Mons - The beginning and the end.

For the British Expeditionary force the war began and ended in Belgium, just outside the small Belgian town of Mons.

It was here, on the 23rd August 1914, that troops of the British Expeditionary force, the Old Contemptibles, clashed with the advancing German Army and were forced into retreat, but not before a gallant stand had been made.

Defending the positions on the Conde Canal at Nimy, just outside Mons, was a machine gun section led by Lieutenant Maurice Dease. Lt Dease, despite being severely wounded, refused orders to evacuate and kept to his post until falling mortally wounded. For this feat of courage, he was posthumously awarded the VC, probably the first VC of the war.

Two days earlier a reconnaisance rider with the motorcycle reconnasance unit, Corporal John Parr, had stumbled upon the vanguard of the advancing German army and had been shot dead. The first British fatality of the war. 

It was here at 10.58am, on the 11th November 1918, two minutes before the armistice agreed that the guns should fall silent, so Private George Ellison was killed by a sniper. The last British soldier to be killed as the German army was pushed back on the retreat.

In a poignant coincidence, the first and last British casualties of the war plus the first to win the VC are buried together in the small cemetry of St Symphorien just to the East of Mons.

 

The sad poignancy: On the right, top to bottom, the graves of Corporal Parr, George Ellison and Maurice Dease.

On the left, the grave of Corporal Parr looking across to the grave of Private Ellison, the first and last British casualties of the war.

San symphorien cemetry was started by the German army. 

In 1916 the German army wanted a central place of memorial for all the scattered remains of their soldiers who had fallen on the Mons battlefield. They approached a local owner who agreed to sell them the land in exchange for a pledge that there would be no distinction between soldiers of different nations. Each would be honoured and commemorated equally.

Today it is managed by the British Commonwealth Graves Commision, 229 soldiers of the Commonwealth lying side by side with 284 soldiers of the imperial German army.  

A beautiful woodland setting. On the left grey german headstones and white commonwealth headstones stand together. In the centre is the cross of sacrifice, a memorial that is common to all Commonwealth war grave cemeteries, large or small.

The memorial to the fallen at St Symphorien, with original German inscription.

The inscription read to the fallen of the 23rd and 24th August 1914, British soldiers and German soldiers.

I do not find the Mons of today to be an attractive place. In 1914 it was a sleepy market town on a major trading route, by 1918 the ravages of war had destroyed much of it.  

Today it is a busy, crowded town with NATO headquarters nearby. The Mons-Conde canal, scene of that desperate resistance by the BEF, is now the A2, a motorway.

Like with all the towns that I visit today that were the scenes of great conflicts in the past I find myself asking "why?". It is not for me on this website to try and answer that. I am merely reflecting on what is there now. However when we look at the great failures of diplomacy and politics that lead to the sacrifice of so many we must ask "how do we prevent it happening again?"