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(1914-1918) WWI
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john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/27/2020 12:19:09 PM

On Aug 23 1914, the first major action of the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) in the First World War was fought at Mons. It was an action as part of the Battle of the Frontiers, in which the French armies battled with German armies on the French borders. The British Army attempted to hold the line of the Mons–Condé Canal against the advancing German 1st Army. Although the British fought well and inflicted significant casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the retreat of the French Fifth Army, which exposed the British right flank. Though initially planned as a simple tactical withdrawal and executed in good order, the British retreat from Mons lasted for two weeks.

Because the confused nature of the withdrawal, platoons and companies became separated during the night, rejoining their parent battalions hours later or during the next day. Total British casualties of the day’s fighting were around 1,500 killed wounded and with a large number missing or taken prisoner. The casualties were suffered by II Corps and by 3rd Division in particular. According to eyewitnesses, more guns were lost during the retreat than since the American Revolution and as mentioned in a post about the German Offensive 1918, there were signs of panic among the retreating troops.

Many "stories" about Mons appeared after the battle;
1. The angel of Mons
2. The bowmen of Mons
3. British rapid fire and marksmenship led the Germans to believe that a large number of machine guns were used by the BEF.

But how important was Mons in the total picture of August 1914? The French were fighting and losing larger battles at this time, suffering huge casualties. They were falling back under immense pressure. Did the BEF's stand at Mons disrupt and delay the German advance that much? Or was the battle reported to prove the BEF was pulling its weight, fighting along side its allies? Making the battle more important than it really was?
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/27/2020 3:52:16 PM

John,

Let me be picky and point out that the battle of 23rd August 1914 cost the BEF a total of 1,600 casualties, of which a significant portion were taken prisoner . I doubt that the killed and wounded exceeded 1,000. The Germans probably lost twice as many killed or wounded, but very few, if any, prisoners.

The following day cost both sides more casualties than the battle of the 23rd.

The biggest battle was fought on the 26th, at Le Cateau. This was the 568th anniversary of the Battle of Crecy, the most famous victory of the bowmen in the Hundred Years War, and, I daresay, the legend of the bowmen of Mons might be attributed to that .

Mons is of enormous importance in British folklore. The actual importance of the fight - as an episode in the gargantuan Battle of the Frontiers - has been exaggerated : OTOH, it has also been downgraded excessively by fashionable revisionists who seek to traduce anything that inspires a sense of national pride and identity.
The British fusillade was effective and did impress the Germans, but, again, there’s been a lot of “ spin” put on the narrative by jingoistic anglophone commentators.

I’ve always suspected that Mons is to the British as Belleau Wood is to the Americans : myth, legend and folklore ascribing to both an inflated significance to flatter patriotic pride. Then again, in both battles there was significant German testimony to the fighting prowess of their foe to justify some of the claims.

Editing : perhaps I should have selected Cantigny as the US equivalent of Mons : the first major American engagement in that war, and, uncannily, with 1,603 US casualties....as near as damn it identical to the British total for Mons.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/27/2020 5:04:59 PM

Except for national pride, did Mons alter or hinder the German advance?

The Battle of Cantigny was treated as huge day for the US. From 1919 to WWII May 28 was a bigger day than Memorial Day here in the US. Parades, cook outs speeches the people went all out.

Belleau Wood is the Marine Corps all the way and considered to be the birthplace of the modern Marine Corps. Before the battle Pershing had forbidden the mention of any particular US units. The reporter Floyd Gibbons who entered the Wood with the Marines was seriously wounded. Believing he was dying, the censor allowed his dispatch through.

"I am up front and entering Belleau Wood with the US Marines....."
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/27/2020 5:34:43 PM

Mons did not stop the German advance : it hardly hindered it.

The BEF not only failed to stop the Germans : it was also forced into a desperate retreat.

British commentary attributes a David v Goliath flavour to the battle.

That’s understandable , given the size of the German juggernaut that was the right wing of the advance.

There is also a justifiable view that the British rifleman had proved his worth and meted out some bitter medicine.

But there’s only so much lipstick that you can put on a pig.

Now I’m beginning to repent of that remark......

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/27/2020 6:32:53 PM

On 19 August 1914.

"It is my Royal and Imperial Command that you concentrate your energies, for the immediate present upon one single purpose, and that is that you address all your skill and all the valour of my soldiers, to exterminate first, the treacherous English and walk over General French’s contemptible little Army."
Kaiser Wilhelm II, Headquarters Aix-la-Chapelle
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 3:56:39 AM

Thanks John !

Was there ever a better propaganda gift and rallying slogan than that decree issued by the Kaiser ?

If the thing is true ( and, let’s face it, there’s an awful lot of fabrication in these alleged declarations....” Lions led by Donkeys”, for example) then it gave the British people - and posterity - a fantastic theme to exploit.

Mons worries me : I deplore the spin that national propaganda puts on things.....and yet, and yet...I’m susceptible to it, and enjoy the folklore.

Barely half a century after the battle, I was being driven through those fields by Dad, on a family holiday.

Dad, born in 1921, was from the generation weaned on these Mons stories , and the fact that he himself had fought in the Second World War added some authority to his perception, in the eyes of an adoring twelve year old son.

