yeovil at War

Herbert John Davis

Died in the Retreat from Mons


Herbert John Davis, known as John, was born in Coulsdon, Westbury, Wiltshire in 1884 but very little is known of his early life. From his Service Number 6395 it is known that he joined the 1st Battalion, Duke of Edinburgh's (Wiltshire Regiment) at Devizes, Wiltshire, in the summer of 1903 at the age of 18.

In the 1911 census John was living with his uncle and aunt, George and Sarah Davis, in Frederick Place. John listed his occupation as Army Reservist.

As a National Reservist John was called up immediately. Upon mobilization and declaration of war, the 1st Wilts, being based in Tidworth at the outbreak of war, deployed to France as part of the 3rd Infantry Division's 7th Brigade, landing at Rouen, France on 14 August 1914, taking part in the Battle of Mons just ten days later.

The Battle of Mons, 23 August 1914, was part of the wider Battle of the Frontiers of France. It was the first battle fought by the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) since its arrival in France during the second week of August. On 22 August the five divisions of the BEF (four infantry and one cavalry) reached the Mons-Condé canal and took up positions along twenty miles of the canal. Sir John French, the commander of the BEF, had been expecting to join a French offensive into Belgium, but this plan had been based on a misunderstanding of the German plan. On 22 August the French had suffered a serious setback at the Sambre, when their Fifth Army had been attacked by the German Second and Third Armies.

During the night of 22 August French received a request to launch a counterattack against what was believed to be the right flank of the German army advancing through Belgium. This belief was mistaken. The German First Army was advancing directly towards the British position - there was no open flank to attack. On 23 August the First Army collided with the thin British line. 70,000 British soldiers with 300 guns faced as many as 160,000 Germans, supported by 600 guns. Although they were badly outnumbered, the British did have two big advantages. Both came from the professional volunteer nature of the British army. Many members of the BEF were long service soldiers, with experience gained in Britain’s colonial wars, but most importantly of all in the Boer War. The British regular soldier of 1914 was expected to be able to fire fifteen aimed shots per minute. At Mons the British rifle fire was so rapid and so accurate that many Germans believed they had been facing massed machine guns.

The second British advantage at Mons was their willingness to entrench. At Mons they found the ideal environment for a defensive battle. The canal ran through a mining area, and was thus lined with mine buildings and spoil heaps that provided a multitude of potential strong points. When the first Germans reached the canal on 22 August, the British were almost invisible.
The German attack on 23 August was badly organised. At first the Germans attacked as they arrived on the scene, allowing the British to defeat them piecemeal. A more organised German attack later in the day did see German forces capture a salient on the southern bank of the canal, but the first days fighting between the BEF and the German army had gone to the British.
That night Sir John French ordered the BEF to pull back a short distance to the south, and to create a new fortified line. He had every intention of resuming the fight on 24 August. However, to the east the French were still retreating. A dangerous gap was beginning to open up between the BEF and the French Fifth Army, and so on the morning of 24 August French was forced to order a general retreat.

This retreat would last for two weeks, and would cost the BEF many more casualties than had fallen at Mons. John was initially reported as being wounded during the retreat, but he sadly died on 3 September 1914. He was aged 30.

John was buried in Mons (Bergen) Communal Cemetery, Hainault, Belgium, Grave IX.E.14 and his name is inscribed on the War Memorial in the Borough.




The Commonwealth War Graves Commission certificate in memory of John Davis.