The early days of the war in Europe, for the men of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) anyway, were a helter-skelter affair of rapid mobilisation, a boat ride across the Irish Sea or English Channel and a march through the French countryside, heading east towards the enemy. The confidence among the leadership was high in many respects, but there was also a kernel of doubt: for the first time since the Crimean War, British Army troops were heading into battle against a European power on European soil. How would they perform against an army like that of Imperial Germany, with a much more recent battlefield pedigree?
Along to help answer that question were several Irish regiments, those already in service or in an immediate position to mobilise their reservists and ship out fast. We’ve mentioned the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons already, alongside other cavalry like the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers and the North and South Irish Horse, but there was also battalions of the Connacht Rangers, the Royal Munster Fusiliers, the Irish Guards, the Royal Irish Rifles, the Royal Irish Regiment, Princess Victoria’s Royal Irish Fusiliers, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers, the Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers and the Prince of Wales’ Leinster Regiment (Royal Canadians), the regiments that had been formalised as Irish in the Childers reforms.
They joined a force that eventually comprised three corps with two divisions each, alongside a cavalry division and a Royal Flying Corps detachment. This was the BEF then, under the overall command of Sir John French, his brief semi-retirement after the Curragh mutiny now over. It comprised roughly half of the total military force available to Britain at the time, the rest still on far-flung imperial garrison service or kept in Britain for home defence (fears of a German landing rather acute at the time). A volunteer force in comparison to the French and German conscripts, the British Army had the advantage of a recognised quality of training, most importantly in the rate of fire the average infantryman was able to loose per minute with a Lee-Enfield rifle.
Still, the size of the force was notably small in comparison with both their allies and enemies. The BEF numbered roughly 80’000 men, which was only a small fraction of the armies of France, and their main enemy Germany, who were fielding forces of over a million men each in the fight against one another, with other armies engaged on other fronts in the German case. Even “little” Belgium’s armed forces were bigger. In the coming accounts then, it is important to note that, in many respects, the activities of the BEF were almost a sideshow when one considers the titanic totality of the clashes in August and September 1914, but a sideshow that has become a very important part of British military history.
Morale among the BEF in France and the public back home was high, with French and his troops expected to do more than their bit in turning back the Germans and then advancing inevitably into Germany itself, as part of a general hope that the war would be over “by Christmas”, or maybe 1915. But everyone was in for a nasty shock.
The German strategy in those early months, dubbed the “Schlieffen Plan”, though this may be a misnomer, called for a rapid thrust westwards (through Belgium) to knock France, and by extension Britain, out of the war as quickly as possible, while a more defensive war with less troops was waged in the east against Russia. The German right flank of this attack was to be especially important, and it was this that the BEF would be up against, on the far left of the Allied line. As the BEF marched east, the German Second Army under Karl von Bulow smashed into the French Fifth Army along the Sambre River, sending them into a headlong retreat. The BEF was forced into the fight a bit earlier than expected, just inside the Belgian border, holding a line running from Conde to Charleroi, with the mining town of Mons in-between.
On the 22nd of August, the aforementioned cavalry engagement, wherein the first shots and first kills were recorded, took place between advance elements of both armies. The next day, the BEF was solidifying positions, as best they could, along the twenty-one mile length of the Mons-Conde canal, with three times their number bearing down from the east. General French, ignoring intelligence reports about the size of the advancing enemy forces, still had his army thinking it would keep advancing, and so the rudimentary defences at the canal consisted of little more than the existing embankment and a motley collection of requisitioned beds, tables and other household items from Mons. The canal did not serve as the best kind of barrier, being not very wide, having numerous bridges and lock-gates, and with plenty of cover on the other bank. Fall-back defences in Mons required more time to make than the British had. The length of the line meant there wasn’t enough troops to cover the entirety, and so emphasis was placed on the crossing points, with plenty of gaps in-between, gaps that a quick swim or well-placed barge could easily exploit. The canal was also not a straight line, turning into a loop as it passed Mons, forcing the British into an awkward deployment with an obvious and dangerous salient to protect. Before the end of the day, German artillery was starting to rain down on the defenders at Mons, from Alexander von Kluck’s First Army. French, in the critical moment, would be largely absent elsewhere.
