Mons - Culture capital and symbol of strength
The Belgian city of Mons can be quite misleading; appearing quaint and unassuming, it is anything but. The site of a major World War I battle, the spiritual birthplace of Vincent Van Gogh, and the current location of the Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe (SHAPE), Mons has much to offer in military historical significance and cultural enlightenment.
This year, as part of the European Commission’s initiative to highlight the cultural diversity and rich heritage of Europe, Mons was named a 2015 Capital of Culture, a distinction shared with Plzeň, Czech Republic. In celebration, several new museums, exhibits and events will open across the city throughout the year.
The World Wars
The British Expeditionary Force faced German troops for the first time in World War I at the Battle of Mons on Aug. 23-24, 1914. Outnumbered two to one, the Brits fought fiercely but were forced to retreat, leaving Mons occupied by Germans until its liberation by Canadian Forces on Nov. 11, 1918, the last day of what was referred to as The Great War.
During World War II, although Germany guaranteed Belgium a state of neutrality, German troops invaded and began occupying Belgium in May 1940. Harsh living conditions and the uncertain governmental position forced many Belgian citizens to make controversial choices of either collaboration or resistance. Allied troops entered Belgium in 1944 and the country was considered fully liberated by early 1945. After liberation, many citizens were prosecuted for their collaboration with German troops.
The newly opened Mons Memorial Museum presents a highly sensitive and personal exhibit that addresses the intertwined relationships between military and civilians caused during occupation. Utilizing more than 5,000 accounts from letters, notebooks and interviews of people present in Mons during both WWI, WWII and the periods surrounding them, museum visitors are “asked to question the multiple and complex realities” created by war.
To commemorate the liberation of Mons in 1944, the city hosts its annual Tanks in Town on Aug. 28-30, 2015, one of the largest concentrated displays of WWII armored reconnaissance and amphibious vehicles. Guests can enjoy tank rides and an international militaria flea market at the family-friendly event.
Birth of an artist
From 1878 to 1880, Van Gogh lived and worked as an evangelical minister among the coal miners of the Borinage, outside Mons. During the period, he transitioned from clergyman to artist, capturing landscapes and scenes in the everyday lives of the people around him — a recurring theme throughout the development of his art. From July 17-26, 2015, The Grand-Place in Mons will transform into Sun City, a blazing maze of more than 8,000 sunflowers, an unofficial symbol of his life and subject of his iconic works.
Guests can now visit Van Gogh’s Maison du Marais in Cuesmes, his home from 1879-1880. Interactive, multilingual presentations provide details of his life in the Borinage as well as copies of his letters and works.
July 29, 2015 marks the 125th anniversary of Van Gogh’s death. Several installations and exhibits during both Mons 2015 and across Europe are dedicated to Van Gogh, his life and work.
SHAPE and the U.S. Military
Since 1967, Supreme Headquarters Allied Powers Europe, or SHAPE, has been located in Casteau, just outside Mons. SHAPE represents more than 16 allied nations who support the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), its forces and deployments. SHAPE is the highest military headquarters within Allied Command Europe (ACE).
Today, the city of Mons is both a symbol of military strength and continued alliance for the promotion of world security.