On August 4th, 1914 Britain reluctantly declared war on Germany. The War Ministry created The British Expeditionary Force (BEF), under the command of Gen. Sir John French, to go to the aid of Belgium. Within the home islands there were enough units to form six infantry divisions, a cavalry division and a cavalry brigade. It was decided to hold back an infantry division against the unlikely possibility that Germany would try to invade the islands, and on August 9th the BEF began to arrive in France.
The BEF moved up into Belgium and, along with French forces, established a defensive line along a canal near the city of Mons. The British were placed there to block the advance of General von Kluck’s First Army, which was the right-hand wing of the German attack. This was a tall order, as the BEF was outnumbered by more than 4 to 1 and the German advantage in artillery was even greater.
On August 19th, 1914, Kaiser Wilhelm allegedly issued an Order of the Day which read in part: “[I order] my soldiers to exterminate first the treacherous English; walk over Field Marshal French’s contemptible little Army…” The British took umbrage at this description and soon the BEF became known as the ‘Old Contemptibles’.
The BEF had an advantage over the attackers in that they were seasoned professional soldiers, well-trained and bloodied in dirty little conflicts in obscure places throughout Asia and Africa.
On August 23rd von Kluck attacked the BEF’s defense line. The battle lasted only one day. The overwhelmed BEF fell back to their reserve position along the Valenciennes-Maubeuge Road, but this couldn’t be held and so the withdrawal called the Great Retreat began. Closely pursued for a while, the BEF fought several rearguard actions, most famously at Le Cateau, before moving down to the Seine River, a retreat of over 200 miles. But the BEF had stopped the Germans long enough to save the French Fifth Army from encirclement.
The Germans regarded the BEF as finished off but they reckoned without the caliber of these professional soldiers. They regrouped, refitted and about a week later moved forward to the Marne River, where a key bridgehead was here, at La Ferté-sous-Jouarre, arriving in time to play a vital role in the desperate French-led counter-offensive called the Miracle of the Marne.
This Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) Memorial to the Missing commemorates 3,740 officers and men of the BEF who were lost at the battles of Mons, Le Cateau, the Marne and the Aisne between the end of August and early October 1914 and have no known graves. Since the memorial was constructed the graves of 148 soldiers have been located.
The memorial is a rectangular block of white Massangis stone, 62 feet by 30 feet and 24 feet high, surmounted by a large stone sarcophagus. On top of the sarcophagus are carved representations of trophies of war, including a flag, bayonets, and a helmet. The year 1914 is carved below the sarcophagus, while the names of the dead are carved in panels on all four sides of the memorial. The two shorter sides of the memorial are decorated with a carved, downwards pointing sword, while the front and back of the memorial are carved with inscription panels surmounted by a carved wreath and a carved stone crown. The inscription on the river-facing side is in French, while the inscription on the other side is in English:
‘To the glory of God and the lasting memory of 3888 British officers and men whose graves are not known who landed in France in the month of August 1914 and between then and October fought at Mons and Le Cateau and on the Marne and the Aisne.’
The memorial is mounted on a stepped stone pavement, at the four corners of which are stone pillars, bearing the coats of arms of England, Scotland, Wales and Ireland, and topped by stone urns. One of the stone pillars was designed to hold a Book of Names, but it is now kept at the local town hall. At the front of the pavement is a stone of remembrance inscribed with the words: “Their name liveth for evermore.”
The winning design was by former Major George Hartley Goldsmith MC (1886 – 1967) who had studied under Sir Edwin Lutyens. Although this was Goldsmith’s only memorial, he designed 67 CWGC cemeteries, including the Australian cemetery at Villers-Bretonneux. The memorial was dedicated on November 4th, 1928.
Also a part of this site, on both banks of the river stand stone columns which make up the Royal Engineers Memorial. The columns are surmounted with the flaming grenade symbol of the engineers and mark the spots where they constructed a floating assault bridge while under heavy German artillery fire on September 9th and 10th, 1914, about two weeks after they had blown the bridges behind them. This is the only site on the Western Front that recognizes Royal Engineers who weren’t tunnellers.