The small city of Mons on the France-Belgium border is special in many ways.
It’s the cultural capital of Wallonia, boasting a wealth of ancient buildings, fascinating museums and collections of art, design and natural history. It even has religious relics. The preserved body and separated head of a medieval saint are revered each year in the Ducasse, a week of festivities, during which the shrine of Saint Wadru is placed aboard a massive golden chariot and paraded in historical procession through the cobbled streets. Then there’s the annual Lumeçon event, at which a bold Saint George confronts and despatches a fierce tail-flailing Dragon helped by enthusiastic crowds who throng the ancient town square. And who could forget the strange little brass monkey on the wall of the Town Hall, whose head must be stroked with the left hand to ensure good luck?
In 2015, Mons will inherit the title of European Capital of Culture to become ‘the city of wonders’. All of which colour and pageant make Mons a great place to visit at the best of times, but particularly worthy of pilgrimage for those who wish to commemorate the start of the First World War in 1914. The human cost of the conflict that became known as the Great War was appalling. It’s hard to comprehend the numbers of soldiers who lost their lives or were maimed. Four years of attrition for the first time on an industrial scale left a staggering 10 million dead and 20 million injured on the battlefields. Millions more perished under occupation through disease, hunger or deportation. Every continent of the globe was touched by the conflict as men from 30 nations enlisted and did ‘their bit’.
Mons attained the dubious honour of being known as ‘The First and the Last’ – the town on the Frontline where the first and last major engagements of World War One took place, where the first and last English soldiers were killed, their remains buried next to each other in a cemetery on the outskirts of the town. It’s also the place where the first Victoria Crosses for acts of valour were awarded.
The evening of Saturday 22 August 1914 saw the men of II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force (referred to as that ‘contemptible little army’ by the German Emperor, Kaiser Wilhelm II), take up defensive positions along the Mons-Condé Canal, where they prepared for a major attack by the German Imperial Army. The opening shots of the Battle of Mons were fired at dawn the following day, Sunday 23 August, when the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment repulsed a German cavalry attempt to cross the canal over a bridge at Obourg.
The early morning was wet and misty, and the British were still uncertain of the numbers of enemy troops on the far side of the canal. When the mist lifted, it became clear that the 80,000 British troops were facing a German force of 160,000, in possession of double the artillery force of the BEF. Despite being grossly outnumbered, the British soldiers fought a fierce defence of the south bank of the canal. Although many were reservists only recently returned to the army, they were highly disciplined and concentrated their expertise as crackshot riflemen to inflict heavy casualties among the Germans. But their brave actions were in vain, as the sheer weight of German numbers and the accuracy of their artillery left the British struggling to hold their positions.
Within a couple of hours, the first German soldiers had crossed the canal, forcing most of the British units to withdraw. One soldier who stayed at his machine gun post on the railway bridge was Lieutenant Maurice James Dease of the 4th Royal Fusiliers. The 24-year-old was shot five times and died on the way to a dressing station. His place at the gun was taken by Private Sydney Frank Godley, who held out as long as he could, even managing to dismantle the gun before being captured and taken prisoner by the Germans. Both Dease and Godley were awarded the Victoria Cross for their bravery – the first soldiers of WWI to gain these honours – their exploits recounted on a plaque beneath the canalside railway bridge they defended so courageously.
Legend has it that around midnight on 23 August, a host of Angels armed as archers were seen to descend from the Heavens and halt the German advance, thereby saving the British from certain annihilation.
Whatever part angelic intervention played in its outcome, the Battle of Mons was over, having claimed more than 2,000 German and 1,600 British casualties. The surviving British troops were forced to retreat over the border to Le Cateau Cambresis, the setting for the first battle British soldiers would fight on French soil.
Mons was left to be occupied by the Germans until its liberation by the Canadian Corps during the final days of the war.
It is generally accepted that Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment, who was fatally wounded during an encounter with a German patrol two days before the Battle of Mons, was the first British soldier to be killed in action in Europe. The teenager had last been seen alive setting off to search for two platoons missing near Mons.
