Having flown into Charleroi with Ryanair first thing on Friday morning, I immediately took a train for the relatively short journey to Mons.
Disembarking and strolling into the centre of the city from the railway station, I was struck straight away by just how beautiful Mons is – full of narrow, cobbled streets and centuries old architecture. Unlike many well-known First World War sites like Ypres or the villages and towns of the Somme, Mons itself was left relatively physically unscathed by the conflict. After the battle and the subsequent retreat of the BEF in August 1914, the city fell under German occupation and lay behind the lines until nearly the very end of the war in November 1918.
The medieval Grand Place is the very heart of Mons, and is the scene of one of the most well-known and frequently reproduced photographs of the BEF, below, showing men of 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers having just arrived in the area on 22 August 1914, the eve of the battle. There’s something incredibly poignant about the picture, with many of the characterful faces featured destined to be killed, injured or in captivity by the close of the following day.
My comparison shot a century on includes entries in what seemed to be a vintage car rally. That particular Friday, as it transpired, was a public holiday in Belgium; which meant that both open shops and pedestrians to ask directions of proved in short supply as the day went on. My fault, ultimately, for failing to do my homework in advance. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted!
My guides for both days in and around Mons were the standard format Osprey primer on the campaign (left, with splendid colour plates as always), and a relatively new battlefield guide from Pen and Sword Books by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland (right). The latter was incredibly detailed and useful throughout, but could, as a slight criticism, have done with slightly more elaborate maps.
After checking in to my hotel (the warmly recommended Hotel Le Terminus) and a wolfed lunch, I set off on foot for the northern suburb of Nimy. This portion of the battlefield saw some of the fiercest fighting on 23 August 1914, with the defensive position along the Mons- Condé Canal held by the BEF bulging outwards to form a salient which could be – and was – pressed hard by the Germans from its flanks.
Once I’d gotten through my first spot of navigational difficulty, hampered twice over by my woeful schoolboy French and the general quietness on the streets that Friday, I reached Nimy and the battlefield proper.
My first destination was the railway bridge over the canal, in a sector defended during the battle by 4th Royal Fusiliers. Here, County Westmeath officer Lieutenant Maurice Dease was killed after repeatedly exposing himself to German fire in an effort to keep his battalion’s two machine guns firing across the bridge; posthumously earning the very first Victoria Cross of the First World War. His fellow Fusilier, Private Sid Godley, earned the second VC of the conflict at the same spot for continuing to man a machine gun until wounded and eventually captured by the Germans.
The railway bridge that stands on the site today isn’t the original from 1914 – that was demolished by the retreating French army during another German invasion of Belgium in 1940, with its replacement destroyed in turn by German troops retreating in the opposite direction in 1944.
This did nothing to take away from the evocativeness of the spot, however. Scrambling up the railway embankment to stand beside the tracks and peer through the trestles of the bridge at the German side of the canal, it was instantly possible to imagine the noise, fright and confusion a century ago as the Londoners of the Royal Fusiliers fought their increasingly desperate battle against encroaching enemy troops.
It is worth noting, though, that any reverie is regularly – and noisily – punctuated by trains hurtling by. The railway line here is very much active in 2014, so caution is definitely advised!
While there, I took advantage of a relatively new iPhone to film the first of a couple of short videos that I made while touring the Mons battlefield.
I then left the railway bridge to walk generally east along the line of the canal. This was the area held by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps during the battle, and saw the stiffest fighting for the BEF.
Although I believe that the actual canal itself has been widened since 1914, and certainly numerous more modern buildings now line either bank, it was still easy to appreciate the basic tactical geography of the battlefield. Looking across the canal from the southern bank, it was difficult not to envisage the din and chaos as attacking German infantry of the 8th Division in field grey uniforms and spiked helmets spilled down to the water’s edge, while all around British soldiers frantically worked Lee Enfield bolts, aiming and firing as rapidly as they could.
A long walk on a pleasantly drizzly August afternoon eventually took me to the village of Obourg, but not without slight confusion. Slightly west of Obourg, an enormous (and breathtakingly ugly) cement factory from much later than 1914 now dominates the southern side of the canal, blocking pedestrian progress on this side for a stretch.
With the wonders of hindsight, I know now that the easiest option is to temporarily cross to the northern bank, before recrossing the canal to go to Obourg. On the day, however, I arrived at the notion that I could cut around south behind the factory. An hour later, wetter and muddier than I began, I’d learned otherwise…
On 23 August, Obourg was defended by the 4th Middlesex Regiment, with the village seeing desperate fighting. The men of the Middlesex were eventually forced to withdraw, but an apocryphal incident from the battle here has an unknown British soldier clambering onto the roof of Obourg’s small railway station and remaining behind, firing to cover his retreating mates until overcome. Slightly despondently, there doesn’t actually seem to be any hard evidence for this occurring, but there’s something deeply touching about the story nonetheless. The original railway station was demolished in the 1980s, but bricks from the structure were preserved and used to create a small memorial to the Middlesex Regiment.
With night beginning to fall at the end of my first day in Mons, I trudged back into the city, footsore but happy.