Silence has fallen on Saint-Symphorien’s military cemetery as the sun goes down in the West. The grey Commonwealth-issued tombstones cast long shadows over the manicured lawns, and the roses have started shedding their petals one by one. I cannot help but wonder whether they are military-issued too. Previous visitors have left a handful of stones on a Jewish soldier’s grave. I do the same and walk on between the narrow alleys. The cemetery is not the largest in the region; only 513 of the 3,700 British and German soldiers who died in Mons in late August 1914 are buried here. In the aftermath of the slaughter, many of them were hurriedly inhumed in local cemeteries, or their bodies were simply accounted as missing.
This journey starts in St David’s chapel in Llandaff Cathedral (Wales), where the faded colours of the Welsh Regiment float from the ceilings in perpetual immobility. There stands a marble plaque that commemorates the Battle of Mons. But in a sense, it also starts at any house in Port Talbot or Caernarfon where a soldier packed his bags and left his loved ones behind to go to a war of chaos and fear. It starts in Liverpool, in Toronto, in Darwin, and in the Valleys. And it also starts far away from there, in war departments and cabinet offices where the decisions that would sacrifice an entire generation and change the face of the world were made. It starts in Germany. It starts in France. It all ends in Mons.
One tombstone reads “L/14196 Private J. Parr Middlesex Regiment 21st August 1914.” John Parr, I later learn, was born the youngest of eleven siblings in Finchley. He was the first British soldier to die during the war that would end all wars, and he had just turned seventeen the month before. Facing him, George Lawrence Price from the 28th battalion of the Canadian infantry, who was shot in the chest by a German sniper. He died at 10.58 am on the 11th of November 1918, two minutes before the armistice came into effect, making him the last soldier of the Commonwealth killed during WWI. He was twenty-five. A few discoloured paper poppies have been left on Parr’s grave. Price’s is covered with small Canadian flags that seem to have grown out of the ground like strange flowers.
Saint-Symphorien is a tiny village about 35 miles southwest of Brussels that boasts an unremarkable church, a now-defunct nineteenth century distillery, and the military cemetery managed by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The nearest town is Mons, two miles away, and the two locations are so closely-knit that if you took a walk through the woods and hills, you would be completely unable to tell whether you are in Saint-Symphorien or in Mons, unless you had the foresight to pack a particularly detailed survey map, which no one ever does. Along the path, other strollers will enthusiastically offer to enlighten you on the matter, only for you to discover later that they did not have a clue either.
By and large, Mons looks like any other small medieval town in Western Europe. It has a belfry, a gothic main square circled with awful tourist restaurants, cobblestone alleyways, and a church in every street. Its grey stones give it an air of passive unfriendliness, though it can actually be quite charming when the sun is shining or during Christmas time. It is, ultimately, a place like many others. The teenagers lounging on the wooden benches of the old Waux-Hall park would certainly have a hard time imagining that, a little over a century ago, so violent a battle raged that it killed hundreds of soldiers who were not older than themselves. In many ways, it is conceptually impossible for us to picture the complete pandemonium that took place here.
The reminders are scarce. Except for the plaques inside the town hall porch, it is as if we had completely forgotten. Or maybe we simply do not know how to express our feelings about the collective traumatic experience whose emotionally-charged tales have been passed from our great-grandparents to us. All we have are terse accounts and friable letters whose senders died long before we were born. To some extent, it is easier to picture WWII because the generation that lived through it still had the chance to tell us about it. We are slowly forgetting our own history and we are repeating the mistakes of the past. It is why, now that the very last survivors of the carnage have silently passed away, we have a duty of remembrance. As such, the Mons War Memorial is of vital importance.
Located in a nineteenth century building that used to host the city’s drinking water pump, the War Memorial opened in 2015 during Mons’ year as European Capital of Culture. It was a bold choice of sorts. The urbanites would have been happy with the Calatrava train station (still under construction as I write these lines), the lavish fireworks, the theatre season and Arne Quinze’s Passenger, a colossal and colourful wooden sculpture acting as a gigantic gazebo over Rue de Nimy. However, the War Memorial was to form part of the programme as culture, it became apparent, was to encompass a reflexion on the major conflicts of the 20th century. It would, its mission statement promised, ensure the longevity of memory. To anyone who visits it, the museum does accomplish that goal, in more ways than one.
