Retreat of Mons

Battle of Mons, 23 Aug 1914

When the Germans began to appear before Binche on 22 Aug they were driven back by the Scots Greys, but the British cavalry were covering a front of 18 miles against 325,000 Germans. Sir John French moved the four cavalry brigades to the left of the line while the 5th Brigade remained on the right.

But they had to cover a large gap in the line between the right of 2nd Corps at Mons and the French left on the Sambre. This had to be protected until the 1st Corps were brought up to complete the front extended along the Mons canal from Conde to Mons.

The British cavalry made a good impression on the Germans and the French. When General Spears escorted a senior French officer around the British lines he noticed how impressed he was, ‘really splendid, perfectly turned out, shining leather, flashing metal, beautiful horses, and the men absolutely unconcerned, disdaining to show the least surprise at or even interest in their strange surroundings.’

But the French 5th Army was being driven back from the Sambre and the British agreed to stand fast at Mons for 24 hours to protect the French flank. On the morning of 23 Aug the Germans arrived and attacked 2nd Corps who were able to beat them off with steady fire.

Lieutenant Harold Soames (Click to enlarge)

The 20th Hussars were off-saddled in Brigade reserve but received news of enemy movement on the right flank. One squadron of the 20th was sent to Peissant on the Sambre and a patrol under Lieutenant Harold Soames ran into trouble when faced with a large force of Germans. Soames was killed, another man wounded and two were unhorsed and missing.

The Germans were continuing to advance in heavy columns, too numerous to withstand, and the French allies were in retreat leaving the British Expeditionary Force exposed. So the decision was made to join the retreat from Mons.

By nightfall of the 25 August 1914 the retreating British II Corps was being closely pursued by the German First Army. I Corps was some way away to the east, and although the newly-arrived 4th Division was moving up alongside II Corps it was clear that the disorganised and greatly fatigued units faced a calamity the next day if the withdrawal was forced to continue.

Corps Commander Horace Smith-Dorrien ordered II Corps to stand and fight. The units of the Corps were arranged in the open downs to the west of the small town of Le Cateau.

Elements of the British Expeditionary Force at the Battle of Le Cateau

Cavalry Division
II Corps: (Smith-Dorrien): 3rd and 5th Divisions
4th Division
19th Infantry Brigade

Tactical victory?

For long hours during the morning of 26 August, the British force, notably the field artillery, held overwhelming numbers of the enemy at bay. British tactics were similar to those at Mons.

Click to enlarge

The infantry produced intensive and accurate rifle fire, while the field artillery fired air-bursting shrapnel rounds on the unprotected advancing enemy infantry. Many field guns were fired at point-blank range over open sights.

But the British artillery was also exposed and came in for heavy punishment from the German guns. Some were withdrawn just as the enemy infantry closed in. For the second time in three days, the British force engaged withdrew just in time.

Click to enlarge

Miraculously, the exhausted II Corps disengaged and withdrew towards the south during the afternoon. Smith-Dorrien’s decision to turn II Corps around from retreat and to stand against the German advance at Le Cateau paid off handsomely.

Heavy casualties were inflicted on the Germans and another delay imposed on their Schlieffen timetable. To the east, I Corps was able to move further away from the advance parties of the Germans. However, a rift grew between Sir John French (who had initially ordered a continuation of the retreat) and Smith-Dorrien as a result of this action. It was to have serious consequences in 1915.


The total British casualties at Le Cateau amounted to 7,812 all ranks killed, wounded and missing. 38 field guns were lost.


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