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The Impact of Mons, August 1914

On August 20th, 1914, writes John Terraine, the British public was startled to read the first authentic newspaper accounts of “heavy losses” and “broken regiments” during the fierce fighting in Belgium.

At seven o'clock in the morning of August 24th, 1914, Mr. Winston Churchill was sitting up in bed, working, at his room in the Admiralty. The door opened, and the Secretary of State for War, Field-Marshal Lord Kitchener, appeared.

“These were the days before he took to uniform, and my recollection is that he had a bowler hat on his head, which he took off with a hand which also held a slip of paper. He paused in the doorway and I knew in a flash and before ever he spoke that the event had gone wrong. Though his manner was quite calm, his face was different.

I had the sub-conscious feeling that it was distorted and discoloured as if it had been Punched with a fist. His eyes rolled more than ever. His voice, too, was hoarse. He looked gigantic. ‘Bad news,’ he said heavily and laid the slip of paper on my bed. I read the telegram.

It was from Sir John French: ...I forget much of what passed between us. But the apparition of Kitchener Agonistes in my doorway will dwell with me as long as I live. It was like seeing old John Bull on the rack!”

Sir John French’s telegram contained the first information to the British Government of the Battle of Mons, which had taken place on the preceding day:

“My troops have been engaged all day with the enemy... we held our ground tenaciously. I have just received a message from G.O.C. 5th French Army that his troops have been driven back, that Namur has fallen... I have therefore ordered a retirement... which is being carried out now. It will prove a difficult operation, if the enemy remains in contact...”

The last sentence was electrifying:

“I think that immediate attention should be directed to the defence of Havre.”

It was the reference to Namur that produced the first shock in Churchill’s mind.

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