This was the second time I visited the WW1 Irish Peace Park at Messines, or Mesen as it is now known in Flemish, not far from Ieper. The first occasion was to commemorate the centenary of the start of the Battle of Messines on 7th June 2017.
An Taoiseach Enda Kenny TD and Britain’s Prince William joined Princess Astrid of Belgium and Lord Dunlop, Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Northern Ireland Office to honour the soldiers who fought in the battle. They laid wreaths at the foot of the Round Tower memorial, before meeting invited guests including descendants of those who fought at the Battle.
The successful Allied offensive on June 7th 1917 was the first occasion the 36th Ulster and 16th Irish divisions fought together on the front line. The two divisions predominantly comprised men who were on opposing sides of the great political upheaval back in Ireland around whether the country should be granted self-governance from Westminster.
The Peace Park is dominated by a replica Irish round tower was intended as a symbol of reconciliation to bring together loyalists and nationalists, Protestants and Catholics, particularly from a younger generation in Northern Ireland and the Republic.
It was the brainchild of the late Paddy Harte from Co. Donegal and Glen Barr, a former loyalist paramilitary leader from Derry. There is a plaque remembering their joint efforts on the wall beside the exit.
The Peace Tower is dedicated to all those from the island of Ireland who fought and died in the First World War 1914-18. It was erected by ‘a Journey of Reconciliation’ Trust, with the support of local people from Messines. On Remembrance Day 11th November 1998, eighty years after war came to an end, President McAleese unveiled a plaque in the presence of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth II and His Majesty King Albert II of Belgium.
Leaving Ieper on the second day of the visit to Flanders, the group headed to Wijtschaete a village a few kilometres away to learn about the role of the 16th Irish Division in the Battle of Messines Ridge on 7th June 1917.
MESSINES RIDGE, June 1917
The largely Catholic 16th (Irish) and mainly Protestant 36th (Ulster) Divisions went into battle together to take the Belgian village of Wijtschaete in the well-planned attack on the Messines Ridge. General Plumer had a scaled model of the Ridge made so troops could see what lay ahead. He had mines dug for explosives beneath German defences. About three million shells bombarded Messines for over a week.
The barrage eased just before Plumer detonated 9,500 tons of explosives under the Germans in nineteen mines. Willie Redmond MP and brother of John, leader of the Irish Party, died of wounds received in the attack.
There is a memorial depicting an injured Major Willie Redmond being carried away for treatment. At this spot on the morning of June 7th 1917 Major Redmond of the 6th Royal Irish Regiment (16th Irish Division) was wounded during the opening attack of the Battle of Messines. He was found by Private John Meeke, 11th Royal Inniskilling Fusiliers (36th Ulster Division) who tried to carry him to safety until he himself was wounded. He was awarded the Military Medal for his gallant action. Redmond was evacuated to a dressing station at Locre hospice, run by nuns, where he died of his wounds.
There is a statue in the centre of Mesen (Messiness), Belgium’s smallest town. It is a memorial to all soldiers of the New Zealand Division who fought at Messines Ridge.
The sculpture by Andrew Edwards outside the new visitor centre of Mesen consists of two fibreglass figures, a German and an British soldier, about to shake hands at the moment when the two armies stopped fighting and played football on Christmas Day 1914. It was unveiled in Liverpool in December 2014 to mark the centenary of the event. The sculpture was taken to (Messines) Belgium where the UK Ambassador and Mayor of Mesen attended a ceremony in December 2015.