I visited St Symphorien Cemetery today (21 May 2014), along with delegates from the BBC, who were planning for the Royal visit on Monday 4 August (statement from CWGC at the end of the photo gallery). Officially, the first and last casualties of The Great War are buried here.
The cemetery at St. Symphorien was established by the German Army during the First World War as a final resting place for British and German soldiers killed at the Battle of Mons. Among those buried here is Private John Parr (see later) of the Middlesex Regiment, who was fatally wounded during an encounter with a German patrol two days before the battle, thus becoming the first British soldier to be killed in action on the Western Front. The cemetery remained in German hands until the end of the war, and afterwards came under the care of the Imperial (now Commonwealth) War Graves Commission. It also contains the graves of Commonwealth and German soldiers who died in the final days of the conflict, including George Edwin Ellison (see later) of the Royal Irish Lancers and George Price of the Canadian Infantry. Ellison and Price were killed on 11 November 1918, and are believed to be the last Commonwealth combat casualties of the war in Europe. There are 229 Commonwealth and 284 German servicemen buried or commemorated at St Symphorien, of whom 105 remain unidentified.
The Battle of Mons
By the evening of 22 August 1914, the men of II Corps of the British Expeditionary Force had taken up defensive positions along the Mons-Condé Canal, preparing for a major German attack expected to come from the north the next day. The opening shots of the Battle of Mons were fired at dawn on the morning of Sunday 23 August, when the 4th Battalion of the Middlesex Regiment repulsed German cavalry who were attempting to the cross the canal over a bridge at Obourg. The early morning was misty and wet, and the British were still uncertain of the numbers of enemy troops on the far side of the canal. By 10 a.m., the day had brightened up, artillery fire had intensified, and it became clear that they were facing a large German force.
Despite being outnumbered, the British soldiers on the south bank of the canal fought tenaciously throughout the day. Many were reservists who had returned to the army just weeks before, but they were well-drilled and disciplined, with a high-level of rifle training. Their relentless fire inflicted heavy casualties among the Germans. Despite this stiff resistance, the sheer weight of German numbers and the accuracy of their artillery meant that the British struggled to hold their positions. By 10.30 a.m. the first German soldiers had crossed the canal and some British units had been forced back, and by mid-afternoon German infantry troops were crossing in force. By nightfall, the Battle of Mons was over and the British had begun a long, hard retreat towards Paris.
The First and Last Together
Private John Parr
Born in 1898 in Barnet, John Parr lived most of his life in Finchley. On leaving school, he took a job as a golf caddy. Then, like many other young men of the time, he was attracted to the army as a potentially better way of life, and one where he would at least get two meals a day and a chance to see the world. When Parr joined the Middlesex Regiment he almost certainly overstated his age in order to meet the minimum age requirement (in fact he is understood to have been 16).
Parr specialised in becoming a reconnaissance cyclist – riding ahead to uncover information, then returning with all possible speed to update the commanding officer. At the start of World War I in August 1914 Private Parr’s Battalion, the 4th Middlesex, were shipped from Southampton to Boulogne-sur-Mer, France. With the German Army marching into Belgium, Parr’s unit took up positions near the village of Bettignies, beside the canal running through the town of Mons. On 21 August, Parr and another cyclist were sent to the village of Obourg, just north east of Mons, with a mission to locate the enemy. It is believed that they encountered a cavalry patrol from the German First Army, and that Parr remained to hold off the enemy whilst his companion returned to report. He was killed in the ensuing rifle fire.
Since the British army retreated to a new position around the Marne after the first battle of Mons, Parr’s body was left behind at the time. In the ensuing months, the slow entrenchment of the war meant that news of Parr’s death was not recognised until much later. His age is given on the gravestone as twenty, the army not knowing his likely true age of sixteen.
Private George Edwin Ellison
George Edwin Ellison was born in Leeds, England. Early in his life, he joined the army as a regular soldier, but had left by 1912 when he got married and became a coal miner.
Sometime just before the outbreak of war he was recalled to the army, joining the 5th Royal Irish Lancers, serving in the army at the start of the war. He fought at the Battle of Mons in 1914, and several other battles including the Battle of Ypres, Battle of Armentières, Battle of La Bassée, Battle of Lens, Battle of Loos, and Battle of Cambrai on the Western Front. He was killed an hour and a half before the armistice, on a patrol on the outskirts of Mons, Belgium. It is thought that the order to cease hostilites had just been given as his patrol left the British positions.
He survived the entire War, from the first engagement at Mons, to the very last, in the same place, fitting that he should be in St Symphorien.
Statement from The Commonwealth War Graves Commission
On Monday 4 August 2014 the UK Government will commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War. As part of the commemorations, a key event will be held at the Commonwealth War Graves Commission’s St. Symphorien Military Cemetery in Mons, Belgium. The CWGC has been working closely with the Department for Culture, Media and Sport to develop planning for the event and wish to advise that, given the scale of preparations, breadth of involvement and the physical limitations of the site, there will be no access to St. Symphorien Military Cemetery for the general public from 0700hrs Thursday 31 July until 2000hrs Wednesday 6 August 2014. The CWGC apologises for any inconvenience that this may cause, but the decision has been made with due consideration to public safety, as well as the scale of operation needed to ensure the site is ready and then returned to normal on completion. The event is expected to be broadcast live in both the United Kingdom and Belgium and consideration is being given by the Ville de Mons to screening the event in the Grand Place some 3 miles from the site. The CWGC is keen to facilitate visits to the cemetery, which is open daily, and has planned an Open Day on Saturday 23 August 2014. The event will include a series of talks and demonstrations and will take place from 10.00 – 16.00. It will be followed at 17.25 by the annual commemoration service for the Battle of Mons, organised by the Ville de Mons. Further details will be made available nearer the time.