The Irish in Messines
This is the obvious starting point for your visit to Messines. The information centre is located in the former town hall and explains the role of Messines throughout history, with the main focus on the First World War. The role of the New Zealanders during the mine battle of 1917 and the special symbolic value of the Irish Peace Tower are only a couple of the topics that are covered.
After a short drive we arrive at the Irish Peace Park. This traditional Irish round tower commemorates the Catholic and Protestant Irish divisions fighting side by side during the Battle of Messines and is meant as a symbol of reconciliation. Take a moment to read the poems and letters from fellow Irishmen that are sculpted in nine stone tablets and provide inspiration for both today and the future.
Drive on about 2 miles to the village of Wijtschate, where in June 1917, the British undermined one of the highest German positions with 91,000 lb. of explosives. The explosion created 19 craters, the Pool of Peace being the largest and most impressive one.
The Lone Tree Cemetery contains 88 graves (six of which are of unknown individuals). Nearly all the graves are those of soldiers of the Royal Irish Rifles who fell on 7 June, the first day of the Battle of Messines. Some of them were actually killed by the explosion of the Spanbroekmolen mine (which was blown 15 seconds later than originally planned) as they advanced towards no man’s land.
Major William Redmond MP (known as Willie Redmond), was one of the Irish Nationalist soldiers who fought side-by-side with Irish Unionist soldiers in the Battle of Messines Ridge on 7th June 1917. Hit by shrapnel, he was attended to by a Unionist soldier, Private John Meeke, who was himself wounded. Meeke received a Military Medal for his gallantry. Redmond was evacuated to the dressing station at Dranouter where he died of his wounds. He was buried in the grounds of the Catholic convent at Loker and, at the request of his widow, his body remained there. The site is now maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.
Up next is the hub of the WWI commemoration - the In Flanders Fields Museum. Instead of a ticket, we get a white bracelet with a red poppy. The recently renovated museum - located in the impressive Cloth Hall in Ypres highlights the story of the invasion, the trench war and the remembrance since the armistice, while focusing on personal stories. We take a deep breath and climb the bell-tower (231 steps!) to have a look at what were once the battlefields.
After dinner we attend the Last Post ceremony under the Menin Gate. The Menin Gate is a gigantic construction, but still not big enough to mention all the names of the fallen Commonwealth soldiers, who didn’t have a grave because their bodies were not identified. The Gate ‘only’ mentions 55,000 names on the walls. Every evening at 8 pm all traffic stops, silence falls and the bugle players of the local fire brigade play the traditional final salute to the fallen soldiers.
We now get to the heart of the Third Battle of Ypres or ‘Battle of Passchendaele’ as it is more commonly known. The name is a symbol of senseless military violence. The dugout tunnel with communication and dressing post, headquarters, workplaces and dormitories, gives us an idea of how the soldiers had to live underground, like moles, because there was nothing left above ground. It’s impressive, as is the Museum with its collection of historical artefacts, images, movies and dioramas. We end our visit to the museum outside in the trenches before heading into the park that surrounds the museum.
With its arched wall and colonnades in white stone, the Missing Memorial of Tyne Cot Cemetery instils respect. This is the largest military cemetery of the Commonwealth in continental Europe. Almost 12,000 soldiers are buried here. 12,000 white crosses, row after row. We stand in awe. On the Memorial Wall are the names of the 34,957 missing soldiers who fell after15th, August 1917. It’s almost inconceivable.
We continue towards the village of Langemark. Here is situated one of only four German war cemeteries in Flanders. Behind the monumental entrance lie more than 44,000 soldiers, half of them in a mass grave. Among them over 3000 cadets and student volunteers, which explains why the cemetery is also known as the ‘Studentenfriedhof‘. The bronze statue of four mourning soldiers by Emil Krieger is very impressive. Slightly larger than life they immediately capture the eye, the moment we enter the graveyard.