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Experiences of the RFC at the Battle of Mons

The British Expeditionary Force (BEF) arrived in France on 16 August 1914 and proceeded towards the Belgium border in support of the French armies.  

Map of the advance and retreat of the British Expeditionary Force, August 1914.

 

The Royal Flying Corps had also arrived in France and had established an airfield at Maubeuge.  On 19 August the first reconnaissance flight was made by two members of the Royal Flying Corps in an attempt to establish the position and strength of the German armies.  The report of Gilbert Mapplebeck, one of the two pilots engaged on this reconnaissance records it in detail.  

“Left Maubeuge 9.30am. Using large scale map, followed Bleriot. I did not pick up my position on the map, so depended on Bleriot’s pilot for correct route, intending to branch off on arriving at Nivelles. Missed Nivelles, arrived at a large town (I was at 3,000 feet and in clouds) but could not place it on map. (On my return I discovered this to have been Brussels.) I flew to the other side of the town, turned round and steered South-South-East. I then took out the small scale map and picked up my position at Ottignies and soon found Gembloux after being in cloud. I made a wide circle round it, being in cloud part of the time, but only saw a small body of cavalry about a mile in length, moving faster than a walk in a south easterly direction. At this time I was at 3400 feet and was just turning a little further south when I was enveloped in clouds. I flew on for about 300 feet out of the clouds and saw Namur. I then turned west and passed Charleroi and altered my course a little south. I missed Maubeuge, flew on for about 15 miles after realizing that I had missed it and landed at Wassigny at 11.30 am, and flew back, landing at Maubeuge at 12.00.”

Report of first Royal Flying Corps reconnaissance flight by Gilbert MapplebeckReport of first Royal Flying Corps reconnaissance flight by Gilbert Mapplebeck


Royal Flying Corps personnel witnessed the advance of the British ground troops towards Mons, on the Belgian border, where they would plug the gap in the French lines.  This experience was recorded by Philip Joubert de la Fetre of 3 Squadron in his diary and later in his autobiography, The Fated Sky.  

"...the following day [21 August] the advance guard of the British Expeditionary Force marched through Maubeuge towards Mons.  It was an encouraging sight, as we had hardly seen a British uniform since our arrival in the town on the 16th.  At the same time the playful habit of the British soldier of firing at everything that flew, regardless of appearance or nationality, did detract somewhat from our expectation of life."  

On the 22nd August, the German army have what is probably their first encounter with the British Expeditionary Force.  The encounter was recorded by Walter Bloem, of the 12th Brandenberg Grenadiers (a German unit) in his book, The Advance From Mons, 1914.  

"We were approaching one of the scattered farm buildings in the meadow, and being the first I went in, and noticed at once a group of fine looking horses, all saddled up.  I turned to my staff: 'Get hold of the horses; but look out! Where there are horses there must be riders.' I had scarcely spoken when a man appeared not five paces away from behind the horses - a man in a grey-brown uniform, no, in a grey-brown golfing suit with a flat topped cloth cap.  Could this be a soldier? Certainly not a French soldier, nor a Belgian, then he must be an English one.  So that's how they dress now!"

Map of the British, French and German positions on 22 August 1914.

 

The progress of the Battle of Mons was monitored using reconnaissance flights made by the Royal Flying Corps as well as reports from the units involved in the conflict.  The numerous reconnaissance reports provided by the Royal Flying Corps provided vital information. William Read of 3 Squadron recorded the reconnaissance flight he made on 23 August in his diary.

"Our job was to reconnoitre via Pont-a-Celles as far as Nivelles, to see if any of the enemy were about there.  We found them south east of Thuin and a battle was in progress below us.  The Artillery of both sides was very busy.  It was very interesting to watch.  In one field a French battery opened fire; it had not fired more than two rounds per gun when shell after shell from a German battery burst over them.  It must have been perfect hell for the French battery.  It silenced them at once and the German battery seemed to have the exact range of them from the start.  On the way back some German howitzer battery opened fire on us from north west of Thuin.  One shell splinter passed through my left plane but did no damage.  Some infantry in Thuin also wasted a thousand rounds or so trying to bring us down.  It seemed to us as if the Germans were having the best of this engagement."        

Philip Joubert de la Fetre also recorded his reconnaissance flight from 23 August.

