by Dr Jack Binns
On September 11, 1914, the Scarborough Mercury introduced a feature on Belgian refugees with the title “Victims of the Huns”. The Kaiser, who started out as a “Mad Dog”, which had slipped its chain, was transformed into “Shylock”, after he had taxed the citizens of Brussels, had now become Attila, leader of the barbaric, murderous Huns, who had pillaged and raped their way across civilised Europe. From now on, after what they were reported to have done in Belgium and Luxembourg, the Germans were no better than savages.
The questions which exercise historians of the Great War are: Were German troops actually guilty of the gross atrocities against a defenceless, civilian population that were so graphically described in the British and French press? Or were they deliberately exaggerated or even invented for propaganda purposes?
Recent, reputable research has found more than 100 major documented atrocities committed by the German army, most of them in Belgium. Nearly six and a half thousand are now known to have been murdered and many more homes destroyed. The worst event took place in the old city of Louvain. Here 300,000 books and manuscripts in the university library were incinerated, 10,000 inhabitants driven from their homes, 2,000 buildings destroyed and 1,500 citizens deported for slave labour to Germany. In another appalling incident, 600 men, women and children were executed by military firing squads in the main square of Dinant, a small town on the river Meuse. Such merciless acts of “revenge” compare with those carried out by Hitler’s soldiers at Lidice in Czechoslovakia and Oradour in France.
However, though all this was bad enough, the British and French newspapers printed untrue stories which were clearly meant to demonise the Germans. Babies were being bayoneted and burned; the hands of children were routinely hacked off; girls were commonly raped and mutilated. No civilian, however young and innocent, was safe from such barbarities.
Not surprisingly, even during the war and certainly after it, there were many outspoken reactions to such outrageous stories and a common refusal to believe either them or those percolating out of Nazi Germany. Not until film of the liberation of the concentration (ie murder) camp at Belsen by the British army in 1945 was shown in cinemas was the appalling truth fully revealed. So, because press stories of German bestiality were exaggerated, they weakened their credibility and effectively concealed from the British public the real horrors of Nazi rule.
Battlefields where men inflict death and injury on each other are especially productive of legend and no encounter in British military history was a richer source than that of Mons.
First, there was “the Angel of Mons”, which, dressed all in white and riding a white horse, brandished a flaming sword to stop the German advance.
This story soon entered the British newspapers and gained widespread currency along with several variations which substituted “the bowmen of Agincourt” for the alleged angel. Later, the number of active, pro-British angels grew from one to two and finally to platoon strength. Arthur Machen, a writer of stories mainly in the London Evening News, seems to have been the principal purveyor of such narratives of divine intervention. No war correspondents had been allowed to go with the BEF to France and Belgium.
If there is a rational explanation then it was probably that British soldiers, who endured Mons, Le Cateau and the punishing headlong retreat to the Marne, did suffer from hallucinations caused by fear, hunger, shock and extreme fatigue. As Frank Richards wrote later in his autobiographical Old Soldiers Never Die, “Very nearly everyone were seeing things, we were all so dead beat”.
In the absence of observed facts, rumours multiplied. Widely believed was the report in the London Times of September 8 that “little short of a million” Russian troops had recently landed at Leith. They had then travelled south by train through Scotland and England before crossing the Channel to France. Proof of their identity and origins was the snow seen on their boots! Though the blinds had been drawn on their carriages, they allowed glimpses of “fierce-looking bearded fellows in fur hats”. Though denied by the Press Bureau on September 15, the legend persisted throughout the war.
The angel(s) at Mons and the Russian passage were two of the most bizarre inventions which have been long since discredited, but other legends concerning the BEF’s earliest encounters with the Germany army are still entertained. There is still a belief that Mons was the scene of “a great battle” and that there the German advance was halted by the courage and skill of the “Old Contemptibles”.
However, Mons scarcely counts as a battle: it lasted only a matter of hours on August 23 and engaged less than half of the BEF, only two divisions of about 30,000 men. Of these, 1,600 were counted as casualties, that is killed, wounded or missing. (During the 50 months of the war on the Western Front, British losses averaged 1,500 a day!)
Many of the missing at Mons had been taken prisoner. German losses there were similar, though a higher proportion were killed in action. Nearly half the British dead were from two battalions, the 4th Middlesex and the 2nd Royal Irish.
It is important to remember that in these early rounds, the British contribution to the allied strength was minuscule. Against 1,077 German infantry battalions, the French deployed 1,108, the Belgians 120, and the BEF 52. Battalions varied in size, but averaged about 1,000 soldiers.
Three days after Mons, at Le Cateau, the retreating BEF staged a rearguard action. Again, this was not an example of David versus Goliath: the two sides were fairly evenly matched. But this time British losses were much greater. Perhaps as many as 2,500 British soldiers were left behind and 38 guns abandoned to win a breathing space of about 12 hours. The BEF had fought bravely and well, despite poor senior command, but neither Mons nor Le Cateau were victories any more than were the retreats to Corunna in 1809 or to Dunkirk in 1940.