One thing which has been proved by the great war with Germany is that the soldiers of the British Empire are unsurpassed as fearless and determined fighting-men. At first the Germans despised them. In an order said to have been issued to his troops, the Kaiser made reference to "the contemptible little British army". But, soon after the fighting commenced, our gallant soldiers showed they were as bold and brave in battle as their heroic ancestors in days gone by.
The first meeting of British and German troops was in the vicinity of Mons in southern Belgium. Our soldiers were extended along a line about 28 miles long.
The conflict began on a Sunday afternoon, and, owing to the rapid advance of the Germans, it opened suddenly and unexpectedly.
Among the early arrivals at the position selected by General French were the West Kents. The weather was warm, and after digging trenches the men felt tired and hungry. While dinner was being got ready, a number of the jolly Englishmen proposed to have a bath in a canal which was in the vicinity. In a few minutes afterwards they were splashing merrily in the cool waters.
"I say, this is just fine," you could hear a man exclaim as he sprayed a comrade. "After that long march and digging the trenches, I wanted a dip badly. How do you feel?"
"A bit all right now," came the usual answer.
At first some shouted challenges to swim with friends for a hundred yards. But as more and more men entered the water, raising torrents of spray, the canal became too crowded for competitions.
"Come on now, you men who have had your dip," shouted a sergeant on the bank; "get out and allow some others to get in."
It was a lively scene. Dozens scrambled up the slope to run for towels, and others dived in with splash and splutter and shout. One might think the men were on holiday and not out to fight against fearful odds.
Those who had bathed, and got dressed, seized pannikins and filed towards the camp kitchen to obtain their rations. Ere long groups of hungry men were squatted about devouring a hot meal with relish, some of them at the same time watching the cantrips of the bathers in the canal.
Then suddenly the storm of war broke forth. Several German batteries of artillery had crept up through a wood in front of the British lines, and opened fire with shrapnel. The shells burst over the West Kents in dozens, and immediately there was excitement and confusion. Just as people scamper from the streets when a thunder-plump of rain comes down, so did the bathers and diners scamper for cover. Some soon got into position in their trenches; others had to snatch up towels and clothes and then race for their rifles, drying and dressing themselves afterwards in the narrow ditches they had excavated.
In other parts of the long British line, troops came under fire as soon as they arrived. They had to dig their trenches as they lay flat on the ground—not an easy task—but they did the work all the same. Late arrivals had no opportunity of using the spade at all, and took cover where it could be found: behind hedges, bushes, or boulders, or simply in shallow depressions formed by floods.
The bright sunshine was dimmed by the drifting smoke of the guns on either side. Bullets and splinters from the German shells came whizzing downwards, after each shell burst with a crash overhead. But the British soldiers remained cool and collected. They even made merry about the surprise they had received.
"What a dirty trick!" called one man. "They might have waited until I had finished my dip. I wonder where's my cap!"
"And my tunic," another exclaimed.
"The Germans have no manners," remarked a third. "They chucked a dirty bullet into my pannikin and spilt my soup."
"What a mess I'm in," growled a big fellow who was but half dressed. "I had just dried myself after a nice wash, when a shrapnel landed in a pot of potatoes and spattered me all over with mash and skins. My, but I do feel sticky!"
"They wanted to give you a German lightning lunch," a friend suggested, with a grin. "Don't you know there are hundreds of waiters in front of you?"
"Here they come," shouted man to man. "Aren't they pretty? Glad to see you, my lads!"
The German infantry had begun to advance, believing that the British had been demoralized by the artillery. But the shrapnel had been less effective than they realized.
On came the enemy, charging in close order and in numbers far greater than the British. Their blue-grey uniforms made their dense masses look like waves sweeping over the green fields. And like waves they broke when they came into range of the rifles. Hundreds fell before the shower of well-directed bullets. For a few moments the attackers paused after the first shock. But their officers urged them forward, and they poured on again. In front of them the British troops were invisible, crouching in their trenches, disdaining the crash and scream of shrapnel, and taking sure and accurate aim. Whole companies of the Germans were mowed down.
"This minds me of harvest work," a British soldier said. "It's like reaping a field of barley."
"We'll soon have the whole crop cut," answered another.
On came the Germans, shouting and singing to keep up their courage, over ground strewn with the dead and dying. Many crouched up their shoulders and turned their faces sideways, as if they were walking against a fierce shower of hailstones. But they could make no head-way against the bullet-storm. So quickly did they fall that in some places the dead were piled up 5 feet high. Still the German officers cried: "Vorwarts!" (" Forward!"), and the dazed men in the blue-grey uniforms attempted to climb over the "walls" of the dead.
"Disgusting, I call it," remarked a British soldier.