As he opened up a picnic hamper, he turned to me and spoke in a tone which was proud and somber :

Remember this place, Son. The Germans came on in great masses, and our boys, tired and in a tight spot, opened up with their rapid rifle fire and shot the bastards down, left, right and centre. It was said that a host of ghostly longbowmen were seen in the skies, firing their arrows, just as they had done at Crecy on the same date hundreds of years before.

We had stopped for our picnic at Le Cateau.

You can appreciate, I’m sure, that the story made a huge impact on me. To a degree, I attribute my interest in the Great War, and in all military history , to episodes like that.

Whether it imparted a disciplined sense of history to me is another matter !

Regards , Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 6:38:24 AM

Phil
Great story and completely understand. Nothing better than walking the grounds of History. Similiar experience on visiting Gettysburg for the first time. I was 10 and had just finished reading Bruce Catton's trilogy on the AoP. His writing was so good and being able to be there made it come alive.

The Kaiser was right in 1914 and Henry Wilson said it truthfully. "There is no problem in European politics to which the answer is 6 British infantry divisions and a cavalry division."

The landing of the BEF on the continent in 1914 changed the "The British way of war" No longer would it be the Navy and British money given to the Allies to build their armies. By War's end Haig would command over 60 divisions.

Mons was important in a way far beyond its military impact. It showed the Home Front that their boys were doing their part plus could spur the recruitment of more men. It also showed the French that the BEF would fight. Foch understood...When asked "What is the smallest number of British soldiers you require?" he answered, "One and we shall make sure that he is killed."

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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 7:12:18 AM

John,

There’s significant controversy about the whys and wherefores of Mons.

It was due, in part, to the political intrigues of that Francophile Henry Wilson, who almost literally conspired to make sure that the BEF would be deployed on the French Left : talk about being put in harm’s way !

Von Kluck’s First Army surging forward through Belgium with ruthless intent coming up against an army that consisted in large part of reservists who found themselves thrown in at the deep end.

The soldiers of the BEF liked to parade a healthy disdain for the German juggernaut , and sang in their irreverent manner :

We don’t give a fuck
For old von Kluck
And all ‘is bleedin’ army !


A bit like the Kaiser’s sentiments in reverse !

There was a contingent of British soldiers and statesmen - Winston Churchill prominent among them - who argued that the BEF should be held back in reserve, further to the south and east, and await a favourable moment to join in a counter attack where its intervention would prove decisive. One has to wonder whether that was a presumptuous and complacent view, based on the idea that the French were going to survive the onslaught. OTOH, when the counter attack did develop at the Marne, the BEF was too slow and tired to give the blow that circumstances offered. Pitched in fresh and unbloodied, its prospects were bound to be first rate. Mons and the Retreat took a toll on manpower and morale that compromised performance at a crucial moment.

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 8:03:32 AM

Phil
At War's beginning I think Sir John French wanted to land at Antwerp to support Belgium while he claimed Haig wanted to wait up to 3 months before landing, build up a larger force and then land. Haig denied this. No matter what they thought, Wilson had the plan already set to form up on the French left. Two Cabinet members resigned over not knowing the plans as it seems only PM Asquith and For. Sec Grey knew them.

John French had no faith in the French armies ability to halt the German drive. He blamed Gen. Lanrezac for withdrawing his 5th Army without telling French and exposing the BEF's right flank. French issuing no clear orders on the retreat and seemed to neglect his own command role. Too busy driving around the front talking to the troops, visiting the wounded. He wasn't clear if he should fall back to the south and west behind Paris or head for the Channel. He left a lot of heavy lifting on Haig and Smith-Dorrien which led to confusion in the retreat.
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 9:20:17 AM

John,

John French gets a pretty bad press. There are, however, some sympathisers and their accounts carry a deal of currency with me.

One of the controversies about Mons concerns the failure of the British to blow the bridges. There were several of them, especially in the salient formed by the bend in the Mons-Conde Canal. To conduct a retreat under fire is a dreadfully difficult military task.....to leave bridges at the disposal of the enemy seems an incomprehensible act in such circumstances .

There is evidence here, I suspect, that the British stand at Mons was predicated on the expectation that there would be an Allied advance, and that the bridges needed to be kept intact in order to expedite this.

The shock of Lanrezac’s retirement was brutal : the British commander was suddenly and unexpectedly left in the lurch by the retreat of the French 5th Army to his right.

The actual fighting there revealed that the Germans used their heavy artillery and machine guns more skilfully than the British ; the efficacy of the British “ musketry”, however, was enough to remedy much of these defects.

Regards, Phil



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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 11:51:15 AM

Phil
Sir John French felt betrayed by the 5th Army's withdrawal and the French in general. He did not regard them as a reliable ally with whom the BEF should continue fighting along side.

The French thought less of him. They thought him nervous, irresolute, hesitant to commit his army, and always looking to his rear. He rarely actively supported them and then under pressure from above. After Mons and the following retreat the French HQ felt that the BEF had fallen apart and could not be counted on.

On this point Sir John agreed and felt he needed time to rest and refit, possible withdraw to the Channel port.

As far as the bridges, it seems 4 were left standing at the battle's beginning. These became the focus of the fighting
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Jim Cameron
Ossining
NY USA
Posts: 914
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 2:24:46 PM

Quote:
Mons did not stop the German advance : it hardly hindered it.

The BEF not only failed to stop the Germans : it was also forced into a desperate retreat.