The first room dedicated to WWI figures a back alley. The bricks have been painted black and on the walls hang period posters, among which a large placard dated from the 24th of August 1914 catches my eye. “Our country’s territory is occupied by foreign armies,” it reads. “The population must keep calm and welcome all, as well as take care of every victim of the war, whoever they are, with great dedication.” I am heartbroken at the thought that a hundred years ago, it was considered common decency to tend to the wounded, whichever camp they belonged to, while nowadays it is difficult for some people to understand that the refugees who seek asylum here are human beings. “Times change,” I think as I move past a tree trunk that was used as an execution post. The bullet holes are almost an inch deep.
Another display shows anonymous letters that the police of Mons received from concerned citizens denouncing women who were too close to German soldiers to their liking and accused them of prostitution. In one letter, four women are named. In another, the sender even specifies the price of a fur coat (75 Belgian francs) that an “unemployed neighbour” allegedly received as a gift from her German lover. The label does not say what happened to those women, though one might imagine that things did not end well for them. The Memorial uncompromisingly shows the best and the worst in people, as war is bound to exacerbate all aspects of humanity. With a bitter taste in my mouth, I wonder what I would have done if I had been them, there and then. I hope I will never find out.
In the next few rooms, the permanent exhibition endeavours to give visitors an idea of what it must have been like to be a soldier on the Western Front. Twenty-five British regiments’ marching drums displayed under dramatic light, propaganda posters, weapons of all sorts, a plane, medical material, a coffin, mess tins, uniforms in pristine condition — the memorabilia of terrifying times cautiously sorted out, labelled and preserved under glass for the centuries to come. They stand comparison with the shed skin of a deadly snake in a jar of formaldehyde, meant to reassure us that we have triumphed over the danger and that we are safe now. But isn’t the snake still out there, slithering in the tall grass?
An odd painting in a dark frame hangs against the anthracite wall. At its centre, the belfry stands on top of a naïf, molehill-like representation of Mons. The British army, with its flag and canon, holds the forefront. In the top right corner, translucent angels bend their bows. Most of the scene is plunged in darkness except for a patch of grass in the lower left corner. The painting is signed by local artist Marcel Gillis, and the whole thing looks like the lovechild of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights and a tongue-in-cheek parody of Classicism. But it is nothing of the sort. Instead what I am looking at is a depiction of what might arguably be the biggest hoax in the history of the town — and perhaps of the First World War: the Angels of Mons.
The British Expeditionary Force’s first major engagement in WWI took place on the 23rd of August 1914 in the Battle of Mons. Britain had declared war on Germany on the 4th of the same month, and its army was stationed on the west of the Allied line to stop the German First Army on its way to France. On the 21st of August, the British took up positions on a bank of the canal and two soldiers were sent to the other side on a bicycle reconnaissance mission in order to locate the German units. One of them was John Parr, who was never to return. On the 22nd, the German army advanced. At dawn on the 23rd, the German bombardment on the British lines started, followed by the first infantry assault. By the afternoon, it had become clear that the British positions were untenable and the order of retreat was given. The nightmare, however, had just begun. The retreat itself would last twelve days.
Whatever really happened during the battle is covered with the blood and tears of the soldiers who took part in it. Seeing the events in the rear-view mirror of history gives us such a distance with the brutal reality that we end up picturing a sanitized version of it. A battle is lost or won, the troops move according to the red and green arrows on the maps of our history books, the statistics pile up in neatly organised columns. The smell of fear, the deafening noise of the bombs, the heat, the sky ablaze, the shaking of the earth, the cries of pain, the severed limbs, the faces of the lacerated corpses whose eyes forever stare at the void, and the intimate knowledge of one’s imminent death — all those disappear behind words. Shellshock. Thunder. Horror. Silence. War.
On the 29th of September 1914, a short story titled “The Bowmen” was published in the London newspaper The Evening News. It was signed by Welsh author Arthur Machen who had previously written a series of factual features on the war. The story was told in the first person, as if it were a first-hand account of a real event. “The shells came on and burst, and tore good Englishmen limb from limb, and tore brother from brother, and as the heat of the day increased so did the fury of that terrific cannonade. There was no help, it seemed. The English artillery was good, but there was not nearly enough of it; it was being steadily battered into scrap iron,” it said. All hope was lost.
