They came down like: [whistles]. That was the noise the bullets made as they came down…

Listen to the voices of those who were there or read the podcast transcript below.

As soon as war began in August 1914, the belligerent nations in Europe sent their troops into battle. French cavalryman, Mr Errol, described the early actions against German troops that he took part in.

We met the Germans on 2 August. They was about in great number more than we were and we retired. And on the 4 August we went through Belgium.  And then the fighting began with Neufchateau for five or six days. We were all day and night fighting with the cavalry. And the infantry came to relieve us at Neufchateau and we went to Florenville.

German infantry officer Walther Stennes was also sent straight to the fighting front.

Then I took part in three combats – one day after the other. First time against French troops: first day against a cavalry division; second day against French infantry. They fought very brave but still in red trousers and blue coats: we wore field grey and so had much advantage.

The first naval action of the war also took place within days, on 5 August. Herbert Greatwood was serving in the destroyer HMS Louis.

Well when war broke out in August, we went out with the Amphion. And we sighted the German liner called the Königin Luise and she was slinging out mines and they was shackled together. Well we sunk her, picked up some of her survivors. And we was coming back the next morning about 20 to 6, and she [Amphion] had a couple of mines wrapped round her. Twenty to six. Up she went. See her go down. We picked some of these Jerries up and went back again and landed them at Shotley Barracks.

Throughout August, German and Allied armies were engaged in an intense series of battles in north-eastern France and southern Belgium. Together they were known as the Battle of the Frontiers. François Dolbau, a private in the French Army, explained the superiority of the Germans in battle.

Well you see when we arrived near Morhange everybody was expecting to go along without much damage, you see, but when we arrived on the trenches of the Germans we could hardly see them because they had special uniforms. And then we could do nothing – absolutely nothing – except to wait. And then at night-time the Germans were shooting us and shelling us too, very heavy shelling you know, we lost a lot of people there, it was awful. Our battery was a very good battery. We had a very good gun, the 75 gun, but not being sufficient in quantity to do any harm to the Germans because they were covered in trenches you know.

On 23 August, the British Expeditionary Force fought its first battle of the war, at Mons in western Belgium. William Collins, a stretcher bearer with the Royal Army Medical Corps, clearly remembered seeing his first shell.

In that wood, to the entrance to that wood I heard the first shell burst above my head – it was a shrapnel shell – with a high-ish burst, white smoke and the bullets came down whistling like all the hobs of hell, as if a 1000 whistles had been turned on. The bullets, of course, were round but they had a little tick on them that made them whistle as they came through the air. That was my first shell. They came down like: [whistles]. That was the noise the bullets made as they came down.

Walter Burchmore, a gunner with the Royal Field Artillery, was struck by his first encounter with German troops.

Then quite suddenly, out of the blue, we saw cavalry coming towards us. They had come out on our right flank. I said ‘Good gracious, it’s Germans!’ So we immediately started to fire, we fired fuse nought and they got about 300 yards, I suppose from the guns and they wouldn’t face it. They wheeled to the right and after a bit they rode straight into a squadron of our own cavalry, who finished off where we’d started.

A column of German field artillery on the march during the advance into France, September 1914.
German Field Artillery on the march during the advance into France, September 1914. © IWM (Q 56553)

When German infantry advanced in large numbers during the battle, rapid British rifle fire resulted in heavy losses. George Singleton, of the 1st Battalion, Kings Liverpool Regiment, recalled how easy it was to hit the German troops.

About 1 pm on that Sunday, the Germans entered Mons. They came in hoards. Shoulder to shoulder. Absolutely shoulder, a mass of men, not like us you know spread out 10 feet or so. Just one big tide. You can imagine a football crowd, shoulder to shoulder – thousands of men coming towards this road. Well they were just sitting ducks. But they still kept marching over their dead and wounded, still kept coming. And the old 15 rounds rapid was like a machine gun. We just cut ‘em to grass, cut ‘em to pieces.

Cuthbert Rabagliati, an observer in the Royal Flying Corps, carried out aerial reconnaissance near Mons. He reported his findings to the commander in chief of the British Expeditionary Force, Field Marshal Sir John French.