British commentary attributes a David v Goliath flavour to the battle.

That’s understandable , given the size of the German juggernaut that was the right wing of the advance.

There is also a justifiable view that the British rifleman had proved his worth and meted out some bitter medicine.

But there’s only so much lipstick that you can put on a pig.

Now I’m beginning to repent of that remark......

Regards, Phil


Which begs the question, why do the riflemen of the 1914 BEF get such credit for effective marksmanship, mowing down the Germans "as if each man had a machine gun", whereas the Germans and French seem to get little or none. (French employment of the rifle is in fact actively denigrated, although I think in their case this is in large part a reflection of the "cult of the rifle" the U.S. AEF brought with it to France in 1917.) All the primary infantry rifles were powerful, accurate, robust weapons, sighted to 2,000 yards or more; the troops carrying them, well trained to use them effectively.

I suspect that this is a case of myth and legend blending into actuality. As one writer - his name escapes me - has suggested, were those Germans mown down as if every British had a machine gun? Or, did they simply, and sensibly, go to ground when taken under fire? Which from several hundred yards away, would have looked much the same.

Could it be that the British veterans simply told the story better? And have done a better job passing it along? As witness Phil's dad.


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Jim Cameron Every time I go to Gettysburg, I learn two things. Something new, and, how much I still don't know.
George
Centre Hastings
ON Canada
Posts: 10971
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 3:31:49 PM

The German forces at Mons were twice that of the British, were they not. 2 corps vs 4 corps. The Germans had twice the guns.

I have seen several estimates of German casualties and all are greater than that of the BEF.

British casualties are usually quoted as around 1600 while German casualties range anywhere from 2000 to 4000.

How do we explain the greater German losses? Is it because the advantage is with the defender? Did the terrain protect the British and expose the Germans to fire?

How well had the British prepared their defensive positions? Had they done well with the area that they had to defend?

I am not trying to be overly picky but I wonder how many factors came into play that would account for the disparity in casualties.

And perhaps the effectiveness of British musketry was another factor.

I found this essay written by Dr. Spencer Jones, a military historian and in it, he describes the learning curve of the "colonial army" while fighting the Boers in the South African war at the turn of the century.

British troops were laudatory toward the Boers and especially their ability to lay down effective rifle fire.

Noted by a Br. Officer:

Quote:
[The average British soldier] was rather slow in getting his aim, and he found he was unaccustomed to use his rifle without exposing himself, which at once brought a Mauser bullet in his direction ... The Boer, on the contrary, was particularly good at getting his bead on to the enemy’s hat or mess tin quickly, and in getting covered again before men could aim and fire.40


Again, noted by an officer and commenting on the ability of the Boers to bring a lot of heavy fire upon a British position.

Quote:
a mere handful of men, lying down under shelter, can bring such a hail of bullets to bear upon ground extending for a considerable distance to their front that hostile troops attempting to cross this will suffer appalling losses in doing so, even if they succeed in the venture.54



An officer of the 60th Rifles recorded his experience at the Battle of Talana Hill:

Quote:
I don’t suppose I am ever likely to go through a more awful fire than broke out from the Boer line as we dashed forward. The ground in front of me was literally rising in dust from the bullets, and the din echoing between the hill and the wood below and among the rocks from the incessant fire of the Mausers seemed to blend with every other sound into a long drawn-out hideous roar ... the whole ground we had already covered was strewn with bodies.55


Lord Methuen commented on the shooting skills of British troops in S. Africa despite being equipped with a very good weapon.

Quote:
The shooting of the Regular troops was conducted under exceptional difficulties on account of the clearness of the atmosphere and because the enemy offered no good target, but my opinion gained during my experience of the Tirah and the South African campaigns is that the shooting of our infantry is not worthy of the accuracy and the long range powers possessed by the present rifle.61


A Royal Commission concurred with the observations of officers during the Boer War and it was recommended that steps be taken to emulate the shooting ability of the Boers.

And so after 1902, volley firing was eliminated and steps taken to ensure that every soldier was an effective individual rifleman.

example: From 1902-1906 every man was allotted 300 rounds for training. After 2006 it was dropped to 250 but that was still more than the 60 -100 shots given to a German rifleman in his first year of training. By his second year, that same man only received 40 bullets to shoot.

The British introduced a concept learned from the Boers called "snap shooting", firing from behind cover and shooting at fleeing targets at unknown distances. The culmination of all this emphasis on shooting skills was evident in the famous, "Mad Minute". (source: Spencer Jones)

As well, marksmanship medals were introduced and men received extra pay when they met the required standard for marksmanship. A "shooting culture" was established and British soldiers became very competitive about showing their skills.

When WW1 began, anecdotal reports about the effectiveness of British shooting were filed. Officers were sometimes disappointed that the long range engagements, which the Boers had used effectively against the British, did not kill many Germans but certainly slowed down their advances.

As well, the British had learned the value of concealment and noise discipline as they awaited the German attacks.

Noted by a German Jaeger officer and commenting on British soldiers:

Quote:
They were wily soldiers, tough and tenacious fellows, with iron nerves, even when wounded. They shot well and understood how to use terrain with such skill that it was difficult even for jaeger to detect them.’97


This is Dr. Jones essay. He seems to lend great support to the story that the British riflemen of 1914 were indeed, quite formidable. He gives a great deal of credit to lessons learned from the Boer opponents in Southern Africa.

