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Wednesday, 15 August 2018

Mons, an Artillery Battle

Mons, an Artillery Battle

This book is a history of the Battle of Mons in August 1914. It diverges widely from the story enshrined as fact in the Official History, and by subsequent accounts dependant on it. It is based on an examination of the war diaries of almost every British unit involved in the battle, with particular reference to the artillery, thus illuminating the tactical intentions of all arms in every phase of the battle. The artillery had made tactical preparations for the handling of their guns in battle.

All units in the British Army conformed to Field Service Regulations. The central role that both these played in the battle is explored. In documenting the orders to, and subsequent actions of, junior units, many routinely referenced statements in even recent publications pertaining to the battle are challenged. The British went into battle without much of its field artillery. The German field artillery went into battle with totally defective ammunition. These two facts alone profoundly alter the conventional narrative. The primary importance of well-positioned artillery, supporting British army manoeuvres, is explained. The routine protection that the guns supplied to their allocated infantry battalions is described; and the devastating effect of German howitzer fire on a number of British infantry and artillery units documented.

Each of the three senior British generals reacted differently to the stress of battle, and their anxieties can be followed and explored in detail. General French, in command of the British Expeditionary Force, remained in tighter control of events than is generally portrayed. General Smith-Dorrien, of II Corps, is confirmed as the main architect of the fighting on the day; and with luck on his side, fought an almost faultless campaign. Both were relying on General Haig, to bring his I Corps up in support II Corps.

Not only did he disobey this order to advance, but he did not warn either General French or II Corps that he was withholding support. This breached Army Regulations, and endangered the whole force. The records reveal that he side-lined his staff, and issued such a series of orders and counter-orders, that he exasperated and demoralised his men. General Haig’s report on the battle is an oft-quoted primary source. From the day before the battle, it is so inaccurate as to be almost valueless as a summary of events. If the full details of his actions on the day had been known at the time, he could have been dismissed for incompetence. He might even have been court-martialed.

How each of the three generals perceived the role of the artillery under their command is also explored, from the point of view of their previous military experience. The origins of the poor use of artillery by the British Army later in the war can be traced back; partly to the professional army structure of 1914 and the qualities that would be lost as their casualties mounted; and partly to cavalry generals winning out over infantry generals in the direction of future campaigns of the British army.

The Battle of Mons was a dress-rehearsal for the war on the Western Front. It was of disproportionate importance in determining how the British army was handled in the future. It deserves to be better understood by students of the period.