Mons and Le Cateau
The Great War 1914-18
On the 4th August 1914 Germany declared war on Belgium and in response Britain declared war against Germany in support of its Belgian ally. The British army mobilised and on the 9th August, 80,000 men under the command of Sir John French, landed in France. This was the first element of the British Expeditionary Force and by the 20th August they had moved forward to take up position at Maubeuge on the Sambre River. Further troops allowed the defence lines to extend to Mons in the north. The Germans believed they would 'walk over the contemptible little army', despite its size, the BEF would ultimately prove itself to be a resilient adversary. Indeed, from the German remark the British troops termed themselves 'The Old Contemptibles'.
The 23rd August saw the Germans attack with such strength and speed that the British troops were forced to withdraw and conduct a fighting retreat. What happened over the next few days became known as 'the Great Retreat'. The fighting was fierce, with battles being fought at Mons, Le Cateau and many other locations. During the course of this fighting eleven Victoria Crosses were won for great heroism. The BEF may not have been able to stop the German army completely, but it did dent the attack, which prevented the Germans from completing the plan of encircling the Allies in a vast sweeping action as projected in the already flawed, 'Schlieffen' Plan.
Finally, on the 5th September the Allied retreat slowed and positions were consolidated, which in some places were only 12 miles outside of Paris. Losses were great on all sides, in the five days following, for example, the French army suffered around 80,000 casualties. It was a sign of the greater destruction that lay ahead over the next four years. The British army had not faced a western European army in battle for 100 years and it had much to learn when it came to fighting a modern, well-equipped force such as the German army.
This tour will visit the points where the armies clashed and made the Germans realise the war would not be over quickly. One of the sites to be visited is Audregnies, where the British Cavalry charged the German guns and Captain Grenfell of the 9th Lancers won his Victoria Cross. As we journey along the historic routes the intricacies of logistics, which allows an army to be put into the field and supplied, will be explained. The weapons, tactics and plans will be discussed and how the final outcome of the 'Race to the Sea', as each side tried to out-manoeuvre the other, resulted in trench warfare. The lines of these trenches would eventually stretch for almost 400 miles, from the Swiss border northwards to the coast. The events behind the awarding of the Victoria Crosses will be revealed and the cost to the armies, as they clashed in the first weeks of a war which would tear into Europe.