Among the first units engaged were battalions of the Royal Irish Rifles and the Royal Irish Regiment. The Royal Irish Regiment had been posted in reserve at first, but had been forced to move up to plug a gap in the line near a place called Obourg. They fought back a German infantry advance that morning, but could not stop the enemy from forcing a crossing. Later, the two regimental machine guns mowed down a German cavalry attack coming out of the nearby Bois d’Havre wood.
Despite these successes, they were eventually forced back after continued infantry assaults and artillery fire from across the canal, their retreat to new positions covered in part by the Royal Irish Rifles. It was already a sign of changed times, as the two regiments were predominantly south-easterners and northerners, respectively, now thrown together in the same cause. The Royal Irish Regiment had lost 300 men.
Later that evening, the Rifles were responsible for the destruction of a massed German infantry advance against the Conde canal, firing 15 rounds a minute from their Lee-Enfields (a crucial British skill, albeit one that, due to ammunition supplies, could only be demonstrated on occasion). The Germans had gone forward in a fashion more in line with a parade than a military offensive, and were cut down like grass (sometimes exaggerated, as Germans were as liable as any other army to hit the ground as soon as they received fire, and then manoeuvre after). For both armies, there had been wake-up calls for the changing nature of war: for the British, that there was only so much they could so in the face of enemy numbers, for the Germans, that outdated assault tactics would only gain territory at alarming cost.
Despite these partial successes, the British were still hard-pressed elsewhere, and were forced to fall back to a prepared position not far from the canal, destroying as many of the crossings as they could in the process. After a brief truce to allow both sides to collect their dead and wounded, the Germans suddenly found no-one stopping their advance over the canal. The ongoing retreat of the French Army to the British right made the British secondary position untenable, and they were forced to withdraw again. Thus began was became known as the “Great Retreat”, that would go almost to the gates of Paris.
During this movement, the retreating British units suffered badly from artillery fire, being aimed from a hill outside Andregines, a few miles from Mons. The 2nd Cavalry Brigade, that included the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoons, was ordered to silence them. What followed was a disastrous cavalry charge, wherein the futility of horse-based offensive action against artillery and machine guns was made painfully evident. The enemy guns were taken or forced backwards, but at enormous cost, the Dragoons and the 9th Lancers cut down in swaths, with the Lancer unit almost ceasing to exist in the aftermath.
Mons had been a battle of mixed results. The Germans took the canal crossings, in some cases displaying great bravery and ingenuity in seizing bridges and exploiting gaps in the defences. In line with the Battle of Charleroi to the east, they forced both the British and French back, continuing a steady advance. But everything for the German’s larger strategy relied on speed, and the fighting at Mons had held them up for the better part of 48 hours. It had also come at the expense of over 5’000 casualties, three times as many as the defenders had suffered. The great gamble of the strong “right hook” was still in the balance.
The British had held their own and inflicted more casualties than they had taken. But they had been forced backwards, and would be going backwards for the better part of two weeks. Any Allied hopes of commencing formal war operations with an offensive went up in smoke. Regardless, Mons was held up, then and ever after, as a near-miraculous example of British military strength and skill. Spectacular stories of “angels” assisting the British in the defence would spring up, and a popular story of the German Kaiser referring to the BEF as a “contemptible little army” before the battle – that has never been remotely proven to have actually happened – has also helped to enshrine the battle’s place in the popular consciousness, with members of the original BEF force sometimes referred to as the “Old Contemptibles” after.
Among those Contemptibles were some Irish regiments, with more arriving – just to join in the retreat – in the aftermath. Others had been in the vicinity of Mons, but had not been engaged. That would change in the following days, with the retreat already involving a variety of piecemeal engagements between the rear-guard of the BEF and the advance of the Germans. In these days Irish regiments took part in a number of these crucial delaying rear-guard actions, covering the British retreat, and looking to further delay the German advance.
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