Just about getting this post up while it’s still actually August!
The middle of the month saw me leaving the normal summer routine at home behind for a long weekend in the cockpit of Europe.
Part of the trip saw me revisiting Waterloo (for the seventh time!), which I’ll cover in another entry. But the main purpose of my Belgian mini-break was to tour the First World War battlefield of Mons, scene of the British Army’s first engagement on the Western Front, in time for the battle’s centenary.
Now, my experience with visiting the Western Front has been quite limited so far. Five years ago, a summer driving holiday across Europe gave my Dad and I the opportunity to spend two days in and around Ypres, which was very memorable indeed. That’s really been it, though, as far as the main First World War sites in Europe are concerned.
The current centenary of the conflict is steadily serving to increase my interest in the 1914-18 period, however, and the early months of the war have always held a special curiosity for me.
There’s a tragic fascination to the fighting of late summer and early autumn 1914, which sees an essentially nineteenth-century style of warfare being waged – at dreadful cost – with twentieth-century technology. For almost the very last time in western European warfare, there are multiple instances of infantry still manoeuvring on the battlefield in relatively close formations, with colours flying and bands playing; of cavalry performing their traditional mounted role with sword and lance; of artillery still firing over open sights at targets they can physically see in front of them.
Almost everthing about this early period, from the frequently splendidly impractical uniforms to the open nature of the battlefields, is at a striking remove from the mud, gas and barbed wire popular image of the First World War. By the winter of 1914, things had changed utterly, and the static attrition of trench warfare had firmly carved up the landscape of northern France and Belgium.
From a British and Irish perspective, the British Expeditionary Force that crosses the Channel in August 1914 to take part in this early fighting is an interesting body indeed. Rather than the massed citizen armies that the combination of popular enlistment and later conscription would combine to produce as Britain’s war progressed, the initial BEF was a very small, all-regular force. Tiny by the standards of European allies and adversaries like France and Germany, Britain’s field army was nonetheless well-trained and professional. Its men were khaki-clad, moustachioed regulars or else regular reservists recalled to the colours on the outbreak of hostilities.
This army acquitted itself well in its early defensive battles at Mons and Le Cateau in late August, and in September played its part with its French allies in the First Battle of the Marne, halting the German threat to Paris. Along the way, it endured a gruelling forced retreat from the scene of its first encounter with the German army at Mons on 23 August.
Irish service in the British armed forces is a particular interest of mine, and the BEF is anything but short of Irish connections. Nearly every existing Irish infantry and cavalry regiment in the British Army was represented amongst the force, with regiments like the 4th (Royal Irish) Dragoon Guards, the Royal Irish Regiment, the Connaught Rangers and the Royal Munster Fusiliers all playing conspicuous roles at various points during the campaign. Irish soldiers were also plentifully represented in other arms and corps of the BEF.
Visiting Mons at some point during this centenary year had been on my mind for the last few months, and going during the actual month that the battle was fought seemed ideal. I had originally toyed with the idea of trying to coincide my visit with either the official commemorations of the war’s outbreak on 4 August, or else on the exact centenary of the battle itself on 23 August, but work commitments put paid to either plan. As it turned out, that was probably for the best. In the event, I was able to tour the battlefield freely, without access to any sites being impeded or overly crowded.
I’ll split my report on the battlefield itself into another post or two to avoid overcrowding things. Stay tuned!