Mons is somewhat away from the beaten track for Western Front visitors, located in the south of Belgium, with poor roads from Ypres and limited access from Arras or the Somme. We were delighted to make our trip there; St Symphorien is one of the most symbolic Great War locations.
Set on a woody knoll, the cemetery is worthy of a Chelsea Flower Show Gold Medal. It’s arranged in different areas, or garden rooms, as they would tell us at the Royal Hospital. The plot is beatifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Mons is the location where the British Expeditionary Force first met the German advance across Belgium, endeavouring to forestall the invasion at the Mons-Conde Canal. With valiant efforts against a superior force, they failed and many perished. Losses include the first British casualty on the Western Front, John Parr of the Middlesex Regiment. He lived near to me and worked as a greenkeeper at a local golf club. John was killed on 21st August 1914, allegedly mistakenly by French infantry. This Page is published on the 105th anniversary of John’s death.
Mons was held by German forces forces until the day of the Armistice. St Symphorien became a burial plot for the advancing Canadian and British losses, notably George Edwin Ellison of the 5th Lancers; the final British casualty on the Western Front. As an illustration of the futility of the conflict, John Parr and George Ellison lie in plots opposite each other, towards the rear of the cemetery.
The final Commonwealth casualty of the Western Front also lies in St Symphorien. Pte George Lawrence Price of 28th Bttn, Canadian Infantry was killed at 10.58am, two minutes before the Armistice. He was originally buried in Havre Old Communal Cemetery, before his remains were relocated to St Symphorien.
The cemetery was created by the Germans and they clearly took great care to provide suitable recognition of all soldiers who were lost in the conflict. There are quite a few locations where a few German plots are situated in British cemeteries, but most German burials were relocated to larger concentration cemeteries after hostilities ended. St Symphorien retains different areas alocated to German and Commonwealth casualties, creating a peaceful resting place for men from both sides of the conflict; another clear reminder of the cost of war.
Every grave creates a commemoration for the loss of a young man. The first postumous Victoria Cross award is remembered with Lt Maurice Dease VC, with too many more to mention in this brief post.
This is a resonant location of numerous facets that will remain etched in my mind. Politicians met here on 11th November 2018 – the Centenary of the Armistice. This was a perfect location for them to consider the impact of conflict and ideally recognise the cost of their policies, propoganda and decisions.