An­niver­sary trip full of emo­tion

Buckinghamshire Advertiser - - SPORT -

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.

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