I parked my car beside a lock on the Canal du Centre and looked over the gentle, green Belgian countryside. It was utterly peaceful in the summer sunshine. A couple of men were fishing with long rods away to my right as I looked north east towards Germany. Then a flock of crows flew raucously overhead hinting at more violent times.
There are three ways across the canal – a rail bridge and two roads. One hundred years ago last August the 31st German Infantry Regiment from Bremen found their triumphant route to Paris blocked by the British Expeditionary Force on the south-western bank of the canal.
This is where the First World War began in earnest in the suburbs of Mons. Until the Germans met head-to-head with the British they’d sauntered quite casually through poorly-defended little Belgium. Lieutenant Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers was commanding his machine gun platoon on the canal bank as the Germans opened fire. His entire section was wounded – he was hit five times himself – and became the first British soldier to die. The first among hundreds of thousands.
It’s strange that most of us know so little about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand which triggered the senseless slaughter of World War I. He was shot far away in Sarajevo, which until recently we didn’t know about – or care about. No one, of course, has ever heard of Maurice Dease. And the unique part played by Mons in the war doesn’t end there. It was just the bloody start with five thousand Germans killed as the British slowed their advance for the first time. It was also in Mons on the 11th of November 1918 that Trooper G.E.Ellison of the Fifth Lancers was the last British soldier to be killed.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission tends forty-eight cemeteries in the Mons area alone and the outskirts of town are full of memorials and plaques explaining the battles. These days the far-off, appalling events of 1914-18 don’t affect the pleasures of urbane, little Mons. It’s a university city of around a hundred thousand people with all the charm of folk festivals, stylish architecture and fine local cuisine.
Mons used to be the capital of the Counts of Hainaut – and it’s still the administrative centre of the region. The burgers built their first town hall in 1288. The present building was begun in 1458 and it dominates the Grand Place with its cosy cafes and shops. The Gothic building is worth an hour of any visitor’s time. The remarkable wooden-beamed attic space impressed me as much as the more formal attractions – the tapestries, paintings and the ornamental stone carvings in the Gothic Room or the Wedding Hall.
The Grand Place itself – very much like its even grander counterpart in Brussels – was strongly influenced by the French architecture of the late 1600s. Mons was actually occupied for six years by the French in the 1690s. This area is rightly named the “Cockpit of Europe” To appreciate the layout of the historic cobbled alleyways, the great buildings of Mons and its parks I struggled breathlessly up the hundreds of steps to the top of the town’s seventeenth century Belfry. It’s the only Baroque belfry in the country and its carillon is one of the finest.
Below the great roof of St Waudru’s Church dates from the fifteenth century. Inside are all manner of marvels and oddities. St Waudru’s remains are kept in a gilded shrine which itself looks like a medieval church. They’re paraded through town each Spring ( on Trinity Sunday ) in a unique procession which draws tens of thousands of visitors. St Waudru’s shrine is lifted onto the Car d’Or – the Golden Chariot – and pulled through the city by six, muscular Belgian draught horses. The “chariot” was built in 1780 and decorated by two master carvers. Ten choirboys and the Head Vicar of St Waudru stop at intervals to tell the stories of the saint’s five miracles.
When they get back to the church they have to climb a steep slope into the building. Dozens of helpers rally round and put their shoulders to the wheels. It’s a sign that mortal danger is threatening the city if the chariot doesn’t make it back inside in one smooth ascent. It faltered badly on the way up the slope in the spring of 1914.
But there’s better yet on Trinity Sunday if you’re a fanatic for folk pageants. In the afternoon Mons stages the world’s most dramatic battle between St George and the Dragon. The dragon’s tail alone is five metres long. It’s a huge wicker-work construction attended by the seven Wild Men of the Woods in ivy-covered costumes and twelve Men in White who manhandle the brute in its mortal battle. St George in his finery is on horseback. It’s one of those big, national events which the King of Belgium attends every year.
While the centre of Mons has remained quaint and unspoilt over the years – the surrounding countryside was once as spread with coalmines as the South Wales Valleys. It’s called the “Borinage” and it’s where Vincent Van Gogh worked and painted for fifteen months from 1879. Van Gogh’s work hadn’t yet been influenced by the bright, Mediterranean colours of Arles. This was the period of works like “the potato eaters” and dozens of grim, dark sketches of the Borinage’s miners and farm workers. He served in the area as a Protestant pastor, but the strain of the ministry on his already-depressive personality was too great. The Belgian period of his life is vividly re-told at the restored home where he lived – just a mile from Mons’s Grand Place. If the thought of a mad painter, huge casualty lists from the Great War, and saintly relics sound depressing for the tourist then it’s time to perk-up. The Belgians eat and drink extremely well. The high-quality and high-alcohol monastic beers of Belgium link well with local Mons dishes like marinated rabbit and prunes; succulent fresh trout and pork chops a la berdouille (a marinade of shallots, gherkins and spicy sauce).
The town has several first-class restaurants like the Devos, the Marchal and Chez John. There are plenty of lively bars and there’s an annual gastronomic festival in October. It’s got more museums too – antique fire engines; the Francois Duesberg museum specialises in some fabulous decorative clocks from the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in gilt and bronze – and of course there’s a fascinating museum about the First World War.
Apart from the British, who’d learned the importance of wearing khaki in the Boer Wars, many Belgian and French units were still in scarlet and royal blue tunics in 1914 which proved rather too helpful to the Germans. Just out of Mons into the countryside the Chateau de Beleoil sprawls elegantly in rolling parkland.
But let me try to tempt you into one more military visit. Thirty minutes north of town on the E19 towards Brussels you turn-off for Waterloo. After all the more recent conflicts with Germany we can re-focus our patriotism and feel smug about the battlefield where we finally saw-off Napoleon Bonaparte. The visitor centre at Waterloo has been modernised in the last few of years with excellent new dioramas and film shows. All the same you shouldn’t miss the old 360 degree battle diorama.
There are few more stirring experiences for the British patriot than climbing the huge earth mound on the battlefield to stand beside the great stone Lion and surveying the scene where yet another threat to the British way of life was snuffed out.
Travelling on to Brussels of course, could bring back all the doubts for the Eurosceptics among you.! And on another sad note – Lieutenant Dease, who I was telling you about earlier – well he was given a VC for his gallantry. Posthumously of course.
Mons is a comfortable two-hour drive from Calais northwards past Dunkerque and then eastwards past Lille and towards Liege. It’s motorway or dual carriageway all the way. If you’ve travelled by rail on Eurostar then Mons is served twice hourly by expresses on the Brussels-Paris line. The local Mons Tourist Office in the Grand Place is on +32 (0) 65 33 55 80. And the website http://www.visitmons.be/