It was the first major battle of the First World War ... and a Huddersfield soldier was in the thick of it.
Lance Cpl Thomas Webb ended up cut off from his own troops and had to hide in a wood for two days before managing to escape across Belgium and back to Britain.
The Battle of Mons on August 23, 1914, was the British army’s first confrontation on European soil since the Battle of Waterloo in 1815 when four divisions of the British Expeditionary Force commanded by Sir John French struggled with the German 1st Army over the 60-foot-wide Mons Canal in Belgium near the French frontier.
Lance Cpl Webb from the 2nd Battalion the Duke of Wellington’s Regiment gave an interview to the Examiner about his experiences which was published on September 4, 1914.
Although the British fought well and inflicted high casualties on the numerically superior Germans, they were eventually forced to retreat due both to the greater strength of the Germans and the sudden retreat of the French Fifth Army which exposed the British right flank. The British retreat from Mons lasted for two weeks and took the BEF to the outskirts of Paris before it counter-attacked with the French at the Battle of the Marne.
Lance Cpl Webb lived at 3 Love’s Yard, York Street, Northgate.
The report reads: “The German artillery opened a heavy and murderous fire and the regiment lost a lot of men but they held their ground well and inflicted heavy losses on the German infantry who advanced. At the end of the day they were all tired and absolutely done up for they had had nothing to eat all day. Under cover of darkness they retired some five miles and occupied some trenches.”
But these were shelled by the Germans and the next day the regiment retreated once again but as they were marching down a road they saw German cavalry coming up another and they chased the British into a wood.
The report continues: “Webb got separated from the other men and found escape impossible. He lay in the wood for two days and nights not 25 yards from the main road and saw a German transport column which he estimated to be 30 miles in length pass along the road.
“Eventually hunger and the lessening in numbers of the enemy forced him to leave his place of refuge so after burying his rifle and other equipment he boldly made his way out of the wood at 3pm, went to the nearest house and obtained food and drink. The Belgian peasants told him the Germans had overrun the district.”
Lance Cpl Webb then sought refuge in a pub and persuaded them to give him civilian clothes. Three men from the 15th Hussars – included one badly wounded in the arm – also turned up at the pub and they all left in civilian clothes, walking for five miles before leaving the injured man at a small hospital. But they then picked up a straggler from the West Kent Regiment and were helped by several Belgians as they escaped across the country. At one house they were treated to a three course dinner along with whisky and cigars.
At Ghent they reported to the Belgian commandant and were given train passes to Ostend.
The following day they crossed to Folkestone and Lance Cpl Webb was given two days leave and travelled all the way back to Huddersfield.
The report concludes: “Asked if he shot any Germans he modestly said he did his best and thinks he accounted for one or two. In their travelling to Ostend they saw evidence of the German invasion in most of the villages. A lot of the houses had had the roofs “blown off” and the country people with their children and carrying bundles were fleeing to the coast. He is anxious to get back to the front again to have another “go” at them.”