"It's not fighting," a comrade said; "it's like shooting game."
"Are there any left?" asked a little man, reaching up to peer over his rifle.
"Thousands of them! thousands of them!" someone answered. "They seem to be rising out of the ground—coming out like rabbits from their holes."
The Germans were trying to overwhelm the British, but the khaki-clad troops never flinched. Hour after hour went past and the terrible slaughter continued. Battalions rushed forward and were shattered, and the survivors scampered away. But other battalions hastened to attempt the crossing of the blood-drenched ground. At some parts of the line the pressure was terrible and constant. Now and again British cavalry went out and set hosts of Germans scampering. Here and there the machine-guns made gaps in the massed troops "like red-hot iron thrust through packing-paper", as a British soldier put it.
Desperate fighting took place at a cross-road held by English, Scottish, and Irish soldiers. Sometimes, after thinning out an attacking German force, they leaped from cover and charged with the bayonet. The sight of the glittering steel made the enemy run.
It was only once at Mons that the Germans faced the British attackers. They had almost reached the trenches of the South Lancashires when out leaped these fearless Englishmen and dashed on the closed ranks of the Kaiser's warriors. They stood it for a few minutes, and frightful havoc was done. The Germans, however, were no match for the Lancashires and fled before them as fast as they could run.
"Rabbits don't like ferrets," a laughing Englishman exclaimed.
"And puppies hate running up against hedgehogs," added another.
All this time, and until darkness came on, the artillery roared on either side without ceasing. The noise was deafening. Maxim guns rattled like sewing-machines. howitzers bellowed like thunder, rifles snapped out their fire like thousands of riding-whips snapping together. In the distance the big guns sounded like slamming doors. Shells crashed in the air, on the ground, and dropped into the trenches or burst in front of them, causing them to collapse and bury brave men alive.
Aeroplanes skimmed below the clouds like giant eagles, spotting guns and trenches and signalling the range. Sometimes one of the machines was struck by shrapnel, and tumbled down like a bird with a broken wing.
Meanwhile the courageous members of the British Medical Staff Corps attended to the wounded and removed them to the rear. When the disabled warriors related their experiences in hospital they had many thrilling stories to tell.
On the third day of the fighting a magnificent charge was made by the 2nd British Cavalry Brigade, consisting of Lancers, Hussars, and Dragoons. Nothing like it has occurred since the Light Brigade won great glory at Balaclava. They rode out to silence the German big guns, which were doing frightful havoc at one particular point in the British lines, but before they could reach them they had to pass through the fire of about twenty machine-guns, which emptied many a saddle. Their advance was also hampered by barbed-wire entanglements. But they rode onward fearless and resolute and unstayed. When they reached the guns they cut down the gunners; then they damaged the guns so that no further fire might come from them. Having accomplished this they rode back—"all that was left of them".
Both on their way out and on their return they encountered German cavalry. One of the Germans who was taken prisoner said: "We were stronger in numbers than the Lancers, and thought we would hold them back, but they cut through us like cutters snipping barbed wire. I am sure each one of them speared an opponent. We were thrown into confusion, and just when we were trying to rally they wheeled round and dashed at us again. I can hear them shouting still. Our men and horses were cut down right and left. Ach! it was dreadful, indeed. Back they came once more, and they did not leave us until we were all scattered. Never again do I wish to meet a charge of the terrible Lancers."
A Middlesex company engaged in a most extraordinary struggle with the enemy. The men were engaged digging a trench, and while doing so an aeroplane flew overhead.
"I wish I had my rifle here," exclaimed one of the Englishmen, "so that I might have a pop at that fellow."
The company had left their arms behind: they were to be brought up by their comrades who were getting ready to take up position. It was hot and sultry, and they worked hard. Suddenly the sergeant saw advancing a force of German infantry with fixed bayonets. The airman had signalled for them.
They were close at hand before they were noticed, and came on at a rush. The trench-diggers had no time to retire. Some stood up to defend themselves with shovels; others used their fists. A good many fell, dying like heroes; but a remnant kept the Germans at bay, and those who got possession of the enemies' weapons set up a desperate fight until a British force came to the rescue. This was the Connaught Rangers. The dashing Irishmen attacked the Germans as Irishmen can, and drove them back, slaying many and making prisoners of those who had thrown down their arms and were unable to escape.
In another district the South Wales Borderers were hastening into action when they came against a regiment of Uhlans attacking a convoy. The gallant Welshmen at once took up position and opened fire, causing many, a horse and man to fall. As the fight developed, however, the German cavalry was reinforced and an attempt was made to surround the Welshmen and cut them up. It was a desperate situation.
"They have cornered us this time," a private exclaimed.
