The most impressive fighting withdrawal in history


Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
The British retreat from Mons, WW1, was outstanding, however. When the French withdrew and German numbers meant the BEF would be encircled, they slipped off at the last moment and retreated in an orderly fashion with the Germans hot on their heels. The Germans were extremely impressed with the British Army during and after the Battle of Mons, which wasn't what they were expecting (the phrase they had used prior to Mons was: "contemptible little army", which is how and why "The Old Contemptibles" was borne). The Germans considered Mons to be a temporary defeat and British soldiers couldn't understand why they were being ordered to retreat as they felt they were getting the job done. What they didn't know was that the French had a made a decision to withdraw exposing one of the British flanks.
It otoh also meant the BEF refused to participate in the Battle of Guise, when the French counter attacked and temporarily stopped the Germans, fought on August 29. The British were too busy retreating.

The problem with Mons isn't that the British didn't do well, but that it didn't matter, and worse – considering the overall strategic situation – the British had no business taking the risk of allowing themselves to get caught in a fight with a vastly numerically superior foe. That's why there was an organized general retreat was the business of the day. The British were taking an unwanted and unnecessary risk, and not just for themselves.

But they were good, so thanks to good soldiering the BEF managed to break off the engagement and slip away. It doesn't however remove the problem that it was still a pointless piece of risk taking to allow yourself to get locked in a fight with the enemy like that. The BEF could make no positive difference by picking that fight, and had they failed to get away the Germans would have destroyed them wholesale opening a BEF-sized hole in the French lines.

Joffre was busy detailing French troops to screen the BEF so that would at least get some kind of heads up if they decided to vacate the war entirely. As was feared from looking at their ardent retreating away from from frontline and the French army.

It's also telling that the Germans at the time did in fact not quite notice Mons. It just got rolled into the massive general fighting they were doing. It's why we can't get corroborating German figures for the battle – the army just noted down the casualties in a continuum of fighting, and so in retrospect we can't separate out Mons. Which means it's just British estimates, since we can't separate out Mons from the general fighting in the German sources.
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Ad Honorem
Jan 2017
During the British retreat , Germans noted finding ammunition and wounded left behind , the sign of a hasty flight
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Ad Honorem
Sep 2011
During the British retreat , Germans noted finding ammunition and wounded left behind , the sign of a hasty flight
Mons is a weird one. It IS significant in the sense that it WAS the first encounter in anger between the BEF and the German army in WWI.

I actually thought the first episode of the 2014 BBC series "Our World War", dealing with Mons, did a pretty good job of on the one hand chronicling this, while avoiding most of the blatant mythologization. (Which was what I was expecting, so it was a bit of a surprise.)

Hard fighting, but the "victory" was mostly a matter of Sir John French (who decided to fight it after all) saying so.
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Ad Honoris
May 2011
Navan, Ireland
A great story from the retreat at Mons.
The 1st Bt Royal Warwickshire Regiment arrived in France in August 1914 under the command Lt Col John Elkington, it was a very experienced battalion of’ Imperial Policemen’ having seen service in the Sudan, South Africa and India, subaltern Montgomery was the most senior of the junior officers.

They were pitched into the Battle and the next three days saw constant action and heavy casualties. By late afternoon on the 26th the remains of the battalion along with the Dublin Fusiliers and many stragglers found themselves in the Grande Place of St Quentin.

They had marched and fought under the hot August sun with little or no food, the grateful locals pressed wine onto them, many literally had bellies full of wine and boots full of blood. The troops collapsed almost anywhere, drunk, exhausted, wounded, many all three. The surviving soldiers flatly refused to march another step.

Elkington and the Co of the ‘Dubs’ Lt Col Mainwaring asked the local mayor to organise food, medical supplies and transport. The mayor had heard the stories from Belgium and was terrified that not only would the town be destroyed but the inhabitants slaughtered. He begged the British officers to show mercy, see sense and surrender the town. The men seemed to be in no condition to fight or move, the exhausted officers both in their 50’s and deeply shocked by the intensity of the last three days of action, signed the surrender document.

At this point a troop of the Royal Irish Dragoon Guards came on the scene.

One of them, Major Tom Bridges. Bridges recalled later:

'The men in the square were so jaded it was pathetic to see them. If one only had a band, I thought! Why not? 'There was a toy shop handy, which provided my trumpeter and myself with a tin whistle and a drum, and we marched round the fountain, where the men were lying like the dead, playing the British Grenadiers and Tipperary, and beating the drum like mad. They sat up and began to laugh and cheer.’

Like the Pied Piper Bridges marched around the square with his little orchestra gathering up a column of marching men. Placing the wounded on commandeered wagons Bridges little band marched over 500 men towards the British lines.

Lt Col Elkington and Lt Col Mainwaring were ‘cashiered’ and dismissed in disgrace, Mainwaring returned to England an ill and exhausted man, Elkington simply disappeared.

The Royal Warwickshire Regiment fought Lt Montgomery was hit by a sniper on the 13th of October and by Christmas that had suffered 457 casualties, in 1915 they fought at Neuve Chapple and Ypres, and the casualties mounted, by the end of the war 1500 men of the regiment were dead.

On the 28th of September 1915 1st Btn 2nd Infantry regiment French Foreign Legion were to attack, the position of honour went to company B3 to attack Navarin Farm. As the legionnaires rushed out of their trenches a silver haired corporal led the attack as he had done with great bravery at Hill 119 in the last attack.

The legionnaires fell like flies but the corporal, twice the age of most of the men still charged, directing men to weak points, shouting encouragement and bombing to good effect, he was a model of determination and bravery.

The company or what was left of it made the wood, the corporal (without officers) rallied the survivors and using bombs bravely attacked the notorious strong point, as he charged he was caught by machine gun fire, his leg shattered he fell to the bottom of a trench.

He lay there for 13 hours without a sound, waiting for death? Eventually stretcher bearers from his regiment found him and he was evacuated to Paris.

For over a year he was in hospital, while he kept the leg he would never be able to walk far without a stick.

In the summer of 1916 a visiting General stood next to his bed and read out a citation;-

“The Medaille Militaire and the Croix de Guerre avec Palme are conferred upon No. 29274 Legionaire John Ford Elkington of the First Foreign Regiment. Although being Fifty years old, he has given proof during the campaign of remarkable courage and ardour, setting everyone the best possible example. He was gravely wounded on the 28th September 1915 rushing forward to assault enemy trenches. He has lost the use of his right leg.”

The French citation was brought to the notice of King George V who reinstated him in his old rank , seniorities and a DSO. Elkington retired to a small village in Berkshire and never wore his medals.