The British Royal Family’s visit this summer will remain engraved on my memory forever. A “historic day” for Mons, this event was meticulously prepared for over many months, as you can imagine. As an archivist for the City of Mons, the Collège Communal gave me the role of “Commemoration Coordinator”. This job took up almost all of my time for more than a year. There were lots of meetings, in Mons, in London and at Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery to welcome the British Royals. Now I can share some of the behind-the-scenes stories from this unforgettable day.
A few months before the Royal Family were due to come, the British Government decided to make Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery the location for the ceremony commemorating the centenary of the outbreak of the Great War. It was in Mons that the British troops joined the war in August 1914.
The guests arrive
After extensive negotiations, we managed to secure a visit from members of the British Royal Family to the Town Hall. A meeting with the people was arranged for 6.30pm on the porch. 7,000 people were in the Grand’Place to welcome the guests. The weather was fine and not too hot for an August evening. A big screen broadcast the reception live.
At 6.30pm on the dot, the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge, followed closely behind by Prince Harry, stopped opposite the porch of the Town Hall. All three were welcomed by the Prime Minister and official Mayor, Elio Di Rupo, the Provincial Governor, Tommy Desmet and the acting Mayor, Nicolas Martin. After a few handshakes, the press took photos. Then a young girl from a local school welcomed the Duchess of Cambridge with a bouquet of flowers.
Reception at the Town Hall
At the invitation of Mr Elio Di Rupo, the group went in through the porch and made its way towards me. It was my job to introduce the historic part of the Commemorations. I showed the Duke and Duchess the plaque of the 5th Lancers and the Canadian plaque marking the liberation of Mons on 11 November 1918. The official Mayor then invited the guests to make their way into the Salle des Saquiaux. This was when Prince Harry came over to greet me.
Once we were in the Town Hall, we all gathered around Guillaume Blondeau, a historian and the curator of the Mons Memorial Museum, who told us about the collections related to the Battle of Mons on 23 August 1914 and the liberation of Mons on 11 November 1918.
Some moving revelations
Prince Harry was particularly interested in the painting of the Angels of Mons by Marcel Gillis. As well as the 1918 Golden Book of Mons containing the signatures of the Canadians who liberated the city. But what moved the three guests the most was the signature of Edward the Prince of Wales, who signed the book on 12 November 1918, as well as the photograph of the future Edward VIII in the Grand’Place in Mons. I can still see the expressions on the faces of the three members of the Royal Family. They were very moved. The presentation of the damaged drum reminded everybody of the intensity of the fighting that took place in Mons on 23 August 1914.
A social occasion
In the Salon Gothique, lots of people were waiting for the British delegation. A formality requested by the British delegation was that each member of the Royal Family would go to three separate groups and then meet three other groups, of around 8 people, for four minutes each. So a total of 24 people for each member of the Royal Family.
Prince William started by talking with a group chosen by the British Ambassador as well as a few ministers from the Belgian Federal Government. He then met the Collège Communal de Mons and the Directeur Général de l’Administration, finishing up with the group representing the Commemorations for Mons, Soignies and Saint-Ghislain. The Prince was very supportive of all the initiatives related to making sure people remember the Great War, and in particular all the work carried out in schools.
Princess Catherine also began with a group chosen by the British Ambassador, accompanied by a few members of businesses that had contributed to funding the Commemorations. She then met several members of the Angel of Mons group who took part in the 2014 procession. She finished by meeting the Mons 2015 Group, as well as members of the Pôle Muséal and the Office du Tourisme.
Prince Harry also started with a group picked by the British Ambassador, with members of British societies based in Belgium. He then spoke to members of Mons’ universities (UMons and UCL Mons) accompanied by students and members of Mons’ legal authorities. He finished with a few military representatives from Hainaut and SHAPE (the NATO military base in Mons), as well as a few descendants of British soldiers who settled in the Mons region after the Great War.
Greeting the people of Mons
A highlight of the visit of the members of the British Royal Family was the moment they made their way to the balcony. Once the door was open, the crowds loudly welcomed their guests. Plenty of young girls couldn’t take their eyes of Prince Harry. Some were carrying banners sayingHarry, will you marry me.
Even though this didn’t really fit in with the commemorations, nobody seemed to mind the opportunity it gave to thank the people of Mons and of Belgium.
Three minutes later, the guests set off for Saint-Symphorien Military Cemetery, but not without waving to the crowds once again.
For me, and for many residents of Mons, it was a very moving experience.