St Symphorien Military Cemetery

St Symphorien Military Cemetery
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St Symphorien Military Cemetery

The St Symphorien Military Cemetery is a First World War Commonwealth War Graves Commission burial ground in Saint-Symphorien, Belgium. It contains the graves of 284 German and 229 Commonwealth soldiers, principally those killed during the Battle of Mons. The cemetery was established by the German Army on land donated by Jean Houzeau de Lehaie. It was initially designed as a woodland cemetery before being redesigned by William Harrison Cowlishaw after the Imperial War Graves Commission took over maintenance of the cemetery after the war.

Notable Commonwealth burials in the cemetery include John Parr and George Lawrence Price, traditionally believed to be the first and last Commonwealth soldiers killed in action during the First World War, and Maurice Dease, the first posthumous recipient of the Victoria Cross of World War I. Notable German burials include Oskar Niemeyer, the first Iron Cross recipient of World War I.

In the aftermath of the Battle of Mons, most of the British and German dead were buried in civilian cemeteries in the city and surrounding villages. Over a year later, in November 1915, the German army began exhuming both German and British soldiers who had been killed or mortally wounded at Mons and re-interring them in a plot of land just south-east of the city on the border between the districts of St. Symphorien and Spienne. The owner of the site, Jean Houzeau de Lehaie, refused to sell the land but agreed that it could be used as a burial ground on the condition that the British soldiers were buried and commemorated with the same dignity as their German counterparts. The landowner’s wishes were clearly respected by the German authorities, who erected three monuments to the British dead in the cemetery, including a grey granite obelisk dedicated to the fallen of both sides that stands over seven metres high. Work continued on the cemetery over the course of the next year, as the great offensives raged further west, and it was finally inaugurated on 6 September 1917. The opening ceremony was attended by a number of prominent German figures, including Crown Prince Rupprecht of Bavaria and Albrecht, Duke of Württemberg, both army commanders on the Western Front. The cemetery remained in German hands until the end of the war when it passed into the care of the Imperial War Graves Commission. St. Symphorien now contains the graves of 164 identified Commonwealth and 244  identified German servicemen of the First World War.

Original design

Captain Bäumer designed the cemetery, assisted by militia-private Pieper. They developed a site plan based on the concept of Cemetery Reform, which was popular in Germany at the time. In the cemetery design, particular attention was paid to ensuring simplicity with uniformity in each plot, all within a calming, arboreal environment consistent with a woodland cemetery style. Thirteen plots were marked off and young trees – and later extra conifers – were planted between the plots to ensure their visual and physical separation. The cemetery land itself had many artificial created differences in elevation due to the site being used as a dumping location for surplus soil associated with phosphate mining in the area. The cemetery plants were donated by the city of Bielefeld.

The German graves were grouped according to military unit. Every grave in each grouping receiving a similar headstone, but not necessarily the same as that in other groupings. There were a number of organizations in Germany that were particularly opposed to mass-produced identical headstones and by consequence the cemetery contains a number of differently styled headstones. The German headstones were carved from locally quarried stone, principally bluestone and Belgian Petit Granit. German officers were offered larger headstones to illustrate their higher military rank. The cemetery contains a number of German regimental memorials within the cemetery which were paid and provided by the city or town where the regiment was based.

The Germans treated the British dead in a similar manner to their own. All of the British were buried in individual plots and, like the Germans, grouped by unit as far as possible.The deceased British officers were buried in a plot separate from their troops and it is not known how these graves were marked before they were provided with the standardized Imperial War Grave Commission headstone. The Germans also erected simple regimental memorials that identified the unit or regiment within a number of the British groupings. This included one to the Middlesex Regiment which was mistakenly referred to as the “Royal Middlesex Regiment” although that was not its name at the time.

A classical 7 metres (23 ft) high obelisk memorial made of bluestone was placed near the entrance at the highest point in the cemetery. The monumental inscription on the obelisk is written in German and is dedicated to the German and British soldiers that died during the Battle of Mons: “In memory of the German and English soldiers who fell in the actions near Mons on the 23rd and 24th August 1914.” Near the cemetery entrance, a tablet in Latin was set out to explain the land was gifted for the purpose of a cemetery by Jean Houzeau de Lehaie.

Cowlishaw redesign

Full control of the St Symphorien cemetery was transferred to the Imperial War Graves Commission in 1930 after which William Harrison Cowlishaw set about redesigning the cemetery. The main change was the conversion from a woodland cemetery to the more open English garden style cemetery present at most Imperial War Graves Commission cemeteries. Many of the trees were chopped down, particularity those in the predominantly British south-eastern side, and grass sown in this area. The cemetery was made to feel more open but no changes were made to the location of the graves, effectively leaving each plot layout in situ choosing instead to remove vegetation that provided the visual compartmentalization to each plot. The predominantly German north-eastern half was left more characteristically in a woodland cemetery style, although many trees were pruned to ensure that an open view was created between the various plots. The original German headstones were retained and several German headstones added due to transferred graves from other sites. The other principal change was earthwork to create a raised hill where the Cross of Sacrifice would be erected. The German general monument was in no way modified but Cowlishaw likely created the hill to ensure the Cross of Sacrifice was not dwarfed by the German monument. Special memorials were erected to five soldiers of the Royal Irish Regiment believed to be buried in unnamed graves. Other special memorials record the names of four British soldiers, buried by the Germans in Obourg Churchyard, whose graves could not be found. Approximately 100 Commonwealth soldiers buried at St Symphorien were unidentified. They are interned under a headstone with a quote by Rudyard Kipling: “A Soldier of the Great War, Known Unto God.”


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