Within days of disembarking in France, the hurriedly-organised British Expeditionary Force of 70,000 men marched northwards and engaged the Germans near the Mons Canal in an effort to protect the left flank of the retreating French army. On 23 August 1914, outnumbered two to one and described by a German general as ‘a contemptible little army’, the British fought their first battle on European soil since Waterloo.
For 48 hours ‘The Contemptibles’ held the line, losing 1,600 men but inflicting heavier casualties on the enemy. But defeat was inevitable. Some of the fiercest fighting took place at the Nimy railway bridge, where the first Victoria Crosses were awarded to two British machine-gunners of the 4th Royal Fusiliers, who covered the retreat until they were too badly wounded to continue. One was Lieutenant M. Dease who, although already wounded, took over one of the battalion’s two machine guns to halt the German offensive. He was wounded again and died the next day. The second award was to Private S. Godley. Despite being wounded in the head and back, he took over the other gun and tenaciously fought off the enemy attack, and by doing so gained vital time to allow the withdrawal of the 4th Royal Fusiliers. The legendary Retreat from Mons had begun. It ranks as one of the British Army’s proudest battle honours, but the town would not be liberated until the final day of the war, more than four years later.
Two kms east of Mons, at St Symphorien Cemetery, lie the remains of the first and last British casualties of the war. The first was 20-year-old Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment, a member of a bicycle reconnaissance team who was killed at Obourg near Mons on 21 August 1914. The last was Private George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers, who was killed by a German machine-gun an hour and a half before the Armistice was signalled.
This peaceful and pretty burial site - unusual in being divided into British and German sections - is the final resting place of more than 500 servicemen, including 230 British and 60 who remain unidentified.
On the outskirts of Mons, a small communal cemetery in the village of Nouvelles contains a microcosm of World War I from the British perspective. There are nine white headstones. Five of the graves were dug at the start of the war, in August 1914. The remaining four stones, arranged in line, mark the graves of a soldier from each of England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales – all of whom died on Armistice Day.