Saturday, my second day in Mons, dawned damp and drizzly but cleared up as the morning drew on.
After checking out of my hotel, my first stop was a return to the Grand Place to say hello to the Guard House Monkey, who I’d missed the previous day.
For those unfamiliar, this little bronze scamp has crouched outside the city’s town hall for centuries. Tradition holds that anyone passing has to rub the top of his head with their left hand for good luck.
After paying my due respects to the monkey, my next stop was St Symphorien Military Cemetery, on the eastern outskirts of the city. This, as it turned out, was comfortably the most moving site I was to visit during my time in Mons.
Wary after getting lost more than once the previous day, and unable to find a bus route that seemed to be heading in that direction, I took the easy (and lazy!) option of hailing a taxi for the couple of kilometres out to St Symphorien.
The cemetery had been the scene of international media coverage a fortnight earlier, when dignitaries like our own President Michael D Higgins and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge had attended a sunset ceremony to mark the British declaration of war on Germany on 4 August. I’d watched the live coverage of the event at home on that Bank Holiday Monday, and had been struck immediately by just how beautiful a place the cemetery seemed to be. The reality was even more so.
St Symphorien was originally established by the Germans while the war was still in progress, being inaugurated in 1917. A local Belgian landowner, Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, granted the land to the occupiers on the condition that the dead of both sides would be interred on the site with equal respect.
Most of the burials in the cemetery date to August 1914 and the battle of Mons itself; casualties of both sides originally interred in local civilian cemeteries and plots. Some, however, are from the other end of the war, when the great Allied advance at the end of 1918 had just liberated Mons when the Armistice came into effect.
Although now administrated by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, St Symphorien’s unusual origins made it utterly different from any other CWGC site I’d previously visited in Europe, not least in the fact that both British and German casualties are buried together in almost equal numbers – in some cases literally side by side in the same row:
Rather than walking through neat and orderly ranks of headstones standing against immaculate lawns, entering St Symphorien is almost like stepping into a forest glade. The cemetery is designed on Germanic ideals: set on multiple levels, with small wooded hillocks rising and falling.
On a sunny August morning, with birds singing in the trees and shafts of sunlight piercing through the branches, it was a heartbreakingly pretty and poignant place.
I certainly don’t subscribe to the idea that some deaths are more important than others, but St Symphorien does contain a number of burials with particular historical significance.
Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers, posthumous Irish receipient of the First World War’s first Victoria Cross.
Private John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment – missing believed killed on 21 August 1914, and generally considered the first British service fatality on land of the First World War.
Private George Edwin Ellison of the 5th (Royal Irish) Lancers, killed on the morning of 11 November 1918, the last known British fatality of the First World War. Only a few metres separate Parr and Ellison’s graves, facing each other.
Private George Lawrence Price of the 28th Battalion, Canadian Expeditionary Force – killed at approximately 10.58 on the morning of 11 November 1918, and the final Commonwealth fatality of the war.
Musketier Oskar Niemeyer of Infanterie Regiment 84, a German hero of the Battle of Mons. From Lower Saxony, Niemeyer was killed on 23 August in the vicinity of the Nimy railway bridge while attempting to move a swing bridge across the canal so his comrades could cross.
Quite a number of the British graves at St Symphorien bear the grenade badge of the Royal Fusiliers, the feathers and laurel of the Middlesex Regiment, or the crowned harp of the Royal Irish Regiment – telling evidence of the desperate fighting that battalions from these regiments experienced in and around the Nimy Salient.
One large group of Middlesex casualties were interred together by the Germans in the cemetery, together with a memorial commemorating the ‘Royal’ Middlesex Regiment. The misnomer apparently stems from a German belief that the stubborn defence displayed by the unit during the battle must have been carried out by a prestigious royal regiment, rather than an ordinary infantry regiment of the line.
The respect and care of a gesture like this, like the cemetery as a whole, is quite remarkable when considered in the context of St Symphorien being established by the Germans while hostilities were still very much ongoing.
Earlier that morning, I’d picked up a small cross of remembrance in the tourist information office at Mons, which I decided to leave at the grave of an unknown casualty of the Royal Irish Regiment killed on 23 August. There’s something uniquely sad about graves like this, where the dead lack even their identities for posterity.
Leaving St Symphorien and walking back towards Mons, I was able to visit a site with special significance for Irish involvement in the BEF.
On the afternoon of 23 August, with German pressure against the salient at Nimy becoming unbearable, the British units holding the sector were beginning to withdraw back into Mons. Advancing enemy infantry pressed hard at their heels.
At this critical moment, Regimental Quartermaster Sergeant Thomas Fitzpatrick of 2nd Battalion Royal Irish Regiment gathered together a scratch force of some forty to fifty rear line personnel like cooks, musicians and orderlies and led them in defending the crossroads of La Bascule, on the eastern outskirts of Mons. Fitzpatrick’s unlikely rear guard succeeded in holding their positions until late in the evening, before slipping away to rejoin the retreating BEF.
To commemorate the action, as well as the wider service of the Royal Irish Regiment during the First World War, a large Celtic cross now stands at the busy junction of La Bascule. Across the road is a memorial to the BEF as a whole, which I stupidly neglected to photograph while I was at the site.
Visiting Mons was a fantastic experience, and one which I won’t soon forget.
Although I didn’t cover anything close to the entire battlefield, I was still able to gain a very good flavour of the key locations from that fateful August day a century ago. Two sites which I had planned on visiting, the location of the very first British skirmish of the war at Casteau, north of Mons, and the nearby NATO SHAPE complex, proved impossible due to time and transport constraints.
St Symphorien in particular has left a huge impression on me, and I hope I can revisit the entire area again in the future, perhaps before the centenary of the Armistice in 2018.
With the afternoon drawing on, I prepared to leave Mons and retune myself by 99 years to the last major British land battle in Europe before the First World War: Waterloo...