Alluding to a treaty with Britain, Japan had delivered an ultimatum to Germany on August 15 (or August 14, depending upon your time zone). Perhaps feeling that a reply one way or another couldn’t possibly make a difference, Germany did not officially respond.
Declaring war against Germany on August 23, Japanese leaders were excited about this conflict. To them, it seemed like a low-risk gamble: they felt well-insulated from attack by the military powers of Europe, and yet there were plenty of small European (German) assets in the far East upon which they could prey.
. . .
More significant to the immediate development of the war, the German First Army, led by Alexander von Kluck, still raced through Belgium unopposed, approaching the French border.
Kluck had been placed in command of the German First Army because he understood the critically important role for that force: speed. As the edge of the German right wing, Kluck’s army held the most responsibility for moving quickly through Belgium and France at the edge of a large counter-clockwise motion. The faster he moved, the faster any resistance would be swept away from any army opposing the larger German advance. For example, on August 21 the French Fifth army under Lanrezac had been forced to retreat because (among other reasons) Kluck had been threatening his left flank. Merely by maintaining the speed of the far right wing, Kluck had freed the Germany army on his left (under Bülow) from opposition. At the same time, however, it greatly annoyed Kluck that he found himself helping Bülow defeat Lanrezac at Charleroi.
Kluck represented one of the most forward thinking military men among the German commanders. In his mind, the objective of the German First Army should be the objective of nearly all the German armies: don’t waste time attacking your enemy, use speed and move around him. Thus by threatening your opponent with being flanked, cut off or even surrounded, you force him to retreat usually without a fight at all. If left to his own initiative, Kluck would have broken away from Bülow, far to the West of Lanrezac at Charleroi, far West in fact of any Allied force capable of slowing him. Modern day military historians suggest that the consequences of this action are incalculable . . . Kluck probably would have enveloped the weak flanks of any army he chose to engage, easily moving through France and possibly ending the war with the French in about two weeks.
Unfortunately for Kluck, the Germans, like all modern countries at this time, were still learning the nuances of commanding large, industrialized armies in unison. The German right wing ought to have been placed under a single commander responsible for wheeling through France. Instead, Kluck found himself obeying Bülow‘s orders. Naturally then, Kluck’s role devolved into merely assisting Bülow’s army accomplish its goals, and Bülow insisted that Kluck remain close up on his army’s right flank. He therefore blamed Bülow for the annoyance which some infantry caused his advance force of cavalry late in the day on August 22. The cavalry withdrew, and advised the infantry to prepare for an assault the next morning.
That opposing force of infantry, as it turned out, was the British Expeditionary Force, commanded by Sir John French.
Sir John had specific orders to protect his army from major losses while acting independently of the French armies. Compounded by his hatred of Lanrezac, it’s astounding that he chose to assist the French near Charleroi, at Mons.
Sensing that an assault was coming on the 23rd, the British spent the night digging in. Sure enough, the Germans attacked first thing in the morning. What they encountered was a veteran army trained in new skills developed after its encounters with the Boers of South Africa: each man was required to be able to hit a target fifteen times a minute at a range of three hundred yards. Most could do even better than that, for the soldiers had been granted unlimited ammunition for practice, and cash prizes were awarded for high scores.
Thus when Kluck’s “troops attacked[, they] were quickly shot to pieces in a field of fire so devastating that many of them thought they must be facing an army of machine guns. They attacked repeatedly and were cut down every time.”
~G.J. Meyer, A World Undone: The Story of the Great War, 1914-1918 (New York: Delacorte Press, 2006), 139.
At the end of the day, the Germans’ persistence had gained them some ground, but at the cost of over 5,000 men against only 1,600 British. Nevertheless, Sir John felt no reason to hold his ground. His force of approximately 80,000 men had already been whittled. Further, his initial disdain for the French had grown into outright disgust: Lanrezac, who had covered his right flank, had withdrawn, basically forcing Sir John to do the same or risk being cut off.
Nevertheless, the British had fought well. As they withdrew from the battleground, the soldiers sang songs . . . they relished the fact that the name of their opponent, Kluck, rhymed with their favorite word:
Kaiser Bill is feeling ill,
The Crown Prince, he’s gone barmy.
We don’t give a f–k for old von Kluck
And all his bleedin’ army.
(Sung to the tune of The Girl I Left Behind Me)