I was put into a motor car by my squadron commander and taken off to GHQ which was in a chateau some miles away. As we arrived we were ushered in and we went into a room with a lot of elderly gentlemen covered in gold lace and all the rest of it. All these senior generals, it was Sir John French’s own personal conference that was going on. Somebody announced us and he said, ‘Well here’s a boy from the Flying Corps, come here and sit down!’ I was put to sit next to him rather terrifiedly. Then he said, ‘Now, where have you been, have you been flying, what have you been doing?’ And then he suddenly looked and he called up, he said to some man, George or whatever his name was, ‘Come here and just look at this!’ I showed him a map all marked out. He said, ‘Have you been over that area?’ and I said, ‘Yes, sir!’ And I explained what I had seen and they were enormously interested. Then they began reading the figures that I had estimated, whereupon I seemed to feel that their interest faded…

Despite fighting well at Mons, the British were forced to draw back as the Germans’ greater strength overwhelmed them. Private William Holbrook, who was acting as a runner carrying messages, described the confusion of the retreat that followed.

I got down with this message and when I got away I had a hell of a job getting back, I started going back and met some troops coming down. And a fellow said, ‘Where are you going?’ I didn’t know them they weren’t from my battalion – so I told them and he said, ‘You’ll have a job’, he said, ‘they’re retiring from the river.’ And I said, ‘Retiring?!’ he said, ‘Yes’, I said ‘I suppose that’s the message I took back, I don’t know.’ When I got back I had a job to get through – I had to go a different way because there were troops coming down. When I got back to where we were, they had gone! I didn’t see anybody. Wondered what the hell had happened. So I cleared off as fast as I could. And so of course I was behind the troops retiring and the Germans advancing.

British soldiers marching through Cassel, France.
British soldiers marching through a town during the Retreat from Mons, 1914. © IWM (Q 109652)

Marching for days on end, the British Expeditionary Force became exhausted during the retreat. A. Davis of the Royal Artillery remembered how this affected everyone.

Poor old infantry, they were just throwing themselves down into the side of the road every time they had a halt. And the moment they stopped from being asleep on their feet they were asleep on the side of the road. And cluttered up the road to some extent. I can remember the feet, sticking out on the road and the difficulty of our fellows – with the fact that they themselves were worn out and asleep – the difficulty they had in avoiding the sleeping men by the side of the road, the poor old infantry chaps. And I know that on one or two occasions they actually did suffer with our gun limbers and wagons running over their legs that were stretched out into the road.

Thomas Olive was a driver in the Army Service Corps. During the retreat, he and the men he was carrying had to fight off German cavalry.

From Amiens, I had the Honourable Pearson, Lord Cowdray’s son; the Honourable McKay; a French interpreter; and Major Rennie. Anyway, this Lord Cowdray’s son, the Honourable Pearson, he was an adventurous young fellow. And when we got to Senlis, we ran into some Germans, some Uhlans these posh lot the Uhlans, like our Life Guards, very posh. So we put our lorry across the road – or I did – and laid underneath and shot at these Uhlans. Well we managed to do two. The others went away, galloped away. So it was a souvenir caper then: one of them had his helmet; another one had his boot; and I had the lance.

British NCO Thomas Painting saw his first French troops during the Retreat from Mons. He couldn’t believe what they wore to go into battle.

During that day we saw our first French troops. And I was surprised to see them. The cavalry were in action there with the cuirasses on, plumed helmets; the infantry with the red trousers, blue jackets, and wearing their war medals, going into war. Lots of them had got war medals on from the African campaigns. And they were going into action like that! No camouflage, no nothing – they absolutely showed up!

Part of the BEF fought a rearguard action at Le Cateau on 26 August, so that the remainder could continue with the retreat. Frederick Atkinson took part in the fierce fighting there.

At Le Cateau we were left on our own – two companies, A and B. All the others had been withdrawn you see and we were there to allow the Fifth Division to get away. The order no retirement came. You can understand my predicament and that of the other fellows there, there weren’t many left because we’d been slaughtered practically. Well I do not hesitate to say that I sincerely and silently called upon God for wisdom, guidance, courage and protection. Then with all the lungpower I could muster I ordered, ‘Let’s charge! We might as well die charging as die in this hole.’ Because it was just as though an arsenal had been showered on us – an arsenal of explosives.

At the same time as these battles were being fought in France, German forces were engaged against the vast Imperial Russian Army on the Eastern Front. The month ended with a decisive German victory at Tannenberg in East Prussia, as artillery officer K Wachs recalled.

After two hours about the Russians were quiet. Now we became fired from the left. I turned my guns to the left and shoot to the Russian infantry. My general send order ‘Not shoot! They are our own infantry.’ But I had a very good glass, a sharp glass, 11 times; and I could see that they are Russian. The Russian infantry had another uniform than the German. And I shot.

Voices of the First World War is a podcast series that reveals the impact the war had on everyone who lived through it through the stories of the men and women who were there. 

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