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March 25, 2019

World War I: Mons graves hold first and last to fall

World War I: Mons graves hold first and last to fall
'Around half of the 500 graves at the Saint Symphorien cemetery near Mons, Belgium, hold German troops, lying beside their former Commonwealth foes ' - By: AFP Emmanuel DUNAND

The graves at a cemetery outside the Belgian town of Mons hold the remains of both the first and last British soldiers to fall in World War I.

The Saint Symphorien site is less well-known than larger memorials like those around Ypres in Belgium or Vimy and Verdun in the battlefields of France.

But it has become a symbol of the sacrifice of the British who battled to defend Mons in 1914 and the Canadians who liberated it at the end of the war.

And, in this centenary year of the war's end, it has attracted world leaders alongside thousands of curious well-wishers from around the globe.

On Friday, British Prime Minister Theresa May will pay her respects, followed on the next day by Canada's Governor General Julie Payette.

And the burial ground has another unusual feature: around half of the 500 graves hold German troops, lying beside their former Commonwealth foes.

"It has become an essential place for British and Canadian researchers studying the 1914-1918 war," Belgian historian Corentin Rousman told AFP.

- First and last -

By coincidence, Saint Symphorien is the final resting place of the first British soldier to die in the war, John Parr, and the last, George Ellison.

Milkman's son Parr, of North Finchley in London, lied about his age to join the Middlesex Regiment when he was just 15 in 1912.

On August 21, 1914, he was shot dead after he came upon German cavalry while on a cycle reconnaissance mission.

Ellison came from Leeds in northern England and survived several of the bloodiest World War I battles, only to be killed at Mons, aged 40, on the last day of the war.

Lying near the Englishmen under another of the white tombstones dotting the green Belgian cemetery is a soldier who has become something of a tragic celebrity in his native Canada.

George Price, 26, was shot dead by a German sniper in Ville-sur-Haine near Mons at 10:58 am -- also on November 11, 1918 -- just two minutes before the Armistice went into effect.

When Payette visits his graveside on Sunday, it will be to honour the man recognised as the last Commonwealth soldier to have fallen.

In the cemetery, as official ceremonies approach, local and international officials are making preparations alongside tourists and military history enthusiasts from Britain and Canada.

David Scheel, a 59-year-old government IT manager from Ottawa, told AFP how he and his friends have come to the France-Belgium border to mark the 100-year anniversary of the Armistice.

"We honour those that fought and died to preserve our way of life," he said, recalling family tales of his great uncle's death.

Local officials estimate that 25,000 people per year still visit Saint Symphorien -- many attracted not just by Commonwealth history but by the site's joint Anglo-German significance.

The historian, Rousman, said that German troops began burying their dead here in 1916, while the war was still raging.

- 'United in death' -

A Belgian landowner agreed to give up the land to allow the burials, but only on condition that British troops killed in the same unlucky fields be allowed to lie in the same ground.

"The symbolic message was: 'Enemies in life, united in death'," said Rousman, who is helping coordinate the centenary memorials.

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