Where The 20th Century Was Born

MONS, Belgium – Minutes to go. At 10:55 a.m. on Nov. 11, 1918, Pte. George Price of the Canadian Expeditionary Force held flowers given to him by Belgian townspeople. In minutes, an armistice would take effect. In minutes, the Great War, the war that shattered the world of the 19th century and set the course of the 20th, would be over. Pte. Price waited.

There is now a little brick cairn where Price waited eight decades ago. Standing there this week, I felt as if the 20th Century were gathering in Mons. Time is converging. The air is thick with history.

Pte. Price might have felt that too, 80 years ago. Very early in the morning of Nov. 11, the Canadians had liberated Mons and a few hours later learned that the most terrible war in history would end at 11 a.m. The Canadians knew what a stunning coincidence this was: It was in this town, on Aug. 23, 1914, that the British army had first fought the Germans. For Canada, and the entire British Empire, the whole bloody business had started on the very streets where the Canadians stood and waited for it to end.

That was not the only coincidence Mons offered up to history. As I was to see, Mons is a graveyard of ironies.

The strange alignments of time were here even in 1914, as the British took up positions to defend Belgium from the attacking Germans. Just 20 kilometres before the town, the British columns had marched past a stone monument marking the Duke of Marlborough’s triumph over Louis XIV. About the same distance to the east lay Waterloo — and it was almost the 100th anniversary of Britain’s great victory over Napoleon. Oblivious to how the 20th Century would transform war, the British marched on, confident they’d find their destiny in Mons. They dug in along a canal to the east of the town and waited.

First contact came on Aug. 22. A British cavalry patrol spotted German horsemen, charged with sabres drawn, and scattered the enemy. Cpl. E. Thomas fired a shot, hitting a German officer — the first British shot of the war and the first on the continent since Waterloo. Later that day, Pte. J. Parr was shot and killed. First shot, first death, first victory: The correct start for what was expected to be a splendid war.

The next day, the 23rd, the main German force arrived and attacked with vastly superior numbers. Fighting for the canal bridges was fierce. At a swing bridge left open by the British, a German soldier, August Naimaier, managed to crank the bridge into place despite being shot several times. The same day at another bridge just 100 metres away, a British machine gunner, Maurice Dease, also riddled with bullets, kept up his crucial fire. When Dease bled to death, Frank Godley took over the gun and held the Germans off for an hour while his regiment retreated. One hundred metres apart, Naimaier won the first Iron Cross of the war, and Dease and Godley won the first and second Victoria Cross. Of the three, only Godley survived the day.

The British fell back from Mons, beginning a long, terrible retreat, almost to Paris. Then it was the “race to the sea” as the German tried to outflank the British and French to the north, and the Allies did the same. Neither side succeeded. Stalemate became trench warfare and the next four years saw all the worst horrors of industrialized killing: the Somme, Verdun, Passchendaele, Gallipoli, the Isonzo. Almost nine million soldiers died. Among them were 60,000 Canadians. The war cut down empires, put doubt in men’s souls, and loosed uncontrollable energies on the world — energies that would ultimately produce the A-bomb and Auschwitz. In a sense, the 20th Century began in August 1914. For the British Empire — and Canadians in 1914 were Imperialists through-and-through — the century’s origin is even more precise. It began Aug. 23, 1914. It began in Mons.

My guide in sorting through the thickets of history in Mons is, appropriately enough, a Canadian soldier, Lt.-Col. J.A.N. Couturier. Along with 80 other Canadian military personnel, Lt.-Col. Couturier is stationed in Mons with SHAPE — Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe — one of NATO’s two military headquarters. Lt.-Col. Couturier drives us through the low, modest buildings and suburban streets of NATO’s European HQ, and turns left onto the road to Brussels. We drive not much more than a stone’s throw up the road and stop. Here, a plaque announces the spot where Cpl. Thomas fired the first British shot of the First World War. From the First World War to NATO headquarters is an easy walk: Another of Mons’ weird synchronicities.