According to the account, an English soldier improvised an altered version of “It’s a Long Way to Tipperary,” ominously ending it with “ — And we shan’t get there.” Suddenly, another remembered “a vegetarian restaurant in London where he had once or twice eaten eccentric dishes of cutlets made of lentils and nuts that pretended to be steak.” The plates on which the food was served bore a figure of St. George in blue, with the motto, Adsit Anglis Sanctus Georgius — “May St. George help the English.” He started praying St. George, who, coincidentally, also happens to be the patron saint of Mons and to whom a local festival has been dedicated since the 14th century. It seemed to the soldier that thousands of voices joined him in his imploration. “St. George! St. George!” they were chanting.
The soldier saw a “long line of shapes with a shining about them.” The shapes, it turned out, were odd-looking men bending bows. The noise of the battle subsided. He realised that the skies were darkened by clouds of arrows aiming at the German army. “The grey men,” wrote Machen, “were falling by the thousands.” St George had answered the soldier’s prayers. “Harow! Harow! Monseigneur, dear saint, quick to our aid! St. George help us!” the soldier heard from the line of translucent figures, “Harrow! Harrow!” Line after line, the enemy was falling, until it was defeated. The bowmen of Agincourt had come back to save their British brothers-in-arms before returning to the heavens for the last time. Had they come to fulfil a long-lost promise of loyalty? Why had they chosen Mons, and not the equally bloody butchery of the Somme or the devastated aptly-named village of Soupir, where so many indeed rendered their last breath?
The beauty of legends lies in the fact that they quintessentially are an expression of our collective psyche. The bowmen of Agincourt, who appeared in the imagination of a Welsh author who wrote his story in the safety of an office far from the battlefield, are a statement of compassion for the unbearable trauma that so many men had to face in the cold and wet trenches, with blistered feet, crippling fear, and debilitating pain. Machen was not on the front with them, but his story conveys all the despair of, I assume, any man who knows that the end is near and that his body will be found face down in the mud, far from home, in the terrible realisation that his future is going to be short and immediate. A magical intervention — a miracle, really — is all that is left.
Of course, the German army did not retreat in Mons. The allied forces did. The city was occupied by the enemy for four years, as it would be again twenty-five years later. The Angels of Mons never showed up. They left the British soldiers to face the horror on their own; there was no miracle anywhere to be seen but in Machen’s imagination, and in the hearts of those who read his story. Some hope, perhaps, to deal with the unspeakable. The countless graves in Saint-Symphorien’s Military Cemetery, but also in Havré, in Mesvin, in Nimy, and in every village around, are as many reminders of the chaos that once reigned on this quiet flatland, like chalk strokes on the blackboard of History.
The locals buried the dead wherever they could. In 1916, the then-victorious German army decided that it would be too much of a hassle to ensure the maintenance and care of isolated tombs that were disseminated all over the region. Local proprietor Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, whose descendants still live in Saint-Symphorien, offered to donate some former quarry land on the condition that the dead from both the German and the British military would be treated with the same degree of respect. The long task of exhumation started. All tombs in which relocated soldiers are buried bear the mention “Enemies in Life but United in Death.” At the end of the war, when all was said and done, the Treaty of Versailles made it impossible for the Germans to maintain the cemetery and the responsibility was transferred to the Commonwealth.
Arthur Machen later apologised for writing the story. He obviously had not foreseen the consequences of his little tale, which formed in his mind during a Sunday sermon after reading the terrible account of the retreat from Mons. The story was reprinted and it acquired the status of legend when various retellings started to emerge here and there. Mons continues to claim its Angels, sometimes very seriously, just as it does with its own folklore, but the truth is that the legend stemmed from a torment that was very foreign to the town. British soldiers fighting a war in a country that was nothing to them but a mere series of waypoints on a map are those for whom the tale was written by a Welshman. That story is not ours to tell, yet Mons keeps claiming it in its slow process of erasing the very trauma from which it sprang.
