered national mythology as moral, or strategic, victory. In both cases, there is some truth to the myth-making. In both cases, the narrative of heroic failure has camouflaged much that was unheroic or incompetent or ill-prepared.

According to the received version, the outnumbered British Expeditionary Force (BEF) of about 80,000 men fought valiantly in its first battle with a much larger German force around the Belgian town of Mons on 22-23 August 1914. (According to legend, they were reinforced by an army of phantom longbowmen from Agincourt – the “Angels of Mons”. More of that later.)

Having inflicted, and received, severe casualties, the BEF retreated southwards for 10 days, fighting several rearguard actions, some large and many small, to keep the German juggernaut at bay.  Reinforced by two divisions originally left behind in Britain (following a German invasion scare) the BEF turned to help the French to defeat the invaders on the River Marne just north of Paris in early September.

Recent historical work – notably Challenge of Battle by Adrian Gilbert – gives a different picture. The behaviour of British troops and their commanders, who were fighting in western Europe for the first time since Waterloo almost a century before, ranged from the stalwart to the feeble; from the clear-sighted to the muddled and defeatist.

Gilbert quotes an officer who observed one incident during the BEF’s retreat: “It was an awful sight, a perfect rabble of men of all ranks and corps abandoning their equipment and in some cases their rifles in order to get into safety in rear.”

One of the most detailed eye-witness accounts was written by Corporal Bernard Denmore of the 1st Battalion of the Royal Berkshire Regiment. His illegally kept diary, published in the 1930s, portrays the “Great Retreat” as a rout at times.

August 27: “The marching was getting quite disorderly; numbers of men from other regiments were mixed up with us… During the night a man near me quite suddenly started squealing like a pig… ran straight down the hill towards the town and shot himself in the foot.”

August 28: “The men were discarding their equipment in a wholesale fashion, in spite of orders to the contrary; also many of them fell out and rejoined again after dusk.”

The BEF was the British regular army, rebuilt and reformed after the calamities of the Boer War. It was claimed to be the best-trained and best-equipped force that Britain had ever sent abroad. Such claims are mocked by Corporal Denmore’s account.

On the other hand, his diary also describes countless small engagements in which the British troops, starving and their boots in tatters, turned to fight off their pursuers. The Battle of Le Cateau, just south of Mons on 26 August, was – at least in part – a model defensive action that saved the whole BEF from calamity.

Like all the early fighting of the 1914-18 war – on both western and eastern fronts – the Battle of Mons and its aftermath was a rapid and terrifying introduction to the crushing power of modern artillery, machine-guns and powerful magazine rifles.  The retreat was not pretty. It was not well-organised. The BEF’s commander, Sir John French, was plunged into depression at times.

Yet simply by remaining in being, the BEF helped to prevent an early German triumph. Without the help of the newly extended British force, the French might not have defeated the Germans on the Marne. The 1914 campaign might have ended like the 1940 campaign, but with no Dunkirk available through which the BEF could escape to fight another day.

By preventing an early German victory, most of the BEF signed their own death warrants. Other than the staff officers and the wounded, little of the original force survived the first Battle of Ypres in late 1914 and the early fighting of 1915. And what of the Angels of Mons? It has sometimes been suggested that they were a hallucination, experienced by exhausted and terrified men. In truth, their existence was even less substantial than that.

The phantom longbowmen were invented by the writer Arthur Machen for a fictional story published by the London Evening News on 29 September 1914. Months later, they made a second apparition in a parish magazine as a “true account”. Their legend spread through the febrile Britain of 1915. Anyone who challenged the existence of the Angels of Mons – even their inventor, Arthur Machen – was vilified as unpatriotic. That could not happen in the rational days of the internet. Could it?

Tomorrow: The call of King and country

‘Moments’ that have already been published can be seen at: independent.co.uk/greatwar