"All the morning there had been a feeling in the air that things had not gone right, and the reconnaissance as they came in did nothing to dispel this sensation.  When I left the ground it was with the certainty that we were going to see something worthwhile. And we did.  My observer ... was so busy writing things down that his report was like an early Victorian novel.  With anxious eyes we both watched the roads leading round the left flank of our Army, down which grey streams of German troops were flowing.  They seemed to be moving very fast and as they advanced they left behind them drifts of smoke and flame from burned and ravished farms and cottages.  As far as we could see along the road to Conde and Tournai, spires of smoke were rising to the grey skies from districts we knew there we no Allied troops ... we had been told authoritatively in England that if we flew at 3000 feet we were unlikely to be hit by small arms fire and that gunfire was likely to be equally ineffective.  We had hardly crossed the battle line at 4000 feet before my machine was hit five times, one shot ringing the bell on my steel seat ... in the neighbourhood of Tournai, fire from a German column that was moving to turn our position at Mons put a hole in my petrol tank ... When we got back to Maubeuge my observer was rushed off to report, and the result of the conference on the RFC's work for the day was that the following morning we got the order, 'We move in four hours'"     

Bullets recovered from Philip Joubert de la Fetre's aircraft on 23 August 1914.Sketch map of Philip Joubert de la Fetre's reconnaissance on 23 August 1914.


The Royal Flying Corps were now in retreat along with the rest of the British Expeditionary Force, as the Germans advanced across the Belgian border into France.  On 24 August Gilbert Mapplebeck flew a reconnaissance mission from the Royal Flying Corps new temporary airfield at Le Cateau.  

"I was called away to make a reconnaissance over the country between Maubeuge, Mons and Dour. ... Our job was to find out where the British front was.  We spent nearly two hours and saw that the Germans had passed through Mons and crossed the Conde-Mons canal.  Their troops were moving fast and in good order down all the roads leading south from the canal. ... On our return from from the reconnaissance ... [We] were told that the French army had been beaten back at Charleroi and was retreating, and in order to conform with their movements our own army had to do likewise. The Flying Corps was therefore making an immediate move."        

Diary entry by Gilbert Mapplebeck on 24 August 1914.Diary entry by Gilbert Mapplebeck on 24 August 1914.


The Royal Flying Corps continued to retreat to a series of temporary airfields; moving from Le Cateau to St Quentin, to La Fere, to Compiegne, to Senlis, to Buc, in the space of approximately six days.  

Philip Joubert de la Fetre recalls that:

"The retreat provided some curious contrasts in accommodation: one night bivouacked under a hedge in a thunderstorm,  the next in a very recently evacuated girls' school, and the next in the most modern type of hotel with every type of convenience and luxury."
  

Sgts McCudden, Kidd, Robbins, McEvoy and Cpl White, resting during the retreat from Mons.


William Read had a rather different experience of the retreat from Mons than Joubert; on 26 August, he flew a reconnaissance over the recently vacated airfield of Le Cateau.  He crashed on landing at Bertry where Read and his observer were supposed to make their report.  Having crashed and written off the aircraft, Read and his observer joined the retreating ground troops towards Maretz.  
"It was not a good sight, the look of dejection and despair everywhere.  Poor fellows, they had had no sleep and little food for three nights and days, being driven back and pressed always by the advancing enemy.  The Germans have us on the run and we are fighting a rearguard action against big odds. ... It certainly was not hard to see we were in a very tight corner, with men, guns and transport blocked all along the roads. ... I saw men throwing their haversacks away, Some of our wounded were riding on the limbers.  One man threw away his rifle, but I told him off and made him pick it up again.  ... Men were throwing away their kits, several were wounded.  Some were carrying their wounded pals and nearly all of the carts and limbers had wounded in them who could not be attended to through the hurry of the retreat."     

Motor vehicles and personnel of the Royal Flying Corps during the retreat from Mons.


During the retreat from Mons the Royal Flying Corps lost a number of aircraft but this was nothing compared to the losses sustained by those fighting on the ground.  The British Expeditionary Force lost approximately 1600 men and the Germans lost approximately 5000.  Despite the heavy losses sustained by the German armies their commanders declared Mons a victory as they had forced the British back.  Walter Bloem recalls his feelings on hearing the Battle of Mons declared a victory.

"What! was that called a victory? Had we really won a big, important victory? Undoubtedly we had advanced ten miles southwards since our midday meal yesterday in Baudour, and the enemy who had tried to stop us had gone ...  But otherwise the only impressions that remained in our dizzy brains were streams of blood, of pale-faced corpses, of confused chaos, of aimless firing, of houses in smoke and flame, of ruins, of sopping clothes, of feverish thirst, and of limbs exhausted, heavy as lead.  So that was victory!"

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Belinda Day : Assistant Curator
About the Author

Belinda Day : Assistant Curator

I have been part of the Curatorial team at the Royal Air Force Museum, London, since 2012, having previously worked as part of the Access and Learning team. My role as an assistant curator includes answering enquiries from the public, academics and Royal Air Force personnel, receiving and cataloguing the kind donations of historical material given to us, writing and developing exhibitions and facilitating access to the archive collections for staff and visitors alike.

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