Anniversary trip full of emotion
This alone would give Mons a particular place in WWI history – the site of the first and last deaths of the war.
The town has a trail made out of all the significant points during the conflict. To mark the centenary, new memorial tours have been opened, linking up significant landmarks throughout the region.
One place that must not be missed is the St Symphorien Cemetery, in a quiet spot on the outskirts of the town.
It is very different from most military cemeteries from the conflict in that it contains as many German graves as British and rather than being laid out in rows, they are set around a small hill. It contains the first and last British casualties of the war, and has come to symbolise peace and tolerance.
One hundred kilometres to the east is Liège, close to the border where the German troops entered Belgium and broke through the line of defensive forts. One, Fort Loncin, has been left very much as it was in 1914, when it was blown up and 350 of its defenders were killed.
To the west of Mons is the tiny enclave, surrounded by Flanders and France, of Comines Warneton.
You might not have heard of it, but the chances are that you have heard of
what happened there, on a ‘frozen turnip field’. It was one of several places along the Western Front where, at Christmas 1914, troops on both sides came out of their trenches to sing carols and play football.
At the centre of Comines Warneton is a village called Ploegsteert, known to British troops as Plugstreet. It is calm and peaceful now, but 100 years ago it was devastated by fighting. Nothing was left undamaged, and even now traces of the conflict scar the countryside.
Much of the fighting was an attempt to secure the Messines Ridge, which culminated in a battle, started when 19 deep mines exploded in 1917, leaving massive craters that can still be seen today. In fact, 24 mines were laid, so there are still hundreds of tons of explosives underground.
There are 20 British military cemeteries with about 6,000 graves around Comines Warneton and, in addition, there is the Ploegsteert Memorial to the Missing, which commemorates 11,447 soldiers who have no grave.
English-speaking tours are available around the area, where a new interactive museum has recently opened – the Plugstreet 14-18 Experience – which examines the lives of the soldiers and the civilian population during the war.
So, although much of the commemoration will focus on the battlefields in Flanders and around the Somme and northern France, it will be worth casting a glance towards Mons and the battles that shaped World War One.