Although the French armies on his right were in full retreat from the Belgian frontier on August 23, 1914 following their defeat first at Neuf chateau and then at Charleroi, Gen. Sir John French, the commander of the British forces, still remained in fatal ignorance of this important fact for at least 24 hours. His intelligence department appears to have functioned imperfectly. Gen. French was unaware that his little expeditionary force of 76,000 infantry and 10,000 cavalry had been left in complete isolation on the 25-mile front along the Mons-Conde Canal. He knew nothing of the sweep of von Kluck's army through Belgium and the German intention to turn his left flank. His airmen had failed to detect the presence of swarms of German soldiers in the adjacent woods. Serene in the belief that he was supported on the right by Lanrezac's Fifth French Army and on the left by a screen of French cavalry, and confident that only two German corps at most opposed him in front, Gen. French tranquilly sat him down amid the slag heaps of the Mons region on that fatal Sunday, August 23, 1914 to await the attack of the Huns.
Gen. Smith-Dorrien's Second Army Corps held the left of the British line in front of Mons, while Gen. Douglas Haig's First Army Corps lay at Binche on the right, nearest to the position just vacated by Lanrezac's French army. Gen. Allenby's cavalry, numbering 10,000 horses, was stationed in the rear, while a French cavalry force under Gen. d'Amade, guarded the British left flank. In addition, a cavalry corps of three divisions, under Gen. Sordet, rested farther south at Maubeuge, prepared to assist in any emergency that might arise.
At high noon, on Sunday, August 23, 1914 while the church bells in the neighboring villages were pealing joyously and the British soldiers were variously engaged at play or in washing their soiled garments, the heavens were rent with the screech of German shells fired from the cover of the woods fronting Mons. Squadrons of German airplanes suddenly appeared, circling over the British line.
The British airmen at once soared upward to give them battle. British cavalry patrols galloped in, bringing the information that the adjacent woods swarmed with German troops and heavy guns. Too late Gen. French learned that his little army faced, not two German corps, but six—a force of 300,000 Huns, as against 86,000 Britishers.
Six hundred German guns were at once brought into action, drenching the British left with shrapnel, and the right of the line with bomb-shells. German airplanes, by dropping smoke bombs, gave the range for their artillery. Thus while the air battle was in progress, the infantry faced a hurricane of shells.
Presently, from the cover of the woods, the German columns advanced in mass formation, a seemingly irresistible horde. Undismayed, the British veterans stood their ground, seizing their rifles and pouring a fusillade of bullets upon the oncoming squares, which melted in the heat of the British fire. As the living walls advanced, each in turn withered away before the bullet or the bayonet, until the German dead were piled breast high in places.
Again and again the driven Huns advanced, wavered, thinned, and retreated to the cover of the woods, but they were as constantly urged forward under the lash of their officers, until finally they all but reached the British line. As the dense masses of German infantry worked right up to the British trenches, the firing ceased and the British cavalry charged. With a blood-curdling yell, the Huns l'an back as though the fiends pursued them. Yet as the day waned, the British trench line was wearing thin ; the awful tempest of German artillery fire was eating the heart out of the defense. Slowly but surely the British batteries were silenced.
The attack had now spread along the whole line of the canal, but except at the loop on the British right wing, the Huns had made no impression. There, however, numbers prevailed at last and in mid-afternoon the Third Battalion was ordered to retire from the salient and the Fifth Division on the left to conform.
After blowing up the bridges in the loop, the retreat was sounded and the Second Corps withdrew to a position on higher ground. As the right wing fell back, Gen. Chetwode's cavalry, by headlong charges, broke up every effort of the Germans to disorganize the rear.
On the left flank, held by Smith-Dorrien's corps, the Germans were seeking to suffocate the British line by sheer weight of numbers. They tried also to cross the canal by bridge and by pontoons, but the English for a time prevented this by the accuracy of their shell fire. The odds were, however, too uneven; in the end the British details holding the bridgeheads were cut to pieces, the gunners dying to a man. The bridges were then destroyed by British engineers.
Foiled at the bridges, the enemy massed on the bank and tried to hold their positions. An artillery duel followed for possession of the canal bank. In the beginning the German masses were cut down by the British gunfire, but other German masses pressed on, and slowly, under frightful loss, they began to work their pontoon bridges across the smoke-clouded face of the canal.
Ten times they almost got the pontoons over, and as often the British guns reduced the boats to splinters. But the heroic efforts of the British were in vain. Fresh hordes of Huns were let loose against them; their flanks were in danger; a great turning movement was developing away to the west of Tournai; it was time to retire.
Still unaware of the overpowering strength of the German forces which were bearing down upon his little army, though the true situation might have been discovered by efficient air scouts, Gen. French was dumbfounded when Marshal Joffre notified him at 5 p. m. that three German corps were moving against the British front, while a fourth German corps was endeavoring to outflank him from the west.