Along with a quarter of a million other boys in Britain, John had lied about his age when he joined the army in 1912. He had been living with his parents, Edward and Alice Parr, in the north London suburb of Barnet, and working as a caddie on a golf course, when he signed up with the Middlesex, his local regiment. He was just 14, five years below the legal age at which he could be sent overseas to fight. John trained as a reconnaissance cyclist, and when war broke out he was one of a thousand men in his battalion shipped across the Channel to Boulogne-sur-Mer in Northern France as the German army advanced into Belgium.
Full of the spirit of adventure, ignorant of what lay ahead of them, those first troops were buoyed by the belief that they’d soon defeat the Germans and return home in time for Christmas. When his life was cut short on the Western Front, Private John Parr entered the history books as the first British soldier to die fighting Germany, shot and killed a few weeks after his 17th birthday.
Today, his body lies in the cemetery at Saint-Symphorien, three miles from the centre of Mons. The cemetery had been established by the German Army in 1917, built on land owned by a local Belgian family who gave it freely on the understanding that it would become the final resting place for all the British and German soldiers who fell at the Battle of Mons.
The burial ground remained in German hands until the end of the war, when it came under the care of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The CWGC continues to maintain its graves with meticulous care and sensitivity. This was evident at the special event held at Saint-Symphorien to commemorate the start of the First World War, attended by the German, British and Belgian heads of state, along with the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and HRH Prince Harry on 4th August 2014..
Saint-Symphorien’s setting is unique; poignant and peaceful. Considered one of the most beautiful cemeteries in Belgium, it occupies a small secluded knoll surrounded by fields and is filled with birdsong, and the soft susurration of fir trees. Designed and landscaped by the German Army to resemble a rolling wooded hillside glade in which to honour the dead, the cemetery provides a tranquil resting place for the 229 Commonwealth and 284 German servicemen buried or commemorated there, of whom 105 remain unidentified.
Dark stone Gothic crosses for the German fallen stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside the milkwhite limestone memorials to the Commonwealth dead. A shady grass circle enfolds 46 graves in a tender embrace – British soldiers buried with honour by their enemies who erected an obelisk at its centre dedicated to the fallen of the mistakenly-titled ‘Royal’ Middlesex Regiment. The cemetery is the last resting place for Commonwealth and German soldiers who died in the final days of the conflict. They include Private George Ellison of the 5th Irish Lancers and George Price of the 28th Battalion Canadian Infantry.
It is almost too terrible to contemplate Private Price’s death. He fell victim to a German sniper’s bullet, dying at 10.58am, just two minutes before the Armistice was declared, the guns fell silent and celebrations began to mark the end of ‘the war to end all wars”. Inside the front entrance to the City Hall at Mons are several memorial placards related to the battles of WWI. One reads:
MONS WAS RECAPTURED BY THE CANADIAN CORPS ON THE 11th NOVEMBER 1918:
AFTER FIFTY MONTHS OF GERMAN OCCUPATION, FREEDOM WAS RESTORED TO THE CITY:
HERE WAS FIRED THE LAST SHOT OF THE GREAT WAR.
Three miles away at Saint-Symphorien cemetery, a few feet separate the headstones of Private John Parr and Private George Ellison, the first and the last British soldiers to fall in WWI. But the four years that spanned their deaths represent the horrific impact that modern ‘total’ warfare with its extreme killing power inflicted across continents – the resulting slaughter measured on an industrial scale never before seen on the field of battle.
Useful Information: Mons Tourist Office, Grand-Place, 22 – 7000, Mons, Belgium for guided tours, maps, hotel bookings, information booklets and free screenings of a fascinating film about The First and The Last available on site. Join a Mons Battlefield Tour in the company of a professional English-speaking guide aboard a red double-decker bus departing from the Tourist Office on the Grand Place. www.visitmons.be
Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery lies 2km east of Mons on the N90 road to Charleroi, 200m along the Rue Nestor Dehon. Because of its design, there is no wheelchair access to the cemetery, and access for visitors with limited mobility is difficult.
By travel writer Amanda Fisher