I also noted that at Mons and 1st Ypres, they took advantage of inexperienced German soldiers who attacked in a manner that allowed the concealed British soldiers to take a heavy toll.

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Cheers,

George
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Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 3:36:17 PM

Your comments strike home, Jim !

Old soldiers love a tall tale.

I do think, though, that there was a genuinely high standard of musketry in that Regular British Army of 1914.

The fifteen rounds rapid might have been a unique attribute in so far as it was regarded as a standard attainment for the ordinary infantryman. Maybe the British had learnt a harsh lesson in South Africa fifteen years earlier and wanted to ensure that the lesson was applied.

All the armies had their marksmen, snipers, sharpshooters. The German Jäger comes to mind. Indeed, Terence Zuber maintains that, in their murderous victory over the French at Rossignol on 22 August 1914, the Germans inflicted most of the damage with rifle fire. If so, that certainly demolishes the claim that the British were uniquely adept in this respect.

This is very much at odds with the overall record of the Great War, in which, by official reports, the artillery was by far the principal killer.

George,

Your post coincided with mine, and you stole my thunder in regards to the effect of the South African experience and how it impinged on British doctrine.

The British casualties at Mons - and in the ensuing actions - were very largely prisoners, or stragglers who were captured. The 1,600 British and 2,000 German casualties of Mons on 23 August 1914 implied - IMHO - that the actual numbers of killed and wounded were probably twice as great on the German side as on the British, which is the least one would expect from an attacking force that has to advance across open ground against a well armed foe in position. The Germans were initially repulsed, but deployed their MGs skilfully and effectively, and were able to bring converging artillery fire to bear on the British salient. I suspect that the hasty withdrawal of British troops under fire allowed the Germans to even up the score, as even the best soldiers are at their most vulnerable in flight. Not all the ground was open, and the Germans used slag heaps and cottages to protect their advance in some sectors . There is a story that they used civilians as human shields, including small children, during a crucial phase of the battle. While there were lurid and exaggerated tales of German atrocities, this particular one, I believe , was true.

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/28/2020 8:49:37 PM

Gentlemen,

At Le Cateau Smith-Dorrien II Corps fought and delayed von Kluck's advance for 9 hours. Many of the British troops were exhausted from the retreat and straggled into line shortly before the Germans attacked. Its right flank was in the air because the I Corps had continued its retreat.

Two things stood out:
1.The superb marksmanship and tenacity of the British infantry and the enormous courage of the gunners of the Royal artillery who gave them exceptional support from almost suicidal positions close behind the front line.
2. The Germans failed to push home their attack. If the German center had prevented the British withdrawal and the two wings had shown some urgency, then they would have trapped the II Corps, destroying it as a fighting force.

The British marksmanship which was mentioned at Mons had the effect of making the Germans think twice in a frontal attack.
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/29/2020 3:32:33 AM

John,

What an exquisite way of opening your post, by using the word “ Gentlemen” !

There is a reason for my observation : a famous quote from the Battle of Le Cateau is Gentlemen, we will stand and fight !

So said Smith-Dorrien, commander British II Corps, as he decided to fight the Battle.

He was acting in defiance of orders. He was heartily loathed by his superior, Sir John French. He took an enormous risk in engaging in full scale battle in these circumstances : but his force was in existential peril anyway, and, that being so , why not make a virtue out of necessity and put up a decent fight ?

Smith Dorrien claimed that he fought the battle to give the enemy “ a stopping blow”.

His action - in some respects - reminds me of that at Sickles at Gettysburg . Equally controversial and susceptible to different interpretation , both in terms of cause and effect.

SD was lucky at Le Cateau. He had been lucky in the extreme thirty five years earlier at Isandhlwahna when he was virtually the only British soldier to escape alive.

The Germans failed to exploit their advantage . Their cavalry was not used properly and the exposed British flank not turned to account. There was a french cavalry screen nearby under the command of General Sordet and this played an important role in keeping their German counterparts at bay....had they not done so, the British vulnerability might have been fatal.

As it was, the Germans enjoyed better ground for their artillery than they had at Mons, and made full use of this advantage. The Battle of Le Cateau was more of an artillery battle. The British gunners took a dreadful beating by engaging the enemy at close quarters : a dramatic gesture of support for hard pressed infantrymen. The loss of thirty six guns attests.

There was a lot of hyperbole in this fight. Almost frantic declarations of fighting to the death, literally, emanated from senior officers before the battle started. This reflects the awareness that an unacceptably large number of British troops had surrendered in the retreat from Mons : a feeling that, even without a big fight, the army was melting away as exhausted men straggled and gave up. Maybe it would entail greater loss to carry on this way than it would to stand and fight.

The actual casualties themselves are controversial : officially stated at 7,812. This is rather more than half the total of fifteen thousand that was incurred during the campaign from 23 August to 2 September 1914.
It’s a total hard to reconcile with the evidence of CWGC, which reveals that only one third of all the British deaths in the Mons campaign can be attributed to 26 August.

My belief is that, so great was the British loss in prisoners during the ten or twelve days between Mons and the end of The Retreat, that the investigating historians ascribed them by default to Le Cateau, because it was the biggest single action and no one could make a coherent account of attrition through straggling and surrender by exhausted and demoralised soldiers.

