Explore the Mons Memorial Museum!

There is now a new reason to visit Flanders. Earlier this year the Mons Memorial Museum opened in the Walloon city of Mons, some 65 km from Brussels. flandersnews went to meet the museum's curator, Guillaume Blondeau, and explore the MMM.

"The Mons Memorial Museum sheds light on the military aspects of the conflicts that have raged in and around Mons over the centuries."

"It puts that which has happened here in the wider, international context, because war affects society at large. Individuals all have their own story to tell and this is what we try to bring in Mons: personal accounts. It's history as experienced by everyday people placed in the context of international history."

Historical items show that Mons and its people have been confronted with conflict throughout the centuries. Mons has always been a border city: at one time it was ruled by the Counts of Hainaut, but it has always been in French sights. The armies of Louis XIV and Louis XV both besieged the city.

Each new invader erected his own new fortifications pulling down those of his predecessor. As you enter the museum you are shown how each new ruler swept away the fortifications of the past and built his own and how this impacted on the city and the local area.

The Battle of Jemappes was fought outside Mons in 1792. French forces were victorious and what is today Belgium was incorporated into the French republic. Mons counted a significant number of Jacobins among its inhabitants: they were the most fervent supporters of the revolution.

Touch screens allow you to learn more about the famous who impacted on the history of Mons. These include the French writer Victor Hugo, who both drew and described the city's fortifications.

But it's not only the lives of history's movers and shakers that are brought to life. The museum also tells the story of ordinary people who got mixed up in Mons's history.

The Great War

In European history Mons is first and foremost associated with the Great War. Guillaume Blondeau:

"It was here in Mons that the very first battle in Belgium was fought, but this was also the first battle that opposed German and British forces on the continent of Europe. It was here too that the first casualties occurred. The first British soldier to die in the Great War died in Mons. Mons and Nimy Bridge saw the action that led to the first Victoria Cross of the war being awarded. It's the highest award for valour in Britain. Lt Maurice Dease of the Royal Fusiliers and his company defended the bridge. Dease went on firing his machine gun until he was hit for a fifth time. It is also here that the last British soldier to die in the conflict, J.L. Price of Canada’s 28th N.W. Battalion, was killed two minutes before the Armistice. His first gravestone is kept at the museum."

In many people's minds the name Mons also conjures up the image of the Angel of Mons or even the angels of Mons. The angel or angels were said to have appeared to British soldiers fighting in the conflict. The angel has become legend and was sometimes said to have been accompanied by Saint George, the patron saint of England. The Bowman, a book by Arthur Machen was instrumental in promoting the myth and legend of the Angel of Mons. The museum's permanent collection includes original posters and music sheets that show how the legend spread.

Visitors can also view a special holograph 3D film that gives an artist's interpretation of the story.

The MMM attempts to show how civilians lived during the war. Posters reveal the range of associations set up to help the local population. Sacks that once contained flour bear witness to the efforts of the US Food Aid Commission for Relief in Belgium. Exhibits shed light of the lives of German soldiers too. Here you will find cards sent home to relatives and learn more about German soldiers’ relations with local women.

Spy networks too get a look in.

Guillaume Blondeau: "There were two forms of network. One helped wounded soldiers escape. They were given false papers and were helped to make their way to the Netherlands that was neutral at the time. Other spy networks concentrated on collecting information and passing it on to Allied forces, often using pigeon post."

One of the most chilling exhibits is undoubtedly a stake used in the execution of spies. In all seven spies were shot in Mons. Here you will find the last letters home that prisoners wrote the day before their execution.

The museum worked closely with Britain's Imperial War Museum. Special sound recordings were made drawing on interviews made with people who lived through the war.

It was also here at Mons that the first new weapons were used. Here you will learn how new technologies were employed to wage war. The MMM collection includes the first one ton bomb dropped in the war. Outside Mons a whole area was evacuated to allow tests to be carried out. All local residents were told to get out so the bomb tests could get underway. The same bombs were later dropped on London and the English coast.

It was the Canadians that liberated Mons. The museum's exhibits include a video showing a victory parade through the streets of the city. Here too you will find the gun that shot the last shell in anger during the conflict donated to the museum by Canada.

The MMM collection also boasts a magnificent set of drums. Some were donated by regiments. Others are gifts from private collectors.

A video wall tells the story of the years between the wars: the growth of nationalism and right wing extremism is mapped in film and newspapers of the day.

The Second World War too did not leave Mons unscathed. Exhibits bearing witness to collaboration and resistance in this area are contained in cases resembling the cheval de frises used on the coasts of northern France to deter the inevitable invasion. Britain's great wartime leader Winston Churchill features in German propaganda.

The Germans too did their utmost to encourage the local population to join the war effort on their side.

One of the museum's star attractions is a US army jeep from the Second World War that recently received a new lick of paint.

As the Allied advance swept across northern Europe German pockets were left behind for others to clear up. Mons too was such a pocket. German forces were unable to escape and the US army was able to take 27,000 German soldiers prisoner at Mons in only two days.

The Mons Memorial Museum is housed in an historic site. The museum is situated on a spot where once the Dutch fortifications of the city were located. These dated from the period between 1815 and 1830 when Belgium formed part of the kingdom of the Netherlands. Once the Dutch were set to flight and Belgium's King Leopold was firmly on the throne he ordered the demolition of these Dutch defences. A series of public buildings including a school, a hospital and a water works were soon erected. The museum building used to house the water pump that was employed to pump water up to the city belfry as part of the city's very first water network. The museum building has been completely renovated. One wing now houses the permanent collection, while a second wing will be used to house temporary exhibitions.

A first temporary exhibition will open on 13 June. It will be devoted to conscription during the Napoleonic period when our regions where governed from Paris. Young men had to draw lots to decide whether they would have to join Napoleon's army or escape military service.

Visitors to the exhibition will be asked to draw a lot to determine the route they will take during the exhibition. One group will join Napoleon's army and be confronted with life of an ordinary conscript, while members of the other group will escape conscription and discover how life at home changes in Belgium during the Napoleonic period.