The Battle of Mons was the first major British engagement of the First World War. It was fought near the border of France and Belgium. Even though the British were forced to retreat clear to Paris over the course of two weeks it was seen as a triumph because they had so dramatically slowed the advance of the far superior German force and had inflicted far greater casualties on the Germans than the Germans had on them. It also achieved the goal of protecting the flank of the French army.
Before the Battle of Mons no one was very impressed with British soldiers or thought them of much consequence. The last time the British had fought had been during the Crimean War in the 1850’s, more than two generations earlier. Their whole strength was 80,000 men while the French and Germans each had well over a million. So when they defeated the Germans in a land war, a venue that was the German specialty, there was some realization among the Germans that they might not have Europe all their own way after all.
The Angels of Mons
Very soon a legend sprang up among the British about the Battle of Mons. It went something like this.
At Mons the British soldiers were very hard pressed. They fought a much superior foe. Superior in numbers by two thirds. Superior in experience. Superior in arms and equipment. Though the men fought hard, they were being pressed back and back. Wounded were falling all around. Then from the mist and haze of the battlefield first one, then two, then hundreds of phantom bowmen appeared between the British Tommies and the German Fritz. The bowmen may have been phantoms, but their arrows were not. Many a German soldier lay on the field of battle pierce through by an arrow sped with the force of a hundred pounds of draw weight on a sturdy English longbow. The men of Agincourt had bravely won soil for their country five hundred years before and once again they appeared to save the sons of their native land.
The British rallied and fought ever harder, taking a toll on the enemy that no one could have supposed possible. They fell back and fell back again, but every foot was strewn with the dead of the German might. The victors of Mons owed their lives to God’s providence and He was, as ever, on their side.
The story was first written by author Arthur Machen as a piece of fiction and never had any truth to it. But many people believed the story, not realizing it was fiction, and soon the “Angels of Mons” became legendary.
Here are some printable Battle of Mons Figures to color, cut out and play with. Your kids can re-enact the battle of Mons, “angels” and all.
The bowman at the top is, of course, one of the “Angels” of Agincourt. The soldiers in the middle are British. And the soldiers at the bottom are Germans. You may want to make more than one copy of the page so that your kids can have more soldiers to play with.
We named our soldiers. Tommy Atkins is an old name long given to British soldiers. It was said that there was a real Tommy Atkins who died most bravely and he was honored by Lord Nelson who nicknamed all British soldiers after Tommy from then on. John Parr had the sad misfortune to be the first British fatality of the war when he was shot at Mons.
We made this battlefield from salt dough to range our soldiers across. Salt dough is 1 part salt to 2 parts flour, add warm water until your dough just sticks together. We added food coloring, yellow, red, and blue, to our water before adding it to the flour so the land would be colored brown. Then we painted on trees, the canal, the town, and some roads.
The British began the battle facing north across a wide irrigation ditch. The town of Mons was at the center of the battle as there was a bridge there across the canal. To the right of the British and not on this map were the French. The Germans were so numerous that their lines covered many miles and constantly threatened to outflank both armies.
The battle lasted for two days followed by two weeks of retreating back to Paris. It was on the first day of the retreat that the Bowmen of Agincourt were said to have appeared.
- This was the first battle that the British took part in in WWI. The last battle of the war was also fought at Mons. The last soldier, a German, died a few minutes after the Armistice took effect. The generals, though they knew the Armistice would be signed and even that it had been signed earlier in the day before it took effect, fought to last moment, even charging and taking positions. Several hundred US Marines died taking the crossing of the River Meuse, which they could have walked across unopposed a few hours later. When the American people found out about this they were livid.
- The British belief that God had protected their soldiers at Mons made a difference in the resolve of the British people and the outcome of the war. How does belief change the outcome of battles and wars? How does belief change the outcome of struggles in your life?
- The best way to understand the sacrifice of soldiers who have fought for their countries is to read their stories. Learn more about John Parr, the first British casualty of WWI. Do you have a soldier in your family history? Learn more about him or her and the sacrifices they made.