100 years ago today, the British Expeditionary Force (BEF) was involved in its first major engagement of the first world war – the Battle of Mons. The battle revolved around a canal that no longer exists today – the Canal Mons-Condé, a canal that does still exist (though it’s been upgraded significantly) – the Canal du Centre, and the medieval city of Mons near the Belgian-French border.

The British had been tasked with holding the line of the canal around and to the west of Mons, but the big problem for them was that in 1914, the route of the canals involved created a salient around the village of Nimy just north of the city. Looking at the canals that exist in Mons today there is no sign of a significant salient, you need to see the canals as they were in 1914 to understand this battle.

The reason there are many canals in this region is the presence of a big coal seam in the area to the west of Mons and to the south of the original Canal Mons-Condé. This area is known as the Borinage. The coal mines are all closed now, but the Borinage was a hive of industrial activity in 1914. I couldn’t find a good source of opening and closing dates of coal pits. If I had I would have mapped those that were open in 1914, but in the absence of that information I decided to map the railway lines as they existed in 1914. The tangle of lines to the south of the canals shows area that was involved in coal production very clearly. Note that I only mapped the mainline railways (NMBS/SNCB line numbers below 200), the nest of lines you see was surrounded by countless industrial lines and sidings.

Aside: While I wasn’t able to find a good list of pit opening and closing times, I did find a list of the locations of the spoil heaps created by the pits a few years ago, which I mapped and published in this blog post back in 2011.

 

The map above shows the canals in Mons as they were in 1914 in light blue, the railways as they were in 1914 in dark blue, and the canals as they are now in red. You can download the KML file to view the map in Google Earth.

The Canals of Mons – 1800 to 1914

Because of the coal in the Borinage, there has been a need for transportation links in this area for hundreds of years. At first the coal was carried to the river Scheldt at Condé-sur-l’Escaut with small boats on the river Hayne. The river didn’t have enough water to enable the use of large boats, so a canal was clearly needed.

The first person to order such a canal be dug was none other than Napoleon Bonaparte because what is now Belgium was part of the French empire in the first years of the 1800s. Work on an almost perfectly straight canal from the south-eastern outskirts of Mons to the Scheldt in Condé was stated in 1807, and took at least 10 years to complete. This was the real Canal Mons-Condé.

Even before the canal was in full use, a snag developed. Napoleon had lost the Battle of Waterloo in 1815, and as a result, what is now Belgium was no longer part of France, it was part of The United Kingdom of the Netherlands instead. This meant that the start of the canal in Mons was in one country, but the junction with the Scheldt in Condé was in another.

To resolve this complication, the first (and only) king of the United Kindom of the Netherlands, William I, ordered a new canal be dug which would branch off from the original canal before the French border near the village of Pommerœul, and head north-west through the village of Blaton and join the Scheldt near the village of Péronnes close to the town of Antoing a little south of Tournai. This canal was called the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing, and work on it started in 1823. The canal took three years to build, and opened in 1826.

This meant that in 1914 there was a side-ways Y-shape of canals stretching west from Mons.

The other canal that was important in 1914 was the Canal du Centre. This connected with the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing in the south-west of Mons, then ran north before looping around the village of Nimy and heading east towards Steneffe where it joined the Canal Bruxelles-Charleroi. The reason this canal was dug was that by connecting the Canal Bruxelles-Charleroi with the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing, it became possible for boats to pass between the Meuse and Scheldt river basins.

The canal was technically challenging because a height difference of 66m had to be overcome. The solution settled on was a series of four boat lifts (now UNESCO world heritage sites). These lifts dragged out the construction time of the canal. Although work started in 1888, the canal would not be completed until 1917, and would not open to traffic until after the end of the first world war in 1919. By 1914 the canal was watered and ready for use apart from the last of the boat lifts. Although it was not in use commercially, it was every bit as much of an obstacle as the operational Canal Pommerœul-Antoing to the west of Mons.

when reading descriptions of the Battle of Mons you will often hear it said that “the canal Mons-Condé formed a salient north of Mons”. It is true that there was a salient there in 1914, but it was created by the western end of the Canal du Centre, and the eastern end of the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing, the Mons-Condé had ceased to exist decades ago!

The Canals of Mons Today

The reason it’s difficult to look at Google Earth and understand the battle of Mons is that the salient that caused all that trouble is no longer obvious in the landscape. It is there if you look carefully, but it’s far from obvious because there have been some very dramatic changes to the canals around Mons in the last 100 years.

