Today, a century back, being the British Army’s first day of real combat, we should have a brief word about military history, specifically that breed of military history known as the “Battle Piece.”
Actually, a very brief word: I am not going to try to write the battles from a strategic or grand tactical perspective, or to give the generals’ point of view and assess their actions in detail. There is plenty of that, by good writers and careful writers and traditionalists and revisionists… and in such a big battle nothing on that scale is terribly relevant to the experience of the men on the ground.
The Battle of Mons was not atypical, either, in that the British, French, and German commanders were all gravely mistaken about the numbers and intent of their enemy, that each was pursuing strategies ranging from poor to suicidally disastrous, and that the side that made the worst decisions (the Allies) probably came out of it best. So please do read up elsewhere on the Schlieffen Plan and Von Kluck’s mistake and Lanrezac’s run for the rear and the impeccable incompetence of Sir John French (commander, confusingly, of the British Expeditionary Force–but don’t worry, the Germans also had a General von François).
Here we need only the broadest picture: some twenty miles of East-West frontage for the BEF, along the Mons-Condé canal, with an unlovely view into the industrial towns and mining district away north, where German armies were massing, their spotter planes droning overhead.
Now, how to describe an aircraft overhead, in the first fledgling weeks of motorized military air-power? J.F. Lucy, in yesterday’s post, was matter-of-fact–a tiny bit poetical, but, really, a plane was little more than a novelty. Aircraft, in this war, rarely posed a significant threat to men on the ground. Primitive bombers and effective strafing lay in the future.
A lone Taube was a scout, a spotter, a lone horseman who might summon the enemy hosts or, worse, call down the long-range guns–or trundle slowly on, its purposes inscrutable. So, hey–a plane!
Here’s another way to do it:
High in the van a Taube aeroplane, like an embodiment of that black eagle which is the fitting emblem of a warlike and rapacious race, pointed the path for the German hordes.
But now an ill-omened bird flew over the British lines. Far aloft across the deep blue sky skimmed the dark Taube, curved, turned, and sail northwards again. It had marked the shells bursting beyond the trenches. In an instant, by some devilish cantrip of signal or wireless, it had set the range right. A rain of shells roared and crashed along the lines of the shallow trenches. The injuries were not yet numerous, but they were inexpressibly ghastly…
These small purple apocalypses have spilled from the pen of Arthur Conan Doyle, once a writer of admirable precision. He spent much of the war working on installments of an easy-bake history, based on many conversations with participants and wide reading of the utterly unreliable newspaper reports and produced rather too quickly. Ah, there’s was a writer’s market in those days, there was!
I thought I would drop Conan Doyle in here not just to give a vivid example of the “older guy who hasn’t seen battle renders it more dramatically than no-nonsense serving soldier” truism but also to sound an early warning on the genesis of the most dramatic/least accurate of “battle pieces.” They come from this sort of writing, where stray facts–especially highly visible ones–take on massive payloads of strategic and symbolic meaning before they are located in any tactical matrix or pinpointed in any chain of causation.
And also because I can’t help but have some sympathy with the quick-response popular writer willing to triple-load his metaphorical riffs. Is the plane a bird of ill-omened Prussian expansionism, or a reminder of the evil magic (“devilish cantrip”) that seems, to soldiers, to work the Death Unseen that so often strikes them down. Or is it a spotter plane that makes effective use of nascent technology to direct artillery fire supporting the German advance? Sure!
But back to business. J.F. Lucy was in one of those shallow trenches. He had had a long night, awakened at midnight to escort an ammunition resupply. He and his men remained on their feet through the morning, when they moved forward into a village that had just been raided by German cavalry. By the early afternoon they had moved forward another mile and dug a shallow “kneeling trench” as a temporary firing position, the idea being to attack once the enemy was located. Now they awaited contact.
Lucy was unaware that his battalion was now holding part of a suspected “weak point,” just behind where the canal’s course changed as it reached Mons. Tacticians always like to go after angles. He and the rest of the 2/Royal Irish realized that they were involved in a real battle only when the German shells began to fall.
Lucy’s account, written years later by a man who experienced much of the worst of trench warfare, notices several age-old elements of the experience of battle that will soon become obsolete and strange. They realize that the German infantry are attacking when they hear the “conch-like sounds” of their bugles, and they meet the densely-packed advancing troops with rifle volleys directed by officers’ whistles. Massed advances met by drill-quickened rifle fire resulted in terrible casualties.
Our rapid fire was appalling even to us, and the worst marksman could not miss, as he had only to fire into the ‘brown’ of the masses of the unfortunate enemy, who on the fronts of two of our companies were continually and uselessly reinforced at the short range of three hundred yards. Such tactics amazed us…
Francis and Riversdale Grenfell, were, with the rest of the 9th Lancers, behind the center of the British line, near the village of Thulin. Alas, the prospect of battle in one of Northern Europe’s most industrial districts was a bit of a disappointment:
Francis and Rivy were much perplexed by this strange kind of battlefield. As cavalrymen they had hoped for the wide rolling downs which had been predicted as the terrain of any continental war. Instead they found themselves in a land full of little smoky villages, coal mines, railway embankments, endless wire, and a population that seemed as dense as that of a London suburb. They were puzzled to know how cavalry could operate, and they were still more puzzled to understand what was the plan of campaign an uncertainty they shared with a million or so other soldiers. On that hot Sunday morning firing began early to the north-east and grew heavier as the day advanced. In the afternoon the Colonel sent for the squadron leaders and told them that six German cavalry and three infantry divisions were advancing, and that their business was to retire slowly, fighting a rearguard action. The rest of the day was spent in deep mystification, with no knowledge of the fall of Namur, or of Lanrezac’s defeat at Charleroi, or the other calamities which were to compel Sir John French to retreat. But at 11.30 came definite orders. They were instructed to entrench at the railway station south of Thulin for an attack at dawn. Spades were procured with difficulty, and they were about to begin when another order came not to entrench but to barricade, and to hold Thulin station and the road to the south of it. This was done, and the position was occupied during the darkness, while the wretched inhabitants straggled down the south road, and the guns in the north grew steadily nearer.
