Within three weeks of Great Britain declaring war on Germany in August 1914, the armies of the two powers clashed for the first time at Mons in Belgium. The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was forced to retreat and fought its way back to the River Marne.

Mons

After declaring war on France on 3 August 1914, German troops entered Belgium. At 11pm the following day, Britain declared war on Germany in support of Belgium’s neutrality. The BEF, numbering some 85,000 officers and men, was shipped across the Channel. Their forces travelled by rail and road alongside French forces to meet the German advance.

On 23 August, the German 1st Army attacked British positions around Mons. A series of bridges over the canal saw the heaviest fighting as the Germans began to cross and the outnumbered British tried desperately to stop them. By late afternoon, the British were forced to retreat – having suffered some 1,600 casualties, around half of whom were taken prisoner. German casualties are estimated to have been around 5,000 killed, missing or wounded.

Le Cateau

For the British, it was the start of a long fighting retreat towards Paris. On 26 August, General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien, commander of the British II Corps, decided he must fight before retreating further as his force was suffering considerable losses fighting desperate rear guard actions.

At the Battle of Le Cateau, German infantry and cavalry forces were temporarily halted by British infantry, artillery and Allied cavalry. The operation allowed the retreating BEF much-needed time to withdraw in good order, but losses during this period amounted to 7,812 officers and men. Further actions took place during the following days as the BEF continued its fighting retreat.

The Battle of the Marne

On 3 September, the BEF crossed the River Marne and took up positions to the south joining French forces to help defend Paris. Since landing in August, it had lost some 15,000 men. On 6 September, the French Commander General Joseph Joffre issued orders for the Allies to go on the offensive and the Battle of the Marne began. The French Army, along with the BEF, attacked German forces and drove them away from Paris. In just three days, at the cost of 1,700 casualties, the BEF managed to advance more than 36 miles and re-cross the Marne. German troops were forced to withdraw to positions behind the River Aisne.

related Cemeteries & Memorials

St Symphorien Military Cemetery in Belgium was created by the Germans just after the Battle of Mons. The area saw further fighting in the final days of the war and so the cemetery now contains the graves of some of the first and last British and Empire casualties of the war on the Western Front. Commemorated in the cemetery are nearly 230 servicemen of the British Empire of whom 65 remain unidentified, buried alongside them are more than 280 servicemen of the German Empire.

Le Cateau Military Cemetery in France was created by the Germans several months after the Battle of Le Cateau. In the British and Empire section are the graves and memorials of nearly 700 servicemen of the British Empire. Buried along side them are more than 5,000 servicemen of the German Empire.

La Ferté-sous-Jouarre Memorial in France commemorates some 3,740 British servicemen who died serving with the BEF in August, September and early October 1914, who have no known grave.