"They'll get it hot till the bitter end," remarked a companion.
But it seemed when he spoke that the end was not far off. The Welshmen were out numbered by their swiftly moving opponents.
Then suddenly the glad news was whispered along the lines: "Reinforcements are coming!" "Who are they? Who are they?" many asked.
"Look! look!" exclaimed a sergeant; "here are the Scots Greys and the 1st Lancers."
It was a splendid sight to see how the British cavalrymen dashed against the enemy, wheeling round, striking on left and right, retiring and charging again. The Welsh infantry fought with renewed vigour. But still the British force wag outnumbered. For six hours the fight was waged with great fury. Gradually, however, the Germans' encircling movement was shattered. Here the Uhlans were compelled to retreat; there they were thrown into confusion. Englishmen, Scotsmen, and Welshmen fought as fearlessly and as well as their sires of old. In the end the Germans were put to flight, after about 1500 had been either killed or wounded.
Outnumbered—in some places by ten to one —the British army had to retreat from Mons and district and fight what are known as rear-guard actions, so as to prevent the Germans from surrounding them. To allow the retreat to be carried out successfully, comparatively small forces of our troops had to hold back the enemy at various important points.
One night 150 Coldstream Guards were guarding a road, waiting for a French regiment which was expected to come to their aid. Through their spies the Germans came to know of this and tried to deceive the British. A number had stripped the French dead of their uniforms, and, having put them on, advanced from a wood. One of the Germans called out in English to the Coldstreams: "Do not shoot; we are the French." He walked boldly forward in advance of his fellows, but suddenly stabbed a British private who offered to shake hands with him. The officer in command at once gave the signal to fire, and the sham Frenchmen were driven back with considerable loss. But they soon returned again heavily reinforced, and an attempt was made to overpower the small British force by sheer weight of numbers.
The Guards were prepared for them, however. Maxims were posted at commanding points on either side of the highway; some were on housetops near by. Lying on their stomachs, the dauntless British riflemen poured an unceasing shower of bullets into the enemy's ranks. Germans fell like dead leaves from trees before a sudden gale. Again and again they came on; again and again they were driven back, stumbling over prostrate bodies of dead and wounded.
The moon came out and lit up the terrible scene. Then the fighting waxed more furious than ever. In time the Germans drew up a field-gun and opened fire with shrapnel. They were certain the British force could not resist the devastating shell which began to burst before and behind and above them.
Would the Guards have to retire? If they did so the consequences would be terrible. Behind them a considerable British force lay asleep, thoroughly exhausted, and if the Germans got through they would decimate it.
The major knew this, and when he observed that the Guards' fire was slackening before the shower of shell splinters and scattering shrapnel bullets, he cried out: "For God's sake, boys, don't fall back!"
No sooner had he spoken than the Guards recovered and renewed their vigorous defence. Then a marksman damaged the German gun with a well-placed bullet, and put it out of action. That lucky shot changed the situation. The Germans were advancing again in close order, confident of victory, and the British Maxims and rifles caught them at short range and mowed them down in scores. The survivors fled confusedly, leaving the Guards in possession of the ground they had so gallantly defended. Over I400 Germans were put out of action, most of them having been killed out-right, on that night of carnage and slaughter.
A single man may sometimes perform a deed of heroism which will save the lives of many. A canal was crossed by the Middlesex regiment, who had to keep back the advance of a horde of Germans strongly supported by heavy artillery. The bridge which spanned it had, however, to be blown up. If the enemy succeeded in rushing over it they might be able to overwhelm the gallant defenders. A charge of gun-cotton was placed beneath a girder and the fuse set alight. This work was carried out by a few members of the Royal Engineers, who suffered greatly from the attention paid to them by German snipers. But, as luck would have it, the fuse burnt out, having been severed by a bullet, and the bridge remained intact.
Perceiving this, a sergeant of the Engineers rushed forward to relight the stump of fuse which remained. It was a perilous task, because he might not be able to run back far enough before the charge exploded. But he never hesitated. He knew many British lives would be saved if he successfully performed his duty.
The Germans opened fire on him with rifles and field-guns. A shrapnel burst overhead as he caught the shortened fuse and ignited it. Then he turned round and ran a few paces. A shell swept over the canal and struck off his head, and in another second the gun-cotton exploded and blew the bridge into fragments. The Middlesex soldiers were thus enabled to hold their position, and before the time came to retreat they punished the enemy severely.
So confident were the Germans of victory that a message was telegraphed to Berlin, saying: "The British army is surrounded". There were rejoicings in the German capital, but these did not last long. Step by step the dauntless soldiers of our country retreated, fighting with courage and success, until the tide of battle turned and the Germans were driven back pell-mell towards the River Aisne.