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The first Victoria Crosses of the First World War


Mons, the capital of the Belgian province of Hainaut, is an important place which is associated with the history of the British Army. During 1709, the Duke of Marlborough defeated the French at the nearby battlefield of Malplaquet. Two centuries later during 1914, soldiers of the British Expeditionary Force would pass the monument that commemorated the action at Malplaquet as they approached Mons.


The BEF’s action at Mons was significant because it was the first battle fought by the British Army on the west European Continent since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815.It was also the first engagement of the First World War between these two great industrial powers Britain and Germany in Europe. The BEF established a defensive line along the Mons–Condé Canal. Mons was not an ideal place to defend; hamlets, slagheaps, factories, collieries and industrial buildings featured on the Mons landscape and the terrain denied the BEF artillery adequate field of fire to support its infantry. The canal, at 60 foot wide and 7 foot deep, could not be considered a serious obstacle to halt the German advance. 18 bridges crossed the canal. The canal was straight between Condé and Mons, but at Mons the canal curved into a crescent shape around the town, forming a salient. This salient was a potential strategic problem for the BEF as they had to defend this vulnerable position on three fronts, which made the task of obstructing the advance of the German Army for the maximum time very difficult and the risk of being surrounded a possible threat.

They were too aware that they would be confronting a numerically superior German force and the salient was the focus of the British defence. The 4th Royal Fusiliers, belonging to 9th Brigade, 3rd Division, were one of the British battalions holding a defensive position along the Mons–Condé Canal including Nimy Rail Bridge. On 23 August 1914 this single battalion resisted six German battalions belonging to 18th Division, III Corps. Despite this great disadvantage they relied upon their courage and their first rate training to temporarily delay the German drive through Belgium. It would be fast, accurate rifle fire that would break up the initial German waves and delay their advance. It was here at Nimy, Mons that the first two Victoria Crosses of the First World War were awarded. 


During the early hours of the 22 August 1914 Field Marshal Sir John French, Commander-in-Chief BEF told his Corps commanders General Sir Douglas Haig and General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien to form defensive positions around Mons, but to expect to move their Corps in either direction at a moment’s notice.

The 4th Royal Fusiliers, belonging to Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps reached the suburbs of Mons during 22 August after marching through the sweltering summer heat. As they walked through Mons, they were warmly welcomed by the inhabitants of the town, who were pleased at their arrival, regarding them as their saviour in the face of an invading German Army that was descending rapidly upon them. The soldiers of the BEF did not need to use their rations for local women would give gifts of food, fruit, chocolate and tobacco, which was in some instances overwhelming.  After passing through the town, the 4th Royal Fusiliers reached Nimy where they passed over the Mons–Condé Canal. There was a thick, dense wood on the north side of the canal bank, which made it an unsuitable place to defend. It was decided that it was better to cross back on the southern side of the canal to establish a defensive line that ran parallel to the canal bank. The battalion received orders ‘hold on to the position as long as possible.’ (National Archives: WO 95/1431/1: 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary).

Despite feeling exhausted there was no time for them to rest. They had to dig in during the night to strengthen their positions before the coming battle. The BEF represented the extreme left flank of the allied line. Their objective was to prolong resistance and obstruct the might of the German advance at Mons. 

The 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers secured the right flank around the Nimy Bridge along the north western sector of the Mons salient. Trenches were still hastily dug during the remaining daylight hours of 22 August, with some of the trenches measuring no more than two feet deep. However, these shelters were only meant to be temporary.

As the BEF were digging in positions along the Mons–Condé Canal, General Charles Lanrezac’s Fifth French Army were retreating, leaving them exposed and risking being cut off from the French Army. Field Marshal Sir John French promised Lanrezac that the BEF would delay the German advance at Mons for twenty-four hours while the Fifth French Army withdrew. The threat of being surrounded and isolated was now greater, but German command were unaware of the exact position of the BEF and it was thought that they were landing at Channel ports that day. They did not realize that the BEF were established on the continent in Belgium and were about to temporarily block their path at Mons.

After the exhaustive march to Mons, followed by the physical exertions of digging defences during sweltering heat the wearied soldiers of the BEF experienced a cold night with thunderstorms. They were now tired, damp and cold and was anxiously thinking about the much anticipated battle to be fought the following day. There was not much time to sleep and rest for they had to prepare and fortify positions during the early evening. During that night one man in three had to stay awake to either continue the work of fortifying their position or watching out for the enemy.

The attack

The 4th Royal Fusiliers were called to arms at 4 a.m. without the call of the bugle or any noise. News spread quickly amongst the battalion that a massive German presence was massed in a wood three miles away. After the exertions of the previous days they were again preparing for battle. The 4th Middlesex Regiment on their adjacent right flank held the north eastern section of the salient at Nimy.

The railway bridge at Nimy was defended by one company from the 4th Royal Fusiliers, commanded by Captain Ashburner and a machine gun section comprising of two machine guns commanded by Lieutenant Maurice Dease, while Captain Frederick Forster with two platoons from C Company held Nimy Road Swing Bridge to the east.

