Last week I did something that I will remember for the rest of my life. I laid a wreath and read The Exhortation at the Menin Gate in Ypres, Belgium. Standing under the Gate, which records the 54,000 officers and men from the United Kingdom and the Commonwealth who lost their lives on the Ypres Salient before 16th August 1917, was truly humbling and moving. And of course these names only record the lives of those with no known graves. As I stood there, wreath in hand, ready to pay my respects, my eyes travelled across the columns of names, not least from the Grenadier Guards, my old Regiment. Every night on the dot of 8pm this ceremony is repeated and the townspeople of Ypres and tourists alike turn out to pay their respects.
Prior to this ceremony I was able to represent the Government at a reception for the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which since its inception has constructed 2,500 war cemeteries and plots, erecting headstones over graves and in instances where the remains are missing, inscribing the names of their dead on permanent memorials. Over one million casualties are now commemorated in military and civilian sites in 150 countries. Earlier that day, I was able to see for myself the Tyne Cot Commonwealth War Graves Cemetery and Memorial to the Missing built overlooking a landscape which was so hard fought over and which was captured by the 3rd Australian Division and the New Zealand Division on 4th October 1917 before being recaptured by the Germans on 13th April 1918 and being finally liberated by Belgian forces on 28th September. The cemetery was designed by Sir Herbert Baker and is beautifully maintained. It is well worth a visit.
I happened to be in Belgium as a guest of the International School for Peace Studies which was originally conceived by some people in Londonderry when they discovered how young men from Protestant and Catholic backgrounds from Northern and Southern Ireland had buried their differences and fought, and only too often died, side by side in Flanders. The most extraordinary battle that the 36th Ulster Division and the 16th Irish took part in was the battle of Messines which began in June 1917. In preparing for the battle the meticulous commander General Plumer had authorised the laying of 22 mine shafts underneath the German lines. Miners from all over the Commonwealth spent 18 months tunnelling and at 03:10 on 17th June 1917 the order was given across the line to detonate the mines which totalled 600 tons of explosive. Of the 21 mines laid 19 were exploded. As General Plumer had said to his officers on the eve of the attack, “Gentlemen, we may not make history tomorrow, but we shall certainly change the geography.” The effects of the mine explosions on the German defenders was devastating, killing 10,000 men in the explosion alone. At the time it was the greatest man made noise ever made. Extraordinarily it was audible in Dublin and even by Lloyd George in Downing Street!
Of course there are lessons to be learned in Ireland from all this as indeed there are for all of us.
As King George V said on his visit to Tyne Cot on 11 May 1922: “We can truly say that the whole circuit of the Earth is girdled with the graves of our dead. In the course of my pilgrimage, I have many times asked myself whether there can be more potent advocates of peace upon Earth through the years to come, than this massed multitude of silent witnesses to the desolation of war.”