The Germans suffered a loss of around three thousand killed or wounded. The British deaths, as recorded by CWGC for that day, indicate a total of 2,500 to 3,000 killed or wounded. The Germans reported 2,600 British prisoners for the battle.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/29/2020 6:34:28 AM

Phil

More questions than answers
"He was heartily loathed by his superior, Sir John French." Wasn't it because of an affair over a woman? Wasn't Smith-Dorrien forced on French, who quickly moved to replace him when he got the chance? Something about asking to withdraw to a better position after the Second Battle of Ypres?

Where was Haig and the I Corps? Was he obeying orders to continue the retreat? Or was there a lack of cooperation between the two?

Where was Johnny French? Very little communication between HQ and the two Corps.

Read somewhere this was the last 19thC battle fought by the British Army. Didn't dig in, artillery firing over open sight in the front lines, relying on musketry and cavalry usage, (mostly French units). On the other hand Germans used artillery to inflict the heavy losses esp on the BEF's right flank.

On prisoners losses, the number you used was the number I turned up. With confusion of the retreat starting at Mons it is difficult to say all those were fron Le Cateau.

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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/29/2020 5:46:22 PM

Quote:
Phil

More questions than answers
"He was heartily loathed by his superior, Sir John French." Wasn't it because of an affair over a woman? Wasn't Smith-Dorrien forced on French, who quickly moved to replace him when he got the chance? Something about asking to withdraw to a better position after the Second Battle of Ypres?

Where was Haig and the I Corps? Was he obeying orders to continue the retreat? Or was there a lack of cooperation between the two?

Where was Johnny French? Very little communication between HQ and the two Corps.

Read somewhere this was the last 19thC battle fought by the British Army. Didn't dig in, artillery firing over open sight in the front lines, relying on musketry and cavalry usage, (mostly French units). On the other hand Germans used artillery to inflict the heavy losses esp on the BEF's right flank.

On prisoners losses, the number you used was the number I turned up. With confusion of the retreat starting at Mons it is difficult to say all those were fron Le Cateau.




John,

The flashpoint between JF and SD occurred five years earlier over a disagreement on cavalry tactics. But, as army gossip was amplified in an establishment as close knit and incestuous as the British Regular Army had been in the decades leading up to war, JF's penchant for slow horses and fast women became notorious, especially when he bedded the wife of a fellow officer. Just not done, old chap !

As you suggest, SD's advocacy of withdrawing from the more perilous sectors of the Ypres Salient in the April/May battle of 1915 was heretical enough to give JF his chance to get this maverick removed.

Haig had drifted away from SD because his line of march veered to the East of the Forest of Mormal, while SD's command was to the west of it. To a degree, this was unavoidable because of road congestion, but even Haig's supporters conceded that this was not his Finest Hour. He had been struggling with some intestinal ailment, and lost his nerve when his corps finally became significantly engaged in a fierce night action at Landrecies. Haig's demeanour showed lack of equanimity. This fighting retreat was a huge strain for the British senior command : there were breakdowns and one suicide. James Edmonds himself, the British Official Historian, succumbed to a nervous breakdown in this campaign. This was not a phenomenon confined to the British. Moltke broke under the strain.

JF moved his HQ to St Quentin and then to Noyon.

Le Cateau was indeed redolent of nineteenth century battles. It certainly brings Gettysburg to my mind. I couldn't help thinking of Sickles. The gunners did engage the enemy at close quarters, and, several days later, there was a small scale but truly legendary epic at a place called Nery, where British field artillery made a stand as sacrificial as that of Alonzo Cushing at Gettysburg. AJP Taylor, doyen of British historians, cited the observation that, in terms of numbers engaged and casualties - for the British, I must emphasise - Le Cateau was almost identical to Waterloo, fought almost exactly a century earlier in fields quite close by. There I would have to disagree, on account of the Le Cateau citation of casualties being inflated by inclusion of thousands of prisoners, which had not been the case at Waterloo.

Try as I might, I cannot escape the emotional impact that the story of this fighting has on me. It sends a shiver through me which I find hard to account for. My dear old dad has a lot to answer for !

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/29/2020 10:17:57 PM

Phil,
It seems as the BEF was in danger of falling apart and removing itself from war, the German foot soldier of von Kluck's 1st Army were reaching the end of their tether. At Le Cateau the lack of spirit in pushing home the attack to pin the II Corps in place and the lack of urgency in the two flanking forces shows this. They were becoming footsore and weary and outrunning their supplies.

Since we know the BEF did recover and turned to fight, did it play vital role in the Marne battle or was it more of threat?
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 5:09:07 AM

John,

BEF’s role in the Battle of the Marne ?

Hardly a bravura performance.

The advance was a crawl, the chance wasted. All foreplay and no insertion.

In several days, the BEF’s casualties were comparable with what they had been on the single day of Mons.

A few German rearguards mopped up, prisoners taken : perhaps 1,500 by the British over those momentous days.

But.....the BEF was there, it had survived , and it was fighting alongside the French. In themselves, those attributes were of inestimable significance.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 1:25:58 PM

John,

Reflecting on what I’ve been writing on this thread, I grow uncomfortable with the way that I’ve been disdainful about the mythology that developed over the British story of Mons and the Great Retreat .

