Do you know anyone who was born in 1997? Can you imagine them fighting in a war?
Private John Parr was born in 1897 and was the first British soldier to die in WWI, aged just seventeen. Having lied about his age to join the army in 1912, he was shot on 21st August 1914, just two days before the beginning of the Battle of Mons. He is buried at Saint Symphorien, on the outskirts of the city of Mons. 21st August 2014 marks 100 years since he died. Saint Symphorien is a landscaped garden-like cemetery surrounded by evergreen trees and the echos of birdsong.
We met Michel Vasko, the Deputy Director of Mons Tourist Office at Saint Symphorien as the light was fading.
“It was a German cemetery, the Germans wanted to buy it. They asked the owner of the field who said, ‘I don’t want your money, I’ll give you the field, but on one condition – that it will be the final resting place of both German and British soldiers.’ And that’s why this place is very symbolic.”
In death we are all equal. Now the soldiers who lie here, whether German or from the Commonwealth, are all just victims of war. With so many of them being so young, the experience of standing among them is incredibly moving.
Michel leads us first to a circle of graves away from the graves of the first and last soldiers to die.
“Often when groups of teenagers arrive here on school trips they’ll be laughing and joking around and I’ll point to a grave and say, ‘how old are you?’ to one of them.
‘Sixteen’ they will reply.
‘See these guys here? A lot of them were sixteen too.’
All of them will be silent then.”
How to get there
From London, you can take the Eurostar to Brussels and change there to the train to Mons. On the Eurostar website, select London St. Pancras as your departure point and then ‘Belgium any station’ as the arrival point. If you book in advance, you can get fares as low as £45 each way. By air the nearest airport is Brussels; if you are coming from the US or anywhere else outside of Europe, Skyscanner is a good place to look for cheap flights to Brussels. From the airport, you can take the train to Brussels Midi and then on to Mons. There is a bus from the railway station in Mons to Symphorien: Number 22 MONS BRAY BINCHE (the nearest stop is called Saint-Symphorien Ecoles which is a 15-minute walk to the cemetery). The cemetery is 11 minutes from Mons station by car, so you can take a taxi. Alternatively you could hire a car to be picked up at either Brussels or Mons through someone like Hertz.
More details about the cemetery can be found on the Commonwealth War Graves Commission website It’s true that the terrain isn’t wheelchair accessible, but nothing is impossible and it’s worth talking to the Mons Tourism Office if you’d really like to visit but have accessibility concerns. Mons Tourism Office are also the best point of contact if you are interested in organised tours of the sites in Mons, or of remembrance tours in Belgium generally.
Here is a PDF guide: Mons Battlefield guide.