A ‘Virtual Battlefield Tour’ from Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium
In the early morning of 22 August, a patrol of the British 4th Dragoon Guards encountered an advance unit of German Cuirassiers northeast of Mons, who were reconnoitering the approaches to the city. A few shots were fired, and a short chase took place, during which the dragoons caught the retiring Germans after 3 km and inflicted twenty-three casualties.
In the early mists of a drizzly rain the next morning, a short artillery bombardment from guns established on the high ground north of the Canal du Centre, northeast of Mons, fell upon the 4th Middlesex Regiment positioned south of Obourg. At approximately 09:00, they and the adjoining 4th Royal Fusiliers to their left at Nimy were surprised to see waves of German 18th Division infantry advancing across the meadows to the north. Rapid fire rifle slew lines of the German infantry, much like machine guns were to do to British infantry in the Somme battles two years later. The German were forced to withdraw to regroup. A short time later the German infantry, strengthened by regiments from the 17th Division, advanced again, extending the fight to the south. The German losses were again heavy and their massed formations broke into smaller units which started infiltrating the British flanks.
After a morning of steady pressure, the Germans crossed the Haine River and at 14:00, British units in the salient started to withdraw under fire of German IX Corps artillery. The 4th Middlesex Regiment fought a retreat across the eastern reaches of Mons joined by the Royal Fusiliers who evacuated Nimy and withdrew through the city. Finally, German Infantry Regiment Nr 75 struck against the 1st Gordon Highlanders and 2nd Royal Scots, who were defending the eastern slopes of the Bois de Mons along the Harmignies Road. British riflemen again performed admirably, and after suffering heavy losses, the Germans called an end to the assault. By 17:00, the enemy had entered the city center and British artillery units were extracted from the Bois de Mons to a pre-established defense line farther south.
West of Mons, British positions were along both sides of the essentially straight Condé-Mons Canal, clustered near the numerous bridges. Four divisions of German III and IV Corps fell upon British 5th Division like a rolling wave, starting at 11:00. By midnight the German III Corps, having suffered enough casualties, ceased operations without any Germans having crossed the canal between Mons and Condé. 5th Division casualties were light.
With the withdrawal from the canal salient, the positions of 5th Division were unsupportable. The British spent 24 August executing a fighting disengagement, suffering an additional 2600 casualties.
First (British) Shot of the War Memorial (50.505212,3.998097)
A dirty, gray stone block stele marks the point from which British troops first spotted the Germans. At 07:00 on 22 August, Corporal Drummer E Thomas of C Squadron, 4th Dragoon Guards saw the enemy coming over the rise on the roadway to the northeast and fired the first British shot of the First World War. Whether he killed his target is not known, but the Germans retired back along the road.
First (British) Engagement (50.530084,4.030674)
Two troops of dragoons rode to the attack, led by Captain CB Hornby. A five-minute skirmish ensued 4 km northeast near an intersection known as A la Reine de Hongrie with eight German cuirassiers taken prisoner and approximately twice that number killed.
Last (British) Shot of the War (0.505105,3.99826)
In a great irony of the First World War, a plaque on the wall of a restaurant almost directly across the street from the stele identifies the position of the advance outpost for Canadian troops at 11:00 on 11 November 1918. For Britain the war started and ended at the same location.
Maisières Church Plaque (50.488267,3.965249)
A gray stone plaque is on the west side of the church. It says: ‘This plaque is erected with humble respect and remembrances of the Belgian and British veterans and their families commemorated by those officers and British soldiers who were killed in combat on the 23 August 1914 during the Battle of Mons and who are buried in the Cemetery of Maisières. Their bodies now repose at the military cemetery at St-Symphorien but their memory will always be honored in this place. 56th Company Royal Engineers; 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers; 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment; and 4th Battalion Middlesex Regiment.' The small park west of the church was once the cemetery.
Obourg Train Station (50.470017,4.008073)
A brick wall stands between the two rail lines at the Obourg train stop. The metal plaque is inscribed: ‘Near this spot on August 23 1914 the honor fell to the 4th Battalion, Middlesex Regiment to fire the first shot of the Battle of Mons. On the roof of this building, an unidentified British soldier made the supreme sacrifice in order to protect the retreat of his comrades.’
Nimy Road Bridge (50.478844,3.950298)
A stairway on the west side of the bridge provides access to the roadway. In 1914, this was a swing bridge, which the British had opened cutting the Mons-Brussels road. A German infantryman swam the canal under British fire and operated the machinery to close the bridge, allowing the Germans to cross against the 4th Royal Fusiliers. From the roadway good perspectives of the battlefield are possible. To the east the canal curves around the area occupied by 4th Middlesex Regiment. The level, open meadow provided ideal fields of fire, and the Germans paid a heavy price fighting across the canal. To the west, the visible rail bridge was heroically defended by 4th Royal Fusiliers.
4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers Battlefield (50.479828,3.957717)
The area of the initial German attack proved to be very deadly as the rapid fire of British riflemen cut down swaths of advancing enemy. The Royal Fusiliers engaged in some of the heaviest fighting of the day and were only overcome by a German superiority of numbers.
