Just a matter of weeks after declaring war on Germany, 80,000 members of the BEF, along with 30,000 horses and 315 guns of assorted size were in France and unwittingly marching straight towards an enemy who had already passed through Luxembourg and was now putting Belgium to the sword. The Schlieffen plan was working beautifully.
On the 22nd August, a forward patrol of the 4th Royal Irish Dragoon Guards encountered the Germans for the first time. While conducting a reconnaissance along the road heading out from Maisières, four enemy cavalrymen of the 2nd Kuirassiers emerged from the direction of Casteau. They were spotted by the British and turned around, whereupon they were pursued by the 1st Troop under Captain Hornby and the 4th Troop. Corporal E. Thomas of the 4th opened fire near the chateau of Ghislain, the first British soldier to do so in the Great War. He was uncertain whether he killed or wounded the German soldier that he hit. Meanwhile, Hornby led his men in hot pursuit and charged the Germans, killing several. He returned with his sword presented, revealing German blood.
Meanwhile, to the rear, having got an inkling that things were about to get a bit heavy, the BEF decided to dig in a loose line along the Mons-Conde canal. They didn’t really know how many Germans were on the other side of the canal, but they would find out soon enough. Suffice to say, it would not be a fair fight; less than 80,000 British troops with 300 odd guns, against around 160,000 German soldiers and 600 guns. Ouch.
Although they were facing huge numbers of men and guns on the other side of the canal, the BEF did have two distinct advantages: Firstly, they were professional soldiers, highly skilled and probably the best exponents of the noble art of rifle fire on the planet. Secondly, the German 1st Army, whom they were facing, were under strict orders not to risk outflanking the British, thus potentially losing touch with the German 2nd Army, so they had to launch a more difficult frontal attack. Which they duly did at dawn on the 23rd August 1914. The war was most definitely on.
The artillery opened up at dawn and at 9am the first waves of German infantry attacked, their objectives were the bridges that crossed the canal leading them to the British lines. They advanced across open country in close formation and made a perfect target for the trained British riflemen. It was carnage. The Germans suffered terribly, and by noon had made next to no progress at all.
The BEF held on for 6 hours before the sheer numbers of the enemy meant they had no choice but to blow the bridges over the canal and retreat to a pre-established second line position a few miles away. The Germans were tired and disorganised and failed to press home any advantage despite their huge numerical advantage. German reserves were called up and massed for a new attack in the evening, It was here that the British commanders finally realised the size of the enemy, and they promptly ordered the retreat. They had already lost 1,600 men and didn’t fancy losing too many more, so the men were organised, rounded up and the order was given: a fighting retreat towards Maubeuge and then down the road from Bavai to Le Cateau almost 20miles away.