The UK government has now formally announced that it will stage a commemorative event to mark the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War at St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Belgium on 4 August 2014. Commemorating the start of a war is a very new departure in the history of British memory and remembrance of conflict, so the choice of setting for the event naturally required some serious thought and consideration. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission recommended St. Symphorien because the historical and cultural resonance of the cemetery, and, not least, the striking beauty of the site, mean that it would lend itself remarkably well to an inclusive, imaginative and hopefully meaningful commemorative event.
The Battle of Mons
The Battle of Mons was the first major engagement between British and German forces of the Great War. It was also the first time British troops had fired shots in anger in Western Europe since Waterloo almost a century before. Fighting began at dawn on Sunday 23 August 1914, as the men of the 4th Middlesex Regiment repulsed German cavalry who were attempting to cross the Mons-Condé Canal via the bridge at Obourg. During the first hours of the battle, the weather was misty and wet and the British were still uncertain of the number of enemy units gathered on the far side of the canal. By 10 a.m., the day had brightened up, enemy fire had intensified, and it had become clear that they were facing a huge German force. In total, the German forces at Mons, which were commanded by General Alexander von Kluck, numbered about six divisions, or 160,000 men. The British force amounted to no more than half this figure.
Despite being greatly outnumbered, British troops fought tenaciously throughout the day. Many of them were reservists who had returned to the army from civilian life just weeks before, but the high standard of British rifle-training ensured that an infantryman armed with a Lee Enfield .303 rifle could fire at least 15 rounds a minute, and the attacking German soldiers suffered heavy casualties. Despite this stiff resistance, the sheer weight of enemy numbers and the deadly accuracy of German artillery fire meant that the British were extremely hard pressed from the outset. The first German soldiers crossed the canal at about 10.30 a.m. and some British units were forced to withdraw from their original positions. By mid-afternoon, German troops had begun to slowly cross the canal in force and a general British retreat was underway. By nightfall, most British soldiers had retired from the battlefield. The Battle of Mons was now over and the long, hard retreat toward the River Marne had begun. Over the course of the next two weeks, the officers and men of the British Expeditionary Force fought and marched from the battlefield at Mons to the outskirts of Paris. For a distance of some 200 miles, they were hotly pursued by massive columns of enemy troops and regularly had to fight bitter rearguard actions to prevent being overrun.
St. Symphorien Military Cemetery
In the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, most of the British and German dead were buried in civilian cemeteries in the city and surrounding villages. Over a year later, in November 1915, the German army began exhuming both German and British soldiers who had been killed or mortally wounded at Mons and re-interring them in a plot of land just south-east of the city on the border between the districts of St. Symphorien and Spienne. The owner of the site, Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, refused to sell the land but agreed that it could be used as a burial ground on the condition that the British soldiers were buried and commemorated with the same dignity as their German counterparts. The landowner’s wishes were clearly respected by the German authorities, who erected three monuments to the British dead in the cemetery, including a grey granite obelisk dedicated to the fallen of both sides that stands over seven metres high. Work continued on the cemetery over the course of the next year, as the great offensives raged further west, and it was finally inaugurated on 6 September 1917. The opening ceremony was attended by a number of prominent German figures, including Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, both army commanders on the Western Front. The cemetery remained in German hands until the end of the war when it passed into the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission. St. Symphorien now contains the graves of 334 Commonwealth and 280 German servicemen of the First World War.
The aesthetics of the cemetery are understandably unlike those of the thousands of cemeteries designed by the War Graves Commission in the 1920s, which usually conform to an immaculately landscaped English country-garden design. But St. Symphorien is also quite unlike any of the four major German burial grounds located on the other side of Belgium in Flanders, which contain the graves of tens of thousands of German servicemen. Two large mounds of earth, formed before the war from the spoil produced in nearby phosphate mines, dominate the site and divide the cemetery into intimate plots shaded by a stunning mix of deciduous and evergreen trees. The sheer number and variety of trees at St. Symphorien is very much in keeping with the traditional aesthetics of German military cemeteries (or Soldatenfriedhöfe) which are supposed to evoke the tranquil atmosphere of a woodland clearing.
First and Last Shots
Among those buried here is 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, thereby becoming the first British soldier to be killed in action on the Western Front. St. Symphorien is also the final resting place of Commonwealth and German soldiers who were killed in the last days and hours of the conflict, including George Ellison of the Royal Irish Lancers and George Price of the Canadian Infantry. Ellison and Price were killed not long before 11 a.m. on 11 November 1918 and are believed to be the last Commonwealth combat casualties of the entire conflict.
Most of the Commonwealth dead at St. Symphorien are buried in their own separate plots, but they lie close to the roughly equal number of German dead, and in one particularly symbolic corner of the cemetery a German corporal and an English officer are buried side-by-side. The various memorials to the British dead that the Germans erected during the war also lend the cemetery a very real air of peace and conciliation. The myth of soldiers of the Great War being bitter enemies on the battlefield but comrades in death thus has some genuine resonance here. As the cemetery is the final resting place of officers and men from English, Irish and Scottish regiments, along with at least two Welshmen who were serving in English units, St. Symphorien also reminds us of the sacrifices made by each of the constituent nations of the United Kingdom.
In the near-century since the war ended, the Battle of Mons and the tactical retreat that followed it have been overshadowed in the public imagination by the offensives of 1916 and ’17, and the tragic but well-worn images we now associate with the Somme and Passchendaele. Most of the men who were laid to rest at St. Symphorien died before the advent of the seemingly endless lines of trenches that would go on to form the battle-lines of the Western Front. The tone and form of the planned ceremony at St. Symphorien have yet to be decided upon, but, if nothing else, the location of the event will place a timely emphasis on the experience and sacrifice of the British and German soldiers who fought and died in the first weeks of the war.