The scene is the same practically everywhere. On the village main square, a statue faces the church with a few rotting flowers at its feet. They will have to be cleaned up for the centenary commemorations. A few representatives of the city council will come for a short speech in front of an ever-thinning audience before hurrying back to their electoral campaigns. Belgium is a complicated place, and the duty of remembrance, a complicated matter. Soon, those village monuments will be as strange and antiquated as those of the Napoleonic wars. The Great War happened last century, after all. Pour la patrie, the plaque reads. “For whose country?” I think as I look at the laconic mention to unknown soldiers.
Not all the soldiers buried in Saint-Symphorien fell in the early days of the war. Ironically, for the British army, the Great War was to finish where it had started: here, in Mons. Of course, most of the battles were fought very far away from the town over the four years that the war lasted. Ypres would be the scene of such a massacre that the blood of soldiers on the battlefield would later be compared to fields of poppies. The Marne, the Aisne and the Somme would take most of the toll of the nine million military casualties of WWI. But some of those who are buried here died in the very last minutes of the war, at the end of the Campaign of 100 Days. For them, Mons should have been a last call to arms before heading to the much longed-for safety of home. They never made it to Tipperary.
The municipal cemetery of Mons looks very different from the military cemetery in Saint-Symphorien. The common and the rich are buried here, in simple tombs or Greek-like mausoleums, complete with columns and frontispieces. Its grand entrance leads to a provincial copy of the Père Lachaise in Paris. It is considerably smaller than the model on which it is based, but there is a certain je-ne-sais-quoi to its comical pretension that still manages to give it an air of dignity. Death may be trivialised here, but it is done with theatrical organisation. Most nineteenth century sepulchres bear a small notice stating that they are soon going to be removed. So much for eternal rest. On a small hill, facing the pauper’s yard whose wooden crosses skew over soil mounts, the military section counts another 465 soldier’s graves.
In Port Talbot and in Liverpool, in Toronto, in Darwin, those soldiers’ families received letters that informed them that their son, their husband, their brother or their fiancé had died in the line of duty. I can only imagine the feeling that the world collapsed all of a sudden that those who survived must have experienced. Waking up the morning after with its split second of oblivion that made them forget the letter and the information it contained. Waking up, day after day, until the loss and pain made themselves a cosy nest that was never to leave their hearts. The wedding gowns that were never to be worn, the children who would never meet their fathers, the woodwork tools that would stay untouched; the unfulfilled fate of a whole generation. Many unfinished stories indeed.
Back in Saint-Symphorien, as I reflect on the marching drums displayed at the War Memorial, I cannot shake the feeling that it will take more and more effort to pursue the duty of memory. The methods will have to change. Perhaps we will need to glorify individual action and legends of divine intervention a little less, and focus on the terrible decisions that led so many people to be buried under foreign soil. “That one was twenty-two,” I whisper to no one. “This one, eighteen.” The place is peaceful, but it is precisely its peace that is terrifying, for that it honours those who fell in a blast of pain and violence that should have been the last.
If the story of the bowmen of Agincourt has been of any consolation to any of those men in their hours of darkness, or if it has helped just a single soldier hope for just another minute that he would go home in the crowded solitude of the cold nights in the trenches, then it has fulfilled its purpose. It might not have been the purpose that Arthur Machen had envisioned, but the naïve absurdity of the tale certainly matches the cruel absurdity of the times in which it was written. A story is never just a story after all. May this one serve as a cautionary tale that will prevent us from re-hatching the circumstances that called for the Angels to be invoked.
As for Mons, it remains quiet and immutable under the heavy Belgian skies. Nothing ever really changes, even when everything looks different. The promises that such a tragedy would never happen again were made in very careful terms this time, as if the ghosts of the past were not enough to make us wiser. But then again, the Angels never came, did they? A blackbird’s song echoes farther down the empty path that leads to the deserted car park. It looks as if it is going to rain. I button up my trench coat as I go past the British and German flags that float side by side in the late summer breeze. I close the heavy gates behind me; I do not think anyone else is going to visit the cemetery today.
I am forever grateful to Gareth Rhys Davies and Jonathan Dubois for their help and their patience. They have gracefully put up with this obsession of mine for far too long.
Originally published at mshouyaux.wordpress.com on October 27, 2018.
All texts and pictures © Justine Houyaux.