On 21 August, Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment, a reconnaissance cyclist, was shot and killed. He was the first British soldier killed during the First World War. He was 16, although his gravestone states 20; his grave, near Mons, faces that of George Ellison, killed at 9.30 am on 11 November 1918, the last British soldier killed during the war.
On 23 August, along the Mons-Condé Canal in Belgium, the BEF ran into the Germans heading towards France. The Battle of Mons was Britain’s first battle in Western Europe since Waterloo ninety-nine years before. The Battle of Mons signalled the death knell for the cavalry. Both the British and Germans employed men on horses wielding swords but such was the intensity of machine-gun fire facing them that the cavalrymen were forced to dismount. Although outnumbered three to one, the British and French held up the Germans’ advance, caused heavy casualties, and further disrupted the Schlieffen Plan. But with the numerical disadvantage beginning to tell, the Allied forces embarked on a fighting retreat in the hot August sun.
The Retreat from Mons, August 1914
The Retreat from Mons was, as legend would have it, guided by the ‘Angels of Mons’, ghostly apparitions who safely led the British soldiers away from the battlefield. The legend began with a short story, ‘The Bowmen’, written by a journalist, Arthur Machen, published in the London Evening News on 29 September:
And as the soldier heard these voices he saw before him, beyond the trench, a long line of shapes, with a shining about them. They were like men who drew the bow, and with another shout, their cloud of arrows flew singing and tingling through the air towards the German hosts.
Although Machen quickly denied any truth in the tale, it soon caught on to the point that soldiers were stating it as fact. At a time when news from the front was heavily censored, the belief that God was on their side brought a degree of solace to both the soldiers on the front and relatives waiting at home.
As the BEF retreated, it split into two. One division, under the command of General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien paused near the French town of Le Cateau-Cambrésis and prepared to meet the pursuing Germans. Having held up the German advance yet further, Smith-Dorrien resumed the retreat. The Battle of Le Cateau, on 26 August, went down as a British victory but Smith-Dorrien was censured by John French for having acted on his own initiative. French forces made a similar stand and retreat at the Battle of St Quentin.