But a stranger one still lies on the other side of the road. A plaque on a wall marks the place where the farthest patrol of Canadians stood at the moment the armistice took effect. Two plaques, separated by no more than 10 metres, but between them lie four years and millions of dead.

It had been a long, tough fight that brought the Canadians to this denouement outside Mons. It began with a victory at Amiens in August. Then there were victories at Arras, Cambrai, the Canal du Nord and others. It was called “The Hundred Days,” a three-month string of triumphs unsurpassed in Canadian military history. But the cost was life — one-fifth of all the 60,000 Canadians killed in the First World War died during The Hundred Days.

This great drive brought the Canadians to the outskirts of Mons on Nov. 10. In the darkness of the early morning of Nov. 11, they entered the town and found the Germans had gone. Some of the soldiers rattled their bayonets along grilled windows, waking the townspeople to their liberation. Even more wonderful news was brought to the town sometime after 7 a.m., when the Canadian headquarters learned of the impending armistice. A Canadian pipe band paraded through the streets.

Will Bird, a Canadian soldier, wrote that, “The crowd was tremendous. Belgian women were kissing soldiers in emotional manner, throwing arms around their necks and kissing them on both cheeks, and Belgian men were shaking hands with our men. Some of them were bringing glasses of wine from some source and passing them recklessly to soldiers passing by. It was amazing to see that nine out of 10 drank the wine and took care to return the glass safely to the donor.” Even in victory, the Canadians were polite.

At precisely 11 a.m., Gen. Sir Arthur Currie, the sometimes unpopular but brilliant commander of the Canadian Corps, formally entered Mons. As bagpipes wailed, he rode to the town’s Grand Place, where 1,500 Canadians gathered to celebrate victory, peace and alcohol.

After the war, there were allegations that the drive on Mons was unnecessary, that Currie’s vanity had compelled him to take the town the British had left in 1914. Not many Canadians agreed, though. When the Port Hope Evening Guide ran an unsigned editorial in 1927 raising the charge, Currie sued and won, to much acclaim.

With the merriment of the 11th, the funerals had to wait until the 12th. Several men killed in the tough fighting of the 10th, when the Canadians were approaching Mons, were honoured and buried in the municipal cemetery.

That left just one soldier to be buried — the only Canadian killed on the final day of the war. We know exactly how and where he died.

At 10:55 a.m., Nov. 11, 1918, Pte. George Price held flowers given to him by Belgian townspeople. At 10:58 a.m., he was hit by a bullet fired by a German sniper. Price collapsed, blood pouring from his chest. He died in minutes. He was the last of almost nine million soldiers to die in the First World War.

The brick cairn marking the precise spot where George Price was killed lies at the end of a short lane, by a little field. It’s a drab place, easy to miss, but Lt.-Col. Couturier doesn’t. He knows it well. Soldiers so often know their history. They will be the last to forget.

From the cairn, we drive for a short time past farm fields and grazing sheep, stopping at Saint Symphorien cemetery. Unique among the hundreds of Great War cemeteries that dot the countryside from Mons almost to Paris, Saint Symphorien was created by the Germans in 1914 to hold both sides’ dead, a practice the British continued. In Saint Symphorien, German, Briton and Canadian are all buried and it’s on these quiet grounds, amid rose bushes and majestic trees, that all the ironies of Mons coagulate.

The first winner of the Victoria Cross, Maurice Dease, is buried here, his clean white headstone engraved with the Victoria Cross. A few metres away from Dease is the grey headstone of August Naimaier, first winner of the Iron Cross. A wreath with a bow in Germany’s modern colours leans against the stone.

Not far off is the grave of Pte. J. Parr, the first British soldier killed in the Great War. In a row opposite Parr’s headstone and facing it, is that of Pte. G. E. Ellison, the last British soldier to die.

In the midst of the cemetery and close by all these men is a white headstone engraved with a maple leaf. This is the grave of George Price, the last to die, the man who missed the Armistice, peace, and life, by minutes.