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Mons 14-18

Mons WW I - 1h40 from Calais - 

230 of the British servicemen who died in Mons in WWI are buried in St Symphorien Military Cemetery, just outside the city – a small, very peaceful and pretty resting place, which backs onto open fields. In Mons itself there is a museum with sections devoted to both world wars and several memorials. The local tourist board produces a leaflet called Notes on the Battle of Mons, which is packed with useful information to assist a walking and/or driving tour of the various battle scenes. It is during the battle of Mons that the Angels of Mons appeared to save the British troops who were trapped by the Germans… 

The site of the first and last British Empire engagements of the First World War will commemorate the conflict across its full span, with centenary events continuing until 2018.

On 21 August 1914 Private John Parr, a member of a bicycle reconnaissance team of the British Expeditionary Force, was killed near Mons at Obourg. The first battle between British and German troops in the First World War took place two days later, 99 years after the previous British engagement on European soil, at Waterloo.

The Battle of Mons

On 23rd August 1914, Germany’s Kaiser Wilhelm II ordered General Von Kluck’s 1st Army to attack General French’s B.E.F. Von Kluck described the B.E.F. as ‘a contemptible little army.’ The name stuck and was adopted as a badge of pride by the British. For 48 hours the 70,000-strong British Expeditionary Force held the line, outnumbered more than two to one by the advancing Germans, but the following day they were forced to retreat. The BEF fought well, and inflicted heavier casualties on their opponents, but the outcome was inevitable: a tactical victory, but a strategic defeat. Some of the fiercest fighting took place at the Nimy railway bridge across the canal, where the first Victoria Crosses were awarded to two British machine-gunners who covered the retreat until they were too badly wounded to continue.  

The Mons retreat

- The B.E.F. positioned itself along the banks of the Mons-Condé canal on the 23rd. 

- At 6.30am the Germans began shelling the British front line. 

- At 9.00am the German infantry attack began with the aim of securing the crossing points over the canal. 

- The first assault was beaten back, but soon the weight of numbers began to tell. 

- Outnumbered more than two to one, the British Forces were finding it difficult to maintain their front. The road and rail bridges on the outskirts of Nimy, held by the 4th Royal Fusiliers, were the scenes of especially vicious fighting that saw the awards of two Victoria Crosses (VC), the first of the Great War. 

- Lieutenant  M. Dease who, although already wounded, took over one of the battalion’s two machine guns to halt the German offensive. He was wounded again and died the next day. 

- The second award was to Private S. Godley. Despite being wounded in the head and back, he took over the other gun and tenaciously fought off the enemy attack, and by doing so gained vital time to allow the withdrawal of the 4th Royal Fusiliers. 

- At 2.00pm the British learnt that the French were pulling back so leaving the British line dangerously exposed. The B.E.F’s position was now becoming desperate and the force was compelled to withdraw. 

- The Retreat from Mons had begun. Britain’s contemptible little army’s reputation would only grow in its retelling and the retreat from Mons ranks as one of its most famous battle honours. 

Mons Memorial Museum

Mons Memorial Museum (MMM) displays about 5,000 artefacts from the two World Wars, many of them donated by veterans and Belgian citizens. The museum’s curator, Guillaume Blondeau, wanted to personalise the war experience as much as possible, focusing as much on the men who wielded the weapons as the weapons themselves. There are pieces of a soldier’s bread ration, preserved in a bottle; Field Marshall Montgomery’s beret, which he presented to Mons when he was proclaimed a Citizen of Honour in 1946; and a German one-tonne bomb – the first in the world, manufactured in 1917. More intimately, there’ll be many recorded interviews with veterans, and a large collection of their diaries, postcards and letters to sweethearts back home. “Reading through them is like reading a novel, says Guillaume.

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