April 2017: A Centennial Great War Pilgrimage, Part IV by Roy Toomey

In this blog post, I discuss days 4 and 5 of our Centennial Great War pilgrimage to Belgium and France.

Day 4 brought us to Mons and then Lens, as we traversed the distance that our men would have during the final offensive of the war. St. Symphorien Cemetery was a highlight on this day. It is one of the most interesting, artistically organized military cemeteries you will ever see. It has multiple levels, and is beautifully gardened with all manner of shade trees and flowering plants. It is also unusual as about half of the graves are German Empire and half British Empire. It also houses the graves of the first Commonwealth soldier killed in World War I, as well as the last: George Price of Canada.

Left: Grave of Private George Lawrence Price, at St. Symphorien Cemetery, Belgium. He is believed to be the last Commonwealth soldier killed in the war, on Nov. 11th, 1918. He was killed at 10:58 am, only two minutes before the armistice came into effect.

Right: Some of the German graves at St. Symphorien Cemetery. The four larger headstones at the end belong to officers, while the rest belong to enlisted men.

On day 5, we travelled from Lens to Arras, exploring the area. This was my second visit to Beaumont-Hamel. The caribou memorial to the Newfoundland Regiment stands majestically atop a hill, overlooking the century-old battlefield, whose trenches and shell craters are still clearly visible today. Beaumont-Hamel is one of the best preserved World War I battlefields, and when you tour the site, it’s quite apparent why the Allied push failed so miserably that day. Thiepval’s memorial is a grand tower, dedicated to the fallen of both the British Empire and France. Another highlight was Sucrerie Cemetery and the church at Ablain-St. Nazaire. You have to hike partway across a farmer’s field to get to the cemetery. Most are located at the roadside. We entered the cemetery and turned around to look at the town behind us and WOW – in the centre of town we saw a bombed out church. We just had to climb around the ruins! As we were exploring, a tour group invited us to join them, seemingly tickled that we were Canadian. The guide, an elderly local, showed us some graffiti, carved into the walls of the ruined church by Canadian soldiers who had camped there 100 years before.

Left: Severely battle-damaged ruins of the old church at Ablain-St. Nazaire, France. The church has been preserved in its damaged state since World War I.

Right: Soldier E. N. Bird, PPCLI, carved this graffiti into the wall of the ruined church at Ablain-St. Nazaire during World War I. During World War II, the church was again occupied by soldiers, and German graffiti from that conflict can also be found.

Join me in the next blog post for the Vimy Ridge day, as well as the conclusion to the trip. To see all my photos from our trip, please visit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/roytombstone/albums