Peace and reflection at St Symphorien Military Cemetery, Belgium.
It's difficult to drive down a road in rural Belgium without encountering one of the subtle green signs of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission . Belgium suffered terribly during the First World War, as did the millions of troops from around the world who fought in the water logged trenches. But as I was to learn, visiting a war cemetery is not just an experience of sadness but also one of inspiration.
St. Symphorien Military Cemetery has a unique, multinational history. Located just a few kilometers from Mons, it was first created and maintained by the German military. In the early days of the war, both German and British troops who died were often buried in local cemeteries but as the casualty count rose tragically high with each passing month, it was clear a more sustainable solution was needed.
A suitable site was found just outside Mons, but the landowner, renowned horticulturist Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, refused to sell the land to the Germans. Instead, he was willing to donate it on the condition that both German and Commonwealth troops were welcome to be buried there with dignity. Re-interment began in 1915 as troops buried in civic cemeteries were relocated and the cemetery was finally inaugurated in 1917.
One of the most moving things about a visit to a war cemetery is to open up the cemetery register, typically located in the stone gates at the entrance. You can look up the names of the war dead interred in the cemetery and also sign the guest book. At St Symphorien, there were two registers, one on either side of the entrance, to reflect the cemetery's dual German and Commonwealth heritage. Inside the registers we found touching letters sent from family members and military units from all over the world.
As you enter the cemetery, you'll see multilingual information boards that provide an easy to read introduction to the area's history. While it's helpful to do a bit of background reading before visiting a war site, if you happen to find yourself here on an unplanned visit you'll find enough information to be able to appreciate your surroundings.
Even during our chilly November visit, the beautifully maintained graves were surrounded by blooming roses. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is one of the world's leading horticultural organizations and over 900 gardeners in 150 countries ensure that the cemeteries are actually living places, driving out gloom with blooms. I think it's so fitting that the land once owned by a renowned horticulturist is now tended to so lovingly by some of the best horticulturists in the world.
Not every grave marker at St Symphorien reflects an accurate placement of a grave. In some cases, headstones and memorials are placed where soldiers are believed to be buried and in other cases, the headstones are placed symbolically to commemorate graves that have been lost or insufficiently recorded. And some headstones, even those accurately marking a grave, contain virtually no information at all, simply marking a fallen soldier known only unto God.
In among all the headstones, you may find some names you recognize. We were first interested in visiting St. Symphorien because it is the final resting place of Canadian George Price, the last Commonwealth soldier to die in the war, just two minutes before the armistice came into effect. We weren't the only Canadians to visit his grave - it was covered by recently placed wreaths, poppies, flowers, and flags.
Not far from Price's grave is that of British soldier John Parr, believed to be the very first Commonwealth soldier to die in the conflict. Parr's age is given as 20 but he was actually 17 at the time of his death, having lied about his age in order to enlist. And directly across from Parr's headstone is that of George Ellison, the last British soldier to die in the war, just 90 minutes before the armistice came into effect. It is just coincidence that their graves face each other but the symbolism is striking, that of a situation that has come full circle and also of the endless circle of war's boundless loss.
Practical information for visiting St Symphorien Commonwealth War Graves Commission Cemetery
St Symphorien is just a few kilometers outside of the city of Mons. It is on the rural bus route that serves the city outskirts - we didn't take the bus ourselves and would recommend getting comprehensive local advice so you don't miss the last bus home! We decided to rent a car. If you are traveling by car there are multiple road signs pointing you in the direction of the cemetery but it's good to have a map or a GPS to back up your trek. If you are an experienced cyclist it would be possible to travel to St Symphorien from Mons.
The parking area is unpaved and in spring and fall it would be quite muddy. I recommend wearing sturdy sneakers and to watch your footing on slippery paths. Access is limited for those with mobility impairments as the cemetery is built on a small, multilevel hill.
Have you ever visited a cemetery during your your travels? What was your experience like?
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