When they marched into war in 1914 the British regular army was unsure of its credentials on the great European stage. It was over 60 years since the Crimean war, the last time Britain engaged with European foes. In the interim years the German and French armies had modernised and traded blows with each other a number of times.
The Germans were respectful of the French army, but saw the British Expeditionary Force as irrelevant to the bigger picture. On 23rd August 1914 the Germans met the British at Mons. Though they outnumbered the British 3:1 the Germans were stopped in their tracks for 48 hours.
So rapid and concentrated was the fire from the British rifles that the Germans were sure they faced machine gun batteries. They came away from the battle with a new found respect for the British army.
At British headquarters the brass concocted a supposed order from the Kaiser to his troops, telling them to “march over the contemptible little British army”. Although it was pure morale boosting propaganda, the soldiers believed it and the story stuck. The survivors of the British regular army were proud to bear the nickname “the old contemptibles”.
Not many of them survived the “race to the sea” and the regular British army ceased to exist as a force by the 1st battle of Ypres in November, 3 months after their first encounter with the Germans at Mons.
Mons became legendary for the British. Practically, it demonstrated that the British regulars were more than a match for the Germans, and gave hope to the raw recruits drafted to replace the regulars. Psychologically it established a legend for the British in France. Soldiers spoke of seeing the “Angel of Mons” charging to battle with the British, supported by the spirits of longbowmen from Crecy and Agincourt.
100 years on, we remember the Great War, a war which lasted, to all intents, from 1914 to 1945. We remember the fallen. They shall not grow old.
For the Fallen; by Robert Laurence Binyon
With proud thanksgiving, a mother for her children,
England mourns for her dead across the sea.
Flesh of her flesh they were, spirit of her spirit,
Fallen in the cause of the free.
Solemn the drums thrill: Death august and royal
Sings sorrow up into immortal spheres.
There is music in the midst of desolation
And a glory that shines upon our tears.
They went with songs to the battle, they were young,
Straight of limb, true of eye, steady and aglow.
They were staunch to the end against odds uncounted,
They fell with their faces to the foe.
They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.
At the going down of the sun and in the morning
We will remember them.
They mingle not with their laughing comrades again;
They sit no more at familiar tables of home;
They have no lot in our labour of the day-time;
They sleep beyond England’s foam.
But where our desires are and our hopes profound,
Felt as a well-spring that is hidden from sight,
To the innermost heart of their own land they are known
As the stars are known to the Night;
As the stars that shall be bright when we are dust,
Moving in marches upon the heavenly plain,
As the stars that are starry in the time of our darkness,
To the end, to the end, they remain.