Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Mons August 1914 - August 2014 (Part III)

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...

Monday, September 1, 2014

Mons August 1914 - August 2014 (Part II)

Having flown into Charleroi with Ryanair first thing on Friday morning, I immediately took a train for the relatively short journey to Mons.

Disembarking and strolling into the centre of the city from the railway station, I was struck straight away by just how beautiful Mons is – full of narrow, cobbled streets and centuries old architecture. Unlike many well-known First World War sites like Ypres or the villages and towns of the Somme, Mons itself was left relatively physically unscathed by the conflict. After the battle and the subsequent retreat of the BEF in August 1914, the city fell under German occupation and lay behind the lines until nearly the very end of the war in November 1918. 

The medieval Grand Place is the very heart of Mons, and is the scene of one of the most well-known and frequently reproduced photographs of the BEF, below, showing men of 4th Battalion Royal Fusiliers having just arrived in the area on 22 August 1914, the eve of the battle. There’s something incredibly poignant about the picture, with many of the characterful faces featured destined to be killed, injured or in captivity by the close of the following day.

My comparison shot a century on includes entries in what seemed to be a vintage car rally. That particular Friday, as it transpired, was a public holiday in Belgium; which meant that both open shops and pedestrians to ask directions of proved in short supply as the day went on. My fault, ultimately, for failing to do my homework in advance. Time spent in reconnaissance is seldom wasted!

My guides for both days in and around Mons were the standard format Osprey primer on the campaign (left, with splendid colour plates as always), and a relatively new battlefield guide from Pen and Sword Books by Jon Cooksey and Jerry Murland (right). The latter was incredibly detailed and useful throughout, but could, as a slight criticism, have done with slightly more elaborate maps.

After checking in to my hotel (the warmly recommended Hotel Le Terminus) and a wolfed lunch, I set off on foot for the northern suburb of Nimy. This portion of the battlefield saw some of the fiercest fighting on 23 August 1914, with the defensive position along the Mons- Cond̩ Canal held by the BEF bulging outwards to form a salient which could be Рand was Рpressed hard by the Germans from its flanks.

Once I’d gotten through my first spot of navigational difficulty, hampered twice over by my woeful schoolboy French and the general quietness on the streets that Friday, I reached Nimy and the battlefield proper.

My first destination was the railway bridge over the canal, in a sector defended during the battle by 4th Royal Fusiliers. Here, County Westmeath officer Lieutenant Maurice Dease was killed after repeatedly exposing himself to German fire in an effort to keep his battalion’s two machine guns firing across the bridge; posthumously earning the very first Victoria Cross of the First World War. His fellow Fusilier, Private Sid Godley, earned the second VC of the conflict at the same spot for continuing to man a machine gun until wounded and eventually captured by the Germans.

The railway bridge that stands on the site today isn’t the original from 1914 – that was demolished by the retreating French army during another German invasion of Belgium in 1940, with its replacement destroyed in turn by German troops retreating in the opposite direction in 1944.

This did nothing to take away from the evocativeness of the spot, however. Scrambling up the railway embankment to stand beside the tracks and peer through the trestles of the bridge at the German side of the canal, it was instantly possible to imagine the noise, fright and confusion a century ago as the Londoners of the Royal Fusiliers fought their increasingly desperate battle against encroaching enemy troops.

It is worth noting, though, that any reverie is regularly – and noisily – punctuated by trains hurtling by. The railway line here is very much active in 2014, so caution is definitely advised!
While there, I took advantage of a relatively new iPhone to film the first of a couple of short videos that I made while touring the Mons battlefield.

I then left the railway bridge to walk generally east along the line of the canal. This was the area held by General Sir Horace Smith-Dorrien’s II Corps during the battle, and saw the stiffest fighting for the BEF.

Although I believe that the actual canal itself has been widened since 1914, and certainly numerous more modern buildings now line either bank, it was still easy to appreciate the basic tactical geography of the battlefield. Looking across the canal from the southern bank, it was difficult not to envisage the din and chaos as attacking German infantry of the 8th Division in field grey uniforms and spiked helmets spilled down to the water’s edge, while all around British soldiers frantically worked Lee Enfield bolts, aiming and firing as rapidly as they could.

A long walk on a pleasantly drizzly August afternoon eventually took me to the village of Obourg, but not without slight confusion. Slightly west of Obourg, an enormous (and breathtakingly ugly) cement factory from much later than 1914 now dominates the southern side of the canal, blocking pedestrian progress on this side for a stretch.

With the wonders of hindsight, I know now that the easiest option is to temporarily cross to the northern bank, before recrossing the canal to go to Obourg. On the day, however, I arrived at the notion that I could cut around south behind the factory. An hour later, wetter and muddier than I began, I’d learned otherwise…

On 23 August, Obourg was defended by the 4th Middlesex Regiment, with the village seeing desperate fighting. The men of the Middlesex were eventually forced to withdraw, but an apocryphal incident from the battle here has an unknown British soldier clambering onto the roof of Obourg’s small railway station and remaining behind, firing to cover his retreating mates until overcome. Slightly despondently, there doesn’t actually seem to be any hard evidence for this occurring, but there’s something deeply touching about the story nonetheless. The original railway station was demolished in the 1980s, but bricks from the structure were preserved and used to create a small memorial to the Middlesex Regiment.

With night beginning to fall at the end of my first day in Mons, I trudged back into the city, footsore but happy.