I alluded earlier to the incredible story of the fight at Néry , on 1 September 1914. In the grand currency of the 1914-18 bloodbath, this was a tiny business, an affair of outposts and rearguards. But if ever there was an episode that speaks of devotion and heroism in extremis, this was it. I cannot allow myself to pass it by without further comment.

The last thing I want to do is impose a narrative on you, with the possibility - indeed, the probability - that the story is already familiar to you and others.

Please indulge me, and let me pitch in with this.

It really “ gets” to me.

I’ll sink a couple of beers and then set to.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 2:35:05 PM

Phil

What amazes me is the totally lack of trust and willingness between GB and France. I don't think the British HQ understood the massive losses the French took in the opening battles of 1914. And if they did they believed the French would soon fold up.

Even as late as winter 1917/18 the British felt that they were carrying the bulk of the fighting and France was doing very little. Also very little idea of what Verdun cost them.

In early spring 1918 Petain and Haig worked together somewhat in planning mutual aid but overall both sides were leery of each other.

Perhaps what has grown up around Mons is feeling "That see, we were pulling our weight, did our part too."
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 3:21:33 PM

Anglo - French feuds, over hundreds of years, John.

Foreigners begin at Calais .....a British refrain, heard over generations, and a heartfelt one, too. That’s a very sanitised version of what my compatriots would say, and, I’m sure, the Gallic response would be every bit as unflattering.

Bearing this tradition in mind, we might view the Entente effort as something truly amazing .

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 3:52:55 PM

Here’s a Homeric story.

The Action At Néry .

A very tired British unit, 1st Cavalry Brigade, arrived at this tiny French hamlet in the evening of 31 August 1914.

The most important feature of this place was a large ravine that lay to the east of the village.

The British troopers sought a place for a bivouac, and were unaware that the German 4th Cavalry Division were approaching the village, and were able to deploy a dozen artillery pieces on the eastern side of the ravine just 600 yards away.

In the early morning, 1 September, the German gunners achieved complete surprise at point blank range, and unleashed a devastating storm of shellfire that massacred the British men and horses, that had been tethered in lines.

Battery L of the Royal Horse Artillery took a terrible beating. Its commander was cut down, and horses and crew were smashed up in short order.

Second in command Captain Edward Bradbury managed to get three guns ( 13 pounders ) into action. One of the guns was destroyed by a direct hit, and a second was silenced when its crew was wiped out. Only Bradbury’s gun remained in action. Shrapnel and high explosive reduced his gun team to just three men.

This single gun returned fire for nearly two hours.

At about 8.00 am the gallant Bradbury was mortally wounded by a shell that tore off both his legs. He knew he was dying, and was determined that his ghastly fate should not upset his men. He begged to be carried away, because he couldn’t stop screaming in agony, and he was aware that the remaining two gunners, Sergeant Majors George Dorrell and David Nelson, were still serving the gun and making a good account of themselves. All three were awarded the Victoria Cross, Bradbury posthumously .

This reminds me of the behaviour of Cushing, Bigelow and Hazlett at Gettysburg, and also brings to mind the shocking panzer onslaught that struck a British armoured brigade at Villers-Bocage in Normandy a generation later.

Bradbury’s defiant stand turned the tide in favour of the British, as the Germans had concentrated on the single gun and were themselves caught in turn as the mist lifted and their own position became exposed and hit by flanking fire from British cavalry and infantry. The Germans found themselves in a death trap and withdrew, leaving behind eight of their twelve guns , and abandoning the other four in nearby woods.

The Germans admitted to losing 643 men in this fight, the British about 500.

Has there ever been a more sublime exhibition of martial valour ?

Tell Sparta.

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
George
Centre Hastings
ON Canada
Posts: 10971
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/30/2020 4:21:30 PM

Quote:
Anglo - French feuds, over hundreds of years, John.

Foreigners begin at Calais .....a British refrain, heard over generations, and a heartfelt one, too. That’s a very sanitised version of what my compatriots would say, and, I’m sure, the Gallic response would be every bit as unflattering.

Bearing this tradition in mind, we might view the Entente effort as something truly amazing .

Regards, Phil

Good point Phil. I think with a little work we could also find examples of co-ordination of the two armies and assistance offered to one another.

We know that the British agreed to a French, Allied Supreme Commander in Foch and must have seen the value in a co-ordinated effort.

Even at that, how much do we hear about the two Corps of French 1st army at a battle like that of Amiens in Aug. of 1918? Their air support? How much credit is given for their work at 2nd Marne in July?

I also note that after the Battle of Verdun in late 1916, the British did send officers to visit the French to discuss best practices and did incorporate some of what they learned into British tactics.

The French response to the need of an ally during the German Spring offensive is surely noteworthy? I know that Haig said that they were slow in response but some historians dispute that suggesting that Pétain sent forces more quickly than the time frame suggested by Haig and then added troops before being asked. My point is that the French did fight and in this case, fought together to stem the attack.

Strange bedfellows? Not in March of 1918. British 20th div and French 22nd defending a road crossing.



That two countries with centuries of conflict behind them found a way to fight a great war together seems amazing, as you have just said, Phil.

Are there any other examples of successful co-ordination in the years before Foch was appointed?

Cheers,

George

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Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/31/2020 1:47:56 AM

George,

There is an anecdote I recall concerning the First Day of the Somme, 1 July 1916, in the southern end of the British attack, where the Anglo-French forces abutted each other and the advance was conspicuously successful.