So no death or glory charges today, although, with more than a few rolling downs and wide-open fields behind them, there would be a chance, upon retirement. John Buchan, author of the above paragraph, is surely trying to give us a strong sense of just how confusing it is to be behind a battle which even its participants and presiding officers have failed to understand.
And yet: there are more than a few ways, amidst all of the very bright young things and precocious writers we will be studying, to indicate that these particular brave boys are dim bulbs. “Perplexed… puzzled… still more puzzled… deep mystification:” all fair in war, but there does seem to be a literary running of the colors here, between the fog of war and the unrealistic expectations and stolidity of two young officers.
In any event, confusion. And withdrawal. This was a good-sized battle, and although the excellent musketry of the British regulars (and their excellent rifles) caused thousands of German casualties, several British battalions were hard hit as well. It is notoriously difficult to withdraw in the face of an undefeated enemy, and, as this is is next on the menu for the BEF, the Grenfells will soon see more action.
The Duchess of Sutherland, however, was fifty miles further east in besieged and overrun Namur:
Sunday 23 August.
There is a dreadful bombardment going on. Some of our wounded who can walk wrap themselves in blankets and go to the cellars. Luckily we are in a new fire-proof building, and I must stay with my sick men who cannot move.The shells sing over the convent from the deep booming German guns–a long singing scream and then an explosion which seems only a stone’s throw away. The man who received extreme unction the night before is mad with terror. I do not believe that he is after all so badly wounded. He has a bullet in his shoulder, and it is not serious. He has lost all power of speech, but I believe that he is an example of what I have read of and what I had never seen–a man dying of sheer fright.
Two things, here. Yes, this sounds like our first case of shell-shock, brutal neanderthal ancestor of modern PTSD. It would be recognized later in the war and, famously, treated with widely varying understanding, and with methods both brutal and humane.
Second, there is another looming rabbit hole for any comparative study of war prose, namely the danger of trying to re-translate language into some sort of objective measure of suffering (or other emotional response).
Descriptions of enduring bombardment are a primary example of this. Many soldiers (and nurses) will write of how terrible a first bombardment seemed, and how laughable that terror seemed in retrospect, once they had acclimated to the constant presence of artillery and learned what the big guns did.
The big point here is that we have to read each experience for what it tells us of the author’s state of mind, not to ascertain the “actual” (i.e. historical) weight and effectiveness of that bombardment. That said, the guns at the Battle of Mons were probably all field guns or medium howitzers; Namur was being shelled by some of the largest guns ever built, crane-loaded monstrosities whose thousand-pound shells brought down entire buildings at a time, and pounded the new forts into rubble. The cellar would not have been much safer, if these guns reached their part of the town.
The nurses and one or two of the nuns are most courageous and refuse to take shelter in the cellars, which are full of novices and schoolchildren. The electric and gas supplies have been cut off. The only lights we have to use are a few hand lanterns and night-lights…
There is some rapid fusilading through the streets and two frightened old Belgian officers ran into the Convent to ask for Red Cross bands, throwing down their arms and maps. In a few minutes, however, they regained self control and went out in the streets without the Red Cross bands.
Now the German troops are fairly marching in. I hear them singing as they march. It seems almost cowardly to write this, but for a few minutes there was relief to see them coming and to feel that this awful firing would soon cease. On they march! Fine well-set-up men with grey uniforms.They have stopped shooting now… I see them streaming into the market-place. A lot of stampeding artillery horses gallop by with Belgian guns. On one of the limbers still lay all that was left of a man. It is too terrible.
What can these brave little people do against this mighty force? Some of the Germans have fallen out and are talking to the people in the streets. These are so utterly relieved at the cessation of the bombardment that in their fear they are actually welcoming the Germans. I saw some women press forward and wave their handkerchiefs.
Suddenly upon this scene the most fearful shelling begins again…We rush back into the convent, and there are fifteen minutes of intense and fearful excitement while the shells are crashing into the market-place. We see German soldiers running for dear life … Women half fainting, and wounded, old men and boys are struggling in.Their screams are dreadful. They had all gone into the Grande Place to watch the German soldiers marching, and were caught in this sudden firing. A civilian wounded by a shell in the stomach was brought into the Ambulance. He died in 20 minutes. We can only gather incoherent accounts from these people as to what had happened.The Germans sounded the retreat and the shelling seemed to stop. At last it leaks out that the German troops on the other side of the town did not know that their own troops had crossed the Meuse on the opposite side… It seems a horrible story, but absolutely true.
Now it is quiet again, save for the sighs of the suffering. All night long we hear the tramp, cramp, tramp of German infantry in the streets, their words of command, their perpetual deep-throated songs.They are full of swagger, and they are very anxious to make an impression upon the Belgians…
Where are the English and the big French troops? That is what I am wondering.
This has been a long post, and so I will postpone an uncertainty: One Sunday in late August–either today, a century back, or a week hence, The Dymock poets, and Edward Thomas and Eleanor Farjeon, dined together in the farmhouse of a rustic, nineteenth century couple. It was a merry, literary occasion, with little or no mention of the war–could it possibly have been the same day as Mons? I don’t know, and two letters that might mention it and fix it on the 23rd I can’t get my hands on just now–so let’s say it was on the 30th, and wait a week for the end of August 1914, and a final bit of Last Summer literary pastoralism…