Rail Bridge & Lt Dease Memorial (50.475376,3.945449)
Under the south end of the rail bridge, a memorial plaque and small flower garden commemorate a sandbagged machine-gun position commanded by Lieutenant Maurice Dease VC, Royal Fusiliers, who denied the Germans use of the rail bridge across the canal. Holding off two battalions of the German Infantry Regiment Nr 84, Dease maintained fire despite several wounds. Upon Dease’s evacuation to a field hospital (where he died), his place was immediately taken by Private Sidney Godley VC, who, although also badly wounded, remained to cover his unit’s withdrawal. When the job was done, he dismantled his machine gun and threw the pieces into the canal. He was taken to a hospital by Belgian civilians, where he was later captured. The two men received the first two Victoria crosses of the war.
Musée de Histoire Militaire (50.452147,3.952573)
This rather small and old-fashioned museum is located on the grounds of the university. Its displays included weapons and uniforms from both world wars.
Houdain Street, 13
7000 Mons7000 Mons
Hotel de Ville (50.454797,3.95224)
The plaques on the Hotel de Ville are not on the façade but along the inside of the entrance passageway. One plaque commemorates the town’s liberation: ‘Mons was captured by the Canadian Corps on 11 November 1918 after 50 months of German occupation. Freedom was restored to the city that was fighting the last shot of the Great War.’ On the opposite side of the passageway, a plaque was erected by the 5th Royal Irish Lancers: ‘To the memory of the fallen comrades who fell in the cause of the Allies in the Great War 1914 1918.’ And it lists about 140 names. Next to it, an American plaque depicts a rather muscular naked woman surrounded by wheat and fruits and bananas, commemorating the generosity of the United States of America”.
St-Waudru Church (50.453277,3.947664)
A memorial plaque to the dead of the British Empire is in the south transept of this Brabant Gothic structure. The church in general is in marvelous condition; well-preserved and with some interesting artwork.
Mons Belfry (50.454202,3.949856)
The 47-bell carillon is housed in the only Baroque-style belfry in Belgium. The ancient, gilded and white carriage called le Car d’Or transports the relics of St-Waudru in the annual Grand Procession on the Sunday of the Holy Trinity.
Maison Espagnol (50.453621,3.949676)
The building illustrates the 16th Century style of architectural known as Spanish in the style of the old Low Countries. The characteristics are Gothic with Dutch gables like a staircase. The construction was brick, which became much more common after the fire of 1548 when a great deal of reconstruction had to be done cheaply as stone was too expensive. A municipal decree of 1548 also banned the use of inflammable materials.
US 1st Infantry Division Monument (50.450614,3.95761)
The obelisk is one of five Second World War Monuments of similar construction in Europe honoring the American unit known as ‘The Big Red One’, which fought here 25 July 1944 - 6 September 1944. The names of the dead are listed by ranks. There are eight additional obelisks honoring the unit’s participation in First World War battles.
Royal Irish Regiment Monument (50.452269,3.980056)
In an attempt to block the British retreat, the Germans moved along chemin des Mourdreux to attack a makeshift unit of cooks and drivers defending the crossroads. Using a hastily repaired machine gun, forty men held off elements of German Regiments Nr 85 and Nr 86 for four hours before the assault shifted farther south. On one corner stands a Celtic Cross which commemorates the Royal Irish Regiment’s defense of the position. It also carries a plaque stating, ‘Near this spot the 2nd Battalion commenced operations on 23 August 1914 and finished on 11 November 1918 after being decimated on four occasions.’
Start and End of the War Monument (50.451785,3.980366)
Across the highway two stone columns, which once stood in the centre of Mons, commemorate the start and end of the war at Mons. It is inscribed: ‘Here the forces of the British Empire fought their first and last battles of the 1914 - 1918 War. On the 23rd and 24th August 1914 the BEF commanded by Sir John French with supreme courage held the advance of overwhelmingly superior German forces. On Armistice Day 1918 after 60 hours of heavy fighting, Canadian Divisions entered Mons. British and Canadian Regiments have erected this tablet to the glory of God and to commemorate these events.’
Gordon Highlanders Defense (50.448091,3.982211)
The positions of the Gordon Highlanders and Royal Scots were along the present N40 highway to the southeast.
British Gun Positions (50.436776,3.976493)
British field guns were stations in the Bois de Mons. Once the British were pushed off of the high ground position, this whole sector became untenable and a retreat was ordered.
Last British Soldier Killed Memorial (50.474487,4.067484)
East of Mons in the village of Ville-sur-Haine, a canal-side plaque records the death of Private George Lawrence Price, 2nd Canadian Division, the last British soldier killed in the war at 10:58 on 11 November 1918.
St Symphorien Military Cemetery (50.432701,4.010895)
This is one of the most beautiful military cemeteries in Europe. Created by the Germans after the battle, British and German troops are buried in unit plots scattered around a rural, tree-shaded site. Lieutenant Dease and Private Price are buried near each other.
Lock #2 (50.453192,3.893599)
The Germans expanded their attack to the west, using the dense fir plantations to hide the Brandenburg Grenadiers’ movements. As they broke into the open north of the lock #2 on the old Condé-Mons Canal (opened in 1818 and connecting the rivers Sambre and Schelde), British riflemen of 1st Battalion, Royal West Kent Regiment and 2nd Battalion, King’s Own Scottish Borderers suffered heavy casualties but held the line of the canal.
Fields of War: Fifty Key Battlefields in France and Belgium