Why my Uncle Bill was Contemptible

When Germany invaded Belgium and France in August 1914, many people on both sides thought it was going to be something of a walk over. The Germans put two and a half million armed and trained men into the field on the Western Front – an overwhelming force. They swelled their ranks by the simple expedient of eye–testing recruits and issuing those who were short–sighted with glasses, at a time when most other nations were rejecting anyone with defective vision.

Britain, of course, sent its British Expeditionary Force to France where it was placed on the left of the French front line in Belgium. It was a tiny force by comparison with the German army – only 100,000 men. The Kaiser referred to it as Britain’s  “contemptible little army”.

They were words that the Kaiser later had reason to regret. As it turned out Belgium was the pivotal point of the first clash of the armies and the place the BEF was sent – the coal mining region of Mons – the most critical point of all. The reason has to do with the way the armies of the day were trained.

The German, French and British infantry were equipped with comparable rifles. German soldiers carried the Mauser 7.62mm rifle. The French were equipped with the 8mm Lebel, while Tommy Atkins was issued with the Lee Enfield .303. All three are bolt action rifles. All have their strengths and weaknesses, and all are efficient killing machines in trained hands.

However, the great armies of Germany and France relied on weight of numbers. Men were trained to advance in line abreast. If they needed to take cover, they were trained to load, aim and fire their weapons at the enemy – but that was all.

Britain, on the other hand, with its small, professional army needed to punch above its weight in any conflict. So British soldiers were trained to fire 15 aimed shots per minute – “Fifteen rounds rapid”. This takes some doing. Working the bolt to eject one cartridge and load another takes one to two seconds. Sighting the enemy, holding the rifle still, holding your breath and squeezing the trigger takes another two or three seconds. Changing cartridge clips, each with five rounds, three times also takes valuable seconds. To aim and fire 15 rounds in 60 seconds with a bolt–action rifle is a very demanding discipline, yet it was normal for the BEF of 1914.

When the great German army, with its millions of men reached Mons, it encountered units of the BEF. On paper, the Germans could simply have brushed the British aside and carried on without even noticing. In reality, they encountered a withering hail of fire from the British riflemen as each man poured 15 rounds a minute into the advancing Germans.

German officers not unnaturally concluded that they were coming under attack from massed machine guns and halted their advance. They were to stay there, held up by the “contemptible little army” for 24 hours. Eventually, the British were compelled to retreat but the hold–up at Mons cost the Germans dearly. For it gave the French time to push their forces across to their left and win the subsequent battle of the Marne, which effectively halted the German advance for good (although it took another four years for everyone to realise it.)

My uncle, Gunner William Milton of the Royal Garrison Artillery, fought at Mons in August 1914 and was awarded the “Mons Star”.  He was thus one of those original few who for ever afterwards were proud to call themselves the “Old Contemptibles”. I treasure his Mons Star.

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