Dease’s machine guns would play an important role in the defence of Nimy Bridge. They were positioned on the railway embankment, defended by sandbags it overlooked the canal and its approaches from the north bank. As they prepared to strengthen the defences Lieutenant Dease removed his coat and helped his men with this important preparatory work prior to the battle. Private Sidney Godley was also preparing the defences of one of the machine guns positioned on the embankment when a boy and a girl from Mons approached the bridge and him. They gave him rolls and coffee from a basket they were carrying. Godley spoke to them for a while until German artillery began to shell the Nimy salient. At that point he told them to go back to the town.

At 8.00 a.m. the first German infantry attack was launched by the German 18th Infantry Divisions upon the north western sector of the salient. The 4th Royal Fusiliers resisted six German battalions as they converged upon the Nimy Bridge. The enemy could assemble their infantry concealed behind the numerous fir plantations that were on the opposite side of the canal. There were six thousand German soldiers attacking a salient held by approximately 2000 British soldiers from 4th Royal Fusiliers and 4th Middlesex Regiment who occupied Nimy Salient.

At 9.00 a.m., German battalions assaulted the salient again. Officers from the 4th Royal Fusiliers gave the order for ‘Rapid Fire’ as German infantrymen dressed in blue-gray uniforms advanced en masse towards the canal and the British lines. The Germans advanced in close columns, which resulted in disaster as leading sectors fell as one, succumbing to machine gun and crack shot rifle fire from the Royal Fusiliers on the bridge. The Germans withdrew to returning extended order formation. ‘Pony’ Moore of the 4th Middlesex wrote of the carnage that fell upon the German advance.

‘It was an unbelievable sight. You didn’t need to aim. You just fired into the blue and they went down like flies, like a pheasant shoot without needing any beaters. After a bit, they retired in disorder. In a way, it was sickening to see all those men lying there.’ (The Mons Star by David Ascoli, published by Harrap & Co. 1981). 

The Germans withdrew to the cover of fir trees in the vicinity, regrouped then returned again thirty minutes later for further attempts to penetrate the salient. The British could not stop this advance and the pressure mounted upon Captain Ashburner’s company as they defended the bridge against overwhelming numbers. Lieutenant Dease received his first wound below the knee, as German riflemen targeted his machine gun position on the left side of the bridge. Captain Ashburner and Lieutenant F. Steele tried to persuade him to get medical attention but to no avail.

A platoon led by 2nd Lieutenant Joseph Mead was sent to reinforce the bridge. Mead suffered a severe head wound. Once he received a dressing he returned to the battle to be fatally shot through the head. A further platoon was sent led by Captain Bowden-Smith and Lieutenant Everard Smith to support Dease. Both these officers were soon wounded. The German fire was so intense it was difficult to get supplies and reinforcements to Dease and his machine gun crew on the bridge.

The scene was desperate on Nimy Bridge as casualties mounted amongst the officers and men. Captain Ashburner was wounded in the head and Lieutenant Dease assisted his machine gun crews in supplying them with ammunition. At one point he crawled to the machine gun position on the right side of the bridge to drag the wounded gunner to safety and then roll him down the embankment which would provide shelter for the wounded soldier. An act which may have saved his life. With no other crew remaining he fired the machine gun preventing German infantry from getting across. Dease’s head was exposed as he manned this machine gun and it was a certain possibility that he was going to be eventually hit. Further reinforcements tried to reach him but many were wounded or killed en route.

Dease soon sustained a neck wound. Lieutenant F. Steele was with him and advised him to lie still, but Dease was more concerned about the progress of the battle than his own welfare. As he stood up to appraise the situation from the machine gun position on Nimy Railway Bridge he was hit again in the side and fell to the ground where he lay unconscious. This happened around midday and at that point Steele ordered Private Sidney Godley to man the machine gun position. By that time the intensity of the German bombardment increased as further artillery was brought into the region. Germans initiated further attacks with initial bombardments before infantry advances.

The 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers offered stout resistance when confronting the waves of German Infantry, but they could not hold Nimy Bridge for withdrawal was inevitable. The resolve of the 4th Royal Fusiliers began to wane and they could not stop their opponents from crossing the canal. The battalion war diary reported:

‘We suffered severely on the bridge over the canal by rifle and artillery fire. The machine guns had a particularly trying time. Practically all the detachment were doing great. Lieut. Dease the machine gun officer was killed or wounded. Lieut. Dease and Pte Godley both displayed the most conspicuous bravery in working the guns, after they had been wounded. The guns having finally been disabled by artillery fire had to be abandoned.’ (National Archives: WO 95/1431/1: 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers War Diary).

Although wounded Private Godley kept firing for two hours and at 2.00 p.m. the 4th Royal Fusiliers were ordered to withdraw from Nimy Salient. Godley continued to fire his machine gun until the last Royal Fusilier left the canal. His ammunition supplies were nearly exhausted, so he disabled the machine gun and then headed towards Mons to seek medical aid for his wounds. Two Belgians helped Godley to hospital where he was eventually captured by German forces. He spent the duration of the war as a prisoner of war and was able to escape when German guards deserted their posts in 1918 and he was able to escape to Denmark.

By Paul Kendall

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