Mons and the Retreat

1st Battalion, Irish Guards prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster, London, following the outbreak of the First World War, 6 August 1914. The Battalion arrived in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on 13 August 1914

1st Battalion, Irish Guards prepare to leave Wellington Barracks, Westminster, London, following the outbreak of the First World War, 6 August 1914. The Battalion arrived in France as part of the British Expeditionary Force on 13 August 1914

This tour follows the dramatic opening British battles of the war. The tiny British Expeditionary Force (BEF) made a stand along the Mons – Condé Canal inflicting disproportionate casualties on the German 1st Army under von Kluck. Vastly outnumbered and with an open flank on the right, the BEF was forced to retreat, a march that was to last two weeks and bring the British to the brink of exhaustion.

The shots fired on August 22, 1914 by the 4th Dragoon Guards were the first fired by British troops in Europe since Waterloo. Mons is also where the British advance had reached on November 11, 1918 and the memorials commemorating the first and last shots of the war are just 30 yards apart. The next morning the Germans assaulted the canal line and, at Nimy bridge, the first Victoria Crosses of the war were won by Lieutenant Dease and Private Godley. Suffering heavy casualties, the British were forced to pull back when the Germans began to cross the canal on their right.

At Le Cateau, despite General French’s orders to withdraw, General Smith-Dorrien stood and fought a rearguard action, suffering devastating casualties from artillery fire, but allowing the BEF time to get away.

We follow the Retreat south to St Quentin where, on August 27, exhausted troops in the town square were rallied by Major Tom Bridges with a toy drum while his trumpeter played a tin whistle and two battalion commanders were cashiered for wishing to surrender. Epic actions were fought that day by the Munsters at Etreux and the 12th Lancers at Cerisy.

Our tour culminates on September 1, with 100th anniversary visits to Villers-Cotterêts, where the Guards suffered losses against the German III Corps, and Néry, where a British cavalry brigade was surprised by twice their number of Germans. A single gun of L Battery, Royal Horse Artillery, kept up fire for two-and-a-half hours until British reinforcements counterattacked and routed the Germans. Three men of L Battery received the VC.

Our experienced and popular guide Simon Jones is particularly fond of the unspoilt battlefields of the Aisne and led our successful tour of the 1914 Marne battlefields in 2011.

ITINERARY

Day 1 (Friday): Depart Victoria coach Station, London 09:00. Dover-Calais ferry. To Mons First and Last shots memorials. Overnight Casteau Mons (2 nights). Group dinner.

Day 2: The canal bridge at Nimy and the Middlesex at Obourg. The British Cemetery at St. Symphorien. Lunch break in Mons. The actions on the left flank. Group dinner.

Day 3: The Le Cateau battlefield and International Cemetery. Lunch break in St Quentin. The Munsters at Etreux and the cavalry at Cerizy. Overnight Compiègne (1 night). Group dinner.

Day 4: 100th anniversary. The action at Néry, one of the most evocative battlefields of the Retreat. The beautiful Guards’ Grave in the forest of Villers-Cotterêts. Lunch break en route to the Channel crossing. Calais-Dover ferry. Arrive approx. 18:45 Dover and 20:30 London.

 

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