In the Carnoy and Montabaun sector, a British and a French officer were seen linked arm in arm, leading their men forward, and singing Le Marseillaise together.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/31/2020 6:30:55 AM

THE MONS MYTH, A Reassessment of the Battle, by Terence Zuber.

As the title suggests, this is the book that will rain on the parade of anyone British who cherishes the folklore of the battle.

Significantly, it excludes the story of Néry .

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 1/31/2020 7:40:52 AM

Phil George

Though before the German Spring Offensive 1918 Petain and Haig worked out a general vague plan to help each other in case of an attack, they worked very well together in an attempt to make sure the SWC (Supreme War Council) didn't have much power. Neither wanted an overall commander and esp. not Foch. Neither wanted the council to control the general reserve, troop surplus, that could be transferred according to need.

Lloyd-George saw the SWC as a way to control Haig and Robertson while the French saw it as a way towards an united command. Clemenceau wanted Foch for Supreme commander
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/1/2020 5:08:34 AM

John,

Haig held Petain in quite high regard....at least, he mentioned that his taciturn demeanour was a rare thing in a Frenchman !

I note that Haig was an optimist, to the point of delusion. Petain was noted as something of a defeatist : OTOH, he was a realist who did not succumb to the delusional approach that, I think, characterised Haig.

Petain compiled his own history of Verdun, and cited the figure of French casualties by mid July 1916, when the fighting started to diminish in scale and intensity. He commented on the fact that the Germans had suffered slightly fewer casualties, and attributed this to the converging artillery fire that the Germans were able to deploy.

In his rendition of the 1916 Somme battle, Haig insisted that the German casualties exceeded those of the British, even though official data revealed that the British were losing two to one.

This speaks volumes to me about the two commanders.

It must be said, though, that Petain was susceptible to defeatism to an alarming degree : he was heard to mention , in the crisis of March 1918, that the British will be beaten, and "...then the Germans will beat us, too..."

Shades of 1940.

Petain's tactical prowess was superb.

Shame about the legacy he left.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/1/2020 8:54:53 PM

What was emerging by 1918 was the conviction by the French that the war would be lost unless they took control of it. Foch and Clemenceau were concerned by the lack of cohesion and overall direction. Foch felt Petain was not strong enough to impose his will on Haig.

The French position was "We are fighting in France and for French territory. You are here to help but we are in control."

The British position was not logical, only emotional. "It is unthinkable that the BEF should be subordinate to France."

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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/2/2020 5:31:42 AM

You could , I suppose, reduce the Anglo French split to reflect two divergent geo strategic focus points : the Channel Ports for the British, Paris for the French.

By selecting Amiens as his rallying cry, Foch reconciled the two and effectively served both.

Interesting to compare the crisis of late March 1918 with that of late August 1914, when much the same dilemmas prevailed.

Johnny French succumbed to emotion, not logic in the earlier situation....a variant of what you suggest occurred in the 1918 scenario, John.

Unable to speak French, and with tears streaming down his face, JF turned to his aide, and told him to tell Joffre : Damn it all, tell him that whatever men can do, we will do !

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 9:28:29 AM

Phil
Two countries fighting together with two total different goals. One to defend its homeland against an invader the other....Just what was Great Britain fighting for?
To defend Belgium neutrality? Or as Sir Edward Grey said in August 1914 it was because she could not stand back and watch unchecked aggrandisement of any one European power- a fairly nebulous war aim.
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
George
Centre Hastings
ON Canada
Posts: 10971
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 11:01:10 AM

Quote:
Phil
Two countries fighting together with two total different goals. One to defend its homeland against an invader the other....Just what was Great Britain fighting for?
To defend Belgium neutrality? Or as Sir Edward Grey said in August 1914 it was because she could not stand back and watch unchecked aggrandisement of any one European power- a fairly nebulous war aim.


It all goes back to the roots of WW1, the causes and antecedent conditions. Nationalism and associated militarism had a lot to do with setting the stage for a conflict like this. The naval race and protection of colonies were also a factor as GB would not want Germany to challenge its preeminence in the imperialist races.

I think that Great Britain has long wished for a balance of power on the continent and not just to prevent war but to ensure that commerce is unaffected by conflict.

Sure GB came in because it was obligated to protect Belgium (Treaty of London, 1839) but the continent had been watching Germany carefully and GB could not countenance a continent under German control. Germany had been flexing and aspired to great power status.

We all know about the system of alliances and it would take some time to determine why one country sided with another over another country. France and Russia had an alliance. Germany and Austro-Hungary had an alliance.
Germany felt threatened with two unfriendly armies on its borders.
Britain joined the Russia/France alliance in the early 1900's.

When the dominoes fell, honour demanded support for Belgium and increasingly, GB had felt that it had to support France.

Russia supports the Serbs. Austria-Hungary, maybe to salvage what was left of its empire wanted to declare war against the Serbs. We must note that Serbia had been aggressive toward its neighbours in the early part of the century.

Germany secretly says that they will back A-H. A-H goes to war against Serbia and all hell broke loose.

I think that the Kaiser was surprised that Britain honoured an old treaty with Belgium. He thought that this continental conflict was not a British affair.

So had GB declined to honour its commitment, one wonders just what the end result on the continent would have been.