He was also informed that the Germans, on the previous day, had captured the crossings of the Sambre River, between Char- leroi and Namur, and that Lanrezac's army on his right was retreating. In other words, the defensive pivot of the Franco-British line at Namur, on which the Allied strategy depended, had fallen almost at a blow. By Sunday the Germans had left Namur, and, in numbers far exceeding French predictions, had seized the crossings of the Sambre and Middle Meuse and were hammering at the junction of the Fifth and Fourth French armies in the fork of the river. The junction was quickly pierced, and the French, being overwhelmingly assaulted both in front and in flank, could do nothing but retire.
When the British commander received this information, the French armies had been retreating for ten hours and were a day's march removed from him. Thus the British found themselves wholly isolated, engaged in front by three German corps and threatened by a fourth German corps on their left, with the French army a full day's march away. Undaunted, and with their proverbial coolness, the British made methodical arrangements for a retirement toward the prearranged line. The hard-pressed Second Corps began its retreat at midnight, its flank covered by the First Corps with massed artillery.
Meanwhile, Gen. Joifre had ordered D'Esperey's retreating Fifth French Army to turn about and counter-attack, in order to prevent the cutting off of the British right flank by von Buelow's forces. D'Esperey at once attacked the Germans, driving them back almost to the gates of Charleroi.
To still further protect the retirement of Smith-Dorrien's Corps on the left of the line, Gen. French ordered Gen. Haig to boldly launch a counter-offensive along the Mons road from Bray to Binche. The enemy were then crossing the Mons Canal in great numbers and pouring down on the villages to the south. Haig*s heavy artillery fire held the Huns in check, giving the Second Corps time to form a strong battle line five miles to the south. Much desperate fighting took place on the 24th. A Cheshire regiment, nobly sacrificing itself, held the ridge from Andregnies to Elongues for several hours against overwhelming odds. Six hundred soldiers of the regiment fell in this heroic defence. Meanwhile, Gen. Allenby's cavalry, 10,000 horses, had been ordered to swing over to the extreme left and protect the Second Corps from a flanking movement begun by von Kluck from the west. At Andregnies the cavalry halted, facing the Huns at a range of 1000 yards.
Then the gallant Ninth Lancers charged the German flank in the face of a tornado of shell and rifle fire, with no protection from the withering blast. The Lancers were further confronted by double lines of wire, strung within 500 yards of the enemy. Men and horses fell by the hundreds before this withering fire. Only by super-courage were they enabled to save their batteries and make good their retreat. But von Kluck's flanking movement had failed.
After a short halt and partial entrenchment on the line Dour-Quarouble, to enable the First Corps to break off its demonstration, the retreat of the Second Corps was resumed, and by the evening of the 24th the whole British Expeditionary Force had reached the prearranged line, Jenlain-Bavai- Maubeuge.
The Second Corps, on the left, was protected by the cavalry operating westward, and by a new British brigade, the 19th, which had been brought up in the nick of time. The First Corps, on the right, was sufficiently protected by the guns of the fortress of Maubeuge.
The Germans now began a wide enveloping movement, hoping to coop up the British army in the fortressed town of Maubeuge and capture it entire. In pursuance of this plan, Gen. von Kluck made a deep detour in the west in his effort to outflank the British left wing, while von Buelow was trying to roll up the British right flank.
Meantime, in their sweep forward on the 24th, the Germans had captured the French brigade of Marquis de Villaret at Tournai, and a British battery.
Gen. French, knowing the danger he incurred in relying upon the defences at Maubeuge, decided to vacate the position. Accordingly, the British army, on August 25, set out on the next stage of its retreat, marching south on either side of the forest of Mormal.
The French garrison, however, remained in Maubeuge, holding the fortress against repeated German attacks for ten days and thus depriving Gen. von Kluck of the services of 60,000 troops in the subsequent Battle of the Marne.
The British army made their stand in the neighborhood of Le Gâteau, where civilian labor had been employed to prepare and entrench the grounds. There the British were reinforced by a new division, sent forward to assist the retirement of the Second Corps. For both corps it had been a day of torture, marching under a blazing sun along 'roads crowded with transports and packed with refugees.
Under these trying conditions, the various units of the Second Corps had marched 20 to 35 miles on August 25, reaching their appointed line on the Cambrai-Le Gateau road as night was falling and in a cold, steady ram. The First Corps, having been delayed, did not reach the allotted position; its units were scattered over a wide area, at some points 30 miles apart, and at no point nearer than Landrecies, eight miles from Le Gâteau.
The difficulties of movement had been increased by the convergence of the French troops, retiring from the Sambre, who cut across the British line of march. The enemy's pressure, moreover, had been continued well into the night.