By the middle of the last century the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing was too small and too winding for the large inland barges of the day. It needed to be modernised. The solution was to build a new canal to connect Mons to the scheldt near Tournai. This new canal would be called the Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes, and while it would re-use some of the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing‘s alignment, much of the alignment would be new, and the parts that were re-used would be widened dramatically. The new canal would connect with the Canal du Centre north of the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing in a large new artificial lake to the west of Nimy called the Grand Large. The Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes opened to traffic in 1976.

The first major side-effect of the building of the Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes is the freeing up of the alignment of the section of the Canal Pommerœul-Antoing running west from the south-western edge of Mons (the section that was part of the original Canal Mons-Condé). In 1972, before the new canal was even open to traffic, this section of the old canal was filled in, and the A7/E19 motorway from Brussels to Paris was laid over it. There is what looks like a new canal next to the motorway today, but it’s actually the re-routed river Hayne.

The second major side-effect of the opening of the Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes was a need to modernise the Canal du Centre. The new canal could deal with large barges, but the boat lifts on the Canal du Centre could not. The Canal du Centre had become a bottleneck, so it would need to be modernised too.

Modernisation of this canal was first planned as early as 1957, but it took until 1982 for the work to start. Once work did start it progressed slowing, taking 20 years to complete! The new canal finally opened to traffic in 2002. The upgraded canal re-uses much of the original alignment, but is much wider. The section of the original canal with the four boat lifts was not re-used. Instead, a new alignment was built containing a single, massive, modern boat lift.

The final big change to the canals since 1914 is the ill-fated Canal Pommeroeul-Condé. This canal opened in the late 1980s, and connected the new Canal Nimy-Blaton-Péronnes with the Scheldt in the French town of Condé-sur-l’Escaut. This canal re-uses part of the alignment of the original Canal Mons-Condé. The canal was not to have a long working life, it was forced to close in 1995 when part of the French section of the canal silted up. The French government are refusing to fix their part of the canal, so this large modern canal is now useless as an inland waterway (though it is apparently good for fishing).

A Note on the Railways of Mons

The focus of the battle of Mons was the canals, hence the main focus of this post is the same, but, I would feel remiss if I didn’t give at least a big-picture description of the railway history of Mons.

As described in the introductory section of my recent post on the railways of Liège in 1914, the railway network in Belgium is unusual in that it’s core structure was planned. At the heart of the original plan was a cross of lines built by the Belgian State – a north-south axis crossing with an east-west axis a little north of Brussels in Mechelen. Liège is near the eastern end of the east-west axis, and Mons is near the southern end of the north-south axis. The north-south axis started at the French border where there was a line to Paris, then through Mons, up to Brussels, then on to Antwerp, and finally to the Dutch border where there was a connection to Amsterdam.

Because of its position near the French border it’s not surprising that Mons had many railway connections with France. In 1914 the connections to France included two routes to Paris – the original state line via Valenciennes, and a line via Maubeuge operated by the private Compagnie du Nord – Belge. There were also a number of smaller cross-border lines which were mainly used for freight.

After the second world war the Compagnie du Nord – Belge was finally nationalised, so it made no sense to keep two passenger connections between Mons and Paris. The line via Valenciennes lost it’s importance as the passenger trains switched to the former Nord-Belge line. When this line was electrified in 1963 the NMBS/SNCB used those works as an opportunity to re-align the line between Mons and Frameries. The original Nord-Belge alignment was steep and winding, and it ran through the Borinage, meaning it ran over un-used mine shafts, which made the ground unstable.

As well as having a good connection to Brussels and France, Mons also had good connections to the industrial city of Charleroi, the city of Tournai, and the Flemish city of Ghent.

If you just look at big-picture, not much has changed in terms of the railway connections in Mons – granted, with the opening of HSL 1 in 1997, express trains to Paris longer call in Mons, but Mons still has good connections to Charleroi and Tournai. The biggest change since 1914 is the loss of the direct connection to Ghent.

If you zoom in the change is much more dramatic. Each and ever single railway line through the Borinage is gone! When the mining of coal stopped in the second half of the 20th century, all those lines lost their purpose, as did a number of lesser lines that allowed goods trains from the Borinage to by-pass Mons. The Mons area has lost most of it’s goods stations, but there is still a very important NMBS/SNCB depot in Saint-Ghislain, a modern remnant of that original 1830s plan which saw Mons as one of the focal points of the national network.

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