EDIT: There are modern British historians who say that GB should have passed and dealt with Germany later should she have prevailed against France and Russia. But they also say that GB should have taken the time to prepare for war by building its army in preparation for a future conflict. So was a conflict with Germany inevitable?
Quote:
"Arguments about honour of course resonate today as they resonated in 1914, but you can pay too high a price for upholding the notion of honour, and I think in the end Britain did."
. Ferguson.

Cheers,

George

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George
Centre Hastings
ON Canada
Posts: 10971
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 11:37:53 AM

An interesting BBC doc that asserts that the British involvement in WW1 was not a futile effort. It is called, The Necessary War.

[Read More]

There are many other sources that would argue the opposite.

George
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Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 11:57:06 AM

George,

Terrifically controversial topic, this one !

I will give myself a spare moment this evening to watch that link you’ve posted.

In the meantime, I’ll declare a preference , and state that I feel that the British had proper justification in going to war in 1914. German behaviour was such as to arouse legitimate grievance . Plenty of blame to go round....but, if we seek a principal culprit, the German High Command comes top of the list in my opinion.

British people volunteered to fight in 1914 because they felt existentially threatened.


As to whether their long term interests might have been better served by staying out of the conflict ...well, there’s scope enough to endorse Ferguson’s view, I admit.

Looking forward to watching the BBC feature.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 1:58:55 PM

Gentlemen
Totally agree that there wasnt any real way to stay out the war. Do believe that the leaders did not envision the type of war they were entering. Wilson and to a great way Asquith and Grey had tied them to the French in a way not seen in past British planning. As mentioned early in this post John French claimed he wanted to wait or land in Belgium (according to Haig). Haig wanted to wait to build up the Army and then land (according to French)

Many believed the old way was best. Use the Navy and support France and Russia with $ and supplies.

I do recall one historian saying it all came down to honor
----------------------------------
"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 4:24:17 PM

Having watched the first half of the link George sent, I find myself heartily encouraged by the tone .

It tells me what I want to hear.

There must be counter arguments : indeed, I know, because I’ve read them and heard them.

This was first broadcast in 2014, or thereabouts, and featured Max Hastings because he wrote a book CATASTROPHE , which is compelling and authoritative .

Looking forward to completing it.

Regards, Phil

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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
George
Centre Hastings
ON Canada
Posts: 10971
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 4:49:54 PM

I thought that this speech given to the House of Commons by Sir Edward Grey on the eve of war was revealing of the conflicted attitude of the British government at the time. Indeed, he does speak of honour and alludes to how the rest of the world would perceive Britain should she opt to do nothing but he emphasized that the government had sought a peaceful resolution and that it had failed.

He addressed the Commons as the Foreign Secretary.

The speech is a re-enactment and has been cropped. I couldn't help but contrast the response by historians to the British entry into the 1st war with that of its entry into the 2nd. Some historians have criticized Britain for its entry into the 1st war, suggesting that they should have sat it out, and in the 2nd, for attempting to seek peace (appeasement) rather than taking on Germany earlier. Some inconsistency in the historical reporting then though the circumstances were different.

Here is Grey's speech. Only 7 minutes.

[Read More]

Cheers,

George
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john hayward
Allenstown
NH USA
Posts: 816
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/3/2020 8:23:18 PM

Phil, George
Things moved awfully fast, like a snowball rolling down hill, in the last weeks of July. Much faster than any of the countries could really control. The war was something they all had planned for but not completely. No country seemed to understand just what they were unleashing.

Grey did try to organize a congress much along the lines of the two for the Moroccan crisises of 1905 and 11. Germany was not too eager because of the way she felt she was treated then.

Perhaps this was the time for Pres. Wilson to step in as a true neutral and called for the meeting. If Roosevelt had been elected in 1912 he would have got involved in some way.
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"When fascism comes to America it will be wrapped in the flag and carrying a cross."
Phil Andrade
London
 UK
Posts: 4650
Battle of Mons 1914
Posted on: 2/4/2020 3:28:23 AM

Having finished watching the Max Hastings BBC rendition , I want to say how thoroughly convincing I found it to be.

There are cogent arguments to be marshalled against its theme.

For example, the deplorable treatment of the indigenous Herero and Numqua people of SW Africa by Imperial Germany at the start of the 20th Century was rivalled by that of the Belgian rule of the Congo.

The flouting of international law by the German invasion of Belgium was followed by the British imposing a blockade that was also illegal.

And so on.

It doesn’t change my mind.

In his dismay and outrage at the Terms of the 1919 treaty, a German delegate turned on Clemenceau and said What will History say of this? .

The “ Tiger’s “ icy response rings true a century later .... It will NOT say that Belgium invaded Germany !

The emphasis of the BBC documentary stressed those features that bolster up the Hastings argument.

The scale and nature of German atrocities in Belgium and North Eastern France at the start of the war ; the desperate stand of the British at First Ypres....both these exemplify, respectively, that the British were right to fight, and that they fought in an existential struggle.

This is “ Good Guys” versus “ Bad Guys”, and the British knew the difference, and we still should.

Regards, Phil
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"Egad, sir, I do not know whether you will die on the gallows or of the pox!" "That will depend, my Lord, on whether I embrace your principles or your mistress." Earl of Sandwich and John Wilkes
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